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Shadows Where I Stand

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Rick was waiting in the prison courtyard, pacing back and forth with his eyes on the road, on the treeline, into the woods. Michonne had come back earlier, alive and seeming relatively unshaken, not that she ever really did seem affected by little things like fear. She’d said that Daryl was alive when she last saw him, and Rick had to believe that was still true. He had to.

When Daryl appeared on the road, his crossbow dangling from his hand like it was almost too heavy to lift, Rick was hit with a sense of relief that went deeper than bone, deeper than blood, down into the spaces between his nerves, his cells, his synapses, the strands of his DNA. Daryl was back, and Rick felt the world shift back onto its orbit, gravity righting itself so that everything was steady again.

Only Daryl was alone, and Rick knew what that meant.

Rick opened the gates for him, let him through. Daryl walked with uncharacteristically heavy feet, eyes on the ground, and Rick looked for tension in his shoulders but found none. Daryl was relaxed, too relaxed, with the posture of a man who didn’t care enough anymore to waste energy with keeping his muscles tight. Rick was surprised he’d made it back at all, and he reached out to touch Daryl’s shoulder, feeling his brother’s death clinging to him like a film over his skin.

Daryl stopped walking. He didn’t turn, didn’t tense, didn’t shake Rick’s hand off or lean into it. He kept his eyes on the ground, his breathing locked in a perfect military-grade cadence, and Rick wanted to move his hand to the man’s neck and check to see if the pulse there was as maddeningly steady as the rest of him.

Rick said Daryl’s name, feeling it spread over his tongue like he’d been saying it all his life. “I’m sorry,” he said, quietly.

“Don’t need your pity.” Daryl’s voice was low-pitched and rough, even for him.

“It’s not pity,” Rick told him. “It’s…” He trailed off, looking for the words to explain. “I just want you to know I care, is all.”

Daryl nodded slowly, still facing away from Rick. “He was walking when I got there,” he said, barely more than a whisper. “Wasn’t when I left. That’s all that matters.”

Rick thought about how this didn’t even register as unusual anymore, this casual discussion of tragedy, of senseless death, of broken families and white eyes. Which wasn’t to say that it didn’t hurt, especially when it was like this, but it had become a script. Lines they’d said what felt like a million times by now: did he make it and no, he didn’t and did you give him a mercy shot and of course I did.

“Hate you had to do that alone,” Rick said, curling his fingers into Daryl’s shoulder.

Daryl shrugged. “Had to be me.” He paused, let out a silvery sigh into the night. “Glad it was me.”

“I get that,” Rick said. He said Daryl’s name again but wasn’t sure where he was going with it, what he could say, what he even wanted to say. He just wanted him to turn around, to let Rick look into his steel-blue eyes and reassure himself that there was still life there. But Daryl didn’t.

The night-insects buzzed louder and the scene wavers in front of him, and Rick says the man’s name again, one more time, before he wakes up.

//

Rick’s lips are dry and his limbs feel weak, disconnected. He opens his eyes, expecting to see the stained mattress on the top bunk of his cell above him, but instead it’s a smooth white ceiling, the paint pristine in a way that nothing has been pristine since before the world ended. A sharp scent buzzes through his nostrils that he eventually places as antiseptic and industrial-grade cleaning supplies.

He sits up, looking down at the IV in his hand, at the way his skin looks flat and dull, at the clean sheet tucked in around his legs. It’s the archer with the blue-gray eyes he tries to ask for, before anyone else, but he opens his mouth to call his name and finds that he can’t remember it. Rick frowns and presses his palms to his forehead, willing himself to find the name in there somewhere, to yell it, to pull his anchor back to him, but there’s nothing there, only the echo of the man’s gravelly voice and the way his shoulder had felt under Rick’s hand.

A man dressed in hospital scrubs pokes his head into Rick’s room and looks just absolutely stunned. “Mr. Grimes?” he asks.

Rick blinks at him. “Where am I? Where’s…” He tries to force the name out again but can’t grasp hold of it in his brain. He sorts through the names he can remember, dismissing Lori and Shane because they’re dead, and only comes up with one that he thinks is still alive. “Carl. Where’s… Carl?”

“Carl, sir?” The man asks.

“My son,” Rick says. “My boy. Carl. Where is he? Is he at the prison?” Rick looks around. “Is this Woodbury?”

“Um, this is Lakeshore,” the man says. “My name’s Peter. I’m a nurse here.”

“Lakeshore,” Rick repeats. There’s a flutter in the back of his brain, the image of his grandmother sitting in a wheelchair in front of a television that always seemed to be playing Wheel of Fortune. It had been a stretch to call the small body of water outside the place a lake, but Rick had always thought that it looked pretty outside the window in the sunlight anyway.

“Lakeshore Assisted Living,” Peter says. “I know you’re confused, Mr. Grimes. Let me get a doctor in here to talk to you about what’s going on.”

The doctor comes in within a few seconds, clutching a clipboard and looking at Rick like she almost doesn’t believe what she’s seeing. “Mr. Grimes,” she says. “It’s good to see you awake.”

“Where am I?” Rick asks again. He struggles to sit up in the bed, fighting against limbs that feel weak, sluggish. “Where’s Carl?”

“We’ve called your wife. She’s on her way, with your son,” the doctor says. “I’m Dr. Brennan. You’re under my care here at Lakeshore. Do you remember what happened to you?”

Rick shakes his head, more to clear it than as an answer to the question. “I… I was at the prison and I… he was there. He’d just killed his brother and I was trying to figure out what to say to make that better for him.”

Dr. Brennan and Peter exchange a quick look, then the doctor takes a step forward. “You were shot, Mr. Grimes. Do you remember that?”

“Shot?” Rick asks, wrinkling his forehead and sifting through his memories. He’d been injured plenty of times during the fights with Walkers, during the months of slogging through each day with just survival on his mind. But he hadn’t been shot, not since…

He blinks and looks around. Electricity. Computers. A TV monitor playing some daytime soap opera on mute, hanging in the corner of the room. He looks at the doctor, her hair clean and tied back, wearing light makeup and a white lab coat that just couldn’t have stayed that white being washed in creek water. “Shit,” he whispers, and he draws his knees up to his chest and hugs them, feeling the pit of his stomach fill with bile and something cold.

“You were shot in the line of duty,” the doctor tells him. “Four months ago. The doctors at the hospital put you in a medically induced coma. You were supposed to wake up after a few days, but you didn’t.”

“No,” Rick says. He shakes his head again, in denial this time. “No, that ain’t what happened. I got to get back to them. To the prison.”

“Your wife--”

“My wife is dead,” Rick snaps, his voice loud and echoing off of the sterile tile floor.

“No,” Dr. Brennan says patiently, putting a hand on Rick’s shoulder that he immediately shrugs off. “She’s on her way to see you now. She’s picking your son up from school. And your partner is on his way too.”

“Shane,” Rick says, images of blood and death and white eyes filling his mind. “He’s dead too. I killed him.”

“You haven’t killed anyone,” Dr. Brennan says. “And you haven’t been to a prison recently. You’ve been here since June, when they moved you to Lakeshore to free up a bed at the hospital.”

Rick presses the heels of his hands into his forehead. “June,” he repeats. “It was… I got shot in May. So four months. That means it’s…" He pauses, counts months in his head. "September?”

Dr. Brennan nods. “You’ve been in a coma since May. Whatever you’re remembering about prisons and people dying… it must have been a dream. Everything is okay. Your wife is alive. So is your partner. They come by at least once a week to visit you, with your son. And they’re going to be so happy to see you.”

Rick swallows hard, feeling the dryness in his throat. “And the Walkers?”

The doctor frowns, clearly confused. “We can get you a walker if you need one,” she says. “But I think your legs should be strong enough still to stand up. You may need some physical therapy depending on the severity of the muscle atrophy, but we’ll have to see how you feel once you’ve tried walking around a little.”

Rick stretches his legs back out and lies back on the inclined slope of the bed, staring at the ceiling. “So there aren’t Walkers. Zombies. The world… hasn’t ended.”

“No, of course not,” the doctor says, smiling. “That was all a dream. Welcome back to the world, Mr. Grimes.”

Rick closes his eyes and allows the doctor to check his vital signs, his reflexes, his muscle strength, and after a few minutes they leave him alone in the room, promising to check back in after his visitors have had a chance to get there and talk to him. Rick nods and leaves his eyes closed, concentrating on his breathing, on the scent of hospitals and clean things, on the hum of the fluorescent lights above him, an alien sound to him now.

Lori is alive. Shane is alive. There aren’t any Walkers anymore. There never were.

He should be happy. He is happy. It’s a new start, a chance to fix everything. The world is still turning like it has for so many centuries and when he walks out of this place, he won’t need a gun at his side and a knife in his boot anymore. Carl is still a child, still innocent, hasn’t pointed a gun at anyone, will never have to stand in a barn door telling Rick to shoot an unarmed kid. Lori is still his wife, and when he sees her she won’t look at him with the same kind of contempt in her eyes that she had when he’d told her that he’d had to kill Shane. He doesn’t want to go back to the life he’d thought he was living while he slept. He wants to live in a world where the smell of death is something that bothers him instead of something he doesn’t even notice anymore. This is better. Rick can’t bring himself to wish for anything else.

But he thinks about the baby, his daughter, who doesn’t exist anymore, and he thinks about all the people he thought he knew, that he thought he loved. The family he’d grown from a group of strangers. All the people whose names he can’t remember--the farmer and his daughters, the Korean kid with the solemn eyes, the short-haired woman who’d come so far from where she’d been at the beginning. The quiet man with the crossbow, the one he’d trusted with all their lives, the one whose steady presence is what’s missing from this sterile room. He thinks about all of them, remembering their faces in his mind, and something a lot like grief soaks into his skin to settle around his veins.

//

Shane comes in the room first, bursting through the door like a rush of water through a dam, and Rick fucking loses it the second he sees him, hot tears pouring out of eyes that he refuses to close. Shane leans over the hospital bed, pressing his lips to Rick’s forehead, and he gathers Rick up and murmurs brother, brother into his hair, and Rick has missed the guy so much he can’t even hold it back anymore and he clings to him, fisting his hands in Shane’s shirt and not giving even the slightest shit how this looks to anyone passing by, because Shane knows what he means and what he doesn’t mean and what it is and what it isn’t, and there’s none of the bullshit there anymore. No anger, no judgment, no jealousy, just the pure joy of knowing that they’re both alive and they both still have each other. They’re still best friends. They’re still brothers.

Rick puts his lips next to Shane’s ear and pours it all out there, telling him he’s sorry and that he loves him and that he never wants to fight again, that they can be brothers and they can get past everything and he loves him he loves him he loves him.

“I love you, too, man,” Shane says, and he sniffs once and pulls back away from Rick. He sits on the edge of the bed and brushes Rick’s hair back from his forehead. “Thought I lost you.”

Rick has tears on his cheeks and he’s pretty sure they’re still actively flowing, but he doesn’t have the emotional strength to care about that right now. “I was dreaming while I was asleep,” he says, locking eyes with Shane. “I was dreaming, man, and you were dead. I had to kill you. I didn’t want to but I had to. You understand, right? I had to do it.”

“Rick, man, it’s okay,” Shane tells him. He reaches for Rick’s hand and squeezes it briefly before letting it go again. “It was a dream. I’m alive. Nobody killed anybody. Everything’s cool.”

Rick lifts his hands to his face and rubs the tears from his own cheeks. He looks at Shane’s chest, remembers all too vividly what it felt like to put a knife there. It hadn’t slid in easy, not like he’d thought it would, not like a bullet would have. Shane’s ribs fought him, his heart tried to refuse the blade, his muscles clinging around the metal and trying to hold it back. Rick had to push, to shove, to force the knife in. He had to have momentum. He had to mean it.

His hand is on Shane’s chest, just below his heart, before he can stop himself. “I fucking stabbed you, brother,” he whispers. “I hated it. I hated that I had to.”

Shane puts his own hand over Rick’s on his chest. “Hey, buddy, it was just a dream. I’m here.” He gives Rick that 120-watt smile, the one that Rick had kept seeing in the back of his mind when Shane was on it. I killed my best friend for you people, he thinks, only he didn’t. Only Shane is here. The old Shane, the real Shane, the one that Rick loves like a literal brother. Not the twisted version that he’d had to take out to save the others.

“We’re good? You and me?” Rick asks. He knows that they are, or at least that they are as much as they were when Rick got shot, but he needs to hear it, needs to know that even though he’s lost so many people in the last hour he hasn’t lost this one.

“We’re good,” Shane agrees. He smiles at Rick and stands up, then looks at his shoes with his thumbs hooked into his pockets. “Lori’s on her way. She stopped by to get Carl out of school but they’ll be here any second.”

And as soon as Shane says it, Rick hears Carl’s voice from down the long hallway. His footsteps speed up until he’s running, yelling for his dad, and Rick hears Lori’s voice telling Carl to slow down, and it’s almost too much. Carl skids into the room and flings himself onto the bed and into Rick’s arms, and Rick crushes him in as strong of a hug as his atrophied muscles can possibly produce.

Lori comes into the room while Rick is hugging Carl. She smiles at him, her big brown eyes sparkling, and he notes how beautiful she looks--soft skin, shining hair, the right amount of weight on her body. She’d always been slender, of course, but in the months of the dream she’d started looking a little gaunt--they all had. It’s nice to see her looking healthy again.

Rick is so caught up in holding his son and listening to the nonstop play-by-play of the last four months of the boy’s life that he almost misses the glance that passes between Shane and Lori. He remembers that look. He saw it while he was sitting around a campfire with all those people--names, what are their names?--and again, over and over, for weeks before either of them finally came clean about it. It’s the same look, and there’s no doubt in Rick’s mind that it means the same thing it did before.

He waits for the rage to fill him like it had at the campfire, but he looks at Shane and remembers the way it felt to watch him die, looks at Lori and remembers seeing the farmer’s girl walk out of the prison with a baby and no Lori, looks at Carl and remembers how the poor boy had to shoot both of these people in the head, and he just can’t bring himself to be angry with any of them. So they found each other. So they love each other. None of it matters, because he has his family back. If they want to be together, he’ll let them.

Rick sees narrow blue eyes in the back of his mind. He’s lost too much anyway, even having Shane and Lori back. He won’t lose them again. Not like before. So he hugs his son and he smiles at his wife and his best friend and he tells himself that this will be enough for him.

Chapter Text

They take Rick home. Lori’s brought a change of clothes for him and she has to help him out of his hospital gown, has to move his limbs for him a few times while he re-learns the simple task of movement. The clothes don’t fit right anymore--Rick’s lost a lot of weight, and not in the lean way that the version of himself who’d had to fight Walkers every day had. But they’re his clothes, and they’ll do. They smell like cedar and mothballs, and Lori apologizes over and over for not having his things washed when he got home. Rick understands what she’s really saying--not just that she feels guilty that his clothes smell like storage, but that other things smell different too.

Shane only stays for a few minutes and then leaves with one last loaded glance at Lori that Rick almost doesn’t see. Rick moves through the house, running his fingers over the new things and the old, looking at Carl’s latest report card that Lori had hung on the fridge, checking the DVD shelf to see if they’d bought new movies, glancing out the window to the dried-up bird’s nest in the azalea bush outside the living room window and wondering if the tiny bluebirds that had hatched there a few days before his accident had made it through the summer. He lets Carl show him his new baseball bat, talks to the neighbor about the house on the other side of Rick’s that’s been put up for sale, checks Lori’s car to make sure she’d had the oil changed on schedule.

He doesn’t mention the fact that the coffee in the cabinet has changed brands. He doesn’t comment on the extra profile that’s popped up on the Netflix account. He gives Lori a few minutes of privacy to “put some of his clothes back in the closet” and says nothing when she sneaks out of the bedroom later carrying a trash bag that she dumps in the laundry room, even pretends he doesn’t see her do it. He walks over to the ceramic dish by the door and picks up the badge there, closing his hand over it for a few seconds before slipping it into his pocket.

Later, after Carl’s bedtime, Rick changes slowly into his pajamas and sits down on his and Lori’s bed, running his hands over the comforter and trying not to think about the short-haired woman with the little girl who always tried so hard to keep everyone’s blankets clean even though it was a losing battle, about the scratchy yellow sheets that the Korean kid had brought back from a run with a grin on his face like they were made of Egyptian cotton, about the nights Rick had spent on watch with only a borrowed poncho for warmth. This bed is luxury, decadence, more than any man really needs, and Rick wonders for a moment if he’ll even be able to sleep on it, if it will be too much for him, too comfortable.

He knows, in his head, that he’s spent the last four months sleeping on a hospital bed that was as comfortable as those things ever were, with clean sheets and blankets and a pillow that didn’t reek of dust and stale sweat. He knows, in his head, that the prison wasn’t real, that nobody is out there gunning down corpses while he sits here in an air-conditioned home on a king-sized bed waiting for his not-dead wife to come join him on it. But even if his head knows it, his gut hasn’t gotten the message, and he sighs and hopes it won’t take long to re-adjust to reality, to stop feeling guilt at having things he wishes he could have given to the people in his dream.

Lori is in the bathroom brushing her teeth with excruciating slowness, and Rick brings his thoughts back to the present and tries to decide whether to force the issue and just bring everything out in the open or whether to wait for them to tell him. He’d tried waiting for confessions before, and look where that had gotten him. But maybe the very first night back isn’t the time to mention anything. So Rick slides his legs under the covers and flips the pillow over to a side that doesn’t smell quite so much like Shane’s cologne and waits for Lori to come to bed.

She does, eventually, wearing a silky nightgown that he’s sure she agonized over choosing--sexier than what she’d been wearing to bed before his coma but not over-the-top lingerie. Pretty but modest. She slides under the sheets on her side of the bed and takes a deep breath before rolling over to look at Rick.

“It’s good to have you back,” she murmurs, and she gives him a smile that almost reaches her eyes.

Rick turns over onto his side and faces her. He hasn’t been this physically close to her in months, not even before she died, because he couldn’t bring himself to see that look in her eyes, that you killed the man I loved and I’m not even allowed to hate you for it look that had made his chest feel tight with regret and guilt and shame.

The man with the crossbow had never looked at him like that, had never blamed him, had always trusted him. Rick misses that trust with an ache in the pit of his stomach that he doesn’t know what to do with. Blue, Rick names him, thinking of eyes in the sun, of the faded color of once-black tattoo ink on the man’s back.

Lori’s eyes are dark, the pupils dilated and almost the same color as her irises anyway, and Rick finds some comfort in looking into them. He reaches out, trails his fingers along her cheek, smiles at her. “It’s good to be home.”

Lori bites her bottom lip. “They said you probably wouldn’t wake up. That if you hadn’t already come out of it you might never, you know? We were… I was trying to figure out how to tell Carl that you…” She stops, closes her eyes.

“Hey,” Rick says, tapping his fingers on her cheek lightly to make her open her eyes again. “You ain’t got to feel bad about anything.”

She sighs, leans her face into his touch. “I got a lot to tell you, Rick. A lot.”

He remembers the baby then, remembers how her skin had smelled like a newborn for a long time before the scent of the apocalypse had seeped in. Remembers lying on a prison bed with her, giving her messy raspberries while she shrieked with baby laughter. Remembers learning to be a dad again. He hadn’t known for sure and had come to terms with the fact that he would never know, but it didn’t matter. She was his. His daughter, his family, his Little Ass-Kicker.

“Later,” he says, and he reaches for Lori.

Rick’s limbs are weak and so Lori ends up on top, her thighs tight against Rick’s hips, and when she closes her eyes tight and runs her hand down his chest and over his stomach, her fingers moving like she expects to feel something that isn’t there, Rick reminds himself that he doesn’t care, it doesn’t matter anymore. He loves her but it doesn’t consume him anymore like it had when they’d first gotten married, not even like it had when he’d found her at the camp after surviving Atlanta. It’s different. It’s changed.

She’s beautiful, and he loves her, and he won’t lose her again. He can’t. Even if the love he feels for her now isn’t really the kind that a man should feel for his wife. Even though they’re not good for each other and haven’t been for years. Even though she’s in love with someone else and Rick can see it burning behind her eyes when she opens them and looks down at him. None of it matters anymore, because Lori is his family and tonight is really more about the daughter he’d lost than about Lori anyway.

Making love to Lori is easy, almost too easy. Her body accepts him without any resistance, her skin soft under his hands, and the rhythm they set is an old one that he remembers without even having to try. But instead of feeling comfortable, sex like coming home, it’s just a means to an end with her. They’re fucking because Rick wants to make his daughter real and not because there’s any actual need there. The heat that coils around his stomach while she rides him doesn’t reach his heart, and that’s fine. It hasn’t reached him there for years anyway.

But it does physically feel good, he can’t deny that. And his body has gone without release for long enough that it doesn’t take him long to get there, only barely managing to pull her over the edge first because Rick is a gentleman and that’s what gentlemen do.

Later, they’re lying side by side, facing each other. Lori’s face is a mural, thoughts and emotions swirling on it like watercolors, and Rick can read each one because seeing the truth in people’s faces had become a survival strategy for him and he can’t shake that now, even though he keeps telling himself that none of it was real.

“It’s been a while,” she says after a few seconds. She reaches out and puts her hand against the center of Rick’s chest, resting it there and using her own fingers as a focal point.

“Yeah,” Rick says. “I just thought… seemed right. Tonight.”

“Rick,” she murmurs, not meeting his eyes. “I need to tell you--”

“I know,” he says, cutting her off to save her from having to say it. He leans forward and kisses her forehead. “I know.”

She closes her eyes. “They said you weren’t going to wake up,” she tells him again. “And even before you got shot… God, Rick, it had been so long.”

Rick sighs. “Yeah. But I know it didn’t start until after.”

“How do you know that?” she whispers, finally looking up at him, eyes huge.

He tries to think of an answer that doesn’t involve coma dreams of death and plague and the heat of the Georgia pavement washing over his face while Shane stood in front of him, head down and eyes averted, just taking what Rick was hissing into his face about power and ownership and figuring things out while a teenager was tied up in the trunk of the car a few yards away. There’s not a good answer otherwise, so he just sighs again and touches her chin. “I know you, Lor. And I know him.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, her voice hitching as she speaks, and the shame in her eyes nearly undoes Rick.

“Hey,” he says, and leans forward to press a chaste kiss against her lips. “It’s okay. We’ll figure it out. But you ain’t got nothing to be sorry about.”

She stares at him, disbelief clear on her face, and then curls her arms under her pillow and tries for a smile. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

“Yeah,” Rick says, smiling back. “And everything is gonna be okay. I swear.”

Lori is lovely when she sleeps and the room smells like vanilla and lavender and Shane’s cologne, and Rick truly is glad to be home, but he still falls asleep wishing for the scent of honeysuckle and pine sap and old leather instead.

//

Rick told everyone he was going to do a perimeter check, to make sure there weren’t Walkers in the woods nearby, and trudged off into the shadows. He found a fallen tree and sat down heavily on it, then leaned forward and put his head in his hands. He didn’t cry, didn’t let himself. Shane had been dead for three days and Rick still hadn’t cried about it, not since he’d left that damn field behind, and his stomach muscles shook with the effort it took to hold it back.

Shane’s face swam behind his eyelids, and every image was from before, from when things had been good. The time when they were kids and they’d stolen a twenty from Rick’s mom’s purse and bought discount candy corn and then Shane had grinned at him while they shoved handfuls of it into their mouths on the way home to destroy the evidence. The time they’d slow-danced together at prom, all awkward and stilted and ridiculous, just to get a laugh out of Lori and whoever Shane’s date had been. The times in the patrol car, Reverend Shane giving exaggerated sermons to get Rick to smile after a hard day. Always smiling, always laughing, always Shane, and now he was dead and it was Rick’s fault because Rick hadn’t just let him have Lori and been done with it.

A twig snapped behind him, and Rick turned to see Blue there, crossbow on his back. The man could move through piles of dry leaves without so much as a whisper of a crunch, his feet moving over the ground like the earth was an extension of him that just molded itself to silently accept him. Rick had seen it, had seen the man crouched low to the ground, walking over gravel without a sound, and he knew that no twig would ever snap because of this man unless he wanted it to.

Rick couldn’t decide whether to ask him to leave or beg him to stay, so he just turned back around, staring off into the dark woods and trying to keep the thoughts in his mind on happy memories of Shane rather than the glassy-eyed stare as the life faded out of his eyes. Then Blue was there beside him, sitting on the log and holding out an unlit cigarette.

Rick took it, rolled the stick around in his fingers. He didn’t smoke, but the offering made him feel better anyway. Blue hardly ever smoked himself, rationing the cigarettes like platinum and always holding one back, not smoking the last one until they’d found another pack on a supply run, and when he did smoke he would draw it out, breathe the smoke into the sky, tilt his head back and let the sun warm the curve of his neck, and Rick had been fascinated by it, by the simple pleasure the man had when he did something purely for himself and not for everyone around him.

Blue offered a lighter and Rick put the cigarette in his mouth and let him light it. He coughed as he inhaled, because of course he did, and Blue smirked at him before reaching for the cigarette and taking a long drag off of it himself. He handed it back to Rick, who tried again with more success this time.

They sat there for a long time, the crickets and the tree frogs singing at them, passing the cigarette back and forth until the end of it burned their fingers. Blue finally put it out carefully, twisting the burning end on the damp moss of the log and then spitting on it, not looking up until he was absolutely sure the ashes were cold and wet.

“Was saving that one for my brother,” Blue said after a while. Rick jerked his head over to stare at him, but the hunter didn’t return the look. “Figured you needed it more’n he does right now.”

“Thank you,” Rick said. He reached over, let his hand hover in the air for a second while he decided where to put it, then settled for Blue’s shoulder. “Thank you,” he said again, saying the man’s name--his real name--after it.

“I got your back,” Blue said. He slanted his eyes over toward Rick but didn’t quite meet his gaze. “Ain’t got to worry ‘bout me. I trust you. I don’t trust nobody but I trust you.”

//

When Rick wakes up, it’s cold in the bedroom and he’s disoriented for a few seconds, still almost tasting smoke in his lungs, still almost feeling Blue’s body heat beside him. Blue had always been right there, so close that when he moved Rick could feel the air swirling around where his body had been. They’d been in sync, like telepathy but better, truer, more real. He’d thought that he and Shane had been like that, but he and Shane had been a team. They’d understood each other, known the other’s habits and ways of moving, made educated guesses that were usually right. But with Blue, it was different. It had been seamless, no guessing required, like one man in two bodies rather than two men working together as one.

Which makes sense, Rick thinks, staring at the ceiling. After all, Blue is Rick. He’s a construct that Rick’s brain came up with while he was asleep; of course he’d be perfect. Of course he’d be the partner Rick needs so much in his life. Of course he’d trust Rick, support him, believe in him, because he isn’t real. Nothing like Blue is ever real.

But real or not, Rick’s stomach aches with the loss of him, and he rolls over to face away from Lori and tries to go back to sleep. 

Chapter Text

Rick takes Carl to school the next morning, giving the boy a long hug before releasing him from the car. When he gets back to the house, Lori is sitting at a little table by the window in the kitchen, a mug of coffee forgotten in front of her. She looks up at Rick when he walks in but doesn’t meet his eyes, and Rick figures it’s as good a time as any to have the talk. No sense in waiting, drawing it out, making her worry for any longer than she has to that things won’t be okay.

He sits down across from her. “I only got one thing I need to know,” he tells her. “I’m not mad, Lori, I’m not. But I need to know one thing and I need you to tell me the truth.”

Lori sighs, clenches her hands around the cold mug. “Alright.”

“Do you love him?” Rick asks her, because it’s really the only thing he doesn’t know for sure. He knows Shane loves Lori, knows when they started the relationship, knows how Shane feels about Carl. It’s the only missing piece to the puzzle.

“No,” Lori says, shaking her head hard and staring at the table. Her jaw is set when she says the word, her shoulders squared, a woman going to battle with herself and everyone else.

“Lori,” Rick says. She doesn’t look up at him and Rick tries again. “Lori, look at me.”

“I don’t love him,” Lori says, looking up at Rick but focusing on his forehead and not his eyes. “I’m your wife. He’s your partner. We’ll all go back to that and everything will be fine.”

Rick slides his hand across the table to try and touch hers, but Lori pulls the coffee mug closer to herself like it’s a shield against the world. He sighs. “I told you I wasn’t mad. I told you we’d figure it out. And we will, Lori. We will. But I need to know the truth from you.”

“Why, Rick?” she asks, and she does meet his eyes now, with a flash of anger in her dark brown ones. “Why do you need me to say it? Why can’t you just… just take my apology and we can just forget all of it?”

“Because if you love him, it makes a difference,” Rick tells her. “If the two of you were just screwing around, then that’s one thing. I’ll ask you to quit and you both will, and everything’ll go back to normal. But if you love him--”

“Then you’ll divorce me?” she spits out, gripping the ceramic mug so hard that her fingers turn white.

“Only if you want me to,” Rick tells her. “And I know you don’t. Because of Carl.”

Lori sets her jaw again and looks out the window. She sniffs loudly but no tears spill out of her eyes. “It’s not fair of you to ask me this, Rick. I thought you were dead, or as good as dead anyway. I really did. And Shane…” She trails off and then swallows and tries again. “He was good to us. We needed someone and he was there.”

Rick nods, then reaches forward and pries her hand off of the mug, wraps it in his own hand. “I know things ain’t been good between you and me for a long time. You know it too. I don’t think… that you and I are in love anymore. Am I right about that?”

Lori turns her head slowly to look at him. She doesn’t answer, just stares at him with suspicion deep in her eyes, like she thinks this is a trap.

“I don’t want to lose you,” Rick says after a few moments. “But if you love Shane and if he loves you, I don’t wanna get in the way of that. I want both of you happy.”

She closes her eyes and speaks very slowly, carefully. “Rick, I would never have done that to you if you’d been awake. I swear I wouldn’t have.”

“I know,” Rick says, and he doesn’t elaborate because there’s no need to. “Do you love him?”

“Yes,” she whispers. She bites her lip and opens her eyes again. “But Carl. He needs both his parents, Rick. Me and you. Both his parents together, not shuffling him back and forth on the weekends. So it don’t matter how I feel about S-Shane. I’m staying with you.”

“Okay,” Rick says. “Then we’ll make it work.”

They sit there in silence for a few seconds. Rick wants to push forward with the conversation, to tell her that not getting to say goodbye to her the day she died had put everything in perspective for him. He wants to tell her about how he’d seen her at the corners of his vision for months, standing there as a constant reminder of how Rick had fucked this all up, and that seeing her here in front of him for real is a reminder that he can fix it now.

“I have to go,” Lori says, breaking into his thoughts. “I have a dentist’s appointment this morning, and I thought I’d stop by the grocery store and get a few things for you.” She takes a deep breath and smiles at him, brilliant like the Georgia sun, and he doesn’t quite believe the smile but figures he’ll take it for now. “Will you be okay here by yourself?”

“Yeah,” he says, returning her smile. “I’ll be just fine.”

After Lori leaves, Rick settles into the living room. His recliner is still there, and it still molds to him just right: the indentations where his arms lay, the way the fabric has gone soft around where he digs his fingers in during tense scenes in movies, the lingering scent of Rick’s own cologne in the cushions. It’s familiar and soft, the one thing in the house that’s still his, and Rick hates it.

Even though the chair is, objectively, comfortable, it just doesn’t feel right. It’s too cushioned, supporting his back too well, and Rick finds himself longing for the rusty metal folding chair he’d had in the prison, the one that he and Blue had once spent a whole day trying to convert into a rocking chair before giving up--partially because it was a lost cause and partially because by the end of the day they’d both been drunk off their asses on warm beer and doing more manly giggling than carpentry.

Blue didn’t smile a lot, but when he did it was impossible to miss. It was nothing like the showstopper of a smile that Shane had, but then Blue was nothing like Shane. Blue’s smile was subtle but real, the corners of his mouth curling up only when he couldn’t stop them from doing it and not just because of some social expectation to smile at nothing all the time. No, when Blue smiled at someone, they’d earned it. Rick had liked that about him, had liked that nothing about him was for show. Had liked that on the few memorable occasions when he’d made Blue throw his head back and full-out belly laugh, Rick knew that he was just being goddamn hilarious and that nothing between them was a lie.

Rick gets up from the recliner and goes to the kitchen. He picks up one of the wooden chairs from the breakfast table and unties the cushion on it, then carries the chair back to the living room and sits down on it. It’s less comfortable but more relaxing, and Rick picks up the remote and tunes the TV to some local hunting channel and loses himself in the Georgia woods.

//

Nobody was going to be full that night, but they’d found enough canned vegetables in the house to make a decent mixed stir-fry over the fire they built in the fireplace. It had been a long day that had been made even longer by scorching temperatures, higher than normal for early spring in Georgia. They’d all been exhausted and irritable and drenched in sweat by the afternoon, but they’d found the house and the shallow creek running through the backyard, and after taking shifts sitting in the cool water, everyone felt much better.

They were all sitting on the porch of the house with their bowls of vegetables, eating in the dark because even though the sun had taken the worst of the heat down with it, it was still too hot in the house with the fire going. Lori sat on the end of the porch and Rick sat on the other, with seven people and months of silence between them. Blue was sitting against a tree just off the porch, eating his vegetables with his fingers. He caught Rick looking at him and acknowledged it with a half-nod.

“So what haven’t we talked about?” the blonde daughter said, looking around at everyone with her huge eyes and smiling. “It’s too quiet. We should talk.” No one responded, so she elbowed the large dark-skinned man beside her. “What’s your favorite band?”

“Really?” the guy said, raising his eyebrows. “We gonna talk about that?”

The blonde girl shrugged, lifting her shoulders and letting them fall prettily back down. Rick glanced at Carl and found the boy very studiously pushing vegetables around in his bowl, the tips of his ears practically glowing red.

“I don’t know,” the large man said. “I guess I can get down with some Blink 182.”

Both farmers’ girls and the Korean guy laughed at that. Even Lori smiled, scooping up the last of her vegetables and eating them, chewing slowly like she was sad to see them go.

“What?” the guy said, feigning offense. “You got a better choice?”

Carl piped up then, tipping his hat back and smiling. “I like Rascal Flatts.” He looked around for approval, then added, “It’s my dad’s favorite, too.”

Blue flashed his eyes over to Rick, raising an eyebrow. Rascal Flatts?

Rick shrugged, tilting his head down and looking up at Blue with his eyebrows raised. You gonna say something about it?

Blue rolled his eyes and went back to his vegetables, and Rick thought that maybe just the tiniest corner of his mouth was slanting upwards toward the hazy summer stars.

“What about you?” Rick asked, nodding at Blue again. “If you’re so cool.”

Blue looked around at the group, seeming almost spooked by the question. After a second, he tilted his head back to lean it against the tree trunk. “I’m a good ol’ boy,” he said, locking eyes with Rick. “Guess I’m pretty much required to say Charlie Daniels, right?”

“That true?” Rick asked him.

Blue gave him a tiny smirk but didn’t answer, and Rick felt the challenge all the way down to his ankles. Wouldn’t you love to know? And he would. He didn’t have any idea why, but he definitely would.

The conversation moved on, with other people telling their favorite bands, but Rick couldn’t seem to focus on it. He tried to imagine Blue driving down the road in a pickup, blaring music from the open windows and singing along, one arm draped over the top of the steering wheel and the other propped up on the window ledge, elbow out in the sun. What would he be singing? Rick ran through a few scenarios in his head, but nothing seemed really right.

Someone had mentioned Beyonce, and the two farmer’s daughters and the short-haired woman had hauled Carl up and started trying to teach him the “Single Ladies” dance, and Rick was so distracted by the giggling and Carl’s deep red blush that he almost didn’t notice when Blue stood up and walked over to Lori. He paused there for a moment, then plopped his half-full bowl down inside her empty one. Lori looked up at him gratefully and Blue just nodded and headed off into the woods.

Rick was on his feet before he realized he was planning to move. He grabbed Blue’s crossbow from where he’d leaned it against the tree and followed the hunter out into the forest. He didn’t get far before he found him, standing leaned up against a tree and watching Rick approach.

“Where you going?” Rick asked. He held out the crossbow and Blue took it from him. “It ain’t safe for you to be out in the dark without a weapon.”

“Wasn’t goin’ far,” Blue said. “Just didn’t want to get roped into the dancing.” He sets the crossbow down and leans it against his leg.

“I saw what you did,” Rick told him, keeping his voice low. “For Lori.”

Blue shrugged, crossing his arms and looking at the ground. “I’ll shoot me a squirrel later.”

“You shouldn’t have to, though,” Rick said, running a hand through his own hair. “I should’ve given her mine. I didn’t even think about it.”

Blue keeps his eyes on the ground and tightens his hands on his biceps. “You got a lot on your mind. And ‘sides, I’m not even hungry. It’s fine.”

Rick sighed, the air in his lungs weighing more than air logically should as he pushed it out of his body. “I can’t. I keep trying. I keep tellin’ myself that I can do it. And then I look at her and all I see is…” He trailed off, trying to find the words to conceptualize what he saw when he looked at Lori. Easy things, obvious things. Shane. Betrayal. Failure. His own petty silent revenge, the way she looked at him like she hadn’t expected any better from him anyway. But then also more nuanced things underneath the surface ones: the defeat in her eyes, the way that they’d never communicated like lovers should and the way he had nothing to say to her now except things that would hurt her. The way he hated her sometimes in the depths of his stomach, the way looking at her swollen belly made him want to scream into the quiet woods, the deep fear that the baby was going to have Shane’s eyes, Shane’s smile, and that every time he looked at the child he’d have to remember what Rick had done to all of them, and that Rick would have to live with that, with knowing that this baby would never know its father because of him.

But then also the other fear, that the baby would have blue eyes and there would be nothing left of Shane in the world anymore except the blood on Rick’s hands.

“M’brother looks just like our dad,” Blue said, soft like moss after a rain. “Spittin’ image. Took me a while to look at Hands and not see that bastard. But you get past it eventually.”

Rick looked out into the woods, past Blue’s shoulder. “I don’t know how.”

“Hell, none of us do,” Blue told him. “But it don’t mean you can’t.”

Rick nodded slowly, hands on his hips, and then nodded again more decisively. “Alright.”

Blue picked up his crossbow, hefting it over his back like it was weightless under his fingers. He started walking back toward the house, then paused beside Rick, lifted his hand, and clapped it on Rick’s shoulder. Rick turned his head and their eyes locked again for a moment before Blue drew in a soft breath and walked away.

Chapter Text

The knock on the back door wakes Rick, who flies up off of the wooden chair, his hand going for the knife he expects to be hanging at his side and finding nothing there, and for one blinding moment he looks around at the sunny, peaceful living room and thinks Woodbury. But his heart had gotten used to calming down quickly--you could only run on adrenaline for so long before burning out, and burnout meant a slow, agonizing death, so Rick had trained his body to tone down its fear reactions. Everyone had. It was how they’d all survived as long as they had.

Rick rubs the sleep from his eyes and goes to the door. Shane is standing there, tilting his head down and to the side, looking up at Rick through his eyelashes with his stupid dimple smile on his face.

“Morning, man,” Shane says. “Thought I’d see if you wanted to ride down to the station. Get started on the paperwork to get you back in uniform, you know?”

Rick wrinkles his brow, wipes his mouth with his hand. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”

“Nah, I know.” Shane stands up straighter and claps Rick on the shoulder. “But it’s gonna take a couple of weeks at least to get your gun permits back current and I thought you might like to get started on that.”

Rick thinks about this for a few seconds and then nods. “Alright.”

//

Shane takes him to the police station and Rick spends a lot of time buried in paperwork, then an even longer time going through endless reunions with everyone there. Some of them he’s glad to see. Others he’s indifferent about, but even the people he’d never been close to are suddenly his best friends, who prayed every day that he’d wake up and be okay, who kept thinking about him all the time and wishing he was there.

It's exhausting. Rick goes through the motions, listening to Diane's monologue about the office gossip--Leon and Traci had gotten caught making out in an empty cell on a slow night, John had proposed to his girlfriend, Rachel is pregnant. Rick tries to care but just can't make himself. These people are his friends, and he feels like he hasn't had friends in nearly two years: in a world where every day carries at best a fifty-fifty chance at living until the next one, there wasn't such a thing as "friends" anymore. There was family and then there was everyone else, and everyone else were threats. Sure, people like Katana could earn a place in the family, move from the Other to the inner circle, but there was no middle ground of just "friendship" anymore.

And Rick is deafened by this world, by the amount of chatter just for the sake of chatter, of how people talk just to hear their own voices instead of to make human connections with each other. Of how people need to talk, how they can't go without it, how it's strange if they don't. He remembers an entire two-day run with Blue when they hadn't spoken a single word to each other, had communicated entirely through nods and hand gestures, and Rick remembers thinking that that was what human connection really was.

Finally, though, Shane pulls Rick out of the precinct and suggests that they go for lunch at the Dairy Queen a few blocks away. Rick agrees, but before they get to the restaurant, Shane sighs heavily and pulls the car over.

"Lori called me," he says, staring out the windshield and catching his tongue between his lips. "Said you knew."

Rick nods, taking his time with the movement. "I'm not mad. I get it." He slides his hand over to his own thigh absently, feeling for the knife again and fighting back the surge of panic when he doesn’t find it there.

"I just..." Shane trails off, rubs his mouth, speaks again. "I need you to know that I didn't do it on purpose. I didn't go after her. It just happened, you know? And it wasn't that long ago that it started, either. For a long time, you was layin' in that hospital bed and both of us were goin' to see you every chance we got. Sometimes together but usually not, 'cause we both wanted time with you. I'd go in there and sit for an hour tellin' you about dumb criminals and Leon's shitty hairdos and givin' you updates on the Braves games you was missing."

Rick nods but doesn't say anything, and Shane continues like he didn't expect him to.

“And then one day I went to see you. Had flowers from the office, looked like a damn homo carryin’ them down to your room but I didn’t give a shit ‘cause it was you, man, and I was gonna take you your damn flowers,” Shane says, letting a sad chuckle accompany his words. “And Lori was there. She had your hand and she was… she was just shaking it, man.” Shane holds out his own hand, mimics Lori’s motions with it. “‘Rick,’ she was sayin’, ‘Rick, there’s a bird in the chimney, Rick.’” Shane clears his throat and stares out the window. “‘There’s a bird in the chimney and I can’t get it out and I need you to get up and come home and fix it.’ And my heart, it just broke for her, man. For all of us, you know? Me and her and Carl. We was all fallin’ apart without you.”

Rick nods. The road outside the car is hot, the air wavering with the radiant heat, and for a moment he imagines this conversation as it had happened before, out on a deserted road. It had been worse then. He’d let it fester for too long, and it had destroyed all of them. This is better.

Shane pauses for a second to regroup, rubbing his mouth with his hand. “And so I went to your house and I got the bird out of the chimney for her. It was one of them damn bluebirds from that nest you wouldn’t shut up about and it nearly fuckin’ broke me, lookin’ at it and thinkin’ about how much you would’ve liked to know it was okay. So I went back to your room and I told you all about it, ‘bout how Carl was so excited to hold it before we let it go in the yard and how Lori just looked so damn relieved and I promised you, man. I stood there by your bed and I promised you I’d take care of them for you. So I did, you know? I kept that promise.”

“I know,” Rick says, his voice low and his eyes on the sidewalk beside the car.

“I started goin’ over to your house every couple of days, just to see if they needed anything. I’d stop in and fix the toilet that was runnin’ or clean leaves out of the gutter or mow the lawn or shit like that. And then they moved you to the nursing home and started talkin’ about,” Shane breaks off, does sarcastic air quotes around the next words, “‘long-term care’ and giving Lori all these pamphlets about fucking end-of-life decisions and shit and we couldn’t…” He trails off, then clears his throat again and continues with a determined nod of his head, like the motion gave him the strength to go on with it. “We couldn’t pull the plug, man. Not with you still having brain activity and all. And Lori told them that, she told them they was killers for even suggestin’ it. So we didn’t. And I’m glad we didn’t, man. So glad.”

Rick lets a little smile go but still doesn’t look at Shane. “I’m glad you didn’t, too.”

They sit in silence for a few seconds, watching a group of middle-school kids cross the street on their way home from school. Then Shane continues, “You should’ve seen Lori, man. Tellin’ those doctors to go to hell. She was like… the strength of that woman. You can’t imagine it.”

A flash of cold runs down Rick’s spine and he looks over at Shane at last, feeling hands on his neck and Shane’s forehead against his even though they’re still sitting on their opposite sides of the car. When I said leave the rest to me

“I want you to know that I didn’t look at her before that.” Shane says. “And brother…”

“If you could take it all back, you would,” Rick finishes for him, nodding his head with each word. He’d known Shane was lying then and he knows he’s lying now, but he figures the reasons are different now because neither of them have to go to sleep worrying about who’s on watch, who has Lori’s life in his hands, who will take care of Carl if a Walker comes.

Shane stares at him. “Yeah. That’s what I was gonna say.”

“But you wouldn’t, would you?” Rick asks him. “You love her.”

“Rick, man--” Shane starts, but Rick continues over him. 

“You love her. I don’t blame you, you know? I don’t blame you. Back when I loved her, it was fierce. I know what that’s like.” Rick sighs, lifts his hand to rub his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.

Shane looks away, licking his lips in his distinctive trying to figure out how to word this so I don’t sound like a douche way. “Back when you loved her,” he eventually repeats, his tone flat.

“Brother, you know how it’s been,” Rick says. He runs his hand over the hot dashboard and watches the dust swirl up from it. “You know how it was before. I love her but it’s family. It’s the mother of my child. And I’ll never give her up, I won’t do it. I’ve got to have her somehow. I’ve got to be there for her like I should’ve been all along.”

Shane nods slowly, his tongue caught between his lips. “I’ll back off, man. Already have. She’s your wife and I respect that.” He nods again like he’s trying to convince himself.

Rick sighs. “Don’t back off.” He never saw them touching, kissing. Lori had told him that they’d stopped after Rick showed up at the camp, and so all he’d seen had been the looks that passed between them, none of them happy. He tries to picture it now, what it would feel like to walk into his living room and find them snuggled up watching a movie, to catch them kissing in the kitchen while they waited on the coffee to brew.

Rick has always joked that he knows Shane’s kissing technique way more than he wants to, even way more than Shane’s various girlfriends do. He remembers the way Shane had kissed them, all angles and jawbones and domination. Everything with Shane was a power play, a show of strength, and that was true even in the real world, when it wasn’t ever going to come to a head like it had that night in the field. He hopes that with Lori it’s really love and that Shane will kiss her soft, run his hands over her skin instead of raking his nails down her back, make her feel special and not just owned. Lori deserves that, and Rick has always wanted to see Shane’s posturing knocked on its ass by a pretty smile, by a nice Southern belle who finally managed to dig in below his skin. Might as well be Lori.

Shane is staring at him, his mouth hanging just slightly open. “Don’t back off?”

“You and Lori,” Rick says, propping his elbow on the door of the car and letting his hand rest just above his upper lip as he stares out the windshield. “If you love her, be with her.”

“As what?” Shane asks. “As a friend? Hell, man, of course I’ll be her friend. Always have been.”

“As whatever she wants you to be,” Rick says. “We’ll make it work. We’ll figure it out, some boundaries, some rules. What to tell Carl and what he don’t need to know.”

Fuck,” Shane says under his breath. He licks his lips again and sits up straighter in the car. “You gonna divorce her? Shit, man, don’t do that. She don’t want that. You know how she feels about that sort of thing.”

Rick shakes his head. “I ain’t gonna divorce her. Not unless that’s what she wants. Carl…” Rick breaks off, thinks about Carl’s bright, childlike eyes this morning when he’d dropped him off at school. He thinks about those same eyes, the way they’d looked when the boy walked out of the prison without his mother and with a gun in his hand. “Carl deserves a happy childhood,” Rick finishes after a few seconds. “With both of his parents.” He pauses again, takes a deep breath. “With all of his parents. Which means you too.”

“Me?” Shane says, eyebrows raised like he half expects Rick to suddenly come to his senses and start beating the shit out of him. And Rick might have done exactly that, before. He hadn’t been lying out on that road--it had taken everything he had to get past it, to forgive Shane for it. But he had, and now it doesn’t matter anymore. But Shane doesn’t know that, and Rick doesn’t know how to tell him.

“Look, Shane,” Rick says. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.”

“You’ve only known for a day,” Shane interjects. “That ain’t that long, Rick.”

“I know,” Rick answers. He turns to look at Shane again, suddenly desperate to have the man understand. “I told you about the weird dream I had. While I was in the hospital. It felt… god, it felt so real. I can’t even explain how real it felt. And it was long, longer than four months. I dreamed for over a year, Shane. Almost two years. At least that’s how it felt. Just one long, unbroken story that covered months. And I knew, man. I knew about you and Lori. That was in the dream. And it destroyed us, me and you. Destroyed everything we had and then I had to kill you. It’s just…” Rick’s voice gives out then, disintegrates into a choking sound.

Shane reaches his hand over and puts it on Rick’s, squeezing briefly and then not letting go. “Man, it’s okay. Calm down. Breathe for me, okay?”

Rick takes a deep breath, tries to will his hands not to shake like they always did when he talked about this. “I had to kill you and I hate myself for it,” he says again.

Shane jumps in. “No, man. It was a dream. You ain’t got to feel bad over a dream. Weird shit happens in dreams, you know? Hell, last night I dreamed I was a fuckin’ lion tamer only them lions had wings, man. Fuckin’ wings.”

“This wasn’t the same, brother.” Rick locks eyes with Shane, trying to convince the man to listen to him. “You got to understand. It was so real. I stabbed you and I felt it, I felt your blood on my hands. I just sat there and held you while you died, and I hated you so much right then, but I loved you too and then you were gone.” His voice is wavering now, the words tumbling out like rain. “I dreamed about it for months. Dreaming inside a dream, you know? God, nightmares. I kept waking up with them, just clamping my teeth down on my wrist so I wouldn’t scream and wake everybody up. And then Lori… Lori died too. I didn’t kill her but she died and I couldn’t stop it. And…” He stops, regroups, continues. “I know it wasn’t real. I know none of it happened. But you got to know, Shane. It felt like it did. It still feels like it did. I keep lookin’ over at you and you’re alive and I just want to get down on my damn knees and thank God that I got a second chance at not fucking everything up with you and with her and with Carl. And so I’m not gonna let any of this mess up what we all have. The family we have. I can’t lose her again. I can’t lose you again. And I am totally, one-hundred-percent aware of how fuckin’ crazy this all sounds, but it don’t matter because this is how I feel and I want more than anything to make my family happy.”

Shane stares at him for a second, then moves his gaze around, jerking his head to look at the steering wheel, at the console, out his side window. "So you want what exactly?"

"I want to stay married to Lori and I want you to stay with her too," Rick says. "That way I get to keep my family and my best friend, you and Lori get to keep each other, and Carl doesn't have to keep seeing his parents miserable all the time."

Shane laughs like he honestly can't think of any other way to react. "Man, you ain't well enough yet to make a call like that. We'll talk about it again in a few weeks when you're settled, okay?"

Rick sighs heavily but knows it's the best he's going to get for a while. He nods, and Shane nods back, and the world keeps on spinning and nothing has changed.

//

Rick stabbed a Walker through the head with a large hunting knife and gave it a shove backwards. He and Blue had taken a shift killing Walkers through the prison fence to give the others a break from it, and even though they didn't do small talk usually, the alternative was focusing on the gore oozing from the Walkers' faces and so Rick decided to strike up a conversation. "So was there ever a Mrs. Blue?"

Blue shook his head, taking out two Walkers at once with a knife in each hand. "Nah. Keepin' my dumbass brother out of jail was a full-time job. Didn't have much time for dating or nothin' after takin' care of him all the damn time."

Rick nodded but couldn't think of anything else to say. Every time Blue brought up Hands these days, it was past-tense, like he'd finally given up on finding him alive even though they had no reason other than "the apocalypse" to think he wasn't. It was making Rick uncomfortable, the way that Blue talked about his brother, the sadness in his eyes whenever the subject came up. Rick hoped to God that if Hands was dead, they never ran across what was left of him.

"Always wanted kids, though," Blue said after a moment, then dispatched another Walker with his knife.

Rick glanced over, but Blue wasn't looking at him. "I could see you being a dad."

Blue grunted. "Kind of figured Hands would've eventually knocked up a couple girls. Then I could've raised 'em."

"Not your own kids?" Rick asked. He dropped the knife to his side and turned to look at Blue.

The archer shrugged and turned to face Rick, still not meeting his eyes. "I'm pretty good with other peoples' kids," he said, shifting his feet and watching them move. "Little Ass-Kicker seems to like me, anyways."

"She does at that," Rick said, smiling at Blue, and when Blue finally looked up and returned the smile, it was strangely soft, tentative, and Rick took a step toward him. A flash of panic slammed through Blue's eyes and he took a step back, keeping the distance between them the same as it had been and curling into himself just the slightest bit.

Rick stopped and suddenly couldn't remember what he'd been planning to do. Hug him, probably. For being such a good man, such a good surrogate father when Rick had been off his rocker with grief and distrust. For being Blue.

"Sorry," Blue said, eyes back on the ground and gravel in his voice. "Not really a hugger."

Rick nodded and held out his hand. Blue looked at it for a second and then took it, giving it a firm shake. Blue's hands were calloused from the crossbow and warm, his grip strong and confident, and Rick wondered how his own handshake felt in the other man's palm before they let go, dropping their hands to their sides.

Rick gave Blue a sharp nod that Blue hesitated before returning, then the two of them went back to killing Walkers through the fence, the hot Georgia sun beating down on them, knives like quicksilver and in perfect unison.

Chapter Text

Rick lets the issue of renegotiating his relationships with Lori and Shane go for a few days, mostly because every time he tries to bring it up with either of them, they brush it off with a "we can talk about this when you're settled" and a hasty retreat to another room or an urgent appointment with a personal trainer or an optometrist or a tanning bed. He figures that pushing the issue too fast might be as damaging as waiting too long had been, so he lets them have their space.

And anyway, it's not like he has nothing else to do with his time. Being in a coma for four months when he wasn't really supposed to wake up had done weird things to all areas of his life--cell phone contracts, health and life insurance, even his golf club membership--and he spends a good bit of the next week on hold with various customer service representatives trying to get everything back in order.

But the good news is that the secretary at the police station is so delighted that Rick is back that she pushes his paperwork through in only a couple of days and Rick can go back to work as soon as he's ready--on a probationary status at first, but still, Rick will take it. He's gotten in the bad habit of spending a lot of his time that's not spent listening to tinny hold music lying on the floor trying to nap, and he's not entirely sure that the massive amount of sleep he's getting is healthy, for all that Lori and his doctor keep telling him that he needs to rest.

Rick has never been a drug user, but over the years he's hauled in plenty of meth-heads and junkies and he's never understood it, never known why someone would keep going back to something that hurts them. He understands it now. Sleep is where he feels right again, where he feels safe, and he knows how crazy that sounds, that he would rather be killing Walkers at the end of the world with Blue than sitting beside Lori at a PTA meeting, holding her hand and being reasonably sure that none of the people in the room would be dead by morning. But crazy or not, he finds himself flushing the Nyquil in the house down the toilet so he won't be tempted to use it to get in a few more hours of sleep.

The dream’s timeline is all shot to hell now, and he never dreams anything new--everything he sees when he sleeps now is a repeat of something he'd already seen while he was in the coma, and none of it goes past the night Blue came back to the prison after having to put his brother down. Before Rick woke up at the nursing home, the dream had been completely linear, going forward in chronological order at a logical pace. Now he dreams out of order, a scene here and a moment there, and it's almost worse that way, the way that it slides back and forth between how he'd felt about everyone at the end and how he'd felt about them earlier in the timeline. The way that sometimes Blue doesn't trust him yet and sometimes he does, the way that sometimes Shane is psychotic and sometimes he's Rick's best friend, hell, even the way that sometimes Rick has a beard and sometimes he doesn't gives him whiplash from time to time.

But the one constant thing is the feeling Rick has in the moments after he wakes up--the feeling of being home, of having people who love him. Rick lives for that moment now, because he doesn't get it throughout the rest of the day. Lori and Shane and Carl love him, of course, but he feels like there's a part of him now that they can't reach, that they'll never really understand. Because even though the dream isn't real, he's still a different man because of it, and he'll never again be the same Rick Grimes that he was before.

But PTA meetings continue whether he's the same Rick Grimes or not, and so Rick sighs and holds Lori's hand and tries very hard to care about whether they should order the new playground equipment with the plastic rock wall or whether the one with the extra slide is a better choice. The debate gets heated and Rick has almost reached his limit of how much bullshit posturing he can take from Greg Underwood of all people and he's thinking of jumping up and taking the side of the rock wall just because Greg is vehemently opposed to it when one of the teachers takes the microphone on the podium and announces that they've exhausted the time limit on this discussion and it's time to talk about the challenge to the third-grade reading list.

Rick looks at the teacher and something registers in the back of his mind, a soft mosquito-hum of a feeling that he can't swat away. He recognizes her, of course. She was Carl's teacher a couple of years before, one that the kid had really liked, but that's not it. There's something else, something... more.

He leans over to Lori and whispers in her ear, "Who's that?"

Lori furrows her brow and then murmurs back, "Mrs. Mueller. Carl had her for social studies in third grade."

Rick's throat goes dry. Remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mueller? Her first name was… The sensation is maddening, the way he can hear Carl’s voice in his head all the way until the last word, the most important one. Rick takes in a deep breath through his nose and whispers, "What was her first name?"

Lori gives him a very distinct 'please be quiet so I can listen' look but answers, "Judith."

The name breaks against Rick's mind like a meteor hitting the Earth, hot and splintering, and he feels his eyes go glassy the way they had when Blue left him to walk off into the woods with his brother that day. Rick stands up and walks outside before he can lose it in front of Lori and Greg and everyone. He closes the door behind himself and stands in the school hallway, letting himself sag against the painted cinderblock wall.

His little girl, he thinks. Judith, he thinks. With her huge soulful eyes and her high-pitched giggle. Judith, who he'd taken so long to love and now can't stop even though she's not real. He thinks of the way Carl held her, the way Blue had immediately found food for her when Rick couldn't. He remembers how Blue had bitched about the name for a while after he'd spent three days straight with "Hey Jude" stuck in his head, how Rick had nearly passed out from laughing after he'd heard Blue start humming the "na na na" part in the woods without realizing it, how he'd gotten a hard smack to the side of the head for laughing. He remembers the cardboard banner that the farmer's daughters had made for the little girl, all elephants and monkeys and the name JUDITH painted on it in curly handwriting.

He misses his daughter so badly that he has trouble breathing and definitely can't swallow around it, and he pushes away from the wall and stumbles outside, clawing the door to his car open and collapsing inside. He leans his head down against the steering wheel and tries to calm down, telling himself that he has to get a hold of himself, that he can't keep thinking of these people like they're real when they're not. Judith was a nice dream, but she was a dream, just like the rest of them, and Rick focuses on his breathing--in, out, in, out--and tries not to think of how he'd cradled her in his arms and told her he'd never leave her.

//

Rick has about twenty minutes to get himself under control before the PTA members start pouring out of the door of the school. Lori stands there chatting with Marie Underwood for a long time while Greg stands there looking incredibly smug, and Rick focuses on that, on how much of a douche he thinks Greg is, because that gives him something to think about other than how he needs to stop being weak and be the strong husband Lori needs him to be. It works, mostly, and by the time Lori slides into the passenger seat of the car, Rick is calm again, and if his eyes are still red then he hopes that she won’t mention it.

"You okay?" she asks, reaching over to pat his knee. "You left pretty quick back there."

"Fine," Rick says. "I'm fine." He turns the key in the ignition and then reaches over to hold Lori's hand as they drive away from the school.

"Can we stop by the drugstore on the way home?" Lori asks after a moment. "I need to pick up my prescription."

"Sure," Rick says, and when they get to the drugstore he follows her inside and starts aimlessly wandering the aisles while he waits for her. He finds himself on the baby aisle, looking at brightly colored pacifiers and teething rings and he touches them, ghosting the tips of his fingers over each item and trying to make himself walk away before he loses it again in the middle of a Walgreen's. But then when he finally tears himself away and walks out of the aisle, he passes a display of pregnancy tests.

Rick looks around for Lori and sees her still standing at the pharmacy window talking to the technician there, and he turns back to the display and picks up a box. After all, he tells himself, it won't hurt to know. If it's negative, then he can use that as closure, and if it's positive then he can use it as hope.

He scurries around for a couple more minutes, picking up a few other things to hide the tests in, and ends up buying two pairs of socks, a big box of Mike and Ikes, and a deck of playing cards. He's done checking out by the time Lori gets to the front of the store, and she gives him a tired smile and doesn't say anything else as they leave the store and head home.

When they get back to the house, Carl is sitting in front of the TV watching what Rick can immediately tell is a rated-R movie, which he is absolutely not allowed to do, so he and Lori spend a while lecturing Carl on how they'll have to start hiring a babysitter for him again if he can't prove himself to be responsible enough to stay at home by himself for a couple of hours without getting in trouble. They send him to his room for the rest of the night, taking away his video game privileges and everything, and then the house is quiet around the two of them.

Lori sits down on the couch, drawing her knees up and hugging a brown suede throw pillow against her stomach. She picks up the remote and turns the TV to House Hunters, and although the old Rick would have just ground his teeth and left the room to go do something else, the new Rick sits down in his wooden chair and watches with her.

It's awkward as hell, the way they sit there in silence, feeling each others' presence like the low green hum of radiation, like magnets that don't exactly repel one another but definitely don't attract. Rick had gotten used to silence--to conversations that didn't involve words--but he and Lori had never gotten the hang of it, not even in the dream. When they're silent, it's a gulf between them and not a sign of understanding. He hates it, but he's not going to let it start happening this time.

"Personally I'd choose the one with the lake view," Rick says. "It's got a better layout."

Lori raises her eyebrows and looks over at him. "You would?"

"Yeah," Rick says, and he hopes she won't press for more information about why he wants House #2 because frankly, the 'better layout' explanation is all he has to offer.

Lori doesn't push him, though. She just bites her bottom lip and keeps watching. The silence falls back down around them like a heavy wool blanket and Rick sighs, shifting his position in the wooden chair and finding comfort in the discomfort it provides.

"I wish you would talk to me," Lori says after a long time. "I can tell something's wrong and I need you to talk to me."

It's the same conversation they've been having for years--Rick's lack of communication, Lori's constant need for verbal interaction--and Rick would be annoyed by the same argument rearing its head again if he didn't really need to talk to her this time. So instead of his customary heavy sigh, Rick nods.

"When I was in the coma, I dreamed we had a daughter. A little girl," Rick says. "She was so pretty, Lor, and a sweetheart, and I loved her so much." His throat goes tight and he almost stops talking, but he decides he needs to press on before she can say anything to break his thoughts. "And I know it was a dream, but I feel like I lost something when I woke up. I feel like I had this kid and now she's gone. And it's killing me, Lori. It is. Even though I know it wasn't real."

Lori watches him for a few seconds warily. "So you want another baby? Is that what you're saying?"

Rick sighs, looking at his hands and trying not to think about how tiny Judith's were. "I'm just saying that we slept together the other night, you and me. And if you were pregnant I wouldn't hate the idea."

"Rick," Lori says, but she doesn't continue for a long time. "Rick, sweetie. Shane called. He told me what you suggested to him the other day. About... him and me."

"Yeah?" Rick prompts after it becomes clear she expects a response.

"I'm just saying that a few days ago you were saying we should have an open marriage and I should keep sleeping with your friend." Lori speaks slowly, like she's trying to make sure Rick is following each word. "And now you're talking about wanting to have another baby with me."

Rick shrugs. "It's not an ideal situation, but it's what makes the most sense."

Lori stares at him for several seconds, her mouth open just slightly. "It makes no sense. You can't have both of those things."

"Why not?" Rick asks. He stands up and turns the chair so it's facing her, then sits back down and meets her eyes. "Why can't we have both? If you and Shane keep seeing each other, you're happy. If I get to keep you both in my life and not lose either of you, I'm happy. If Carl gets an extra dad without having to go through his parents divorcing, he's happy."

"And if I get pregnant with this daughter and you don't know if she's yours or not?" Lori challenges. "Because if I'm sleeping with Shane, you won't know for sure. Not without a paternity test. And Rick, I'm not going to my OB/GYN and asking for a paternity test. She's in my yoga group. She's married to the circuit clerk. I'd never be able to show my face in town again."

Rick shakes his head. "I don't need to know she's mine. I just need to know she's real."

Lori bites her lip again and clutches the pillow tighter to her stomach. "We don't need to talk about this now. It can wait until you're settled."

Rick groans loudly at that, standing up from his chair. When he speaks, his voice is still quiet, but there's an angry edge to it that Lori can't miss. "When am I going to be 'settled' enough to have any real conversations, Lori? It's been a week. I'm sick of you and Shane patting me on my head and tellin' me I'm not ready to have adult conversations about my own life, like I'm a six-year-old who's tryin' to run away from home."

"Rick," she says, still speaking very slowly. "It's been a week, but it's only been a week. You have to readjust. You have to give it time."

"Fuck that," Rick spits out. "I just want all this to be over."

"All what?" Lori asks. "Rick, honey, maybe we need to think about getting you someone to talk to."

The anger fades away, the red leaching away from the corners of his vision. He sags his shoulders and sits back down, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry. I'm just... fuck. I'm so confused, Lor."

"I know," Lori says gently. "And that's why we can't make decisions like open marriages and kids right now. Just give it time. It'll all feel right again eventually."

Rick nods, all the fight gone out of him, and the need to go back to sleep overwhelms him. "I'm going to bed. I'll sleep it off and feel better in the morning."

"Okay," Lori says. "I love you, Rick. I do."

Rick stands up yet again and looks at her but doesn't meet her eyes. "I love you too."

//

When Atlanta relieved Rick as he finished his midnight watch in the prison guard tower and got back down to the cell block, everyone was sleeping except for Michigan, who was reading a book by candlelight outside his cell. Blue was nowhere to be found.

"Hey," Rick said, walking over to Michigan and keeping his voice low so he wouldn't wake everyone else. "Where is everybody?"

Michigan looked around the room, noting all the sleeping figures in cells. "Everybody's here except Atlanta and Blue," he said, matching his volume to Rick's.

"Yeah," Rick said, following Michigan's gaze around the sparse gray cell block. "Where is he?"

"Blue?" Michigan asked, then shrugged. "I don't really know. He said he needed some air and went outside."

Rick nodded and went back outside, telling himself that he was just checking on everybody, just making sure that everyone was safe. He didn't think that Blue would be in any danger, especially if he stayed to the cleared areas, but he didn't want to consider what would happen if the man had decided to venture outside, so he needed to reassure himself that he hadn't.

He found Blue up on the roof of the prison, lying on the corrugated metal on his back with his eyes closed. Rick took a moment to look at him and couldn't remember if he'd ever seen the hunter this relaxed before--usually even when he slept, his muscles held the tension of the day, ready to spring at the slightest sound. And that wasn't just an illusion. Rick had seen the man go from REM sleep to a perfect Walker bullseye in two seconds flat on more than one occasion; he knew Blue could do it.

Rick pulled himself up from the last rung of the ladder to the roof and very carefully placed his foot on the metal. Blue had been trying with varying levels of success to teach Rick to track lately, and Rick had a mind to give some of his new skills a try.

He took his time moving, lifting each foot with great care and trying to mimic Blue's silent movements through the woods as he set each foot back down as quietly as possible. It took him nearly a full minute to cross about twenty feet of the roof, but it was worth it as Blue didn't stir in his sleep and Rick felt very proud of himself.

"Gotta do better'n that if you want your merit badge," Blue said then, leaving his eyes closed for another couple of seconds and then opening only one of them to look at Rick in the moonlight. The corner of his mouth quirked upward and Rick let his shoulders sag in disappointment.

"Damn, I thought I was doing pretty good," Rick said. He put his hands on his hips and stared at Blue. "What did I do wrong?"

"Tried to sneak up on me," Blue said. He let his smile get a little bigger, then sat up on the roof, pulling his knees up and resting his forearms on them. "Ain't never gonna work, no matter how good you get."

"What're you doing up here?" Rick asked. He walked over to Blue, not worrying about the hollow clunking sound his boots made on the metal roof anymore, and sat down beside him.

Blue shrugged. "Too crowded in there. Needed the sky."

"Sorry I interrupted your sleep," Rick said. "I can go."

"Nah," Blue said, then shot his eyes sideways at Rick. "But for future reference, make some noise comin' up that ladder in case I ain't sleepin'."

Rick laughed before he noticed that Blue's red shop rag was draped over his thigh. "Is that so?" he asked, hoping the washed-out silver of the moonlight was enough to hide how red the tips of his ears were getting.

Blue grunted and shrugged. "Nice and private up here. Just sayin'."

"I can go," Rick offered again.

"Nah," Blue responded, same as before. "I was done. Just don't tell nobody and we're even. Hell, maybe I'll even give you a turn up here sometime if you need it."

Rick had no idea what to say to that, and after a beat of silence it seemed like Blue maybe regretted bringing it up too, so Rick decided to plunge forward with the conversation to keep it from dissolving and becoming awkward. "So who do you think about?"

Blue dipped his head, looking at the roof between his knees, then sniffed and turned his gaze to the sky. "Nobody particular."

"Really?" Rick asked, and he wondered even as he was talking what exactly had possessed him to start this discussion, much less press for more detail about it. "Not a celebrity or anything?"

Blue snorted. "Guess I'm supposed to say somethin' like Angelina Jolie or that one girl from the Avengers, ain't I?"

"Only if it's true," Rick said. "Come on. You can tell me the truth." He shoulder-bumped the archer and grinned at him.

Blue turned his head to look at Rick and then looked away again, out over the trees in the distance. "Tell you mine if you tell me yours."

Rick gave it some thought. He'd fantasized about celebrities before, of course, but it had been so long since he'd even thought about sex that he couldn't even remember who it had been. "I can barely remember, to be honest with you."

Blue let out a little chuckle through his nose. "Same here, man."

Rick tilted his head to look at Blue, expecting to meet his eyes, but instead he just felt the ambient moonlight fill more space between them as Blue scooted a few inches away.

"'s play some cards," Blue said, rough like the stubble on Rick's face. He pulled out a beat-up deck of cards and started shuffling.

Rick nodded. "Poker?" he asked.

Blue snorted again and started dealing out cards. "Nah, man. Gotta play somethin' you have some chance at." He finished counting out cards and put the rest in a pile between them. "Gin rummy."

Rick picked up the cards he'd been dealt and looked at them. "I don't know gin rummy."

"Eh, don't worry. I'll teach you," Blue said. He gave Rick a run-down of the rules and then made him show his hand so he could coach him through a couple of rounds, then shuffled the deck and dealt again. Rick kept the cards to himself this time and didn't embarrass himself too much, even winning a couple of hands, although he got the feeling that maybe Blue had been cheating so that Rick could win and not playing at his best.

"My grandma used to play this," Rick said after they'd been playing for a while. "I never learned it, but this was her game."

"My ma, too," Blue said. "She taught me." He sniffed, wrinkling his nose and narrowing his eyes for a moment, the way he had when he'd turned off his emotions on the roof when Hands wasn't there anymore. "Ain't played in years, not since Hands figured out strip poker. After that I didn’t play cards with him no more."

Rick understood the change of subject and didn't ask anything else about it. They played a couple more rounds and then Blue said, "Guess it would be Jennifer Lawrence. If I had to pick. Since she didn't look half bad with a bow in that one movie."

Rick felt his face break into a smile before he noticed that he was happy at all. He grinned over at Blue, who smiled but carefully didn't meet Rick's eyes, and Rick wondered if the moonlight was washing out Blue's blush like it had washed out his own.

"Bet I can guess yours," Blue continued.

Rick rolled his eyes. "You can't. No way."

Blue locked eyes with Rick, searching, and Rick felt himself leaning forward just a bit. After a moment, Blue smirked at him and said, "The chick from that vampire show. Anna whats-'er-name. She's yours."

Rick's mouth fell open. Blue chuckled. "Can read you like a bowhunting magazine, man. Also, gin." He slapped his hand of cards down on the metal roof and smirked at Rick hard, and Rick wakes up with a smile on his face and stares at the white ceiling above his head for a long time before he finally manages to go back to sleep.

Chapter Text

It's strange having Shane in the driver's seat of the patrol car. Although there wasn't ever a rule that Rick had to drive, they'd always ended up like that, Rick behind the steering wheel and Shane handling the walkie-talkie and using it to flirt shamelessly with Diane from dispatch on slow days. But a condition of Rick's returning to the force is that he be on probation for a few weeks to make sure he's still capable of doing the job, and that means desk duty, and it's only Shane sweet-talking the Sheriff that makes her relent and agree to unchain Rick from his desk as long as Shane takes the point position for the probation period.

It's awkward for a couple of days, with Shane giving Rick a lot of sidelong glances that Rick assumes probably mean that he's waiting on Rick to flip out and suddenly be angry with him for sleeping with Lori. But Rick just keeps on not mentioning it, and gradually Shane stops looking at him like he thinks all of this friendship is a trap.

Rick tries to mention the dream a few times, but Shane keeps getting that bored glaze in his eyes when he talks about it, and Rick guesses he can't blame him. After all, he remembers one time when Shane had had a long, complicated sex dream about Natalie Portman and he'd spent the better part of a shift explaining it in great detail to Rick and Rick had been about ready to rob a bank himself just to get Shane out of the car and talking about something else. It's just not that interesting listening to other peoples' dreams, Rick tells himself. And that's probably best, because by the time he stops talking to Shane about it, Rick has started to notice just how much he talks about Blue, how integral Blue is to every single aspect of the dream, and he's afraid Shane will notice too and get the wrong impression.

Besides, talking about Blue doesn't help it hurt any less every time Rick wakes up and he's not there, and he hasn't told Shane about Judith at all, so there's no point in talking about it, really. He still misses the others in his dream family just dreadfully, of course, and he'll never forget them, but he doesn't need them like he needs Blue and Judith.

So instead, they talk about fishing and the Leon/Traci scandal that's somehow still blowing up everywhere. Shane fills him in on all the drama with a huge drugs bust they'd done a few weeks before. They speculate on whether Sheriff Henderson will win re-election in the fall or if they'll have to put up with a newbie in the office. They spend a lot of time trash-talking the Cubs or waxing poetic about their Braves and it's so much like before that Rick almost feels grounded again in this world, almost like it's becoming home again. And then he goes home and dreams about sharp blue eyes and arrows fletched with owl feathers and then wakes up with concrete in his stomach and Blue's real name almost on his lips.

It’s so bad one night that Rick isn’t sure how he’s going to get through a day’s worth of conversation with Shane without having to bring it up, having to mention Blue yet again and hope that Shane doesn’t call him out on it. Luckily, though, they get a call almost as soon as they’re settled in the patrol car, and Shane flips on the lights and starts heading out of the station while Rick starts filling out the police report basics using the information from dispatch.

“Domestic dispute at 114 Weathersby,” Diane says through the scanner. “Neighbors called it in, said they could hear yelling and it sounded like it may be violent.”

“114 Weathersby?” Shane says, then lets out a hard breath through his nose. “Figures.”

“You know that address?” Rick asks him.

Shane nods and grips the steering wheel tighter, weaving the car in and out of traffic as cars move out of their way. “They moved to town a couple of months ago. Already went on two calls to the house, and Leon’s been on a couple too. Man beats his wife and everybody knows it, but you know how it is. She won’t rat on him, always says she got kicked by a horse or tripped down the stairs or whatever, and we can’t do shit about it.” Shane sighs hard. “Frustrates the hell out of me, man. She seems like a nice lady and even if she’s tellin’ the truth and he’s not hitting her, he’s a fuckin’ toolbag anyway and she could do better.”

Rick sighs, thinking of the short-haired woman from the dream and how hard it had been for her to break free. “I guess you don’t know how it is until you’re in the situation.” He radios Diane back and tells her they’re on the way to the house.

Shane is frowning deeply. “Well, I know I’d like to nightstick the fucker in the face. See how he likes it.”

They pull up to the house and get out of the car. Shane walks up first, taking the steps heavily with his boots thumping on the wooden porch, and knocks on the door. “Edward Peletier,” he bellows through the wood. “Police.” Rick frowns at the name, trying to place it. There are sounds of movement from inside, then the door opens and Rick finds himself face-to-face with Ed Peletier himself.

Rick goes pale and stumbles backwards a step, grabbing on to the wooden column on the porch to hold himself up. He forces himself to examine Ed’s face, to dip back into the early parts of the dream and compare the man in front of him to the man who’d died in the camp at the quarry. He hasn’t dreamed that part of the dream again since he woke up, so it feels like months since they’d buried the man on that hill, and Rick tells himself that eyewitness accounts are unreliable for a reason. Nobody has a perfect memory. He’s almost convinced himself that this man just looks like the one he’d known when his wife, a pretty short-haired woman with a bruise already beginning to bloom across her cheek, walks up behind him.

Rick concentrates on his breathing, pulling air back into lungs that don’t want to accept the oxygen. This doesn’t mean anything, he tells himself. He must have just seen her around town, and her face and her husband’s face were just randomly chosen by his brain to stand in for the ones in the dream. Part of his brain tries to point out that Shane had said they’d only moved in two months ago, but the rest of him shuts that down. There’s no other explanation, he tells himself. He has to have seen them somewhere before.

But Ed is talking, the stereotypical is there a problem, officer? and Shane is asking the usual questions while the woman hangs back, head down and eyes on the floor. Rick watches her, trying to reconcile the frightened woman in front of him with the rifle-wielding badass she'd been the last time he'd seen her.

"Ma'am," Shane is saying, "can you tell me what's going on?"

Ed whirls around to look at her and she shrinks back just the slightest bit before smiling in Shane’s direction but not meeting his eyes. “It’s nothing,” she says, her voice soft like goosedown. “I fell and hit my head on the dining room table.”

Shane puts his hands on his hips and stares her down even though she’s carefully looking at the floor instead of at him. “The call we got said there was yelling.”

“Ed was upset that I’d gotten hurt,” she says. She folds her hands in front of herself and nods like she’s trying to convince herself of her own story. “He was yelling to make sure I was okay.”

Ed looks back at Shane with a shit-eating grin. “See? I ain’t nothin’ but good to my wife. Now you get on outta here.”

“Sir,” Shane says, drawling out the word. “I was talking to your wife.”

“Carol, get back inside,” Ed snaps, and Rick hears the blood rushing in his ears as the name snaps into place in his memories of the dream. He grips the porch column harder, digging his nails into the paint, and has started feeling like maybe his legs aren’t ready to support him anymore when Shane takes a step toward Carol and Ed responds by aiming a haymaker at Shane’s face.

It’s enough to snap Rick into action and he rushes forward, grabbing Ed’s arm and wrenching it backwards to hold him back from Shane, who had managed to roll his head to the side in time to avoid the punch. Shane is furious, yelling at Ed to get on the ground and put his hands up, and he’s got his gun out and pointing at the man’s head while Rick jerks Ed’s other arm around his back and slaps handcuffs on him.

Once Ed is cuffed, Shane yanks him up to his feet and gets in his face, speaking forcefully and daring the man to make one more move. Rick is reciting Ed’s rights to him on autopilot, somewhat surprised that he still remembers the words after so long, and then they shove Ed in the back of the police car.

Shane stalks back up to the porch and looks at Carol, who’s standing with both hands over her mouth staring at Ed’s angry eyes through the car window. “You wanna tell us what’s been happening? ‘Cause now’s the time.”

Carol shakes her head hard and fast, and when she retreats back into the house and closes the door, Shane walks up and knocks on it again.

Rick steps up beside him. “Let her alone for now,” he murmurs to his partner. “We’ll take him in for assaulting an officer and she can have a couple of days to think about what she wants to do without him here to bother her. It’s all we can do right now.”

Shane grinds his teeth and laughs humorlessly, looking around the porch like he’s trying to find something to anchor to. “Yeah, okay,” he says after a moment. “But you drive. That bastard has me off my fuckin’ rails right now and you don’t want me behind a wheel.”

Rick nods and they get back in the car, Shane slamming his door so hard that the whole vehicle shakes with the force of it. Ed, in a surprising show of common sense, keeps his mouth shut as they drive him back to the precinct.

While Shane does the booking paperwork, Rick pulls up Ed’s mug shot on the system. He stares at it for a long time, his elbows on the desk and his fingers steepled in front of his mouth. The little girl, he thinks, picturing the man’s daughter at first as the wasted corpse he’d had to shoot and then forcing himself to think of her as the bright, vibrant little girl she’d been before. There was a section in the record for family and connections, and Rick clicks on it and finds names there. Carol, of course. But then Sophia. There’s what looks like a recent school picture of the little girl, smiling at the camera with a barrette in her hair shaped like a flower. Rick tightens his hand on the mouse and stares.

“God, Blue,” Rick murmurs under his breath. “She’s alive.”

//

It was too soon, Rick thought. His gun felt cold in his hand, his thumb slipping off the hammer once before he managed to get it pulled back to cock it, and all the while there were eyes on him. He could feel them on the back of his neck like hot breath there, trickling down his skin and burrowing under the collar of his shirt.

Rick sucked in a deep breath and tried to will himself to pull the trigger, but his fingers were staging a mutiny against his motor functions and he couldn’t do it. RV lay on the ground, gasping and terrified, and everyone was waiting on Rick to take the shot.

It couldn’t be Shane, Rick knew that. Shane had hated RV and the feeling was mutual, and so if Shane had offered to take the mercy shot, Rick would have turned him down. But he didn’t even offer, and Rick hated him for making him do this. And Michigan… well, if it wasn’t Rick it should have been him. He may have let Michigan take the shot if he’d offered. But he didn’t, either, and so it fell to Rick. To kill another one of the group, to shoot RV after he’d just had to shoot Sophia, and he pulled back on the trigger but couldn’t manage to put enough muscle strength behind it to actually move the metal.

He looked up, his eyes shining with angry water, and Blue was there, standing beside him. They locked eyes for a moment as understanding passed between them.

I can’t.

Let me.

And then Blue’s hand was on his and Blue was pulling the gun away from him, letting the tips of his fingers brush over the back of Rick’s hand. Their eyes met again, briefly, and Rick suddenly knew that he needed this man, that he was worth more to him and to the group than just a crossbow. Shane should have offered but he didn’t and Blue had no reason to offer but he did, and Rick’s knees went weak with relief as Blue squatted down in front of Rick, putting his body between Rick and the terrible job that had to be done.

“I’m sorry, brother,” Blue murmured, and then he didn’t hesitate because there was no point in it, and the sooner RV could be at whatever passed for peace in the apocalypse, the better. No one even flinched at the loud crack of gunfire, and Rick wondered what that said about all of them.

Blue stood back up, Rick’s gun dangling in his hand, and Rick saw him slide his eyes over to Shane, a deep frown hovering around his mouth, before looking back at Rick. Blue moved his hand over the gun to hold it around the barrel and held the handle out for Rick to take.

Rick put his hand on the gun and Blue held on to the barrel for just a heartbeat before letting it go, giving Rick an almost imperceptible nod. Rick returned the gesture, and then there was no time to talk because Shane and Atlanta were picking up RV’s body to carry it back to a safe place until they could dig a grave for it in the morning, and Carl was upset and Lori was clinging to the boy, smoothing his hair and whispering in his ear, and when Rick got a moment to look around again, Blue was already back at his tent at the edge of the farm, pacing back and forth in front of the fire.

Chapter Text

When Rick wakes up at three in the morning, he can't go back to sleep. He lies there beside Lori for a long time, eyes closed and trying to will his brain to go blank and fall back under, but it's no use. He even gets up and lies down on the floor, and that's better, but still not enough to keep his mind from whirling around like the red country dust in a windstorm. Eventually he gives up and goes down to the living room. He opens Lori's laptop and pulls up a blank document, then begins to type a list of the people in the dream and what he knows about them.

It takes him a long time to finish the list, and there are varying degrees of detail on it. Michigan was a pizza delivery boy and had three sisters and an aversion to green beans that even apocalypse starvation couldn't quite cure. Birdy and Spitfire liked Beyonce and had first learned to shoot when they were girls with a Civil War-era rifle complete with a bayonet. Atlanta was... well, from Atlanta, and Rick was pretty sure that they'd always called him by a nickname that he couldn't quite place. RV had a penchant for floppy fishing hats and terrible taste in novels. Rick looks at the list and chews on his bottom lip, racking his brain for more and eventually finding none.

He hits "enter" twice and then types Blue.

All the things he knows about Blue filter through his mind, a parade of images and ideas and feelings, a montage of the man he knows better than it makes sense for him to, and Rick finds it interesting that there's so much deep knowledge there--Blue's childhood, his fears, how he'd never quite seemed to believe that he was as essential to Rick as he was. But the big items aren't what Rick can't shake. It's the small things, the things he wouldn't have noticed about anyone else, like the way his face bunched up when he was about to sneeze, the way his shoulders moved when he swam, the way he looked at Rick like he'd follow him anywhere. The way Rick had felt when Blue walked away from him with his brother, how much Rick had wanted to call after him and beg him to stay.

There's too much that Rick knows about Blue. Too much to type, too much to even process. He looks at the name on the screen and tries to decide what to write, what the essentials are, and in the end he just types the word archer and closes the doc before he breaks down and types what he really thinks about the man, what he really knows, the words to describe the empty space at his side that won’t ever be filled again.

Just because Carol and Sophia are real doesn't mean the rest of them are. Rick tells himself that, repeats it to himself over and over like a mantra. He ends up in his wooden chair watching hunting shows with a quilt draped over his shoulders, and he doesn't sleep at all.

//

The next morning finds Rick standing on Carol Peletier's front porch, wearing regular clothes instead of his uniform. He knocks on the door and steps back, hooking both thumbs in his pockets and staring at the ground.

It takes Carol a long time to answer, and when she does she only opens the door a crack. "Can I help you, Officer?" she asks.

"Yeah," Rick says. "My name's Rick Grimes. I'm a deputy with King County Sheriff's Department. But that ain't why I'm here."

Carol looks at him suspiciously. "What can I do for you, Mr. Grimes?"

"I need to talk to you," he said. "Can I come in?"

"No," Carol says, too quickly. "You got a warrant? Ed said I had to always ask for a warrant."

"No, this ain't police business," Rick says. He pulls his hands out of his pockets and spreads them, trying to seem as non-threatening as possible. "I just need to ask you something."

Carol stands there staring at him for several seconds, then opens the door just enough to slide through and walks out on the porch with him. She folds her arms in front of her chest and looks at the peeling paint on the wooden porch slats.

"I just wanted to check in," Rick says. "See if you needed anything, since we hauled your husband away without much warning yesterday."

Carol's head jerks up and she eyes him. "We don't need nothin'. Thanks for asking though." She turns to head back in the house.

"No, wait." Rick's tone is a little more desperate than he would have liked, but he can't worry about that right now. "Wait, I just... do you know me? Do I look familiar?"

Carol stops walking and looks at him for several seconds before responding. "No, Mr. Grimes, I don't know you."

“Not even…” Rick sighs and dips his head, staring at his boots while he talks. “I don’t even remind you of anyone?”

“No,” Carol says, tightening her arms around her midsection. “Should you?”

“Listen, I just… feel like I know you from somewhere.” Rick shifts his stance, mostly to have some movement to concentrate on instead of the pounding of his heart. “And Carol--”

“Mrs. Peletier,” she interjects. “I’m a married woman, Mr. Grimes, and Ed wouldn’t like it if I got too familiar with you.” She looks around at her neighbors’ houses and then returns her gaze to the floor.

“Mrs. Peletier,” Rick corrects himself. “I know what’s going on here. I want to help.”

“You don’t know nothin’ about it,” Carol says, very quietly. “You don’t know nothin’ about it and you should quit talking about Ed the way you do. The way all you cops do and the way all them busybodies at the grocery store do and the way my little girl’s teachers do. You don’t know nothin’.”

Rick looks at her, eyes sweeping over the bruise on her cheek that’s gone a sickly shade of purple overnight, at the yellowed imprints of fingers around one of her wrists. “Carol, you have to get out of here.”

“No,” she says, her voice marble and steel. She shakes her head hard, clamping her eyes shut. “I love my husband. And he loves me. It’s just a misunderstanding is all. You don’t know nothin’ about it.”

But Rick does know about it, knows the little details she’d let slip here and there in the dream. Remembers Lori telling him about the prayer she’d said in the little church, the horrible implications of it, the way Ed had acted around their daughter. What Blue had told him she’d said one night at the farm, about what Ed had said about Sophia. The way Carol hadn’t let Blue put a pickaxe in Ed’s skull after he’d died, the way what was left of Ed’s skull had looked when Carol had gotten done with it. He remembers something Blue had said about it: If Walkers hadn’t got that filthy bastard I’d’ve done him in myself.

“If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your little girl,” Rick says. He knows he’s on dangerous ground, but he can’t walk away from her knowing what’s going to keep happening as soon as Ed gets out of his cell. “Do it for Sophia.”

She shakes her head even harder. “Ed’s a good father. He’d never hurt our little girl.”

“Carol--”

Mrs. Peletier,” she hisses.

“Carol,” Rick says, taking one step forward and dipping his head to try and meet her downcast eyes. “You know what’s happening with Ed and Sophia. You know how he looks at her. You know it.”

“Stop,” she whispers, putting one hand up to her face and pressing her thumb and forefinger against her eyes. “Just stop. Go away. Leave us alone.”

Rick presses on, unable to stop himself. “You pray sometimes that he’ll die so you can get away.”

“I never--”

“No,” Rick interrupts. “No, you do. I know you do. And I know he hasn’t done nothin’ to Sophia yet but you know he’s thinkin’ about it. Carol. You know he is. You gonna just let that happen? Let that little girl go through that?”

“He wouldn’t, not really,” Carol says, but her voice sounds broken now, like she can’t get the conviction behind her words anymore. “Ed’s a good father. He wouldn’t… sometimes when he’s been drinking he looks at her a little too long but he wouldn’t hurt her.”

“Carol,” Rick says, and he makes sure his voice is gentler now. “Look at yourself in the mirror. Look at your bruises and your scars. Go in the bathroom and take off your clothes if you need to, look at everything he’s done to you that I can’t see here on the porch. And then think about those marks on Sophia’s body. Because that’s what men like Ed do, and you know it is. He won’t stop with you. You can’t protect her if he’s still in the house. And you know you can’t.”

Carol bites her lip and re-crosses her arms, tight across her chest. “You don’t know nothin’ about us,” she says again, so quietly that Rick almost doesn’t hear her.

Rick hesitates, trying to decide how much to say. There’s so much he knows, so much he could tell her to convince her, but he’s not sure how much is too much. But then he thinks about Sophia, about putting a bullet through her head, and about how what could happen to her if she stays with Ed is somehow a worse fate than the little girl dying alone in the woods.

“He told you once,” Rick says, carefully, softly, “that if he killed you one night, he wouldn’t miss you because he’d have Sophia to take your place.”

Carol flinches and grits her teeth. There’s a long pause, and Rick doesn’t fill the silence because he doesn’t want to break Carol’s train of thought, stop her from processing all of this. A line of ants is crossing the porch and Rick watches them instead of her, seeing the crumbs the ants are carrying, wondering where they’re going and how they live through winters without food.

“I need you to leave now,” Carol says after a few seconds. “If Ed finds out I was talking to a man, he’ll…” She doesn’t finish the sentence. She doesn’t need to. There’s steel back in her voice and Rick can tell it’s not worth it to argue. Besides, Ed will still be in the county jail for at least a few more days until his hearing, so she’ll be safe enough. He can come back and try again after she’s had time to process everything.

“Think about it,” Rick says. “Rick Grimes. Call me if you change your mind. I swear to you that I’ll make sure he gets put away. He won’t hurt you or your daughter anymore.”

“Leave,” she says, and she walks quickly back to the door, sliding through it and closing it softly behind her. Rick hears the click of a deadbolt being slipped home and he sighs deeply and heads back to his car.

//

Shane comes over for dinner that night at Rick’s insistence, and the meal as they sit around the table is too normal, like a caricature of a family meal where everyone is happy and no one is sleeping with anyone else’s wife and no one is staring into his spoonful of peas repeating Just because they’re real doesn’t mean anyone else is in his head.

Carl seems especially glum over the meal, pushing his chicken around on his plate and not making eye contact with anyone else, and even though Lori keeps trying to lure him in to conversation, the boy is clearly having none of it. Rick has made up his mind to corner Carl later and get him to talk about what's bothering him when Lori asks Shane what his plans are for the weekend.

"He doesn't have plans," Carl says, still frowning at his plate. "He did, but he doesn't anymore."

Silence falls, and Rick sees the look Shane shoots at Lori and the tiny shrug she gives him in return. Rick raises his eyebrows at Shane.

Shane sucks in a deep breath through his nose and says, "Me and Carl was going to the Braves game this weekend. But I told him we would go some other time since he needs to spend some time with his Daddy."

Carl huffs. "I can spend time with my Dad any time."

"We'll still go," Shane says. "I promise. We're just gonna wait until your Dad is settled, okay?"

"I am settled," Rick says, probably too loudly, but honestly he's sick of hearing the word 'settled,' like he's an invalid who needs to be handled with care.

"Rick," Lori says in a warning tone, like she's scolding an overactive child.

He deflates a little, scooping up another spoonful of peas and eating them. Then: "Maybe we should all go. All three of us. I can find another ticket."

“Sold out,” Shane mutters. “Been sold out for weeks, man. I’ll just give you my ticket. You an’ Carl can go.”

“I wanted to go with you,” Carl says, bitterness heavy in his voice. He turns his head to glare at Rick. “It’s not fair, Dad. I see you all the time now and I never get to see Shane anymore.”

“Carl,” Lori snaps, “be respectful to your father.”

Carl looks at Rick with a flash in his eyes that Rick has never seen in this world but saw all the time in the other one--disappointment and confusion and the need to be taken seriously, to be treated like a man even though he isn’t one yet. “May I be excused?” Carl grinds out.

“Yes,” Rick says, speaking over Lori’s softer no and waving Carl away. The boy jumps up from his seat and runs upstairs to his bedroom, and all three adults flinch when the door slams home.

“He’s just bein’ a kid, Rick,” Shane says. “He don’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“Yeah, he does,” Rick answers. He steeples his hands together, using his thumbs to press into the corners of his eyes beside his nose. “Take him to the game, Shane. It’ll make him happy and it’s only one day.”

“Rick,” Shane says, putting his elbows on the table and leaning forward. “I gotta put some distance here, man. You know I do.”

“I don’t want you to,” Rick tells him. He drops his hands and shakes his head, eyes locked on the salt and pepper shakers in the center of the table. “Lori doesn’t want you to. Carl doesn’t want you to. Why’ve I gotta keep saying that you should stay? Why isn’t anybody listening to me?”

Lori puts her fork down on her plate with a clink that’s way too loud in the suddenly quiet room. “Rick, it’s just that you can’t mean what you keep telling us. And none of us want to get involved in a lifestyle you’re going to hate us for later when you’re yourself again.”

“Don’t have sex on my side of the bed,” Rick tells them, keeping his voice low and measured, as sane as he can make himself sound. “And if you’re staying out overnight tell me so I can come up with a story for Carl. That’s all I ask.”

“Rick--” Lori starts, but Rick cuts her off.

“Lori, it ain’t like we were a pair of lovebirds before all this happened either. We both know where we were heading.” Rick sighs and looks at Shane. “I want you to stay.”

Shane stares at him and then looks over at Lori, who’s staring down at her plate. “Alright,” Shane says, “let’s test this.” He stands up, walks over to Lori’s chair, and pulls her to her feet. He leans in almost all the way and Lori flinches backwards, cutting her eyes to Rick and whispering Shane’s name in a warning. Shane half-smiles at her. “Come on, baby, let’s show him what he’s asking for.”

Their lips meet and after a second Lori relaxes into the kiss and puts her arms around Shane’s neck. There’s a knee-jerk reaction of possession and fury that flashes through Rick, but hard on its heels is the image of Shane dead in his arms, of the Walker that ate Lori’s body lying against a wall in a prison basement, and seeing them together is so much better than either of those outcomes that Rick can’t bring himself to look away.

They’re happy. He can see that, knows both of them well enough to know that this isn’t just a fling. And if they’re happy, Rick can be happy. So when they break apart and Shane looks over at him with a challenge in his eyes, Rick nods at him and says, “Not on my side of the bed.”

Then he gets up and walks into the living room, sitting down in his wooden chair and pulling his quilt around his shoulders again. He turns on the hunting show but it’s not hunting this time--it’s deep-sea fishing, and as far as he knows Blue was never that much of a fisherman, although true to his redneck roots he was good at it anyway.

Shane and Lori walk into the living room a few minutes later, moving quietly and hesitantly and eventually sitting down on the couch, together but with distance between them, carefully not touching. Rick looks over at them and offers up a short but sincere smile, then turns back to the TV and watches a group of men wrestling a marlin onto the fishing boat until Shane gets up and picks a movie and pops it in, and the three of them sit there in silence watching it until the credits are done rolling.

//

Rick leaned against the wall, looking up at the dark ceiling and breathing hard. “They following us?”

Blue pulled away from the wooden blinds covering the window and leaned on the wall beside Rick. “Nah,” he murmured, low and rough, and the sound of his voice so calm and unworried did more to make Rick feel better about their chances than anything else. “Just a herd passing through. They ain’t comin’ this way.” He rolled his head on the wall to look over at Rick. “Prob’ly have to stay here a while, ‘til they clear out.”

Rick turned his head to meet Blue’s gaze and shrugged, his shoulders sliding against the wall. He let the motion go on for a long time, turning into a stretch instead of just a shrug. “Good a place as any to spend the night, I guess."

Blue looked around. “A bar? Guess it could be worse.” He pushed away from the wall, setting some chairs upright as he walked, and then hopped lightly over the low gate separating the bar itself from the main floor. He put his crossbow down carefully on top of the bar counter and started looking around.

Rick holstered his gun and made a quick sweep through the rest of the building, checking for lurking Walkers. He found none, but lucked out when there was an old-fashioned oil lamp in what looked like the manager's office, along with a can of soup that wasn't too far past its expiration date and a big-ass bowie knife stuck in one of the desk drawers. He slid the knife in his belt and carried the lamp and soup back out into the main room. "All clear," he said.

"Good," Blue said, then held up a shiny silver handgun that Rick didn't recognize as one of theirs. He dropped the clip out of the gun, inspected it with a nod, then flicked the safety on. "Catch," he said, and he tossed the weapon at Rick, who caught it smoothly.

"Nice," Rick said, turning the gun in his hands. "We can always use more of these."

Blue nodded and leaned against the bar, watching Rick's movements without speaking. Rick walked over and put the lamp on the counter, and Blue pulled out a scuffed-up Zippo lighter and went to work getting the lamp set up.

"Found us some dinner, too." Rick held up the can. "Minestrone," he said, mispronouncing the word like mine-strohn.

Blue snorted with laughter. "Minestrone," he corrected, the corner of his mouth curving upward. "Damn, I'm from the sticks and I know that one."

Rick smiled back at him and tried the correct pronunciation, feeling stupidly proud of himself when Blue gave him a nod of approval. The flame of the lamp sputtered to life and Blue's eyes took on a deep, jewel-toned hue, cerulean and silver, and Rick was a little stunned by them, and not for the first time. He looked away quickly, comparing the warmth in Blue's eyes now to the hard, glittering chill in them when they'd first met, the way Blue had gotten up in Rick's face and spat angry words at him, the first and only time Blue hadn't trusted him fully with everything in his life.

“Open that can and I’ll make us some drinks,” Blue said after a moment, and Rick could feel the man’s eyes on him even as he busied himself with opening the soup. “Whatcha want?”

Rick flicked his eyes up to Blue but carefully didn’t let their gazes snag on each other’s. “Anything’s fine.”

“Ain’t got fruit juice but looks like I can make anything else. Pretty well stocked back here,” Blue said, leaning against the bar and bracing his weight on his elbows, his hair falling around his face a little in a way that made Rick want to reach up and push it back behind the man’s ears, and wasn’t that a terrifying thought? Blue smiled at him, a tiny curving of the lips that Rick wasn’t sure he would have even noticed six months ago. “So whatcha want, Rick?”

You, Rick thought, then blanched and sat back a little on his barstool. He shook his head to clear it and said, “Just some scotch or something, I guess.”

Blue frowned at him and stood back up. “That ain’t a challenge. Waste of my skills, if you ask me.” He pulled a couple of glasses out of a cabinet and wiped them clean as best he could with the cleanest bar rag he could find.

“Skills?” Rick asked.

Blue shrugged and turned his back to Rick, looking through the bottles on the shelf. Rick watched his shoulders as he reached up and took down a bottle of what was probably expensive whiskey back when money meant anything. “Tended bar for a while back in the day. Was decent at it.”

Rick imagined Blue in a clean shirt and jeans without holes in them, leaning over a bar like this and chatting with people. It was hard to picture, with how closed-off he seemed these days, but an image of it finally solidified in his mind and it was… interesting. To say the least. Rick cleared his throat. “I can see that.”

Blue turned back around and started pouring whiskey in a glass, then added some vermouth to the mix. He pushed the glass at Rick. “Sorry there ain’t no ice.”

Rick took the glass. “What’s this?” he asked, holding it up to the lamplight and inspecting it.

“Manhattan,” Blue said, and he shrugged, his shoulders sliding up and down like fingers on silk. “Figured you’d want a fancy-ass drink.” He poured one for himself, tipping the ratio more toward whiskey for his own than Rick’s, and leaned against the bar again.

Rick smiled at him and took a sip of his drink. “So. Bartender.”

“Yeah,” Blue said. He fished around in a drawer under the bar and found a couple of spoons that didn’t look too rusted, then handed one to Rick. Rick pushed the can of cold soup between them and they started eating directly out of it, alternating bites between them.

“How’d you like that?” Rick asked. He watched Blue’s throat as he swallowed the soup, then felt odd about it and stopped.

Blue gave a little snort of dismissal. “Fine. Paid the bills.” He took another sip of his drink. “Was pretty good at mixing drinks. Not so great at the conversation bit.”

“So you’re not going to ask me ‘why the long face’ or anything?” Rick grinned at him and Blue rolled his eyes.

“Like I don’t know why your face is whatever shape it is,” Blue answered. “We all live in each others’ assholes, man. Ain’t ever got to ask you what’s goin’ on with you.” He pushed his hair behind his ears, which unknotted something in Rick’s abdomen that had been tensed up since the hair fell loose around his face. “But hell, if it makes you feel better. Why the long face, pardner?”

Rick laughed at that, the sound coming out breathy and strained. “I don’t have a good answer for that. Feelin’ pretty good, actually. Although maybe that’s the Manhattan talking.”

Blue looked over at Rick’s mostly-full glass and raised an eyebrow. “After three sips? Damn, you’re a lightweight.”

Rick searched Blue’s eyes for signs of intoxication before realizing that locking eyes with Blue was a bad idea. “You’re not?”

“Nah,” Blue said, his eyes twinkling dangerously. “Fuck, you kidding me? You wouldn’t believe my alcohol tolerance, man.”

“Guess it comes with working in a bar,” Rick said, spooning out some more soup and letting himself chew the noodles and beans slowly to draw it out.

“Yeah, that an’ havin’ a brother and a daddy who were drunk more often than they was sober,” Blue answered, then frowned and pushed forward with the conversation like he was trying to run from what he’d said. “Worked in this dive joint. Worst place you can imagine, grimy as fuck. No matter how much you scrubbed the floors, they was still sticky like a fuckin’ movie theater, just all the time. Had to keep myself up on my tetanus shots, you know? Had a co-worker. Cute little blonde thing, way too good for a bar like that. She got all the good tips. Better tits than me, you know.” He picked up the bar rag and wiped the counter absently with it, lost in his story, and Rick was too floored by the fact that Blue was talking about his life to interrupt him.

“Tried to take her home once,” Blue said, staring at the wood of the counter. “Didn’t get very far with her, though. Just wasn’t feelin’ it. An’ then the bar got sold to this new guy who had this fucked-up idea of turning it into the county’s only gay bar. Hands hated that, man, told me to quit, but fuck if my tips didn’t go way the hell up the moment the place opened back up, and even Hands wasn’t gonna spit on extra money comin’ in, no matter who it came from.” He smirked to himself, keeping his eyes on the counter. “Then the girl quit, ‘cause nobody cared about her tits or her pretty little smile anymore, an’ there was this new guy. Fuckin’ asshole, man. Hated that fucker. But we got pretty close after a while. Hung out outside of work and shit. Went hunting together. Hands hated that too, ‘specially when he found out he was workin’ at a gay bar ‘cause it was his scene and not just for the tips. Told me to quit hangin’ out with the queer and find some girl to fuck.” Blue sighed. “Shoulda listened to him, man. That guy was… Jesus, he was such a fucker. Told me all sorts’a shit I shouldn’t’a had to put up with. But whatever. He was in Kansas City when it happened. Never heard if he made it or not. Kinda hope he did. But also kinda hope he stays in Kansas City if he did, too. Ain’t got no desire to see the fucker, not anymore. Got better friends now. Better family.” He stood up straight, pushing away from the bar, and looked away, clearing his throat. “Fuck, I’m sorry, man. Didn’t mean to talk your ear off like that.”

“Don’t apologize,” Rick said, a little too quickly. His head was spinning with the information Blue was giving him, and he wanted a little desperately to keep the floodgates open as long as he could. “So Hands wanted you to find some girl, huh?”

Blue made a pish sound. “Jackass kept bringin’ me chicks home, pushin’ ‘em in my face. Figured out I was into brunettes, started cyclin’ through eye colors. This here’s Mary, ain’t she a peach? I’m tellin’ you, man, it was torture. Fact that I didn’t ever screw any of ‘em didn’t clue him in to anything. Weren’t none of ‘em my type.”

“What’s your type, then?” Rick asked, leaning forward and not really knowing why he did it.

Blue watched Rick’s face for a moment before sagging his shoulders and leaning back down against the bar, elbows braced on the wood. “Well, for starters, ain’t interested in doin’ anybody my brother’s done first. So that knocked out pretty much all the girls he was showin’ me.” His eyes went back down to the wooden counter, and he picked at a loose splinter of wood with his dirty fingernails.

Rick had the distinct impression that he was missing something, something important, but the alcohol he’d been sipping throughout Blue’s story was making his brain maddeningly foggy so he couldn’t quite process what that would be.

“‘Sides,” Blue said after a beat of silence, “Kansas City told me all the time that I wasn’t pretty enough for somebody to want to keep lookin’ at my ugly mug for long. So I guess it was a waste of Hands’s time anyway, tryin’ to find me someone.” He stood up again, then hopped over the bar gate again and went over to a coat rack near the door. He pulled the jackets off of the hooks and tossed a couple to Rick. “Time to get some sleep, I guess.”

Rick tipped the soup can up to his mouth and swallowed the last of the broth while Blue was clearing off a space on the floor. He picked up the lamp and carried it over to Blue, then sat down on the floor beside him.

They’d done this before, spent the night together on overnight runs, and they didn’t even need to discuss it anymore, the whys of how they would sleep and the rules they would play by while they were lying side-by-side. Proximity was important, so that a whisper from one would wake the other if danger presented itself, and so they always slept facing each other but not touching. Usually Rick didn’t mind the closeness, the way that he could feel Blue’s heat radiating off of him even on cold nights, but tonight, after hearing so much unfiltered memory pouring out of the man, Rick’s skin felt strangely tight as he put out the lamp light and stretched out on the floor of the bar.

“Good night, Rick,” Blue said, rolling up one of the jackets and lying down on the floor beside him, shoving the jacket under his head as a pillow. He closed his eyes and shifted a bit until he was comfortable.

Rick looked at him for several seconds, then rolled up his own makeshift pillow and scooted just the tiniest bit closer. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, willing his brain to shut down and his heart to stop pounding. “Good night, Blue.”

//

Rick wakes up facing Lori, her hair feathered lightly over her pillow, and his gut twists at the sight of someone else beside him. He watches her sleep, thinking about how if he wanted to touch her he could reach out easy and cross the distance, lay his hand on her skin and leave it there. The distance between Rick and Blue while they were sleeping had always been harder to cross, and neither of them had ever really tried to cross it. But there had been times when they’d gravitated toward each other in their sleep, meaning nothing special by it, just coming closer together for warmth in the chilled air.

That night in the bar, Rick had woken up with their legs tangled together, Blue’s face close enough to his that he could feel the man’s breath ghosting over his face while he slept, and instead of feeling awkward he’d just felt safe, and even now Rick wonders what that means. What it had meant. And he wonders what it had meant that he hadn’t done anything to put distance between them again, had just fallen back asleep with his knee hooked around Blue’s and a smile on his face.

And more than that, he thinks about Blue’s eyes in the lamplight, the way Rick’s fingers had itched to touch his hair and push it gently back behind the man’s ears, the way he’d felt when the shot had rung out across the field and Blue had gone down, the scars on Blue’s back that had made Rick’s nerves sing with a rage that didn’t quite make sense at the time. Rick rolls over onto his back and stares at the ceiling, letting everything settle in, letting his brain and his gut work out what was happening.

I was in love with him, Rick thinks, and the air rushes out of his lungs and he struggles to pull it back in. But that’s not right either. It’s too… final. Too past-tense.

He is in love with Blue. And Blue doesn’t exist.

Quiet tears sting in the corners of his eyes, and after fighting them for a long time, Rick sags into the bed and lets them loose.

Chapter Text

“Can I say somethin’ and you promise not to wig out on me?”

Rick blinks and looks over at Shane, who’s sitting in the driver’s seat of the patrol car with his body twisted toward Rick and his wrist rested on the top of the steering wheel. “Sure.”

“You look like hell,” Shane says. “Are you sure you don’t need to take a few more days off? I’m sure the Chief would let you take a couple more weeks and then come back ready to go.”

Rick shakes his head. He looks down at the half-eaten candy bar in his lap, remembers a time when he’d gone back to his cell after a long day and found a box of Mike and Ikes on his pillow with a smashed-flat yellow gift bow stuck to it, Blue’s sandstone voice when he asked him about it later.

Figure it’s August, he’d said, looking down at the metal prison table and rubbing at his neck. You look like an August.

“So what’s up?” Shane asks, breaking into Rick’s thoughts. “Listen, man, if this is about last night…”

Rick snaps his eyes up to meet Shane’s, frowning when the other man averts his gaze. “Last night?”

“Me, you know, kissin’ Lori in front of you,” Shane says, biting his bottom lip. “I shouldn’t have done that, brother. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Rick pinches the bridge of his nose, closes his eyes. “I don’t care, Shane. I really don’t care. I’m happy for you. Kiss her all you want, just… not in front of Carl. Not yet.”

Shane is quiet for a few seconds, then dips his head and looks up at Rick. “So if it ain’t that… what’s up?”

“Just haven’t been sleeping very well,” Rick says, then he closes his eyes again and Blue is there, diamond-hard eyes glinting in the light coming through the shades in the little office in Atlanta, the first time they’d had a conversation without words, the first time that a nod had said everything that needed a voice. God, it had started that early, the connection between them, and Rick hadn’t noticed. He’d been such a fucking idiot, and now he’s going through all the times in his mind that it could have happened, that he could have reached for Blue and been met with lips and teeth and skin. It never even occurs to him that Blue might have pushed him away, that Blue might not have been feeling everything too, because he knows the man, deep down into his bones, and now that Rick has realized it, everything is just so fucking obvious. He wants to go back to sleep, to learn to lucid-dream so that he can take charge of the illusion and make his and Blue’s story into something with a happy ending. But if he could do that, he would never have any desire to wake up again, and he knows it.

“Fuck,” Rick says under his breath, squeezing his eyes harder shut.

“Man, you don’t look good,” Shane says, low and concerned. “Let me take you home.”

Rick takes a deep breath. “I… fuck. Look, Shane. I need to talk about this and there’s not anybody else but you. So I need you to be my best friend right now. And I need you to listen and not haul me off to a psych ward, okay?”

Shane narrows his eyes just slightly. “Sure, brother. You know you can talk to me about anything.”

Rick nods slowly. “The dream--”

“Ah, hell,” Shane interrupts. “This again?”

Rick stiffens and glares at him. “This is important. I… it’s killing me. I can’t go through this alone, Shane. It’s too hard. I need you, okay? Please. Just… just listen. Please.”

Shane stares at Rick for a few seconds, then sighs and nods. “Alright. Tell me.”

“I…” Rick trails off, then clears his throat and tries again. “I know you don’t understand it, but this dream… I keep telling you how real it felt, but you can’t even imagine it. Sometimes when I fall asleep I feel like it’s more real than this right here is. And it’s not just the part I’ve told you, about you and Lori dying. It’s more than that. It’s… it’s a whole life I led while I was asleep, you know? And I met people and I got to caring about them. Good people. They became my family and they’re gone now and I miss them, Shane. I fucking miss them. All of them, even the ones I thought were assholes. There was this one guy--I handcuffed him to a roof and lost the key, and he had to cut off his own hand to escape. God, he was a dick. Huge fucking racist misogynist asshole. But I even miss him.” He pauses, thinking of Hands, thinking of the way Blue’s skin had felt the night he had to put his brother down. “There were a lot of them. People I cared about. That guy, and his brother who was… just a hunting genius. Best man I ever met. And you and Lori and Carl… you were all there. And Carl turned into this incredible badass, a crack shot. You woulda been so proud of him, Shane. You were proud of him. And there were others. An old veterinarian who was our medical expert, his two daughters. An Asian kid who delivered pizzas, fell in love with one of the daughters. I trusted them with my life. They were all… you have to understand. I loved them. And whether they’re real or not, I’ve lost them. They’re gone. And I’m going through all of this feeling like I was in some tragedy when I woke up in that hospital, some mass disaster where my whole family died, and I can’t even be sad about it because the rest of you don’t understand what I’ve lost. The rest of you just hear the word dream and you think about lions with wings and the time you dreamed you were sixty feet tall and made of marshmallows, and it’s not the fucking same, Shane. It’s not.”

Shane just stares at him and doesn’t seem to have anything to say, and it pisses Rick off but he keeps talking. He’s not sure if he can really stop, now that someone is listening to him, even if Shane still doesn’t believe him.

“It’s not the same,” he says again, sighing and rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “There was one time when I sliced my hand open on a knife and the vet had to stitch it back together with a needle and thread, no painkillers. Jesus, I felt it. I felt it for days, every time I moved my hand. You don’t feel pain in dreams, right? And smell… I remember how everything smelled. Can you remember smelling things in dreams before?”

“No,” Shane says after it becomes clear that Rick is expecting an answer. “But Rick. What are you saying? That you think this really happened? Some dream you had while you were in a coma? Because brother, I went to see you at least every other day while you were in there. I can promise you that you didn’t go anywhere in those four months.”

Rick sighs heavily and puts a hand in his hair, pulling on it in frustration. “I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m saying that it felt real to me. And… God. I remember things. I remember learning things. Things I didn’t know before. Shane, I can play gin rummy now. I know the rules, and I didn’t before. I know how to set rabbit snares and I know the words to all these old Irish folk songs that I’d never heard before the coma. Hell, Shane, I know how to shoot a crossbow now. And you know how shit I was at that before.”

“Nearly put my eye out,” Shane says, a half-smile hovering at the edges of his mouth. “Nearly put your own eye out.”

“Yeah,” Rick says, encouraged by the fact that Shane’s actually listening to him. “Yeah. But I’m good at it now. I mean, not William Tell or anything, but good enough that I even got a smile out of Blue one time for it.” He pauses, catches the breath that the thought of Blue stole from him. “Blue… he was the hunter. The one with the asshole brother.”

Shane snorts. “What sort of name is Blue?”

The question makes Rick’s hand clench into a fist. “Wasn’t his name. I… don’t remember any names. Except you and Lori and Carl. And… and Carol.”

Shane raises an eyebrow. “Mrs. Turner was in your dream?”

“No, not Mrs. Turner. Carol. The wife, from Weathersby. Carol Peletier.” Rick takes a deep breath. “She was in my dream, Shane. And I’d never seen her before yesterday.”

The silence in the car is thick and sickening, like too-sweet cough syrup in Rick’s throat. Shane just stares at him for several seconds and Rick is torn between wanting to punch something and wanting to start just fucking sobbing right here in the patrol car, but neither of the options will make Shane stop looking at him like that, and so Rick just folds his hands on top of each other in his lap and stares at them, waiting on a response.

Finally, just before Rick starts to think he can’t breathe anymore, Shane speaks. “I’m taking you home, man.” Rick tries to protest, but Shane talks over him. “You ain’t feelin’ well. You need a few more days to get--”

“I swear to God, Shane, if you say the word settled…” Rick interrupts, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Shane snaps his mouth shut with an audible click of the teeth. “Call it what you want, man. But this ain’t healthy. You need to talk to somebody about this. Somebody professional. Somebody who can help.”

“I don’t want help,” Rick mumbles, his voice muffled by the hands that he still has on his face. “I just want to be sad. I want to miss him without anybody fucking questioning me about it. I want people to look at me and say they’re sorry for my goddamn loss and just leave it at that. I want to have someone give a shit that I’m fucking broken right now.”

“Hell, man, I give a shit. I do.” Shane bites his tongue for a second before continuing. “I want you to be okay, brother. But I don’t know if this is something you can get through by yourself.”

Rick scoffs, anger warring with his sadness, and bites his thumb as he looks out the windshield. “Well, looks like I don’t have a choice.”

“We can find you some help,” Shane offers, and Rick wants to hit him, wants to make it hurt.

“Nobody can help,” Rick bites back. “You think if you send me to a psychiatrist they’re going to let me go home when I’m claiming I had visions of the apocalypse and dreamed about killing my best friend in cold blood? When I’m telling them that I feel like almost everyone I love is dead now? When I say that I think I’m in love with somebody who only exists in my head? Jesus, Shane.” He rubs his eyes again. “They’ll have me in a padded cell before you can snap your fingers twice.”

Shane is quiet for just a beat, then he clears his throat. “Lori exists here too, man.”

“What?” Rick asks, lifting his eyes to Shane’s and blinking in confusion for a moment before he realizes what he’d said. “I wasn’t talking about Lori. You know I wasn’t.”

“You said you was in love with somebody,” Shane says, speaking slowly like Rick won’t understand him otherwise.

“Yeah, and it ain’t Lori,” Rick answers, and he knows he sounds like a dick but he just can’t bring himself to give a shit. “Brother, you know it’s not.”

There’s more silence, just as cloying and miserable as before. Shane clears his throat again and says, “If it ain’t her, then who?”

Rick remembers Blue’s fingers on his skin, moving his arms and hands into place on the crossbow, murmuring instructions low into his ear. If he’d just turned his head, he could have caught the man’s lips with his own, turned an archery lesson into something earthshattering, something that could have changed them both. But instead he’d just taken a deep breath and followed the instructions, and at the end of the day they actually had a rabbit to show for it. Even at the time, Rick had known that it wasn’t enough.

“I don’t know anybody’s name,” Rick finds himself saying. “I don’t know any of their names. I was in love with one of them and I can’t even tell you who because I don’t…” He breaks off, bites his wrist to keep it all in. Then, after a few seconds: “That makes all of this worse. If I just… if I just knew the name. It would make it easier to deal with.”

“Teresa,” Shane says after another moment filled with tense silence. “If you don’t know her name, might as well call her Teresa.”

Rick laughs, and he’s surprised that it’s almost a genuine one. At any rate, it snaps his thoughts away from Blue’s breath on his skin and gives him some space to calm his heartbeat, so instead of being angry with Shane for being flippant about this, he’s just grateful to the man for saving him from an emotional breakdown. They’ll talk about this again, he promises himself. But not today. Not now. He needs to find his center again first.

A car shoots past them and Shane glances at the radar. “Fucker going fifty in a twenty-five,” he mutters, and reaches up to flip on the sirens. “You up for a traffic stop?”

Rick nods, and Shane whips the car out and speeds after the other car. Rick stares out the window at the town going past and deliberately thinks frustrated thoughts about Greg Underwood and his stupid playground equipment until the knife loosens from his gut enough to breathe.

Chapter Text

It’s getting dark, the Georgia dusk falling over Rick’s backyard like a heavy velvet curtain, when Rick’s phone rings in his pocket. He puts down the shears he’s been using to try and tame the azalea bushes and answers the call from the station. “Grimes here.”

“Hi, Rick,” Traci says. “We had a call come in for you. She said she wouldn’t talk to anyone else, and she wants you specifically. Can you come down to the station and talk to her? She sounded pretty upset.”

Rick glances up at the house, sees the light on in Carl’s bedroom and Lori washing dishes at the sink through the kitchen window. “You can give her my cell if it’s an emergency.”

“She’s already hung up. Said she can’t have her phone ring,” Traci says. “We thought about tracing the call and sending an officer out to check on her, but we figured maybe you could get some information so we know what we’re walking into. She’s going to call back in half an hour, she said.”

Frowning, Rick puts a hand on his hip and looks at the ground. “She say who she was?”

“No,” Traci answers. “She wouldn’t tell me anything. Just that she needed to talk to you and it was important.”

Rick sighs. “Alright, I’ll be down as fast as I can.”

He changes quickly into his uniform and tells Lori he’s going to the precinct, giving her a warm kiss on the cheek that actually makes her smile slightly at him. Then he climbs in his car and starts heading for the station.

As he weaves his way through the residential streets, Rick watches the houses go by, remembering them burned out and empty, glass shattered in the yards and doors hanging open in the summer heat. This is better, he reminds himself for the hundredth time. The apocalypse isn’t where he wants to be, even if Blue is there. This is better. This is better. And he believes it, mostly, but it’s hard to think rationally when his blood is rushing through his veins fast enough to hear, when he’s got blue eyes and the graceful curve of the man’s neck resonating in his peripheral vision.

//

Rick closed the hatchback, frowning when it didn’t latch, and reached back inside to shove the box full of canned green beans back farther into the car. He slammed the door shut again, giving it a little shove to make sure it latched this time, and looked back toward the strip mall. He and Blue had gotten pretty lucky with the small grocery store and managed to find enough food to make this a very worthwhile trip, and after carrying it back to the car to load, Blue had disappeared into what looked like an electronics store, mumbling about wanting to find batteries.

He hadn’t been gone for very long, so Rick wasn’t worried about him. He walked around the car and leaned there, checking his gun for bullets even though he knew exactly how many he had. It had become habit to count things--bullets, cans of food, arrows in Blue’s quiver, people left in the group. Knowing how many of everything they had was critical, and they were low on batteries, especially since Rick was fairly certain that there was at least one unauthorized use of the group’s battery stash going on, if the buzzing sounds he heard coming from the lovebird’s side of the camp sometimes were what he thought they were. But he wouldn’t begrudge them that, he supposed. There was little enough to be happy about these days--they all had to find it where they could.

Blue stumbled out of the store and Rick took a concerned step forward, but the man looked more pissed off than injured, so Rick didn’t rush toward him to check for bites like part of him wanted to do.

“Son of a bitch ,” Blue said when he got closer. His eyes glittered angrily in the sunshine and his knuckles were white around the big hunting knife that was smeared with Walker gore. “Fucker got the jump on me. That ain’t happened in weeks .”

“You okay?” Rick asked, crossing his arms across his chest and letting his eyes do their customary scan over the hunter’s body to look for wounds.

“Yeah, fine,” Blue muttered, wiping off the hunting knife and slipping it back in his belt. “Just pissed is all. Ain’t gonna get taken out by some hipster douche wearin’ a name tag that says ‘Sebastian,’ for fuck’s sake.” He whipped the large messenger bag off, slipping the strap over his head, and shoved it at Rick. “Batteries. Found a couple of flashlights and a hair clipper thing, too. Figured some people could use it.” He gave Rick’s beard a pointed look and then walked around the car and slid into the passenger seat.

Rick rolled his eyes at the strip mall and put the messenger bag in the backseat before climbing in to the driver’s seat and closing the door. He put on his seatbelt, earning the expected soft scoff from Blue, and cranked the car.  

“Got somethin’ else too,” Blue said after they’d pulled out of the parking lot. He reached down to one of the big pockets in the cargo pants he was wearing and pulled out two dusty-looking CD cases. “Got your damn Rascal Flatts. An’ found somethin’ for me, too.” He pushed the button to eject the CD that was currently in the stereo and threw it carelessly in the back seat, then ripped open one of the CD cases and shoved the disc into the player.

“What’s this?” Rick said as the music started playing and he didn’t recognize the song.

Blue stared straight forward through the windshield and shrugged. “Pixies.”

Rick felt his own lips curve into a smile. “This your favorite? Not Charlie Daniels?”

“Shut up,” Blue snapped. “Least it ain’t fuckin’ Rascal Flatts . Jesus.”

Rick laughed at the utter grumpiness in the man’s voice, and he could have sworn that he saw the barest upward twitch at the corner of Blue’s mouth. Rick leaned back in the seat, hands loose on the steering wheel, and let himself enjoy the drive, soaking in the warm Georgia sunshine, the 80s alt-rock music pouring out of the speakers, and the deep, rumbling hum that started drifting out of Blue’s chest as they sped down the empty highway.

//

Rick tightens his hands on the steering wheel and takes a steadying breath. The more he thinks about Blue, the more broken he feels, and now is not the time to break, not when someone else needs him. He speeds up a bit and takes a shortcut to the station.

After he checks in with Traci and finds out that the woman hasn’t called back yet, Rick goes to his desk and sits down, his back straight and his muscles tense. He sits there for a while, stares at the smooth yellow laminate surface of the desk, runs his fingers along the metal around the edges, waits for the phone to ring.

When the phone finally rings, Rick is in the middle of mindlessly sorting the paperclips he found in his desk into piles by color and size, mostly to have something to do with his hands besides staring at them. He quickly rakes them back into the desk drawer and clears his throat before picking up the phone. "Officer Grimes here."

"Rick? Thank God."

It's Carol's voice, of course it is. Rick would know it anywhere. "Is this Mrs. Peletier?" he asks, trying to start the conversation off on the right foot.

“Yes,” she says, trembling and unsure. “Listen, I can’t talk long. But I need you to come take Ed away. Please .”

Rick leans forward and types Ed’s name into his desk computer quickly. Edward Peletier, released this morning, no charges filed. He frowns, wondering why in the world Shane wouldn’t have insisted on charging the guy with assault. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she says, then there’s a hitch of breath through the line. “I’m not fine. But… but it’s not about me. It’s like you said. I gotta protect my little girl.”

“Did he hurt her?” Rick asks, wrapping the coiled phone cord around his knuckles while he talks.

“No,” Carol whispers. “No, he hasn’t, but he will. If I let him he will. Come get him.” There’s a man’s voice from the background, and the phone goes dead.

Rick is on his feet before he even hangs up the phone. He stops at the front desk to tell Traci to let dispatch know he’s going out on a call, then calls Shane as he’s jogging out to the patrol car. “Coming to get you,” he says as soon as the call connects.

“Man, now ain’t a good time. I just sat down with dinner and Breaking Bad is on,” Shane says. “Rain check?”

“This isn’t a personal call,” Rick says. He slaps his seatbelt on and wheels out of the precinct parking lot. “Get your uniform on. I’ll be there in five.” He hangs up.

Shane is waiting in his front yard when Rick pulls up, and he's halfway in the car before it even rolls to a stop. Rick shoots him a glance and then pulls back out onto the street and flips on the siren as he heads for Weathersby Road.

"What's all this about?" Shane asks as Rick maneuvers the car through the intersection past a red light.

"Why'd we let Ed Peletier go?" Rick says, his teeth gritted and angry.

Shane rolls his head back against the headrest. "Couldn't hold him, man. The punch missed and the wife gave a statement that nothin' happened. And then his lawyer showed up talkin' about excessive force and it seemed like a lost cause."

Rick’s breath escapes his lips in a rush, angry and cold. “Excessive force?”

“Yeah, bullshit, I know,” Shane says, tapping his fingers on the car window as they drive. “But we didn’t have much evidence an’ Henderson said we had to let him go.”

“Well, now we’re on our way to hopefully save his wife,” Rick bites out. “If we’re not too late.”

Shane catches his tongue between his lips and nods, turning his head to watch the city speed past. Rick tightens his hands on the steering wheel and pushes through another intersection, thinking of the yellow bruises on Carol’s wrists and the quiver of her voice as she asked for his help.

He turns off the siren when they’re a few blocks away, and when they pull up to the house, they can hear yelling inside even from the street. Rick pulls his Python out of his belt and leaps from the car, rushing up the cracked sidewalk with Shane at his heels. He makes a hand motion at Shane and slides up to the side of the door, then looks over at Shane and hisses at him, waving his hand toward the window. Shane looks confused for a second, then understanding washes over his face and he creeps over to the window and looks inside, gun at the ready. He motions an “all clear” at Rick and Rick sighs and straightens up, knocking on the door. “Police,” he barks through the wood.

“Everything’s fine,” Ed bellows from inside. “You go on back to the station, officer.”

Rick spares a quick glance at Shane and gets a shake of the head in return. “‘Fraid I can’t do that, Ed. Not without seeing for myself that everything’s alright in there.”

There are sounds of banging, pots clanging and falling to the floor, and then Rick hears Ed’s voice low and angry: “Get in the bedroom and stay there.”

Rick holsters his gun and stands up straight but motions at Shane to keep his own weapon out and ready. Shane seems to understand this time and nods. A couple of seconds pass, then Ed yanks the door open and glares at Rick.

“Ain’t nothin’ happening here,” he growls. “Just a family argument that ain’t none of your concern. Now get the hell off of my property before I report you for harassment.”

Rick gives Ed his best I’m an officer of the law stare and keeps his eyes locked on Ed’s. “I need to see your wife and your daughter. To verify that they’re safe. And then I’ll leave if there’s nothing going on.”

Ed sneers at him. “You got a warrant?”

“I got probable cause,” Rick says back, easy as water. “I’m well within my duty as an officer to insist on seeing Mrs. Peletier and your daughter before I leave the premises.”

“My wife had an accident,” Ed grits out. “Bitch is clumsy, always trippin’ over things. This time she fell with a knife in her hand, cut her face on it. She’ll tell you that’s what happened.”

“Alright,” Rick says, keeping his voice and his eyes calm even though part of him, the wilder apocalypse version of himself, wants to gut the man in front of him for laying a hand on a member of Rick’s family. “Bring her out here and let her tell me that, then.”

Carol ,” Ed barks without turning around. “Come tell this fine officer how clumsy you are.”

Carol inches out of the bedroom and Rick digs his nails into the palms of his hands. The bruise on her cheek from the other day is ugly and greenish-yellow and that’s reason enough for his blood pressure to spike, but the red mark on her neck and the large cut on her jaw that’s trickling a line of crimson down her throat nearly sends Rick over the edge.

When she doesn’t immediately respond, Ed turns his head to look over his shoulder at her. “Tell him about how you cut yourself when you was choppin’ tomatoes.”

Carol opens her mouth, her eyes flicking from Ed to Rick and back. “I…” she says, then swallows hard. “I cut myself with the kitchen knife. He’s right,” she says, softly, and Rick sees Shane’s exasperated head-roll out of the corner of his eye.

“She’s lying,” says a small, lilting voice, and Sophia pokes her head out into the living room from a hallway. “He’s hurting her. Help her .”

Ed whirls around and takes a step toward the little girl, and Rick draws his gun and tenses up his muscles in preparation to spring. Carol rushes forward and grabs Sophia’s shoulders. “Go out the back door,” she murmurs to the girl. “Run to Mrs. Grady’s house, okay? And stay there. Go.”

Sophia nods and runs for the back door, slamming it behind her. Ed is already most of the way to Carol, and she stands up straight. “You can do what you want to me, but don’t you dare touch her,” she tells him, quiet but firm, and for a second, Rick sees the steel-plated willpower of the woman from the dream. She meets Ed’s eyes and doesn’t even flinch when he balls his hands into fists and hits her across the face.

Rick’s vision goes cloudy for a second and he’s yelling before his brain even recognizes the words as his own. “On your knees, ” he demands, feeling the veins in his neck start to stand out against the tension. “Hands where I can see them.” He stalks forward, his Python at the ready, and makes it to Ed just as the man’s body relaxes with defeat. “On your knees, I said,” he hisses, low and dangerous, and it’s not until Ed is on the ground and Shane steps forward and slaps handcuffs on the man that he can even breathe again.

Carol takes two steps backwards, one arm crossed protectively over her chest and the other hand clutched to her mouth. Rick looks up at her and holds up a hand toward her.

“You alright?” he asks, and she nods, but there are tears pouring out of the corners of her eyes. Shane is reciting Ed’s rights to him, a little more angrily than strictly necessary, but at least he’s holstered his gun and frankly Rick thinks that Shane is actually more stable than he is at the moment, so he lets him drag Ed to his feet and lead him out to the police car.

Rick walks over to Carol, who’s really crying now, her shoulders shaking with it. “Let me see the cut,” he says gently. “See if we need to call an ambulance.”

“I’m fine,” she says, but she drops her hand so Rick can see the wound. It’s long and there’s still blood oozing out of it, but it doesn’t seem to be too deep and Rick doubts it will need stitches. The place where Ed hit her is bright red but already deepening into a bruise.

“Don’t worry,” Rick tells her. “Everything’s going to be okay.” He puts a hand on her shoulder and she gives him a tiny, sad little smile and nods. Rick nods back and pats her shoulder before dropping his hand. “Why don’t you let me get you a glass of water while Shane gets someone to go pick Sophia up from the neighbor’s?”

Carol nods again and Rick steers her into the kitchen and sits her down in a chair. He pulls a glass out of the dish drainer and fills it with water, then hands it to her. She turns the glass around in her hands for a long time, and Rick runs a hand through his hair and leans against the kitchen counter. He wants to tell her that she’s doing the right thing, to reassure her that Ed is an utter asshole, that she’s giving herself and Sophia a better life by turning him in. But he remembers his training and knows what he can say and what he can’t say in this situation, so he closes his mouth and hopes that she can see everything in his eyes and in the weight of his hand on her shoulder.

“Can I ask you something?” Carol says, and doesn’t pause to let Rick answer. “How did you know those things about me? About… what I wished. What I prayed. The things you knew. How did you know?”

Rick hesitates and covers up the pause by turning around to look at Shane, who’s on the line with dispatch requesting a social worker to come get Sophia and bring her back to her mother. Part of him wants to give her a bullshit answer, another you just seem familiar so that Carol won’t think he’s crazy and kick him out of her house. But part of him needs her to understand, to know why he needs her and Sophia in his life, to believe him on some level. So he lets out a long sigh and looks back at her. “I don’t know if you’ll believe how I know these things.”

She searches his face, her eyes slightly narrowed in thought. “You’re gonna tell me you’re psychic?”

“No,” Rick says, then hesitates, thinking about it. “Well, not exactly. Sort of.” He takes a deep breath. “I was shot, and I was in a coma for several months. And while I was asleep, I had a dream. A really long, detailed dream, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It felt more like real life than a dream, even one of those incredibly vivid ones we all have sometimes.” Carol is still looking at him with more interest than disbelief, which Rick finds encouraging. He continues. “You were in it. You and Ed and Sophia. And I’d never seen you before I came here the other day. So I dreamed about you before I even met you. And in the dream… you told me all those things. Not all at once. Some of it came after we’d known each other for a while, after you trusted me. Some of it didn’t even come from you, it just came from people you’d talked to who talked to me later about it.” He reaches up and runs a hand across his mouth, then figures he might as well put out his standard disclaimer. “I know how crazy that sounds, but it’s true.”

Carol’s eyes narrow just slightly, but the motion is more calculating than angry. “There’s no way you could have known… that thing that Ed said about Sophia. I never told anybody that. Nobody overheard it. Only people who know about it are me and Ed. And… and you, somehow.”

Rick fights back a surge of hope. Just because they’re real doesn’t mean anyone else is , he tells himself sternly, willing his blood to stop racing. “It’s because you told me. Or… you told Blue.” Rick wipes his hand over his mouth again. “One of the others in the dream. A hunter. You and he were pretty close.”

Carol snorts at that. “Me, having a man for a friend. Imagine that.”

“Ed was gone,” Rick tells her. “Ed was gone and you were so much happier without him.” He doesn’t tell her about Sophia or Cherokee roses. No need to put heartbreak where there’s already so much she already has to deal with.

It’s a long time before she speaks again. “I trust you,” she murmurs at last. “I don’t know why, but I trust you.”

Rick squeezes her shoulder. “Maybe it’s because part of you remembers me,” he says, more wishful thinking than real belief.

“I wish I did,” she says quietly. “You look like you need someone to.” She stands up straighter, squares her shoulders, and takes a deep breath. “But first things first, I guess. What do you need from me? To… put him away.”

Rick swallows his disappointment at the change in conversation, but he reminds himself that he’s not here about the dream--he’s here to save Carol. Still, he lets out a long breath before replying. “We’ll need a statement and some pictures. We’ll get those in a few minutes. And then we’ll get you all the information you need about what happens next.”

“I can do that.” She squares her shoulders and looks up, meeting Rick’s eyes with determination shining in her own. “I can do that.”

Rick keeps his eyes on hers for a few seconds, willing something to shift in them and let recognition in, but nothing happens. He finally nods and takes a notepad out of his pocket. “I’m not supposed to do this,” he says as he writes down his personal cell phone number and hands it to her, “but you call me if you need anything. Anything , you understand? I want to help.”

“Thank you,” she says. She gives Rick a soft, tentative smile. “Thank you for what you’ve done for me and my girl.”

“It was no trouble,” Rick says, and he’s saved from having to decide what to say next by the arrival of a medical team to check Carol’s wounds. He steps back and lets them work, then forces himself to walk back out to the squad car to call in the rest of the report.

Chapter Text

Ed Peletier’s lawyer shows up at the police station again the next day, but despite her best efforts, Ed remains in custody. Rick pushes through a restraining order, though, just in case, and makes sure that a case worker goes by immediately to help Carol with the logistics of going through a hearing and legal proceedings. He tries to call her once, but the conversation goes nowhere--he asks if she and Sophia are okay, she says they are, and then she excuses herself and hangs up.

But she’s had a tough few days, Rick reasons, and now that she and her daughter are safe he really has no excuse to keep bothering them. And besides… she doesn’t remember him. Surely if there was something to this dream, something real about it, she would remember too.

Rick sighs and drops his keys in the ceramic dish by the door, then hangs his deputy’s hat on the hook on the wall. He stands there for a few seconds, staring at the floor and trying not to think of prison cells and barn doors, and then Lori walks out of the kitchen and smiles at him.

“Welcome home,” she says, and she holds out an envelope. “Got you something.”

Rick wrinkles his brow and takes the envelope. “What’s this?” he asks as he opens the flap and pulls out a piece of paper. He unfolds it and looks at the information printed on it.

“I talked to Myra,” Lori says, looking at the paper. “You know--she owns the dry cleaner’s on 5th Street? Anyway, her brother has season tickets for the Braves. He’s a lawyer or something, I don’t know. But he can’t go to the game this weekend. So his seats are free. So I thought… maybe you can go with Carl and Shane after all.”

Rick looks at the paper, notes the open seating and the tickets will be available at Will Call information, and his voice wavers with gratitude when he leans forward, pressing his lips to her forehead, and whispers “thank you” against her skin.

Lori smiles when he pulls away and pushes her hair back behind her ears. “Anyway… I’m on my way to take Carl’s books back to the library. Will you be okay here by yourself?”

Rick sighs and nods. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Gotta finish with the azaleas anyway.”

Lori takes a step forward and gives him a light, chaste kiss on the corner of his mouth. “I’ll be back soon.” Rick watches her go, checks to make sure she’s putting on her seatbelt, and then changes into his regular clothes and heads outside with his iPod and his garden shears to tackle the yard work. Shane may have kept the lawn mowed, but the man was shit at other yard work and it’s obvious that the bushes haven’t been trimmed and the flower beds haven’t been mulched for the months that Rick had been in his coma. It gives him something to do, though, so Rick hasn’t complained too much about it.

His iPod seems to be in a very down-tempo mood, if the songs it’s shuffling to are any indication. Rick takes it out of his pocket several times and switches it to more upbeat songs, but it keeps randomly pulling up slower music. Eventually, he just gives up and listens to the love songs, trying not to think of Blue but failing miserably.

He fell in love with Lori when he was fifteen, and that’s been it. And honestly, he’s not even sure if what had happened back then had really been love, at least at the beginning. He was fifteen and she was pretty, and to a hormonal high school boy, that had been enough. But with Blue… god, it had happened so slowly, like the changing of the seasons, and he hates himself for not figuring it out sooner. For not acting on it. For not just telling the man that he’d become Rick’s whole world when nobody was looking, least of all Rick himself.

Rick snips at an azalea branch, thinking of Blue’s strong hands and the way he’d looked at Rick across campfires, eyes glittering with something that Rick still can’t define even now. “Henry,” Rick murmurs, waiting to see if the name would snap into place like Judith, like Sophia. “Ethan,” he says after a moment, snipping another branch. “Tim. Brian. Mark.” He sighs heavily, snaps the shears shut with more force after each name does nothing for his memories. “Andy. Vince. Paul.” He growls and throws the shears down, then brings the heels of his palms up to his eyes and grinds them in there.

Fuck,” he gasps out, his stomach aching around the empty spot where a name should be. “Fuck, Blue. I just need to know your name.” He slides down to his knees and then twists so he’s sitting on the ground with his back to the azaleas, letting the shade of the bushes cool down his burning cheeks, and he yanks the headphones out of his ears and lets them fall to the grass.

He’s never kissed a man before, never even thought about it. Hell, he hasn’t even kissed another girl since Lori, not unless he counts the stage kiss from some play he’d been in when he’d been forced into theater club during his senior year of high school. And before Lori there had been only one other girl, and those kisses had been fumbling, relatively chaste ones at a couple of parties while the parent chaperones weren’t paying attention. So Rick only has three names on his list of previous kisses, and he has a feeling that kissing Blue wouldn’t have been like any of those others.

Kissing Blue would be like the sky just seconds before an electrical storm, charged and breathless and a little dangerous, and Rick gives himself over to imagining it--the man’s lips dry and parted against his own, the bow-calloused hands on Rick’s neck, the hitch of breath right before diving in. The taste of salt, of sweat, the saccharine-sweet flavor of honeysuckle on Blue’s tongue. The way the hands on his neck would have slid around into his hair while Rick’s own hands twisted in the fabric of the archer’s worn shirt, their bodies slotting together like they’d been carved from the same block of sandstone.

Rick wonders what the words “I love you” would sound like in Blue’s deep baritone. It occurs to him that it might sound a lot like “You’re family too.”

“Fuck,” he says again. He pulls his knees up to his chest and wraps his arms around his legs, resting his forehead against his kneecap. “Fuck, Blue, I fucking need you here. I can’t--” He cuts off with a gasp, biting his lip to hold everything in. “I can’t do this without you. Please, just… come back to me. God, I fucking… shit. I need you. I love you. Please, Blue…” He pulls his legs in tighter to his body and bites hard on his lip until he tastes blood, letting himself ride out the sensation of everything falling apart around him.

And that’s how Lori finds him twenty minutes later, still curled into himself in the shade of the azalea bushes. His eyes are red but his cheeks are dry, and she sits down beside him and puts an arm around his shoulders.

“Sweetie,” she says softly. “Let me set you up an appointment with Kathy. I think she could really help.”

Rick lifts his head off of his knees but doesn’t look at her, instead staring off into the yard, off into the trees past the back fence. “I don’t want to talk to a therapist.”

“Shane… told me,” Lori says after a moment. “He told me about these people in your dream. About how you feel like you lost them.”

Rick focuses his eyes on a red-bellied woodpecker creeping up one of the trees. “Yeah.”

“Is that what this is about?” she asks, her voice butter-soft and laced with false sympathy.

He runs a hand over his mouth, leaving the fingers over his lips for a few seconds before speaking. “You don’t understand.”

“I know it’s hard,” she says, rubbing her hand in a short up-and-down motion on his back. “But honey, they’re not… real people.”

“You don’t understand,” Rick murmurs again. “You don’t. None of you do.”

“Kathy--”

“Fuck Kathy,” Rick says, then feels bad about it and sighs. “Sorry. I just mean… I don’t want to talk about it. Not to anyone who’s not going to try and understand.”

Lori slowly pulls her hand back. “Then what do you want me to do?”

Rick starts shaking his head and then can’t seem to stop. “Just… just let me alone. For a while. I’ll be inside in a few minutes.”

Lori stands up carefully and then puts a hand on his head. “Okay. Call me if you need anything.”

Rick nods, and Lori walks back in the house, and Rick tries to shake the feeling that Blue would have known exactly what he needed.

//

By dinnertime, Rick has managed to pull himself together. Carl is over the moon at the idea that he’ll get to go to the Braves game with both Rick and Shane, and most of the meal is taken up with Carl’s excited monologuing and rapid-fire questions about batting averages and rankings that Rick has no idea how to answer since he hasn’t exactly been keeping up with the details of baseball for the last four months. Eventually, he excuses the boy from the table and tells him to go call Shane and ask about stats and fantasy teams, and Carl nearly walks on air as he scrambles over to the phone.

Lori stands up and starts clearing the table, and Rick gets up to help her. “I’m sorry about earlier,” Rick says softly as he picks up the silverware from each plate.

Lori shrugs with one shoulder and concentrates on scraping Carl’s leftover corn onto an empty plate. “You were upset.”

“I shouldn’t have been upset with you, though,” Rick murmurs, glancing out at Carl to make sure the boy is involved in his conversation and not listening to them. “It’s not fair to you for me to take this out on you.”

“Shane says you’re in love with someone else,” Lori says, dropping a fork onto one of the plates with a little more force than necessary. “Is that why you’re pushing me toward him?”

Rick’s eyebrows shoot up. “No,” he says. “Lori, it’s not like that.” He holds a hand out at her, palm vertical and facing her.

“I don’t understand.” She picks up a plate, looks at it, and puts it back down on the table. “I don’t understand what’s going on with you, Rick. I want to help. Shane wants to help. But you keep saying these things and we just…” She takes a deep breath, staring at the tablecloth, and when she speaks the words are measured, careful. “We want to help you. But you have to let us.”

Rick sighs, takes the stack of dishes from her, and carries them into the kitchen. Lori follows him, carrying the pitcher of iced tea from the table. Rick puts the dishes in the sink and turns to look at her. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell me what’s going on,” she says. She puts the pitcher down on the counter and crosses her arms, looking at him with her characteristic talk to me expression, all raised eyebrows and bottomless eyes.

Rick pinches the bridge of his nose and squeezes his eyes shut. “I don’t… want to talk about it.”

“Well, you apparently wanted to talk to Shane about it,” Lori says, the barest hint of fire in her tone. “So talk to me, too. I’m still your wife. I deserve to know what’s going through your head.”

The clock on the counter is a commemorative one with an engraved base that Rick had gotten for his tenth anniversary on the force, and Rick watches the second hand tick around it while he works through what to say. “What did Shane tell you?”

Lori uncrosses her arms and rolls her head in exasperation. “That you had some dream where he and I died. That you killed him. And that there were all these people in the dream that you miss now. And that you were in love with one of them and it wasn’t me.”

“You’re in love with someone else, too,” Rick says quietly, trying to infuse his voice with logic and reason instead of accusation. “And I don’t fault you for that. I don’t. You and Shane needed each other. You still need each other. That’s why I want you to stay together. It’s why I keep telling you that.”

Lori shakes her head hard, working her jaw. “That’s not what this is about, Rick. Me and Shane… that’s a whole different issue and you’re trying to change the subject. The problem is that…” She sighs, softens her voice, gives him wide, concerned eyes. “The problem is that you’re not okay, Rick. We can all see you’re not okay. You’re pining for dreams. For things that aren’t part of real life. And that’s just not healthy, sweetheart. You need to let go. You need to talk to someone about it. Someone professional.”

The air is heavy in the room and Rick doesn’t want to talk anymore. He crosses his arms across his stomach like the motion can hold everything in. “There’s no use talkin’ about it. Not if they’re just going to do what you just did and tell me they’re not real.”

“But Rick, they’re not real,” Lori tells him. “They’re not, and you have to accept that.”

“I don’t want to,” he says, speaking around the pain in his throat. “I…” He trails off, swallows, tries again. “I know they’re not real, Lori. I do. I know that. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less.” He laughs then, bitterly and without any trace of humor. “You know, when you died in the dream I still saw you everywhere. Everybody said I was crazy, that I’d lost my mind with grief over you. So maybe that’s just what I’m built for. Being crazy and loving people who don’t exist.”

“You can’t love someone who doesn’t exist, Rick.” Lori takes a step forward and tries to touch Rick’s face, but he jerks his head away from her touch. “You’re just confused. You just need time. Help. From someone who knows what to tell you to do.”

Rick ignores the repeated mention of Kathy the therapist and shakes his head. “You don’t understand,” he says again, feeling like his life is stuck on a repeating loop of you don’t understand and when you’re settled and I miss him. He looks past Lori out the kitchen window and has a wild urge to escape, to run as fast as his coma-weakened body would allow, to disappear into the woods and use his new knowledge of rabbit snares and edible plants to just exist on his own terms. He thinks of the farmer at the fence, asking him how much longer he needs before he can be okay, and the answer is the same now as it was then. I don’t know.

“Just try it, Rick,” Lori says. “Just let me set you up a couple of appointments. If you go talk to her and it doesn’t feel like it’s helping, we’ll try something else. But give it a chance.”

Rick leans back against the counter, grips it in his hands, hangs his head. Blue is there in his thoughts and he feels like he’s going crazy again, like everything in his life is grains of sand in a tornado and he can’t grab hold of enough of it to make anything make sense anymore. I don’t want to forget him, he thinks, the words like knives in his mind. Let me go crazy if that’s what it takes. He doesn’t realize that he’s shaking his head hard until Lori whispers his name, asks if he’s okay.

“No,” he says, in answer to both her questions. His throat is dry, parching the words as they come out, and he’s barely even thinking about what he’s saying because his thoughts are filled with Pixies lyrics and the way Blue sounds when he sleeps. “No. I won’t lose him like that. I won’t let Kathy take him away from me.”

Lori blinks and then opens her eyes wider than he’s ever seen them. “Him.”

Rick curses under his breath. “Don’t do this. I can’t do this right now, Lori.”

“You’re gay?” she whispers.

“No,” he says, autopilot taking over, then sighs. “I don’t know. Not… completely. Not even mostly. It’s just…” He wipes his hand all the way down his face, lingering on his mouth before dropping it to his side. “It’s just him, I think.”

“Rick, he’s not real,” Lori says, almost a hiss this time. “He’s a man and he’s not real.”

“He’s real to me.” Rick looks up at her without lifting his head.

Lori throws her hands up and rolls her eyes. “You’re insane.”

Rick laughs bitterly. “Maybe I am. Jesus.”

Lori opens her mouth to say something else, but Rick’s phone rings in his pocket. He pulls it out and sees an unknown number there. Lori clamps her mouth shut and crosses her arms hard across her chest as Rick answers. “Hello?”

“Rick? It’s Carol Peletier.” There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

Rick promises Carol that he’ll be over as soon as he can, then he hangs up and puts the phone back in his pocket, not meeting Lori’s eyes. “I’m going out for a while,” he says, staring at the floor. “I know you think I’m crazy, but can you not tell Shane about… him?”

“About your gay dream fling?” she grits out.

“Don’t do this,” Rick says quietly. “Please, just let it go. And don’t tell Shane. I don’t know… how he’d react to that.”

Lori is silent for so long that Rick finally looks up at her. She nods curtly. “Alright. But we’re not done talking about this, Rick.”

Rick lets out a sigh, both of relief that she won’t tell Shane and of frustration that they have to keep talking about Blue like Rick should be ashamed of him. But he nods back and pushes away from the counter. “I’ll be back soon.”

//

“Always wanted to do this,” Blue said.

Rick jumped just a bit at the sudden sound. They were sitting on a creek bank waiting on the fish they’d caught to finish cooking on the little fire Blue had set up, and they hadn’t spoken out loud to each other for over an hour. “Do what?”

“This,” Blue said, motioning at the world at large. “Just take my bow and my knife and head off into the wilderness. Make it on my own. Not have to worry about shit like taxes and electric bills and mowing the fucking grass. Just… this. Me and the woods.”

Rick picked up a twig and started drawing spirals in the sand in front of him. “You coulda done it.”

Blue shrugged. “Tried it a couple times. First time, I was fifteen. Didn’t have the bow yet, so I just took a big bowie knife and some wire to make snares.”

“How did it go?” Rick asked. He finished a spiral and then wrote his name next to it, wondering how long it would be before he forgot how to hold a pen in his hand.

“I was doin’ fine,” Blue said. He poked a stick at the fish and then sat back again. “Was better eatin’ than I had at home, really. But I was still in school and I kept tryin’ to go to class, walkin’ up out of the woods every morning, and one day my daddy was there to get me.” He shrugged. “Didn’t try it again for a while.”

Rick thought of the scars on Blue’s skin and ground his teeth for a few seconds before speaking. “Well, it’s obvious you’re good at this stuff,” he said, hoping that was an acceptable response.

Blue seemed to think so. “RV said Shane was made for this world. Maybe I was, too.”

Rick scoffed at that, thinking of Shane’s eyes, how blindingly white they’d been around the edges there at the end. It still hurt to think of Shane, down in his core, but at least now he could do it with some level of sanity instead of the crazed grief that he’d felt at first. “It’s totally different, though. He was made for this because he was brutal and angry. You, though. You’re good in this world because you’ve got the skills to make it on your own.”

Blue poked the fish again and then pulled it out of the fire, plopping it down on a big magnolia leaf and handing it over to Rick. “Ain’t interested in makin’ it on my own anymore.”

Rick took the fish and pinched off a bite. “You don’t ever have to, you know. You’re part of the group and we won’t leave you behind.”

Blue grunted and picked up the backpack they’d kept their hunting supplies in. “Good thing I’m with you. Can’t none of you hunt for shit.”

Rick laughed and reached over to clap Blue on the shoulder. When his hand made contact, Blue jumped and looked over at him with wide eyes.

Rick pulled his hand away quickly. “Sorry. Forgot.”

Blue took a deep breath. “‘S okay,” he said after a moment. “You can touch me if you want. Trust you not to…” He looked away, didn’t finish his sentence. Then he pulled a bag of dried apple slices out of the backpack and handed it to Rick. “Trust you, ‘s what I meant.”

“Thanks,” Rick said, taking the bag of apples and pulling out a few slices for himself before handing it back. “I trust you, too.”

Blue looked down at his own leaf of fish. “I ain’t really good enough for you. For none’a y’all.”

“Blue--”

“Never mind,” Blue interrupted. “Shouldn’t’a said that. Eat your fish.”

Rick opened his mouth to speak again, then caught sight of the hard edge in Blue’s eyes and thought better of it. He pinched off another piece of fish and chewed it slowly, listening to the sounds of songbirds and bullfrogs, watching Blue’s long fingers as they trailed absently along in the sand.

//

Carol is sitting on her porch steps when Rick gets there. The bruises on her face look even worse now, the blues and purples darkening and the greens and yellows getting more of a sickly tone to them, but the medical team that had examined her had said she wouldn’t have any lasting damage, so Rick steels himself against the rainbow of colors on her skin and walks up to her.

“Hey, Carol,” he says softly, waiting to see if she’s going to correct him again to her married name. She doesn’t, but she also doesn’t respond for a long time. Rick looks at her carefully, noticing that her eyes are red-rimmed and there are smears of moisture at the edges of her cheeks like she’s been wiping tears back.

Finally, she flicks her eyes up to him before looking back down at the grass. “Sit down,” she murmurs. “We got a lot to talk about.”

Rick nods and sits down beside her on the steps, carefully choosing a distance that’s far enough away from her to keep her from being afraid of him while still being family-intimate, close enough to put an arm around her if she needs it. “What’s going on?” he asks.

She shakes her head hard, putting a hand over her mouth. “Sophia’s at my brother’s,” she says. “I didn’t want her here in case Ed…” She trails off.

“He won’t come back,” Rick says. “We’re making sure of it. Don’t you worry about him.”

Carol nods, dropping her hand and letting it fall onto her knee. “I know. I trust you.” She takes a deep breath. “But I want her back here. To hold on to her. I called her this morning at school. Made them take her out of her class so I could hear her little voice.” She takes another breath, sits up straight and stares off into the yard. “Because I spent all night dreaming that she died all by herself in the woods. And you shot her.”

It’s dusk, more dark than light, but there’s still a line of brilliant orange on the horizon. Rick focuses on that, on color, on reality, and his stomach drops so far that he’s sure he’ll have to dig under the porch to find it. Several seconds pass before he starts to feel discomfort in his chest and realizes he’s not breathing, and that combined with the stuttering, staccato beat of his heart makes him dip his head, spread his knees apart so he can put it between them and let it hang there while he concentrates on keeping himself conscious.

“You’re right,” she’s saying. “Dreaming like this… it’s nothing like regular dreaming. It’s…” She trails off again. “I don’t know what you saw in your own dream, but mine was full of zombies. Only we never called them that. We called them--”

“Walkers,” Rick interrupts. He slowly pulls his head up and puts it in his hands. “We called them Walkers.” He pulls in a breath, tries not to be sick over the rolling of conflicting emotions in his stomach.

Carol narrows her eyes. “How did you know that?”

“Because it’s the same dream,” Rick says, more breath than sound. “We had the same dream.”

The cicadas and crickets seem somehow both muffled and louder than normal while Rick carefully lines out his breathing and Carol loses control of her own.

“It’s not the same dream,” Carol says after a few seconds. “It can’t be. I was myself. People called me Carol. So it’s not the same, unless you were dreaming you were me.” She swallows. “Right?”

“Did you dream all of it?” Rick asks. His mouth is dry and he can’t remember how to fix that. “All of the months of it?”

“No,” Carol says. She puts her hands on the sides of her neck and dips her head. “I dreamed… a few things. Mostly about taking over a prison. I almost shot you from a guard tower. Accidentally, of course, but still. But I knew all the things that had happened before. Like… Sophia. Like Ed.” She pauses, takes another deep breath. “Is it the same?”

“Yeah,” Rick answers. He pinches the bridge of his nose and closes his eyes. “I was myself. You nearly shot me. But you didn’t, so it was fine.”

Carol lifts her head and looks over at Rick. “Prove it to me. Tell me something I haven’t told you. About taking over the prison.”

Rick sighs and looks up at the darkening sky. There are stars there, just beginning to peek out, and he remembers everything. “You and Blue were up in the same tower. He shot one of the Walkers with his crossbow when it was coming at me. And the farmer and my son, Carl, were up in a tower too. Everybody was helping except Lori, because she was pregnant.”

Carol’s eyes are wide when Rick looks back down at her. “You remember names?” she asks, quietly, and she looks stunned, like Rick figures he must have looked when he heard the name Judith for the first time since the dream.

“Only the ones of people I know from real life,” he says. “My wife, Lori. Our son Carl. My partner Shane. And now you and Sophia, and the baby. Judith.” He quickly clamps down on a wild hope that she will know Blue, will be able to tell Rick a name for him. None of this means anything, he tells himself. Just because Carol and Sophia are real doesn’t mean anyone else is. Just because she’s had the dream doesn’t mean it’s real.

“I heard all the names while I was asleep. I know I did,” she says, shaking her head like she’s trying to dislodge memories. “But I couldn’t remember any of them when I woke up. Just mine and Sophia’s. Ed’s. And yours and Shane’s.” She pauses. “But now that I’m thinking back on it, I can hear Lori and Carl in there, too. Now that you’ve said them, it’s like the words unlocked, you know?”

“I know,” he breathes. “That’s how I felt when I heard your name. When I saw you standing here. That’s why… I acted the way I did.” Rick closes his eyes, thinks of all the times an arrowhead had appeared in the forehead of a Walker that had gotten too close to him. “So you don’t know… him,” he says, and he doesn’t look at her. “The hunter. With the crossbow.”

“No,” she says. “Not… in real life, anyway. I knew him pretty well then. Blue, you said?” She frowns, tilting her head to think. “That doesn’t sound right.”

“It’s not,” Rick mumbles, then clears his throat and speaks louder. “Had to call him somethin’, though. So I called him Blue. And then Atlanta and Michigan, for where they were from. The farmer. I’d been calling his girls Birdy and Spitfire, and then there was Katana, too. Blue’s brother Hands. A few others.”

Carol nods slowly. “I don’t know any of them. Not in real life. Not except my family and you.” She pauses again. “Shane is… better now.”

“Shane’s a good man,” Rick says, nodding firmly. “He’s not like he was, there at the end. And I’ll never let him get like that again.”

Carol takes a deep breath and leans back, looking up at the stars that are just starting to appear in the sky. “I miss him,” she says quietly. “Not Shane. Blue. He was a good man. Probably the best friend I’ve ever had.”

He remembers asking Blue, once, if he and Carol had ever slept together. Blue had made a pish sound and an excuse to leave the room. Rick had never known what sort of answer that was. “Were you and Blue…” He lets his voice trail off, not particularly wanting to finish the sentence.

“God, I wish,” Carol says, letting out a little breath of only slightly strained laughter. “But no.”

“Did you love him?” Rick asks through the pain in his stomach at having to ask the question.

There’s a long silence. “I think I could have, if I’d let myself, I guess,” Carol answers at last. “But he was never gonna be mine. That was obvious. So I didn’t let myself.”

“Do you think…” Rick trails off again, but this time it’s more because he can’t say the words than that he doesn’t want to.

“Yes,” she says, knowledge like shards of glass in her voice. “Rick, that man belonged to you. You know it as well as I do. Everyone knew it. If you’d told him you needed both of his legs, it would have taken five of us to pry the hacksaw out of his hands, if we’d even got there fast enough to stop him.”

Rick covers his mouth with his fingers for a moment, then drops his hand and looks at the dusty wood of the steps. “I wish I knew his name.”

Carol reaches over and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Blue’s pretty fittin’ for him, really.”

Rick looks up at her, meeting her eyes, and he offers a small smile. “Do you think they could be real? The others?”

Carol takes a deep breath as she considers. “I don’t know. I’m not sure how real I want this to be, Rick. Not with losing Sophia like that. But if any of them are real… I hope you find them.”

“No,” Rick says. He stands up and puts his hands on his hips, still staring at the ground. “No, I can’t think about that. It’s not going to happen. This is a dream. It’s just a crazy dream. That’s all.” Just because Carol and Sophia are real doesn’t mean anyone else is. Just because she’s had the dream doesn’t mean it’s real.

And worse: Just because you think he loved you in the dream world doesn’t mean he’d love you in this one.

“I don’t know what this is.” Carol doesn’t stand up, but she sits up straighter and watches Rick as he starts to pace. “A dream, a vision, just a huge coincidence. But there’s something happening here.”

“I need to think about this,” Rick says. The words are gravel in his throat and he reaches up to put a hand on the side of his neck, feeling his pulse hammering against his palm. “I need to go. I need… to think.”

Carol nods very slowly. “I wish I’d never met you,” she says. “I mean… part of me wishes that. So I’d never have to know what it’s like to lose my little girl. To live in a world like that. But part of me likes knowing I can be that strong if I want to. Part of me wants to be the woman I was in that dream. So I guess I can thank you for that.”

Rick takes a breath and is pleased that it fills his lungs smoothly, sends oxygen into his blood in the right levels again. “You’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” he tells her.

“Not yet,” Carol says. “But with Ed gone… maybe I can be.”

Rick meets her eyes and nods. “Call me if you need anything.” Carol nods back, and Rick turns around and heads for his car, carefully not thinking about what Blue is doing right now, if he’s happy, if he’s lonely, if there’s a piece missing from him that matches the piece that’s missing from Rick.

Chapter Text

When Rick gets home, Lori and Carl are outside talking to a woman Rick vaguely recognizes from the PTA meetings and her son, one of Carl’s friends. Carl has a duffel bag, and he and Ray are grinning at each other and talking about the video games Ray has at his house and how Carl’s going to kick Ray’s butt at them. Rick frowns and looks up at Lori, who looks back at him with eyes as hard and glittering as smoky quartz before looking back at the other woman.

“Thanks for letting him stay over on short notice,” Lori says, clearly making sure her voice carries enough so that Rick can hear it. She has her arms crossed tightly over her chest, her nails digging into the bare skin of her upper arms. “I’ll be over to get him in the morning.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” Ray’s mother says. She turns to the boys and tells them to climb in the car, and after a brief goodbye, they pull out of the driveway, leaving Rick and Lori standing in the yard looking at the grass and not each other.

“Lori--” Rick starts, but she shakes her head hard and turns around to walk into the house. Rick sighs and follows her inside.

She gets into the kitchen and turns around to face Rick. “Where did you go?”

Rick leans against the counter, hoping that it might help him keep standing if this goes too badly. “The lady from last night. The one with the husband we arrested. She called and said she needed to talk to me. So I went over there.”

“A woman,” Lori says, dropping her arms to her sides and then re-crossing them. “Yesterday I would have asked if you were sleeping with her. But today…” She trails off intentionally, raising her eyebrows in challenge.

“We don’t have to do this,” Rick says after a moment of echoing silence. “Lori, nothing’s changed. It was a dream. Weird things happen in dreams.” He thinks about telling her that Carol is involved now, wants to use that as an argument against having to talk to a psychiatrist about it, but he decides that now is not the time for something like that. Not before he’s figured it out himself, anyway.

“I have never dreamed that I was in bed with another woman,” Lori practically hisses. “You gotta have some desire to fuck men if you’re dreaming about fucking men.”

“I didn’t dream about fucking a man,” Rick snaps back. “It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t sexual. It wasn’t… I didn’t even kiss him, okay? Nothing happened.” He laughs a little, more hysterical than amused. “Nothing happened,” he repeats, much more quietly this time.

“But you wanted it to,” she says, tightening her arms around her chest.

Rick looks up at her briefly and then back down at the floor, staring at the yellow tile beneath his feet. “It didn’t,” he answers.

“But you wanted it to,” she says again. She takes a step forward. “You wanted to have sex with a man.”

“Lori--”

“No, don’t Lori me. Tell me the truth, Rick. Are you gay? Am I just a cover for your… your alternative lifestyle?” She puts air quotes around the last two words and then drops her arms to her sides again.

“Stop,” Rick grinds out, the words hard like flint and steel. “Just stop. This ain’t like that. I loved you. I wanted you. None of any of our marriage has been a lie. Just because I had these… feelings… don’t mean I’ve been lying to you all along.”

“So you’re not gay,” Lori challenges.

“I don’t know what the fuck I am, Lori,” Rick practically yells. “All I know is that I loved him. It wasn’t even about sex. I didn’t even think about sex while I was with him. I just…” He lets the sentence disintegrate into the air between them, puts his hand over his mouth. Lori doesn’t say anything, and eventually he tries to speak again without the fire from his previous words. “I loved him. That’s all I can say.”

“What kind of love?” Lori’s voice is quiet, rough.

“Every kind,” Rick says, and he knows that’s dramatic but it’s also true. “You and me, Lori, we were good for a while. We made a beautiful son together. We… I loved you. I still love you, just not the way I used to. Not the way Shane does.”

“But you love this man like that,” she counters. “Like you used to love me.”

Rick takes in a shaky breath. He thinks again about kissing Blue, about pushing him back against the cinderblock walls of the prison and taking his time with it, learning the contours of the archer’s mouth and the way it would feel to trail his fingers down the man’s biceps, to hear Blue gasp Rick into his ear while Rick pressed his lips against the pulse point in Blue’s throat. He thinks about how his own body would have adjusted itself to match Blue’s, their pulses pounding in unison as they came apart against each other like rifles begging to be cleaned and put back together.

He imagines himself in the same position with Shane, with Leon, with the boys’ swim coach that all the PTA mothers had enjoyed watching so much--men that he objectively knows are attractive, are desirable. He pictures their hands on his sides, their lips on his jawline, their voices whispering sex-heavy encouragements into his ear, and it’s not the same. He guesses it could be arousing, that there must be enough attraction to men deep within him that he could get off on it if he wanted to, but there’s no fire there, no real desire. Nothing that would make it worth the risk.

But then he thinks about Blue’s deep voice, thinks about how it would sound, broken and desperate, while Rick pulled him to pieces and claimed each piece as his own. He thinks of Blue panting against his skin while he did the same to Rick, taking him apart and tracing his name on every cell of Rick’s body, every lit-up part of his brain, except that the name would already be there, etched in like frosted glass, because Rick belongs to Blue just as much as Blue belonged to him.

It hadn’t been sexual in the dream because Rick hadn’t looked at it that way, hadn’t opened his eyes to see what was happening to them, and he hates that, hates that he can only imagine and not actually remember Blue’s fingers ghosting over his chest, his short nails digging into Rick’s shoulders, the rough palms of his hands pressing gently against the sides of Rick’s neck. And it seems to Rick that Blue’s hands on his skin would have been the closest thing to heaven he could have asked for in a world on the edge of ending. And even in a world like that, where every emotion, every action was a risk, Rick is absolutely certain that Blue would have been worth it.

Lori is still waiting on an answer, and there’s only one that Rick can give. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I do.”

“Is it Shane?” Lori asks, so softly that Rick almost doesn’t hear her.

Rick blinks. “Is it Shane?”

She shrugs, digging her nails into her upper arms again. “You just… you’re gay and you were in love with a man in your dream. And Shane was in your dream. And you didn’t want me to tell him about this.”

Rick sighs and sags a little against the counter. “It’s not Shane. He was in the dream, yeah, but it isn’t him.”

“Have you and Shane ever…” She lets the last word tilt upwards in a question but doesn’t finish the sentence.

“No,” Rick says, rubbing his hand over his mouth. “No, never. And I never wanted to. Shane’s...” He stops, thinks about his layers of complicated feelings for his partner. “I love him like a real brother. I’d do anything for him, but I don’t want him that way.”

Lori nods slowly. “You can’t be in love with someone who isn’t real, Rick.”

Rick pushes away from the counter. “We’re done talking about this. I can love whoever I want to love and you telling me I shouldn’t isn’t going to change anything.”

“He doesn’t exist, honey,” Lori says. She tries to lock eyes with Rick, but Rick refuses to look at her. “He doesn’t exist.”

“What if he does?” Rick snaps. “What if I can find him?” He does his best to ignore the ice sliding down his back, to control the shiver it brings. Just because, he thinks. Just because I need him to be real doesn’t mean he is.

“Sweetheart, you need to talk to somebody about this,” Lori says.

“I have to go,” Rick mutters. “I’ll be back later.”

“You just got back,” she points out. “Don’t walk away in the middle of a conversation.”

“This isn’t a conversation, Lori,” Rick snaps. “It’s a fucking one-woman intervention, and I’m not listening to it anymore.” He grabs his keys from his pocket and storms out the front door, then slides into his car and grips the steering wheel.

He’s really got nowhere to go, not with Shane in on this too, and he doesn’t want to go to a bar because God only knows what he’ll start saying to the drunk on the next barstool once he’s plastered. He sits for a while, considering his options while he watches the fireflies float around in the yard of the empty house next to his own, then cranks the car and heads for the police station.

//

Rick stops by the front desk and asks Traci if there's anything he can help out with, and she's more than happy to dump a big stack of data entry on him. Rick takes the stack, grateful to have something to occupy him, and sits down at his desk. The first file is a traffic stop report, third offense, for a man named Paul Jackson. Rick looks at the name, looks at the description. Same height as Rick, mid-thirties, light brown hair and blue eyes. He pulls up the file on the computer and starts entering the details of the citation.

Mid-thirties. Blue eyes. Brown hair. "Paul" doesn't sound right, but the description fits. Rick glances at the linked name, hovers his pointer over it. Paul Jackson. One of probably a hundred thousand mid-thirties men with blue eyes and brown hair in the state. This isn't Blue. Rick knows it's not, can feel the sense of wrong in the name. But he still feels a tug in his esophagus when he clicks the link and sees the mugshot of someone he doesn't recognize.

He clicks back to the report screen and keeps entering the information about Paul's traffic ticket.

If he’s real, Blue could be in this computer, Rick thinks as he types. All it would take would be one arrest, even one connection to an arrest. One speeding ticket. Hell, they had Sophia's picture in the system, and she's a child. Rick finishes up Paul's report and clicks out to the search function.

He enters what he knows, not that it's very much to go on. But there are only fields for age, gender, Social Security number--the usual clinical information, scrubbed clean of anything that has real meaning. And there's no place for the things Rick knows about Blue, the things that actually matter. There's nowhere to type "knows all the constellations" or "loves wild strawberries" or "can always find his way home again." There's nowhere for Rick to input the way that dreaming about Blue makes his skin sing with adrenaline, and that's probably for the best because Rick suspects that he wouldn't have the words to describe it even if there was.

There are so many hits when Rick clicks "Search" that the computer tells him he will have to narrow his search for it to display them all. He sighs and exits out of the Search box, then picks up another folder and goes back to entering data.

//

Rick has already gone back to Traci for another stack of files when Shane shows up at his desk. Rick glances up at him and then goes back to writing up the details of Mandy Galloway’s public indecency charge without saying anything.

Shane sits down on the edge of Rick’s desk and looks down at his knees. “Lori called me.”

Rick lets out an exasperated sigh. “Of course she did.” He closes Mandy’s file and picks up the next one. “What did she tell you?”

“Nothing I didn’t already know.” Shane swings his feet, letting his boots scrape the floor. “Rick--”

“Save it, Shane,” Rick says. “I don’t want to talk to Kathy or Louise or Benny or whatever counselor you know helped a friend of a friend once. I don’t want a psychiatrist. I don’t need one. I’m not crazy.” He takes a deep breath. “I know I’m not.”

“It sounds crazy, though,” Shane points out. “Man, you gotta know it sounds crazy.”

“I do,” Rick grits out through his teeth. “I do know that.”

Shane sits in silence for several seconds while Rick types as angrily as he can without breaking the keyboard. Then Shane sighs, catching his tongue between his lips and shaking his head. “Okay, man. You gotta go through this yourself. I get that. I ain’t never been in love with a dream, but I get what it’s like to be in love with somebody you ain’t got a snowball’s chance with.” He braces his hands on either side of himself on the desk and leans forward on them, looking over at Rick. “So tell me what you need.”

Rick slowly stops typing, his keystrokes coming further and further apart until the next letter just doesn’t come. He turns his head toward Shane but looks at the desk instead of at his face. “What do you mean?”

Shane bites his tongue again and then nods once, hard. “Tell me what you need. To get past this, man. Do you need to go to the gym and take it out on a punching bag? I’ll take you if you do. Shit, I’ll pummel the thing to death right beside you. Or if you need me to take you down to Hank’s and let you tell me all about her over Jaeger bombs until you’ve let it all out, we can do that too. If you need to cry, I got a pretty good shoulder and I won’t tell nobody about it after.” He shrugs. “Just tell me what you need me to do, man.”

Rick leans back in his desk chair and runs both hands through his hair, leaving them at the back of his head tugging on the short curls brushing against his nape. “I told Carol about the dream. Mrs. Peletier, I mean. I told her about it. I told her I knew things about her. I proved it to her. And she believed me. And then… she had the dream, too.” He looks at Shane, searching hard for understanding in the other man’s eyes.

Shane doesn’t answer for a few seconds, then clears his throat. “The same dream?”

“Yeah,” Rick says. He drops his hands from the back of his head to rest them on the arms of his chair. “Well, not exactly. It was the same story, only she was seeing it from her point of view. And I know it really was the same, because we both knew things that the other hadn’t told us. All the details matched. And how the hell does that make sense, Shane?”

Shane swings his feet again and watches them move. “Could just be a coincidence. You told her about it and so her brain came up with something similar.”

“Bullshit,” Rick says. “It matched too well, Shane. To things that I hadn’t mentioned to her. Like… part of it happened in a prison yard, and I didn’t tell her that. How would she have just happened to come up with a detail like that if it was just a coincidence?”

The other man sighs, runs a hand through his own hair in a mirror of what Rick had done earlier. “So what are you saying? That you and Carol Peletier have some kind of psychic connection?” He pauses. “Wait, are you in love with her?”

“No, it’s not her,” Rick snaps, then feels bad about it because Shane is actually listening this time and hasn’t said the word settled in the conversation yet. He lets out a tiny sigh. “I don’t know what it means. But I got to thinking… I dreamed this thing, and she was in it, and I’d never seen her before. And she’s real. So maybe that means…” He trails off, looks down at his feet, at the tangled, dusty mess of computer cords under his desk that still meant something in this world.

“You think she could be real, too,” Shane says after a moment. “Your dream girl.”

Rick smiles just briefly, more sadness in the gesture than anything else. He wants to tell Shane, wants to take him up on his offer to go down to the bar and cry on his shoulder until everything else sinks into oblivion for the night, but he remembers the time in their senior year of high school when Shane caught some freshman staring at him in the locker room and took a swing at the kid, and he opens his mouth to correct the pronoun but can’t bring himself to do it. So instead he just breathes, “Yeah.”

Shane nods again, then picks his hands up off the desk and slaps them back down for emphasis. “Okay. Then we look for her.”

Rick blinks. “What?”

“Look, buddy, I want you to get better,” Shane says. He looks at Rick and this time Rick gazes back. “I want you to be okay. So we look for your dream girl and if we find her, great. You guys can ride off into the sunset together and I’ll get back with Lori and everything will be fuckin’ peaches and light, and you’ll be okay and everybody will be happy. Or we won’t find her. And then you’ll know. So you can move on and not have to do all this what if bullshit to yourself all the time. Get closure, you know? So there ain’t no reason not to look for her, is what I’m sayin.’”

Rick just stares at him. “Are you being serious?”

“I swear on my life, man. I’ll help you out.” Shane smiles at him. “But you got to promise me that if we make an honest-to-god effort and we don’t find her, you’ll consider talkin’ to Kathy or Louise or Benny or whoever Lori wants you to talk to.”

Sighing heavily, Rick nods. “I promise. But we gotta look for all of ‘em. Not just the one.”

“Okay,” Shane says. He reaches between his own legs to open one of the drawers in Rick’s desk and pulls out a notepad, then snags a pen out of the cup on the desk surface. “So how many we got?”

Rick thinks back on the list he made a few nights ago and counts in his head. “Nine,” he says after a moment. “Well… there were more. But nine that I really want to find. Nine that I want to know are safe.” He sighs and presses the heel of his hand into his eye socket. “I don’t know any of their names. I gave them nicknames.” He carefully buries Blue’s nickname in the middle of the list so that Shane won’t know, won’t call him out on it. “Katana, Michigan, Atlanta,” he says, “Blue. Spitfire and Birdy and the Farmer. And then RV and Blondie.”

Shane nods, writing down all the names quickly. Rick goes through the list, telling him some basic information about everyone, looking away when he describes Blue so that Shane won’t see the look in his eyes, the stars and the fear and the hope all mingled together like the swirling of a kaleidoscope.

“So which one is she?” Shane asks after they’ve written down all the basics about everyone. He smirks at Rick. “Tell me she at least had some nice…” He stops and makes motions at his chest, eyes twinkling.

Rick rolls his eyes, thinking of the hollow at the base of Blue’s neck, of the curve of the muscles in his arms. “I’m not telling you which one,” Rick says after a moment, feeling the redness creeping up his neck as he thinks of Blue’s arm around him, pulling him back from a Walker who had gotten too close, his back crushed against Blue’s chest while they both stumbled backwards and away from the Walker. He remembers Blue’s voice, low in his ear, you okay? and remembers nodding and then feeling cold when Blue quickly released him and gave him a clap on the shoulder.

“Well, this is a good start,” Shane says, tapping the pen against the list of names and bringing Rick back to the moment. “Whatcha say we get you home for now, though, and I’ll pick you and Carl up at eight tomorrow so we can head to Atlanta. We’ll watch the game, eat hot dogs, shit like that, and then when we get back here on Monday we’ll start running searches. And we’ll try to find these people, Rick, I swear we’ll do our best.”

Rick glances back at the computer screen, thinking of Paul Jackson and how he could have been Blue but isn’t. He sighs and nods. “Sure. Monday. We’ll start on Monday.”

//

Lori is waiting in the bedroom, perched at the head of the bed with her knees pulled up to her chest and her back against the headboard. “I was worried about you,” she murmurs when he walks into the room. 

Rick eyes her warily, waiting for the explosion. “I just went to the office. Needed a few minutes.”

“I understand,” she says, then reaches up and bites her thumbnail. “Rick, why are there pregnancy tests under the bathroom sink?”

Rick walks over to the dresser and pulls out his pajama bottoms. “I bought them when I was going to ask you if you wanted another baby. Thought we might need them if we decided to try.” He pulls off his button-up shirt and slips a soft white tee over his head, then kicks off his jeans and replaces them with the flannel sleep pants.

“Okay,” Lori says, quietly. “Rick, I haven’t slept with him. Not since you woke up.”

“I know,” Rick answers. He walks over and sits down on the bed beside her. “But it would be okay if you had.”

“You really don’t care if I sleep with him,” she says, and it’s a statement and not a question. “You really don’t.”

Rick leans his head back against the headboard and stares at the ceiling. “I just want you to be happy.”

“Then why not just divorce me?” she asks. “I mean… wouldn’t that be the easiest thing for everybody?”

Rick feels his shoulders tensing up and he rolls them to keep them loose. “You always said you didn’t want that. Ever. And I don’t want to lose you.”

“But you don’t want to keep me, either,” she says. “We’re sleeping in the same bed, but you won’t touch me. And I don’t really want you to. So what kind of a marriage is that?” She sighs and turns toward Rick. “I still don’t like the idea of divorce. But maybe it’s the mature thing to do.”

“I don’t want that,” Rick says. He lets his head fall back down and stares at his hands, folded together on top of his knees. “If we get divorced, I’ll lose you. I’ll lose Carl. That’s how it always happens and I can’t let either of you go.”

“We could make it work.” Lori reaches over and puts a hand on top of his. “We could be adults about it. Amicable. Still see each other. Still spend time together with Carl. As a family.”

Rick turns his head and catches her eyes. “Is that what you want?”

“I just… don’t see any other way this can play out,” she says very softly.

Rick nods and slides his hand out from under hers, then reaches over to run it down the sleek cascade of her hair. “We’ll figure it out somehow. Whether that’s divorce or something else. Just promise me you won’t cut me out of your life. Out of Carl’s life.”

“I won’t,” she says. “No matter what happens.”

Rick smiles at her and twists a lock of her hair in his fingers. “Okay,” he murmurs. “Then everything’s going to be alright.”

Chapter Text

Rick trudged up the stairs in the farmhouse, heading for the bathroom at the end of the hall and hoping that the water in the shower would be hot enough to burn out the kinks in his body from all the extra physical activity that surviving the apocalypse had turned out to require. He reached over his shoulder and tried to knead his fingers into the knotted muscles at the base of his neck. The Farmer had grudgingly agreed to let the group come in and shower occasionally instead of relying solely on cold buckets of water from the wells, and Rick was grateful for that. He pushed open the door to the bathroom and took a step inside before he registered the sharp intake of breath, the liquid-smooth movement of Blue backing away from him and moving farther into the bathroom, his eyes on Rick warily.

Rick blinked and held a hand up in a gesture of goodwill. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t know you were in here.”

Blue had a towel tied around his waist and nothing else, his clothes folded neatly on the toilet lid, and his eyes were wild like a cornered animal. He didn’t say anything, just stared at Rick while a flush of red worked its way up his neck.

Rick’s eyes moved over the man’s chest quickly, noting the mess of old scars there and the deeper ones down on his stomach, and then he looked back up and locked eyes with Blue. They’d only known each other for a few days, and the unwavering trust that Rick knows will settle in the depths of Blue’s eyes before long wasn’t there yet.

And then there was the man’s body. He’d seen this before, on the force. Children with deep lashes in their flesh, bruises booming all over their skin like gruesome wildflowers, and then matching sets of decades-old scars on the bodies of the parents he’d hauled in and thrown in cells for what they’d done, the cycle continuing on and on until someone finally stood up and said no more. He thought about Sophia, about Blue’s connection with the little girl, his desperate need to find her, to make sure she was safe, and he wondered briefly if anyone had tried to help Blue or if he’d just had to endure. The extent of the scars told a story that Rick didn’t particularly want to hear, and it took a great deal of effort not to ball his hands into angry fists at the sight of them, but he steeled himself quickly and didn’t even flinch as he moved his gaze back up to the man’s face.

But Blue can’t have missed the movement of Rick’s eyes over his body, and so when he spoke, Rick wasn’t surprised. “Don’t tell nobody,” Blue mumbled. “Don’t nobody need to know.”

“I won’t say anything,” Rick answered, quiet like a snowfall. He felt like he should do something, say something to Blue, something that would make it better, but these were old wounds and there wasn’t really anything he could have said even if they’d been fresh, nothing that would have made it any less awful. Nothing that would have made Blue want to trust people, want to be part of the group.

Blue was still watching him, flicking his eyes at the hallway behind Rick like he was gauging how fast he could get down it and out of the house. His muscles were tense, his shoulders rising and falling with quick breaths, and Rick could practically see the adrenaline of the fight-or-flight response glazing across the man’s eyes.

The scene shimmers, takes on a slightly blurred, bright-around-the-edges quality--nothing like the stark realism of the normal dream--and then Rick is moving forward, closing the door behind himself, and Rick’s unconscious mind whispers no, this isn’t how it happened but the version of himself in the moment doesn’t care what really happened, doesn’t want to re-enact the mumbled sorry again and the retreat back downstairs. The version of Rick in the moment wants to touch, to heal, to give Blue a moment of joy because he isn’t convinced that the man has ever really had one before and he wants to be the one to give it to him.

“Rick,” Blue whispers, and if Rick didn’t already know that this wasn’t real, he would have known then--the suddenly relaxed muscles, the heat in Blue’s voice, the lack of a fist to his jaw that he’s sure would have happened if he’d really tried this when they’d been relative strangers.

He lifts his hand to rest on Blue’s collarbone, then watches his fingers as he trails them down the hunter’s chest and stomach, pausing over one of the deeper scars just under his navel. Blue’s muscles twitch under his skin and Rick looks up, sees the man’s deep cobalt eyes catch fire at the centers and burn just for Rick, so Rick slides down to his knees and leans up, moving his fingers away from the scar so that he can put his lips there.

“Nobody will ever hurt you again,” Rick murmurs against Blue’s skin, flicking his tongue out and running it over the length of the scar, then moving his lips down the light, narrow line of hair leading from Blue’s navel down into the folds of the towel. Rick puts his hands on Blue’s sides and looks up at his face, catalogues the movements of Blue’s chest as he breathes quick and shallow, takes note of the trembling of Blue’s hands like the man can’t decide what to do with them. Rick slides his hands down over Blue’s skin, pushing the towel down as he moves his palms over Blue’s hips, and it doesn’t take much for the towel to come loose and whisper down to the floor around Rick’s knees.

Rick,” Blue breathes again, then seems to make a decision about his hands and tangles them in Rick’s hair, twisting them tightly enough that Rick can feel it but not tightly enough to hurt. He stares down at Rick, his pupils wide and his lips parted slightly, and Rick smiles and finishes kissing down Blue’s stomach until his chin hits the man’s cock. He takes a deep breath and pulls back enough to run his eyes along the length of it, then kisses the tip and feels a stab of electricity in his gut when Blue sucks in a sharp breath and his fingers flex in Rick’s hair.

Rick takes the base of Blue’s cock in his hand and dips his head to lick all the way up the underside of it, running his tongue around the ridge separating the head from the rest and smiling as breathless profanities start spilling from Blue’s lips. Rick uses both hands to hold him, handling Blue almost reverently for a moment, then slides his lips over the tip of Blue’s cock and takes him in, sucking around him and swirling his tongue as he goes.

“Jesus, Rick,” Blue gasps out. He pulls one hand out of Rick’s hair and uses it to brace himself on the sink. “Fuck.”

Rick knows he’s not getting the full experience because this is a dream in the traditional sense and there aren’t things like flavor and scent here, but he’s desperate for it anyway, desperate to hear the noise Blue will make when he comes, desperate to feel him twitching in Rick’s mouth, desperate for the messy kisses that will come after Blue has spent himself and sagged down to the floor beside Rick. He wants to pull all the pain out of Blue and bury it somewhere where the man won’t ever find it, somewhere hidden behind layers upon layers of Rick’s mindless devotion to him, behind the way that Rick’s eyes light up when Blue walks into a room.

Rick pulls off and looks up at Blue, whispers I love you and then sucks him back in again, bobbing his head up and down and absolutely fucking loving the feel of the man in his throat, inside his body in some way, the perfect length and width of him solving some geometry problem that’s been snagged in his brain since they met. He was made for this, made for this man, and his body crackles like static electricity under a layer of skin that Rick’s not entirely sure is going to hold him together once Blue lets go.

And when Blue moans out a yes and his knees threaten to give way, Rick braces himself for the explosion, only it doesn’t happen.

He opens his eyes, breathing hard, and the ceiling above his head is maddeningly white even in the dark room. The sheets are too smooth, the pillow is too soft, and Lori’s perfume from the other side of the bed is so sickeningly sweet that Rick can’t stand it anymore and so he stands up and heads for the living room, trying to ignore the fact that he’s rock-hard and it’s all because he was thinking about sucking a man off.

He slides into his recliner and tries not to think about it. Con Air is playing on some movie channel and he focuses on that as best he can, but he keeps losing the thread of the plot and instead going back to Blue in his mouth, gasping and perfect, and after a few minutes it becomes painfully clear that the situation he has going on in his lower regions isn’t going to go away on its own.

So Rick sighs and moves from the recliner to the wooden chair, pulls the quilt around his shoulders, and changes to the hunting channel. Blue, he thinks, and once he takes hold of himself and thinks of Blue’s hands twisting in his hair, it’s over so quickly that he almost doesn’t have time to enjoy it.

“Shit,” he murmurs into the dark living room, staring at the small herd of deer on the TV screen and wiping his hand on his t-shirt. He tightens the quilt around his shoulders and wonders how his life has come to this, to jerking himself off while thinking of a man who may not actually be real. But Carol dreamed about him too. So there’s the chance, and he clings to that like he’s never clung to anything else before.

Whatcha want, Rick? Blue’s eyes in the lamplight, his legs tangled with Rick’s on the floor of a bar.

You, he thinks, and he lets his head fall back to stare at the ceiling until his heart stops pounding in his chest.

//

Shane offers to pick Carl up from his friend’s house, and they both arrive to pick Rick up at exactly eight o’clock the next morning. Rick throws the duffel bag he’s packed for them into the trunk of Shane’s car and then slides into the back seat--both because he knows it will thrill Carl to get to ride shotgun and because he’s not sure he can look Shane in the eyes without the other man seeing gay reflected in them. Carl immediately launches into a dramatic reading of some magazine Shane had given him with all the bios and stats for all the Braves players, and Rick exchanges a quick smile with Shane through the rear-view mirror at how excited the boy is.

After a while, though, Carl pulls out his handheld game system and Shane turns on the radio, so Rick leans his head back against the seat and closes his eyes, trying to let the sound of the pavement rushing under the car soothe him, bring his scattered thoughts back to something approaching rationality. He wants things that he’s never even considered before, things that make his whole body fill with an icy-hot anticipation, equal parts love and lust and fear of the unknown. He wants to be with Blue in ways that he’s never been with anyone, never even fantasized about, and that scares him. So he takes a deep breath and tries to think about this in a logical, measured way, starting with the one thing that he really understands about the whole situation.

He loves Blue. He holds on to that as the central theme, as the anchor for the thoughts. He’s come to terms with that fact, that if he ever finds this man he’s never going to let him go. If Blue is real, then that part is easy: spending his life with Blue, growing old with the hunter at his side. Saying Blue’s name, his real name, into darkened rooms and having the man actually hear him, move towards him, growl promises into Rick’s ear. Loving Blue makes sense. It’s organic, natural, undeniable, and Rick understands it down to his core.

But last night showed Rick that he doesn’t just love Blue in a pure, emotional sense, and he doesn’t just want to kiss him with his hands on the man’s neck, chaste and simple. No, Rick wants to make love to him fully, to kiss every exposed inch of the man and whisper Blue’s name into his skin. He wants to run his fingers feather-light over Blue’s neck, his tattoos, the hollows of his hips. He wants to slide himself into Blue, to bury himself so deep inside the man that no one can ever break them apart again. He wants to learn every detail of Blue’s body, to know it so intimately that he could sketch the whole thing from memory, that he could recognize the man in the dark just from the way his muscles move under Rick’s hands.

And the more Rick thinks about it, the more he realizes that the image of himself on his knees in front of Blue is just as hot as the image of Blue doing the same for him. And more than that, the idea of opening himself up to Blue, letting his back arch with every thrust… Rick has never wanted another man like this, has never even considered that he might let someone inside his body, and definitely not that he would burn for it like this. The thought of Blue inside him, kissing him and loving him, building up a slow, deep rhythm that fills Rick’s body as much as it does his heart--it’s incredibly sexy, and Rick shifts in his seat and hopes that the jacket in his lap hides his interest, because this is not something he’s ready to explain to anyone else.

But even that seems logical, the desire to show how much he loves Blue in a physical way. Rick understands lovemaking, understands being gentle with someone else and having the sex be warm, soft, comfortable. He wants them to have that deep emotional and physical connection, the kind of sex that inspires music and watercolors, the kind that rolls and blends and melds them together like the ocean bleeding into the horizon. He wants them to belong to each other, to slide together with love glowing softly in their eyes when they look at each other. That makes sense.

The part that seems hard to grasp is not how much Rick loves Blue, but how much he wants him, and not just for soft lovemaking. No, the more Rick thinks about being intimate with Blue, the more desperate the feeling gets, turning from the soft tug of desire in his abdomen into a sharp-edged hunger, a breathless need for something that is still love but isn’t gentle, isn’t pretty, isn’t choreographed and graceful. Something that makes no sense when Rick compares it to everything he’s ever known about love and sex before--the idea that it should feel good, that it shouldn’t be about ownership and adrenaline and teeth like Rick suddenly wants it to be.

Rick wants Blue with a wild, animalistic abandon, wants to drag his nails over Blue’s chest, to push him into the forest floor and just fucking claim him with his mouth and his hands and his cock. And not just that, but Rick wants to be claimed, to let Blue take him against walls, in showers, on the hoods of cars, to beg Blue to fuck him while he holds on to the headboard of a bed that’s too soft for any of this. He wants it to be dirty, rough, real. He wants Blue to ravage him, to rip out every part of Rick that isn’t his and toss it off to the side so that there’s nothing about Rick that isn’t also about Blue.

And he wants it to hurt, the kind of pain that’s so tangled up with desire that it’s impossible to separate them. He wants his skin to sting when it’s over, wants to find teeth marks and scratches all over his body, wants to see the same on Blue’s flesh and know that he put them there and that Blue wanted this as much as he did. He wants every step he takes afterwards to come with an ache that reminds him that Blue owns him, inside and out.

And that--that--is what’s terrifying.

Rick shifts in his seat and adjusts the jacket over his lap. Shane looks up and meets Rick’s eyes again in the rear-view mirror, and Rick tries to blink away the glazed look he knows is there before Shane can register what it means. Hell, Rick doesn’t even really know what it means, has no idea what having sex with a man would even feel like. Has no idea if he’d even like it, if it would be something he could be happy with. All he really knows is that he wants to experience it with Blue, and really only with Blue. As long as it’s his archer that he’s exploring these things with… Rick is sure that it couldn’t be anything less than mind-blowing.

That’s if Blue exists, he reminds himself. Carol could have been a fluke, a coincidence. And who knows--maybe Blue’s face is just the face of some random person he passed on the streets years ago, someone who isn’t actually anything like the man Rick wants so much. And even if he exists, even if he’s the same person Rick loves, he may not love Rick back in this version of reality. So Rick pushes down the hope he’s starting to feel, telling himself that there are just too many variables. He may have to just live with the ghost of Blue in his mind forever. Even if Blue exists somewhere in the world, the dream may be all Rick ever has of him.

Rick turns his head and looks out the window, trying not to watch for Blue in the faces of the people in all the other cars they pass.

//

The game is the most fun Rick has had in months, even before his coma, and Carl is over the moon about everything. Shane buys the kid a big foam finger and Rick gets him a Braves cap, and they all gorge themselves on terrible hot dogs and nachos and yell with the crowd until their throats are sore. Carl sits between Rick and Shane, and Rick watches the way that Shane acts with the boy, like a second father and not just like a family friend. It’s reassuring, to look in Shane’s eyes and see love again and not the acidic resentment that had settled there during the apocalypse.

Shane and Rick both have beers during the game, and Carl orders a ginger ale so that he looks like he’s drinking the same thing as the two men. He begs Shane to let him have a sip of his beer, and Shane raises an eyebrow at Rick, who smiles and shrugs his permission, remembering the same thing happening with a glass of wine at the CDC, and he gets a very similar reaction this time--Carl’s face screwing up in a deep grimace, the loud exclaimed eww from the boy, the laughter from the adults at the kid’s disgust.

After the game, they take Carl to the Aquarium and spend a long time in the big room with the massive sea tank. Carl sits close to the glass, watching the tank with sparkling eyes and a smile that the dream version of Rick had thought he’d never see again--the smile of a little kid who hasn’t had to grow up far too quickly, who hasn’t seen so much death that grief almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. Rick reminds himself yet again that this is better, that he honestly doesn’t wish for the world of the dream--just the people in it.

He and Shane sit back farther from the tank. The room is dark, lit only by the light emanating from the water behind the glass, and everyone in the area is washed out with a vivid aquamarine glow. Rick lets his eyes move over all the people in the room, hoping for sparks of recognition but finding none.

Shane leans forward, putting his elbows on his knees. “So I’m ruling out Carol, since you’ve met her and you’re still pining like a twelve-year-old schoolgirl,” he says. “And Birdy, because you said she was like sixteen and I know you ain’t into that.”  He slants his eyes over to Rick, a mischievous smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “That leaves Blondie, Spitfire, and Katana. Now, Blondie bein’ a lawyer and all and you callin’ her a loudmouth in that tone you used makes me think she ain’t the one that’s got your britches hot. An’ you only ever mentioned Spitfire when you was talkin’ about Birdy, so it don’t seem like she’s the one either. Means it’s gotta be Katana, by process of elimination.” The smile twists into a full-on smirk. “I’m right, ain’t I?”

Rick lets out a quiet huff of laughter. “Hope you weren’t countin’ on that promotion to detective.”

“Really?” Shane says. He leans back into his chair, draping his arm over the seat behind Rick in a familiar, casual way. “Huh. Gotta be Spitfire, then. You was buryin’ her name in with her sister so you could throw me off the scent.”

Rick looks over at Shane and rolls his eyes. “I’m not gonna tell you anything.”

Shane dips his head and looks up at Rick. “You gotta tell me sometime if I’m helpin’ you find her.”

“You’re helping me find all of them,” Rick points out. “So maybe you just won’t realize it when we find the one.”

“Oh, I’ll know,” Shane says. “Your face is an open book, man. You’ll take one look at this girl and go all doe-eyed. I know you.”

“I seriously doubt I’m gonna go doe-eyed when I see any of these women,” Rick says, then feels a slice of panic at the potential for Shane finding him out. He rushes forward, trying to deflect the conversation. “You better not, either, not if you’re gonna be with Lori.”

Shane raises an eyebrow. “You think I’m gonna go after one of your dream girls?”

Rick shrugs. “You and Blondie were pretty close for a while.”

Shane scoffs at that. “You’re tellin’ me I was dating a civil rights lawyer from Florida.”

“I didn’t say ‘dating,’” Rick clarifies. “Think the two of you were just, you know, keepin’ each other company.”

“I thought I was with Lori in the dream,” Shane says, leaving his eyebrow raised.

Rick sighs and looks back out at Carl, who’s chatting animatedly with another boy about his age, pointing at manta rays and waving his arms around. “Well, at the time Lori was… tryin’ to make things work with me. It didn’t work, though. She loved you and you were what she really wanted. She was just stayin’ with me for Carl, you know? And out of a sense of duty. Nothin’ that you can build a marriage on.” He takes a deep breath. “Which isn’t that different than now, really.”

Shane doesn’t say anything to that for a long time, but Rick doesn’t elaborate, so eventually Shane says quietly, “So you’re leavin’ her, then?”

Rick lets out a long breath. “We talked about it last night. I think we’re probably… over. I don’t want to lose her, Shane. I want her to still be in my life. But she’s yours now. That’s what she wants and that’s what you want. And Carl will understand, especially if we make sure we’re all still close.” He sighs again, looks down at the blue carpet, tinged with shadows and light from the tank. “And besides, it’s not really fair to her to keep her tied to me when I’m lookin’ for someone else anyway.”

Shane nods, more in understanding than agreement. There’s a long silence, then: “Okay, but for real… it’s Katana, right?”

Rick rolls his eyes hard and claps Shane on the shoulder. “You’ll just have to wonder.” He stands up and goes over to sit down beside Carl, watching an octopus swim by the edge of the tank and wondering if Blue has ever been to the ocean.

//

It’s late when they get back to the hotel, and Carl keeps eyeing the clock in the room surreptitiously in the way that kids do when they’re hoping their parents won’t notice that it’s past bedtime. Shane flops down on one of the beds, stretching out his legs with his back against the headboard, and pats the bed next to him for Carl to sit. “Let’s find us a movie while your dad orders us a pizza, what do you say?”

Carl grins and grabs the remote, scrolling through channels and debating with Shane whether they should watch National Treasure or Labyrinth. Shane is firmly in the Labyrinth camp, which Rick finds interesting, but Carl starts spouting off facts about the American Revolution and the Signing of the Declaration of Independence and, oddly enough, Pearl Harbor, and Shane finally relents: “Who am I to stand in the way of history?”

Rick listens to them bantering, watches Shane ruffle Carl’s hair and the way that Carl smiles at the man, and it hits him that they’re all going to be just fine. He calls up a pizza place and orders them some dinner, then sits back on the other bed and gets deeply involved in the highly improbable plot of the movie until there’s a knock on the door.

Shane tosses Rick his wallet and Rick goes to the door to get the pizza. He opens it and then freezes, one hand in Shane’s wallet and the other on the door handle.

“Holy shit,” he gasps out. “Michigan.”

Chapter Text

The pizza guy stares at Rick with an eyebrow raised. “You ordered a pizza?” he says after a moment, confusion wavering in his voice.

Rick fumbles with Shane’s wallet again and almost drops it, but he clamps his fingers down on the leather before it falls from his hand. “You… what’s your name?”

“Uh…” the guy shifts a little, moving the 2-liter of Pepsi to a better position. “I’m Glenn?”

Glenn,” Rick repeats, and he closes his eyes as the dream plays in his head on fast-forward, the guy’s name falling into scenes where there had been only static before. The kid looks so young, he thinks, remembering the way that the apocalypse had aged them all so much, and he feels his eyes start to glaze over and his brain start to fog. “Fuck,” he chokes out. “Shane.”

Rick hears Shane’s quick footsteps behind him, feels the man’s arm hook firmly under his armpit just as he sways and his knees give way. His eyes are still locked on Glenn but his mind is far away, somewhere on a deserted road through the pine forest, listening to Glenn talk about his family with a swollen, distorted eye socket and a snarl in his voice.

“Okay, buddy,” Shane says, rough and soothing, and Rick sags into him and lets the taller man hold him up. Shane takes the wallet from Rick with his free hand and fumbles with it until he gets out some cash. “Sorry about my friend, man, he’s wasted off his ass. How much do I owe you?”

“Uh, twenty-five sixty,” Glenn says. “You sure he’s okay?”

“He’s fine,” Shane says. “Here’s forty. Buy yourself somethin’ nice. Hey, Carl! Come get the pizza, okay? I gotta get your dad settled.”

Rick feels a flash of faint rage at the word settled, but he’s too dazed to worry about it. He lets Shane maneuver him into the bathroom and sit him down on the closed toilet lid, and he stares at the tile floor without seeing it for what feels like hours, thinking of Glenn, of Carol, of Blue, of everyone, and he tries to remember his mantra. Just because, just because, just because, except he can’t remember what it is that this isn’t supposed to mean anymore.

Then Shane is on his knees in front of Rick, one hand rough on Rick’s cheek, pulling his head up so that their eyes meet. “Hey,” he says, quietly. “You’re okay, man. Breathe. It’s okay.”

Rick nods slowly, focusing on Shane’s not-white eyes and bringing himself back to reality. Shane’s hand falls away from his cheek when it becomes obvious that Rick doesn’t need his head to be physically supported anymore, and Rick sits up straighter and keeps nodding. “I’m okay.”

“You with me?” Shane asks. His brow is furrowed, his tongue caught between his lips and his eyes wide.

“Yeah,” Rick rasps out. “I’m okay. I’m here.”

“Wanna tell me what the fuck just happened?” Shane gives Rick his usual playful, mischievous smile, but the emotion doesn’t reach his worried eyes. “Do I need to take you to the hospital?”

“No,” Rick says. He reaches up and rubs his eyes. “It’s just… that was Michigan. Glenn. The Korean guy from the dream.”

Shane is quiet for a very long time, and Rick finally drops his hand from his face and looks up at the other man. “I know you think I’m crazy,” Rick says, keeping his voice low so that Carl won’t hear, “but I swear to God that was him.”

“Hey,” Shane says, and he dips his head and looks up at Rick from under his eyebrows. “Not sayin’ you’re crazy, brother. But are you sure that it’s not just some Asian kid who sort of looks like Michigan?”

“No,” Rick answers, trying to infuse his voice with all the conviction he feels. “No, it’s him. It’s him. I know it is.” He tries to stand up. “I have to go after him. I have to talk to him.”

Shane pushes him back down onto the toilet seat. “Nah, man. You go after him like this and he’ll get a restraining order.”

Rick shakes his head hard, tries to stand up again. “No. I have to--”

Shane pulls Rick back down again, giving him an extra little shove as if to say stay. “Monday, man. We have his name and where he works. We’ll look him up on Monday, okay?”

Rick frowns, but the last thing he wants is to scare Glenn away and Shane has a point: he’s not exactly in any condition to talk rationally to the kid right now. But still. He reaches forward, grabs Shane’s shoulder, digs his fingers in. “Shane. What if they’re real?”

Shane reaches up and gently pries Rick’s fingers out of his flesh. “Thought we were already gonna look for them like they were.”

“Yeah,” Rick says. “Yeah, we were. We are. But this… this is proof, Shane. It’s proof that the rest of them are out there.”

Shane furrows his brow again. “Don’t get your hopes up too much.” His voice is gentle, like he’s afraid Rick will shatter if he speaks too firmly. “We don’t know where she is. We might not find her even if she’s out there.”

Rick stands up and paces, not that there’s much room to move in the small hotel bathroom. “Shane,” he says, and he turns and looks at his friend, then loses his nerve and paces again. “Shane, brother, I gotta…”

Shane moves to the side to give Rick more space. “What?”

Rick stops in front of the bathroom door and leans forward, pressing his forehead against the cool wood. He stands there for several seconds. “I have to tell you something and I want you to swear you won’t hate me.”

Shane puts his hands on his hips and looks at the floor. “I couldn’t never hate you, brother. You know that.”

Rick laughs incredulously to himself, thinking of the way it felt to look down the barrel of Shane’s gun in a dark field and then pushing that feeling off to the side. This Shane is not the same as the one he’d faced that night. This Shane will understand. He turns around slowly, looks Shane in the eyes. “It’s Blue,” he says. “I’m in love with Blue.”

Shane doesn’t get it immediately, and Rick braces himself for the dawning realization when the other man goes through the names and comes up with male as one of the characteristics from the list. Rick knows Shane, knows all of his moves and his strategies and he’s pretty sure that he could deflect any sort of blow the man would try to let fly at him, but he hopes that he won’t have to do that. There’s already enough to explain to Carl as it is.

But Shane doesn’t say anything, just lets his eyes slide back down to the floor as he bites on his tongue and twitches one of his feet along the tile. “I--” Rick starts, but Shane cuts him off.

“Shut up,” Shane snaps, still staring at the floor. “I need a second.” His muscles are tense, coiled, and Rick holds his breath while Shane processes everything.

After a solid minute of silence, Shane nods to himself and looks up at Rick. “Okay.”

Rick blinks. “Okay?”

“Wish you’d told me,” Shane grumbles. “I mean, before. Wish I’d known you was into dudes.”

Rick suddenly feels tired down to the marrow in his bones. “It doesn’t change anything.”

Shane scoffs. “Man, I’m just standin’ here thinkin’ about all the times I’ve said shit about gays in front of you. About the time I punched Jerry Norton in the locker room, you know? And here you were thinkin’ I was gonna hate you and you never said anything.”

“I… didn’t know,” Rick says, his voice low. “I never thought I was before. And I'm not... gay. Not entirely, anyway. It's more complicated than that. Maybe it’s just this one guy. Or maybe I’m into men but I’m just… picky, I don’t know. But either way, I’ve never lied to you. I told Lori that, too. It’s not like I’m not attracted to women. Because I am. It’s just…” He breaks off, sighs, hangs his head. “I started to say that if you knew him you’d understand. But you wouldn’t. You hated him. I had to break the two of you up from havin’ a fistfight once.”

“In the dream,” Shane finishes. His voice is flat, and Rick isn’t sure what that means. “The dream where you had a gay love affair with some redneck with a crossbow.”

Rick sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “Yeah.”

“And if we find this guy, what then?” Shane asks. “You gonna run off with him? Hang rainbow flags outside your house and make me tell Lori why you didn’t come home one day?”

“She knows,” Rick murmurs. “I told her. That’s why we were talkin’ about gettin’ divorced.”

Shane jerks his head up and eyes Rick. “You’re serious about this. About leavin’ Lori for another man.”

Rick shrugs, kind of hating himself for the nonchalant response to such a loaded question. “Lori and I weren’t good anyway. This way she gets you and I get Blue and everybody’s happy.”

“That’s assumin’ this guy is real,” Shane says. “An’ that he don’t freak out like Glenn there did and run ten miles in the opposite direction.”

Rick nods very slowly. “I figure even if he ain’t real or if he is and he doesn’t want me…” He shrugs again. “Even then, it’s not fair to Lori to stay with her. Not when I feel like this for somebody else.”

Shane bites his tongue, looking up at the ceiling this time. “I don’t get it, man. I don’t understand. You ain’t never been interested in men before. And I’m not gonna stand here and tell you I’m okay with it. I ain’t gonna wear a rainbow tux and dab my eyes with a fuckin’ handkerchief at your gay wedding or anything.” He takes a deep breath. “But you’re my best friend. My brother. And I love you, man, ain’t nothin’ gonna change that. So… we’ll figure it out. And maybe I’ll get okay with it. I’ll sure as hell try.”

Rick lets out a breath that he didn’t know he’d been holding. “And you’ll still help me look for him?”

Shane laughs at that, only a little sarcastically. “You’re pinin’ after him like he stood you up for prom, man. ‘Course I’ll help you find him if I can. I mean, alternative is to have to keep lookin’ at your damn puppy-dog eyes for months, so this is better.”

“Thank you,” Rick says. He takes a tiny step toward Shane. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shane says. “Pizza’s gettin’ cold. And I wanna know if Nicky Cage got arrested or what, so we might as well get back out there.”

Rick lets himself give a tiny half-smile. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

//

That night is an exercise in pretending to sleep. Rick is too wired from seeing Glenn to have any chance of letting his mind calm down enough to drift off, and after spending hundreds of nights sleeping in the same room with Shane at sleepovers and summer camps and vacation hotels over the years, he knows the man’s breathing patterns enough to know that Shane isn’t sleeping, either.

Rick rolls over onto his side, facing away from Carl and toward the wall of the hotel room. He tucks his arm under his pillow and just thinks. He thinks about Blue, of course, about the heaviness of the man’s body as Rick and Shane pulled him across the field after he’d gotten shot, about how the man’s low voice had always calmed him down when nothing else could.

But he thinks about the others too, wonders if Glenn feels an empty space in his life like Rick does, wonders if soulmates are destined to find each other or if it’s all up to chance and sometimes they don’t. At least Rick knows now that Blue is out there--that he has to be out there, that all of this has to mean something--but Glenn… Glenn doesn’t. Glenn probably gets out of bed every morning and goes to sleep every night wondering if there’s a woman out there for him, probably dates girls who are wonderful and then goes home thinking that there’s just something missing from the relationships. Rick knows the size and shape and vocal timbre of the one he’s living without, and Glenn probably just has a vague sense that there’s something more out there. And how can he ever find her without her face behind his eyelids whenever he sleeps?

Rick frowns at the wall as a wave of inspiration laps at his feet. Glenn doesn’t know how to find Spitfire. But… Rick does.

“Shane,” he whispers, and he’s reminded of sleepovers, of little boys sleeping in blanket forts and giggling to each other after lights-out. “You awake?”

“Yeah,” comes the soft reply from the other bed.

“Outside?” Rick murmurs, rolling over as slowly as he can manage so that he can check Carl, make sure he’s still sleeping.

Shane just grunts quietly in response, and then both men slide out of their beds and pad softly outside into the hotel hallway. Rick pulls the door mostly closed behind them as carefully as he can manage. He’s wearing a gray tank top and navy blue sleep pants, standard sleeping attire for Rick, and he looks over at Shane’s black boxers and lack of a shirt and feels a rush of gratefulness at that, at the fact that his confession hasn’t made Shane act and dress differently around him.

“I know you don’t believe me, not really,” Rick says. He keeps his voice low. “But I’ve been layin’ there thinking and I think I can prove it to you.”

Shane raises his eyebrows. “Prove what?”

“Prove the dream,” Rick answers. “Or… at least prove that there’s something to it. I keep telling you all these things I know now, like archery and songs and things like that, and I know you’re standin’ there thinking that I must’ve already known those things before the coma and I just now thought about them, like maybe the songs were things my mama sang to me and I’d just forgotten. And I know all this stuff about people, stuff I shouldn’t know, but I also have access to a police database and I coulda just looked it all up there, or known it somehow from meeting them in real life and not remembering, or I could just be real lucky with my guesses. But I know something else, Shane. Something concrete. Something I couldn’t have known on my own.”

Shane watches Rick’s face, stares into Rick’s eyes so deeply and intently that it almost makes Rick squirm under the pressure, but the way to convince Shane has always been to not back down, so he doesn’t. After a moment, Shane says, “Okay. What?”

“Spitfire and Birdy and the Farmer,” Rick says. “I know where they live. I know where to find them. And more than that, Shane. I know my way around their farm. I know the pictures they have on the wall in their house. I know where the Farmer keeps the flask that he never uses anymore. I know what his pocketwatch looks like. I know… shit, I know what their dinner plates look like, brother. I can take you there, tomorrow. I can show you.”

Shane reaches up and scratches the back of his head. “You know where this farm is. You’re sure.”

“Yeah,” Rick says, nodding with as much confidence as he can manage. “I know how to get there. It’s on the way back.”

Shane sighs heavily. “Listen, man. If we get there and there’s not a farm, or if we get there and it ain’t like you think it is, will you talk to Kathy when we get back home?”

Rick wrinkles his nose. “I don’t want to talk to Lori’s therapist.”

“Someone else, then,” Shane presses. “I said I’d help you look but that if we found out that this is all some coincidence and these people ain’t real, you’d have to talk to someone. You promised.”

“I promised I’d think about it,” Rick grumbles, but after a moment he rolls his shoulders and nods. “But yes. Okay. If things aren’t the way I know they are tomorrow… I’ll pick a psychiatrist and start talking to them.”

Shane leans against the wall and crosses his arms, considering the steel in Rick’s eyes. “You’re serious. You’ll start getting help.”

If I’m wrong about the farm,” Rick corrects. “But I’m not. Shane, I know I’m not wrong about this. You’ll see.”

Shane bites his tongue and looks down the hallway, focusing on nothing in particular for a long time. Then he pushes off from the wall and nods. “Okay. We’ll go look for your farm.”

//

They leave the hotel early the next morning, and Rick insists on driving because he knows the way. Carl promptly puts in his headphones and listens to his iPod, leaving Shane and Rick free to talk in the front seat. Rick goes through a painstaking list of everything he remembers about the farm, about the people who live there, about the landscape and the interior of the farmhouse. Shane nods as Rick talks but doesn’t speak much, and that’s fine with Rick because he doesn’t want to have to endure Shane trying to keep him from getting his hopes up.

Blue won’t be at the farm. Rick knows that. But this is the first place he will have been where Blue actually was, and the prospect of seeing a place he’d seen with Blue fills Rick with a heady sort of anticipation. If the farm is real, Blue is just that much more real, and he wants that, wants another checkmark in the list of ways that Blue exists.

“So why him?” Shane asks after Rick has fallen silent for a few seconds. Shane’s voice is strangely rough and awkward, and Rick winces at the sound of it.

“I don’t know,” Rick says, gripping the steering wheel tightly until his knuckles show white. “I mean…” He sighs, tries again. “I do know. But I’m not sure how to explain it.”

“Well, try,” Shane says, sounding a bit exasperated. “If I’m gonna be okay with this, I wanna know what’s so special about this guy. So what is it? Is he funny? He got good hair? Rather not talk about his ass too much but is that what you like about him? I just need to know.”

Rick sighs again, takes one hand off the steering wheel and rubs his temple with it. “It’s not about how he looks, brother. It’s really not. I mean… yeah, I think he’s attractive. But it’s not that. It’s… he makes me feel strong. Safe. Like the things I say are worth listening to. There wasn’t a whole lot of hope in the world, you know? Not the world of the dream. But what little hope there was, he gave me. Not… like he was the hope. But he showed me where to find it. Showed me it was there. And I think I did the same for him.” He puts his hand back on the steering wheel, checks the rear-view mirror to make sure Carl is still asleep. “It ain’t about sex, Shane. I mean, it is now. Now that I know. But it wasn’t then, not in the dream. And even if he doesn’t want me in real life, even if I pour my heart out and he says no, I gotta have him somehow, even if we’re just friends. I can’t not have him with me. Not anymore.”

Shane doesn’t say anything for several seconds, then huffs out a breath. “I still don’t get it. But I believe that you do.”

Rick smiles just slightly. “That’s all I can ask.”

And then they’re turning down the road to the farm, and Rick sees the name Greene on the mailbox and sucks in a hard breath. The first names still aren’t coming to him, but other things lock into place there, fleshing out the dream with just that much more information, just that much more realism. He slows down as he drives up the road to the house and points with a shaking finger out into the field. “There,” he says.

Shane looks out into the field. There are cows there now, grazing peacefully, and Rick wonders briefly how much blood has to be spilled into soil before nothing will grow in it anymore. “What’s there?” Shane asks.

Rick swallows hard. “That’s where I killed you.”

Chapter Text

Rick’s mind didn’t even have to be creative anymore when it supplied nightmares for him as he laid in his cell in the prison, tossing and turning on the tattered mattress there. He’d woken up everyone in the group several times since the night they lost the farm, yelling Shane’s name through dry sobs, the smell of his friend’s fresh blood in his nostrils and the weight of his own betrayal squeezing his chest like a vice.

But it wasn’t his own screaming that woke him up this time, it was the soft pop of the skin on his wrist giving way under the crushing pressure of his own teeth. Rick’s eyes snapped open with the sound and with the delayed rush of pain that shot up from his wrist, slowly at first and then picking up speed until it radiated throughout his whole body. He pulled his arm away from his mouth and looked at the bloody mess that his teeth had made of his wrist while his nightmares rushed over him.

He’d bitten his wrist in his sleep before, trying to keep himself from screaming, but never like this--never enough to break the skin. And now… Jesus, it was really bleeding. He grabbed a t-shirt from the pile of clean laundry Carol had left for him and pressed it hard to the wound to stop the flow of blood.

It took several minutes for the blood to clot and the wound to settle. Rick sat on the edge of his mattress, trying not to think of Shane and Lori and the way that everything in his life seemed to be covered in a layer of death, even the things that were still alive. But eventually the blood slowed to a trickle and then stopped, and Rick tossed the stained t-shirt to the side and stood up. There was no use trying to sleep anymore, and anyway the sun was beginning to come up so there wouldn’t have been much time even if he’d wanted to try. So instead of lying back down, Rick changed into his regular clothes and headed outside.

He walked slowly through the courtyard, dragging his feet a little while he moved. He needed air, needed something productive to do. It occurred to him that Blue was on watch, and so the traps and snares wouldn’t have been checked yet that morning. Checking for food would be the perfect job for Rick, to get him some distance from his nightmares.

As he started opening the first gate leading out into the yard, a sharp whistle echoed out over the courtyard. Rick looked up at the watchtower and saw Blue leaning there, his forearms braced on the railing while he watched Rick carefully. Rick smiled up at him, somewhat surprised that he could even smile so close on the heels of killing his friend yet again, and whistled back: I’m okay.

Blue nodded and stood up, looking out toward the treeline, then glanced back down at Rick, who made a hand motion at him that said going to check the snares. Blue nodded again and then headed back into the tower to resume his watch. Rick closed the gate behind himself and walked out through the yard and into the woods beyond.

There were a couple of rabbits in the snares, so Rick pulled them out and reset the traps, channeling Blue’s careful instruction from the winter months as he moved the wires and strings back into place. Setting snares required a knife, and Rick used his, but he never looked at it more than he had to while he worked. He wondered if it would ever stop seeming red-tinged from the corner of his eye, like the blade was forged in Shane’s blood and would never be clean again. Somehow he doubted it.

Rick’s footsteps on the way back were deliberate, slow. He took the opportunity to try and settle his feet like mist on the ground the way Blue had tried to teach him, but Georgia itself didn’t worship Rick’s soles like they seemed to do Blue’s, and things snapped and rustled and crunched even when there didn’t seem to be anything there to disturb. After a while, he gave up and started walking more briskly back to the prison.

Blue was still in the guard tower when Rick got back, even though it was late enough that Glenn should have taken over. Rick looked up at him from the distance across the yard and thought with a very small smile that he’d know the man’s shape even if he didn’t have the tell-tale crossbow silhouette on his back, that he and Blue were family by then in a way that he and Shane had never been, even in the good days. But that thought was poison, seeping into his brain with images of Shane’s open mouth while he gasped for one last breath, of the way that the cool night air had evaporated off of Shane’s hot skin like his soul leaving his body, and by the time Blue opened the inner gate for him, Rick was scowling, his eyes glassy and distant.

“You okay?” Blue asked him, taking the rabbits from Rick’s hand.

“No, I’m…” Rick stopped walking, squeezing his eyes shut. “I’m…” He thought about how to explain it, how to open up a valve and release some of the pressure of Shane’s death, to hand some of this off to the one person who would help him carry it, but Blue didn’t deserve to be used like an emotional pack mule and so Rick just lifted his hand to his own face, pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers.

Shit,” Blue hissed from Rick’s side, and his hand snapped out cobra-quick to wrap around Rick’s arm just below the wound on his wrist. “Fuck. No.” Blue’s voice was incredibly soft, strangled, and it took Rick an embarrassingly long amount of time to realize why the other man was so upset.

“Blue,” Rick said, trying to pull his arm back. “It’s okay.”

Blue jerked Rick’s arm farther toward himself almost viciously rather than letting it go. “We gotta get the Farmer. How long’s it been?”

Rick tried to tug his arm back again but made no progress against the hunter’s iron grip. “Blue, it’s okay. It’s not a bite.”

“There’s fuckin’ teeth marks in your wrist, Rick,” Blue spat out. “Of course it’s a goddamn bite.” He turned and bellowed the farmer’s name back toward the prison door, pointed angrily at Birdy. “Go get your dad, now. What the fuck is everybody doin’ just fuckin’ standing there?” Birdy turned and ran back into the prison, and Blue swung around back to Rick. “I’ll chop your damn arm off myself if I got to, swear to God.”

Blue,” Rick practically yelled, desperate to get the man to stop panicking. “Blue, I bit myself. In my sleep. It’s not a Walker bite. It’s not.”

Blue’s fingers tightened in Rick’s arm, dirty nails digging into the skin hard enough to leave marks, and he locked eyes with Rick, his mouth open just slightly. “You sure?” he asked, deadly soft.

“I’m sure,” Rick said. He gently pulled his arm away from Blue and Blue let go at last, dropping his shaking hand to his side.

“Jesus Christ, Rick,” Blue cursed under his breath. He hung his head like the weight of it was too much to hold up anymore and clenched his hands into fists. “Jesus Christ.

“I just get these nightmares, you know?” Rick murmured, watching as the farmer burst through the doors of the prison and hobbled over to him. “And I wake up like this.”

Blue lifted his hand and dropped it heavily on Rick’s shoulder, leaving his head hanging down and his eyes on the ground. "Let the doc take a look anyway,” he grumbled, and then he wheeled around and walked briskly off toward the roof, his heavy boots making almost no sound as they skimmed over the concrete.

//

Shane puts his elbow on the windowledge of the car and stares out toward the field. “Where you killed me,” he repeats, bringing his fist up to press against his teeth.

“I just need you to know,” Rick whispers, low so that Carl won’t hear if he’s woken up. “I need you to know, Shane, that what I’m pining for isn’t the dream. I don’t want to go back there, not for anything. It’s just the people. I just need the people.”

“You killed me,” Shane says again. “Murdered me, right there in that field.”

Rick pulls the car to a stop under the trees in front of the farmhouse and gets out. He leans against the hood of the car and waits while Shane comes around to sit beside him. “It’s complicated. And if I can convince you, brother, I’ll tell you everything. I swear to you I will. And I’m not sayin’ it’ll make sense or that you’ll understand it, not without being there, but I just need you to know that I’m sorry.”

“Rick, this is insane,” Shane tells him, but he sounds shaken now, off-center. “All of this. It’s crazy talk. You know it’s crazy talk.”

“I know it sounds like crazy talk,” Rick corrects him. “But I’m about to show you it’s not. You remember all the things I told you about this place?”

Shane nods, and then both of them turn around as Carl clambers out of the car.

“Where are we, Dad?” Carl asks, looking around at the trees, the farm, the house.

“Just a quick stop,” Rick answers, even though it’s not an answer and they all know it. Luckily, though, Carl doesn’t press the issue, because Rick just isn’t sure what to tell the boy about any of this, and frankly he’s not sure what exactly he’s going to say to the farmer himself when he gets up to the door of the house and knocks. But they’ve come this far, he reasons, and he just has to convince Shane that this is real, so he’ll make it inside that house even if he has to break in later tonight with a flashlight and soft footsteps.

Shane ruffles Carl’s hair and says, “Thought we’d bring your mom home some fresh farm eggs.” He meets Rick’s eyes and nods at a small wooden sign with “Fresh Eggs for Sale” painted on it in a loopy, fanciful script that Rick recognizes from the banner that had hung in the prison with Judith’s name, the banner that Birdy had made for the baby, claiming that a little girl growing up in a cell needed something pretty to look at.

“Right,” Rick says, and they walk up to the porch and Rick exchanges a glance with Shane before he lifts his hand and knocks on the door.

The woman who answers is no one Rick remembers specifically, but there’s a nagging sense at the edge of his memory that he’s seen her before anyway. Shane looks over at Rick, raising his eyebrows, but Rick doesn’t look back at him. “We’re here to see if you have any eggs for sale today,” Rick says, offering her a smile that’s only slightly strained.

She smiles back and turns her head to look back in the house. “Beth, honey? Are there eggs ready to sell?”

Beth, Rick thinks, and it isn’t even that shattering this time because of course she’s real. Of course he’s right. He turns and looks at Shane and nods.

Shane raises his eyebrow again but doesn’t say anything, and after a few seconds the girl comes out of the dining room. “What did you say, Mama?” She sees the group at the door and smiles. “Oh, hello.”

“They’re asking if there are eggs ready today,” the older woman repeats.

“Oh,” Beth says, smiling brightly. “I’m sure there are. I’ll go out to the coop and check.”

“Can I come with you?” Carl blurts out, and Rick glances down at the red-faced boy and tries to hide a snicker.

Beth laughs, a pretty little musical sound, and steps out the door onto the porch with them. “You certainly can,” she says, then starts walking out toward the outbuildings. Carl tags along behind her and Shane rolls his eyes at Rick with a little smirk.

“Would you like to come in while you wait?” the woman asks. “My husband’s in the living room. I’m sure he’d be glad to meet some new people.”

“Yes,” Rick says, probably too quickly, but he’s not going to turn down the opportunity to go inside the house. They follow the woman inside, and Rick gestures at things while her back is turned, drawing Shane’s attention to the things he’d described on the drive over: a photo of Beth and her sister as younger girls dressed as cats for Halloween, a plaque commemorating Hershel Greene as Sunday School Teacher of the Year, an ugly ceramic statue of a chicken with part of a tail feather broken off. By the time they reach the living room, Shane’s jaw is set, his hands curled into loose fists at his sides, and Rick’s heart is pounding in his chest at the nearness of everything, at being somewhere so important.

And then there’s Hershel, sitting in the living room reading a book, and all of Rick’s doubts fall away. Any last lingering thoughts that he’s been clinging to an illusion are gone, because this can’t all be coincidence. Carol and Glenn and Beth and Hershel, the farm exactly as Rick remembers it, down to the knots in the floorboards and the pattern of the quilt draped over the back of Hershel’s chair.

Rick reaches out and grabs Shane’s wrist, and the other man turns to look at him with a question in his dark brown eyes. “It’s real,” Rick whispers, leaning in and tilting his head down, slanting his eyes up at Shane and capturing his gaze with an intensity born from years of forcing criminals to take him seriously. “It’s real, Shane.”

And then, to Rick’s astonishment, Shane nods. It’s a curt little jerk of the head, and Shane’s eyes and mouth don’t register any happiness about this at all, but the movement was there and Rick will take it. Shane believes him. He believes him. And Rick stares at him, at the firm set of his jaw and the concerned but trusting wrinkle in his forehead, and he can honestly say that even though it’s not at all romantic, never has been and never will be--he has never loved Shane more than he does right now.

Then Hershel clears his throat and Rick snaps his eyes over to the old man. Hershel looks at him with a very small, barely-there smile and says, “Well, Deputy Grimes, never expected to see you in my living room.”

//

Sometimes the nightmares were completely unrealistic, with Shane’s mouth bubbling with blood as he accused Rick of all sorts of failures over the years, telling him that Lori was dead because of him. Sometimes Lori was there too, her stomach split open and her eyes white. Sometimes Carl joined them, and Judith. Sometimes Blue was there, part of his jaw missing and his hands reaching for Rick like claws, nails like rusted sickles trying to carve into his flesh, and Rick would beg him to do it, to take him out because he didn’t deserve to still be alive, not after all he’d done, all the messes he’d made and lives he’d destroyed.

But those weren’t the bad nights. No, the bad nights were like this one, completely true to life, the way that Shane’s blood felt on Rick’s skin, the smell of gunpowder drifting over from where Carl stood, shaking and judging and far older than he should have had to be by his age, and Rick let out a sob at the clarity of the moment, of the way that it felt to kill his best friend over and over and never get away from it.

“Shh, I got you,” a voice said, and Rick flinched when he recognized it as Blue’s. He didn’t want that, didn’t want to look at the wasted face of the person he trusted most in the world. The only good thing about the realistic nightmares was that he didn’t have to know that he’d failed Blue, too. But Blue wasn’t there in his head, and the hand around his bandaged wrist was warm, firm, real. Rick opened his eyes and Blue was there, kneeling beside Rick’s cot with his hands on Rick’s arms, holding them away from Rick’s bared teeth.

“Blue?” Rick asked, blinking to clear the swirling mist out of his head.

“‘s okay,” Blue murmured, softly enough that no one outside the cell would be able to hear. “You’re good. You’re safe. Just breathe.” He slowly let go of Rick’s arms and rocked back on his heels, shrugging his poncho back over his shoulders while Rick absently rubbed the bandage Hershel had put over the wound from last night.

Rick squeezed his eyes shut and waited for his pulse to slow down, waited for the guilt-laced images of blood and death to clear from his peripheral vision. When he opened his eyes again, there was only Blue, watching him with something hard to read in his expression.

“You okay?” Blue asked, very softly, and when Rick nodded, he stood up and then settled down in the metal chair in the corner of the room. He picked up a wooden puzzle they’d found in what was left of a Cracker Barrel restaurant and peered at the plastic pegs in the darkened cell, biting at his thumb in thought as he considered the next move in the logic game. There were pegs lying in a little pile on Rick’s makeshift dresser, and after a second Blue did a jumping move with another peg and reached out to drop the one he’d jumped in the pile.

Rick wrinkled his forehead and shifted under his blankets. “What’re you doing?”

“Fuckin’ puzzles, man,” Blue grumbled. He glared at the puzzle and then scooped up the rest of the plastic pegs and started re-setting them in the triangular wooden base. “Keep gettin’ stuck with four of ‘em left. Thing keeps sayin’ I’m an ignoramus or some shit.”

“Blue,” Rick said, and Blue sighed heavily.

“Couldn’t sleep and didn’t sound like you was sleepin’ so good either,” he said, his voice low and rumbling like the way a lion purrs deep in its chest. “Figured you might chew up your arm again.”

Rick watched the other man move pegs around for a few seconds and then asked quietly, “So you’re just sittin’ here watching me sleep.”

Blue shrugged, the poncho shifting on his shoulders, and moved another peg.

Rick sat up in the bed, pulling his knees up and resting his arms on them, watching Blue’s hands move over the little puzzle. After a moment, Blue sighed and put down the game on Rick’s dresser, then hunched forward with his elbows on his thighs and didn’t look at Rick.

“Been thinkin’,” he said, so quietly that Rick had to lean forward to hear him. “Been thinkin’ all day, ever since I thought…” He trailed off and took a deep breath.

“I’m okay,” Rick murmured. “Nothing happened.”

“Don’t matter. It will, eventually. There’s gonna be a day when I see a bite on you and there won’t be a damn thing I can do about it.” He sighed, rocked back and forth a couple of times like he was trying to release his pent-up energy. “Or else it’ll be me that goes first, but that ain’t what keeps me up at night.”

“Blue,” Rick started, but Blue shook his head hard and Rick closed his mouth.

“I gotta…” He took another deep breath, then fell silent instead of using it. He rocked a few more times and then sat up straight and nodded decisively, staring at the wall and still not at Rick. “I know promises don’t mean shit when there’s dead bastards snappin’ at our heels all day long, but I want you to know that if they take you out before they take me, you ain’t got to worry about your kids. I’ll take care of ‘em like they was my own kin, long as I got breath in my lungs. I swear it.” He shrugged. “Ain’t much. But it’s all I got to offer.”

“Blue,” Rick said again, his voice hoarse and his throat tight. “It’s everything.” He straightened out his legs in the bed and reached out a hand.

Blue stood up quickly. “Gotta go. I might…” He let out a hard huff of breath. “Good night, Rick.”

Chapter Text

Rick blinks and drops his hand away from Shane’s arm, staring at Hershel with his mouth just slightly open. “How do you know me?”

Hershel smiles at him, that slightly-patronizing I-know-what’s-best-for-you smile that Rick had gotten so used to, and says, “I’ve been praying for you for months, son.”

Rick widens his eyes and lets his eyebrows migrate toward his hairline. He turns his head toward Shane to find that the other man is doing the same, except Shane has his tongue caught between his lips as well, and Rick takes a deep breath and looks back at Hershel. “But how do you know me?” he asks again, and Hershel chuckles.

“Come with me,” the old man says. He heads back toward his study, a room that Rick remembers fairly well even though he hadn’t spent much time there before.

“Bibles,” Rick murmurs to Shane as they follow Hershel back to the study. “A crucifix on the wall, an old wooden one with an embroidered Lord’s Prayer under it. A--”

“You ain’t got to tell me anymore,” Shane interrupts, speaking softly and with even more of a slow drawl than usual. “That’s enough.”

Rick smiles, feeling a flood of relief rush through his veins and turn his skin cool and electrified. “It’s real,” he says again, and Shane doesn’t respond this time but it doesn’t matter because it’s real, it’s real, it’s real.

Blue is real. And Rick will find him, even if it takes him fucking decades.

Hershel walks over to the bookshelf and pulls out what looks like a scrapbook, then puts it down on the antique writing desk and flips it open to a page with a faded ribbon bookmark in it. He motions Rick over, and Rick looks down at a newspaper clipping from The Atlanta Telegraph with his photo on it and the headline “Officer Shot.”

“This is my prayer book,” Hershel explains. “The mens’ Prayer Warriors group at church had you up on our bulletin board for a month and we all prayed for you every night. You and a couple other officers from Atlanta who’d gotten injured in the line of duty that month.”

Rick blinks at the picture of himself, reaches down and runs his finger over the headline, scans the article for words he knows must be there: hospital, coma, loving wife and young son. There’s a mention of Shane, a brief description of the shootout, dates for the obligatory hearing that had cleared all the officers at the scene of any wrongdoing for killing the suspects who’d opened fire on them.

Hershel puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry we didn’t start praying for you right away, son. You’d been in your coma for a couple of months before we decided to focus on law enforcement officials for a while. Maybe if we’d prayed sooner, you’d have woken up sooner.”

Rick bites back a punctuated no, mostly because he doesn’t want to explain why he would have liked to sleep even longer, at least a few more minutes, to see what would have happened if he’d just told Blue what he was feeling that night after his brother died. If he’d pulled the man into his arms and held him there and never let him go again.

So instead he just aims a reluctant smile at Hershel and says, “I’m awake now.”

“So you are,” Hershel says, looking at him with those deep, searching eyes, like he knows something, like he can read Rick’s mind and understands it better than Rick does.

“I dreamed about you,” Rick blurts out after a moment.

“Oh, shit,” Shane says under his breath, and Rick shoots him a withering glare and then turns back to Hershel.

“I’ve never met you before,” Rick says. “But… when I was in the coma, I dreamed about you.” He watches Hershel’s face and sees no disbelief there, only a vague sense of curiosity, so he pushes forward, tells Hershel that he dreamed that Carl got shot and Hershel saved him, that Hershel and his family joined up with his group and Hershel was their medic, that he and Hershel had grown to be great friends and allies over the months. That Hershel was the reason Blue had survived his gunshot wound, that Hershel had stitched Rick’s skin back together more times than he could count, that Hershel had saved all of them time and again.

He talks for a long time, uninterrupted. He doesn’t tell Hershel that his wife had died, that Hershel had watched her die twice, once from a bite and once from a gunshot. He doesn’t tell him about the night they lost the farm, about the ones who’d died that night, about the one Shane killed. He doesn’t tell him about Beth lying catatonic in her bed, about the shard of glass she took to her wrist one day, about Hershel’s own lost leg and the way that Beth’s voice had sounded echoing through a prison block.

And when he’s done, he just looks at Hershel a little blankly, waiting for a reaction, and Shane reaches out and pats Rick’s shoulder and leaves his hand there like he’s half-expecting to have to restrain him from running away.

There’s a grandfather clock in the study that ticks with a low, booming sound, and Rick focuses on that instead of on his own breathing, fast and erratic. Hershel just keeps watching him for several seconds while Rick wonders if the clock needs to be wound again, if it’s really keeping proper time because the space between seconds could hold lifetimes.

“Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein, for the time is at hand,” Hershel says softly, his voice wavering. “Revelation chapter one, verse three.”

Rick’s eyebrows shoot up and he looks at Hershel quickly, his eyes searching the old man’s stoic face. Shane raises his own eyebrows and says, “What?”

Hershel spreads his hands in front of himself. “The Bible is full of prophets who tell the faithful their visions. Who am I to assume that you’re not one of them?”

Rick nods slowly and then takes a deep breath. “Can we take a walk around the farm? I want to show Shane some… things.”

Hershel raises an eyebrow but nods. “I’ll show you around.”

//

Judith was sick. Nothing major, nothing to worry about--Hershel had made that clear, partially because it was true and partially because Rick had started to panic and no one wanted Rick panicking anymore, not after he’d finally stopped seeing Lori at the corners of his eyes. But major or not, the poor baby sounded absolutely pitiful, crying and coughing, and no one could get her to go to sleep, so everyone in the prison was sleep-deprived and miserable.

“Give ‘er to me,” Blue grumbled, and he snatched the baby from a surprised-looking Beth and hauled Judith outside. Rick leaned on the railing, his eyes red and bloodshot from lack of sleep, and watched them leave. He had a brief moment of indecision--should he follow Blue, watch out for his baby, take the burden away from him since Judith was really Rick’s responsibility? Probably so, he thought, but then again Blue had been sleeping on the roof since Judy got sick and so he was probably the best-rested of any of them.

Thank God,” Beth murmured from the lower level, and Rick watched her go back into her cell, heard the low, heavy thump as she flung herself down onto her mattress, and Rick couldn’t help but agree, so he did the same, burying his head in his pillow and passing out almost instantly.

He really only slept for an hour or so, but it was incredibly refreshing, and when Rick woke up and stretched, the thought flashed through his head that he could kiss Blue for this. Instead, though, he got up and walked outside, expecting to hear the cries and coughs of a sick baby, but the air outside was still and a little humid, quiet like a Sunday afternoon, and it took Rick a while to find them.

Blue was sitting against a wall in the shade, his legs stretched out in front of him and Judith sleeping with her head against his chest, her tiny hand curled in the fabric of his shirt and a little puddle of drool below her lips. Blue was holding her firmly with one arm and had a book clutched in the other--a tattered old Western that Rick and everyone else had read at least four times since the world had ended.

“‘There never had been a race between the King and Blue Roan, and there never would be, unless Joel were to ride off with Lucy. In that case there would be the grandest race ever run on the uplands, with the odds against Blue Roan only if he carried double,’” Blue was reading, low and rumbling, his voice caught in his chest just below Judith’s head, and Rick smiled despite himself at the little domestic scene.

“‘If Joel put Lucy up on the Roan and he rode Peg there would be another story,’” Blue continued, then looked up and saw Rick and kept talking in the same tone without a pause, almost as if he was still reading from the book, “Your little girl likes it when I talk to her because I got a nice country voice like her daddy Rick an’ I can’t quit talkin’ or she’ll wake up, so ‘Lucy Bostil was a slip of a girl, born on a horse, as strong and supple as an Indian, and she could ride like a burr sticking in a horse's mane…’”

Rick steepled his hands together in a praying position and mouthed thank you at the man, who nodded back and kept reading. Rick wandered back into the cell block and laid back down on his mattress, staring at the concrete ceiling and wondering when his daughter had become Blue’s daughter too.

//

Hershel takes them outside, points out the different places that Rick already knows. He tells them about his family, and Rick feels like the wind has been briefly knocked out of him every time he hears a new one he knows: Patricia, Jimmy, Otis, Maggie.

Shane, for his part, spends the time frowning, looking around as if there are ghosts flitting at the edge of his vision, dragging his feet and making even Hershel slow down to match his pace.

“You okay?” Rick asks him once, voice low and a hand on Shane’s upper back.

Shane shakes his head hard, and Rick isn’t sure if it’s a no or a stop talking or both. Eventually he grunts out, “Just feel weird, that’s all.” Rick frowns back at him but lets it go, and Hershel points to one of the wells on the property, the one Glenn had nearly died in, the one with the Walker in its depths. Shane stares at the well for a while, tight lines forming around the corners of his mouth, and he finally shakes his head again and keeps following Rick.

They get to the dusty expanse in front of the barn and Shane stops in his tracks, staring at the door, his jaw working and his eyes distant and troubled. Rick turns toward him and puts a hand on his shoulder again, but Shane shrugs it off hard, with something of a growl, and Rick takes a step backwards.

“Somethin’ happened here,” Shane says after a moment, his words muddled and hard to understand. “I was here.” He looks at the ground and takes a step to the side. “No, here. This is where it happened.”

Rick swallows, hoping to dislodge his pulse from his throat. “You remember?” he asks, very quietly.

“No,” Shane says quickly. “No, don’t remember anything. Just… a feeling. That this is a bad spot. That… shit, what did I do?” He looks at Rick with a pleading question in his eyes. “What’d I do, Rick?”

Rick takes a deep, steadying breath. “Don’t worry about it, brother,” he says, because there’s no reason why Shane should have to remember the things that Rick does, no reason why he should push that on his friend. Rick will tell him what he needs to know to make him believe but nothing else, won’t let himself put that burden on a man who isn’t the same as the one who deserves it.

“Rick,” Shane rasps out, his voice broken and strained. “Tell me.”

Rick sighs and rubs his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, putting his other hand on his hip and resting it there. “You did what you thought was right,” he says. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

“You don’t think I deserve to know what the fuck I did?” Shane hisses, and Hershel ambles farther away from them with a pointed look. Shane grabs Rick’s wrist and yanks it away from his eyes, and Rick steadily meets his gaze. “You been describing this shit to me for weeks and now that I’m askin’ questions you suddenly don’t wanna talk about it?”

“Not here, Shane,” Rick says, slanting his eyes very obviously at Hershel. “We can talk later, okay? I’ll tell you what you need to know. Just not in front of him.”

Shane looks over at Hershel and takes a deep breath that Rick can actually hear filling the man’s lungs. “Alright,” he says after a moment, catching his tongue between his lips and nodding more to himself than to Rick. Then he dips his head and looks up at Rick, his eyes dark and intense. “But when we get back to the car, you’re tellin’ me everything.”

Rick nods slowly. “Alright. I’ll tell you everything.”

Only he doesn’t, because by the time they get back to the car, Carl is there with a carton of eggs and a bright red blush on his face, and he ends up talking the adults’ ears off the entire rest of the drive back to King County, and even Shane’s pointed suggestions that maybe he’d like to listen to his music or play his games or even, for the love of God, be quiet and go to sleep don’t phase the kid. So the drive home is filled with talk about chickens and baseball and whether girls in high school ever date younger guys, and Rick would think it was hilarious if it weren’t for the venom-filled looks Shane keeps shooting at him from the corner of his eye.

“We’ll drop him off and then go talk at your house,” Rick murmurs during a rare moment of silence while Carl finds something on his phone to show them, and Shane jerks his head in a nod and doesn’t say anything.

They pull up into Rick’s driveway just as the stars are starting to appear in the sky above the azaleas, and Carl jumps out and runs inside to find Lori. Shane gets out of the passenger seat and walks around to the driver’s side, and Rick slowly climbs out of the car and closes the door behind him, watching Shane carefully.

Shane leans with his back against the car. “Start talking.”

Rick sighs and leans against the car beside him only backwards, putting his elbows on the roof of the car and staring into the too-high grass of the next-door yard. “Don’t even know where to start.” Ain’t no easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it, he thinks, but that was easier, telling a man that his brother may be dead because Rick messed up. Rick could take responsibility for that. But Shane… Rick sighs again and gathers the words to himself, trying to sort them into something coherent.

“Start with what happened in front of that barn,” Shane grits out, and Rick shakes his head hard.

“Can’t start with that,” he says. “Won’t make any sense to you if you don’t know what came before. What led up to it.” How we fell apart, he thinks, remembering the coldness in Shane’s eyes and the way he’d known, even then, that they’d never be okay again, that their friendship was over. How a part of him had seen the wildness in his friend, the way he was going to self-destruct spectacularly and Rick was only going to be able to do damage control.

“Then start wherever, just talk.” Shane’s voice is hard like granite, like the feeling of cold when fear slides down spines and into stomachs.

Rick dips his head and closes his eyes, centering himself. “I woke up in the hospital and when I found you and Lori in the camp… you were together. I know you were.”

“You’ve told me that already,” Shane snaps. “Skip forward to what I don’t know.”

“God, Shane,” Rick says, rubbing his eyes again like he had in the barnyard earlier. “I don’t know if you want to know this stuff. It’s not good, brother. None of it is good.”

“If I’m gonna get a fucking ton of lead in my gut like that just walking around random farms in Georgia, I got a right to know why,” Shane challenges.

“You do,” Rick answers, faintly. “You’re right.”

Lori’s voice filters over to them from the doorway to the house, light and shimmery like the fog over a river. “Rick? I need to talk to you, honey.”

Rick twists his body around, rolling it along the metal of the car until he’s facing her. “I’ll be there in a minute,” he calls. “Need to talk to Shane.”

Rick,” Lori says, louder this time. “It’s important.”

Shane grinds his teeth when Rick looks at him. “I can call you tomorrow. We’ll get together, have breakfast at Denny’s or something. And I’ll tell you the whole story then.”

“Man, you can’t leave me hangin’ like this,” Shane practically begs, shaking his head like he can’t believe Rick would suggest such a thing.

“Tomorrow,” Rick says. “I promise.”

Shane gives him a curt, angry nod, and then throws himself into the driver’s seat of his car and slams the door with enough force that Lori jumps in the doorway. He wheels out of Rick’s driveway and heads off in the direction of his house, and Rick watches the car until it turns left out of the subdivision and disappears.

He shoves his hands into his pockets and looks at the ground as he walks back over to Lori. “What’s going on?” he asks, pulling her into his arms in a warm hug.

Lori buries her head in Rick’s shoulder for a second, her body tense, and then she moves her mouth away from the fabric of his shirt enough to whisper, “I’m pregnant.”

Chapter Text

Rick slowly lifts his hand and puts it on the back of Lori’s head, stroking it down over her silky hair and then repeating the motion. She stands there, still under his hands, and he feels her thin fingers tighten in his shirt. The crickets and cicadas are loud, the fireflies darting in and out of the azalea bushes, and Rick can’t breathe.

But she expects him to, and Rick can feel it, can feel her need for everything to be okay thrumming under his fingertips, and he can give her that, at least. Because no matter what, it has to be better than how this happened before, in the dream, Lori dying without him in a prison, a gunshot being the first sound the baby heard in the world. Judith growing up essentially an orphan, with Lori gone and Rick seeing Shane every day in the baby’s smile. And here… here Judith can have all of her parents, all three of them, and Rick will love her either way the inevitable paternity test goes. Hell, maybe he won’t even look at the test results, won’t ever know for himself whose daughter she really is, because she’ll still be Rick’s. He’ll make sure of that. Lori will promise him that, he knows she will.

So Rick forces air into his lungs and kisses Lori’s forehead and pushes her to arm’s length. “That’s wonderful,” he says, smiling at her.

Lori stares at him. “You don’t understand,” she says, the words wobbling and uncertain. “I’m pregnant. And I don’t know who…” She breaks off, chewing on her bottom lip and looking off into the yard.

“It’s okay,” Rick tells her. “It really is.” He pulls her back in to his chest, strokes her hair again.

“What do we do? Do we… are we keeping it?” Lori shivers against him and Rick feels a pinpoint of wet on his shirt fabric where her head is.

“Her,” Rick corrects, swallowing down the bile in his throat at the thought of not keeping his little girl. He hadn’t always thought so, had even spent some nights in the apocalypse praying through shame that she wouldn’t be born after all, that they wouldn’t have to bring a baby into a world like that, knowing that Lori was lying not too far away praying the same thing.

But this isn’t that world, and Rick has had plenty of time to get over any bad feelings he may have ever had for his daughter, and now he’s worried that the nine months he’s going to have to wait to hold her are too long, that he’ll go crazy waiting for the wisps of hair on her tiny head, the way she giggled while trying to shove her whole fist in her mouth. So he holds Lori and he tells her it’s going to be okay, and it will. He’ll make it okay, for all of them.

Lori sighs against his shoulder and twists her fingers in his shirt again. “I guess that means we’re keeping it, then,” she murmurs.

“Yeah,” he says, moving his mouth to kiss the top of her head. “I want to keep her.”

“Even if she’s his?” Lori whispers, so softly that Rick almost doesn’t hear her.

“Yeah,” he says back. “I told you, it don’t matter. I’ll love her no matter who her real daddy is. Just don’t...” He trails off, tries again. “If you find out she’s his, don’t take her away from me. Still let me be one of her daddies.”

Lori nods against him and then slowly pulls away and looks up at him, her eyes on his forehead and not meeting his actual gaze. “We have to tell him.”

Rick thinks of Shane this morning, standing in the barnyard wrestling with shadows he didn’t understand. He thinks of the way that Shane had spent the whole drive home with his nails dug into his own thigh, his jaw set and his eyes distant. He thinks of the squeal of tires as Shane drove away just a few minutes ago. Sighing heavily, Rick shakes his head. “Not tonight,” he says. “He’s got a lot to deal with tonight. We’ll tell him. Soon.” He turns his head and looks off down the street where the car had disappeared. “Just not tonight.”

//

Lori shifts against Rick in her sleep, making a soft hmming noise, and he tightens his arms around her and kisses her hair softly. They’d talked about the baby for a long time, lying in bed facing each other, and eventually Lori had started smiling while they talked. Rick had stared into her huge eyes and then gathered her up against him, and they’d gone to sleep like that, curled next to each other. It’s soft, warm, comfortable--and oddly platonic. He loves her fiercely, especially now that she’s carrying his daughter, but it’s still not the same as it used to be, the same as he feels for his archer, the one who was just as much Judith’s daddy as Rick had been, if not more.

But for now, having Lori safe in his arms is enough to make Rick feel almost content. He runs his hand softly up and down the smooth skin of her arm and goes through all the things they’ll need to do to get ready for a baby--more than likely starting with a few unpleasant conversations with lawyers, which Rick forces himself to stop thinking about.

Instead he thinks of Judy’s future, a real one now--Halloween costumes and finger paints and, eventually, boyfriends and weddings. A future that she couldn’t have had in the dream, even if she’d managed to survive to adulthood, even if Rick himself had managed to live long enough to see it. This is better, he tells himself for the millionth time, and then when that thought combines with and Blue is real, he actually finds himself believing it.

Rick’s phone buzzes on the nightstand and he rolls over slowly so as not to wake Lori and picks it up. Shane’s name is lit up on the screen, just under the time: 4:31 a.m. Rick frowns at the phone and answers it. “Hello?”

“Rick, buddy, I’m in your yard,” Shane says, and he sounds strained, panicked. “I’m in your yard and I got a key so I’m coming in. Didn’t want you to shoot me for bein’ an intruder.” He sucks in a breath that Rick can hear over the phone. “But man, we gotta talk. Right now.”

Rick sits up and swings his legs out of bed. “Okay. I’ll be down in a few seconds.” He hangs up and changes from sleep pants into his jeans, then pulls on an old, well-worn police academy t-shirt. He hears the lock click from downstairs and then the sound of a door being shut carefully, and he takes a deep breath and pads silently down the stairs in his bare feet.

Shane is sitting at the table in the kitchen looking absolutely wrecked, eyes red-rimmed but dry, his hands clenched into fists in front of him. Rick jogs the rest of the way to him and tries to put a hand on his shoulder, but Shane stands up quickly, violently, and takes a few steps away from Rick before whirling around to face him.

“I killed him,” Shane says, his voice cracking. “That man… Otis… he didn’t do nothin’ to me and I killed him. I said I did it for Carl and I did, but… man, we coulda gotten out, the two of us. We coulda at least tried. But I was hurt and I was fuckin’ scared and I shot him, Rick. I shot him in the leg and I couldn’t even give him a fuckin’ headshot, no, I just put a bullet in his leg and let those things tear him to pieces. He was still alive, man. I didn’t even kill him before I let them have him.” He reaches up, puts his hands in his hair and pulls hard.

“Shane, brother,” Rick says, taking a step toward him and then backing down as Shane flicks his gaze up at him, a bone-deep fear burning behind his eyes. Rick holds his palm up at Shane in a hold gesture. “It’s okay. Let’s just calm down.”

“You didn’t tell me.” Accusation hangs heavy in Shane’s voice, and he tugs on his hair again. “You didn’t tell me I was a stone-cold murderer, Rick.”

Rick puts his hands on his hips and looks at the ground. “You didn’t need to know. I couldn’t put that on you, not if this was all just in my head.”

Shane lets out a hard breath and puts one hand on his own hip, rubbing his eyes with the other one. “Fuck, man, it’s so real. I know I didn’t really do that, but if you hooked me up to a polygraph right now and I said I didn’t, fuckin’ thing would go off the charts.”

“I know,” Rick says. He slides his hands from his hips down to hook them in his belt loops and keeps looking at the ground. “I told you it didn’t feel like a dream.”

“That was not a dream,” Shane says, a bubble of humorless laughter escaping his lips while he points angrily in the general direction of his house. “I don’t know what the fuck that was, but it was not a dream.”

Rick just nods, biting back the I told you so’s that are haunting the tip of his tongue. Saying so would be useless and childish, and he doesn’t want to do anything that will bring them back to fighting like they had in Hershel’s field that night. Doesn’t want Shane to ever hate him like that again.

Silence falls in the kitchen, echoing on the tile floor so loudly that Rick is afraid that it will wake Carl. Shane is not the same as he was, isn’t the angry monster with hate in his eyes that Rick had been forced to kill, but he’s still seething with rage mixed with a healthy dose of fear and self-loathing and Rick can hardly look at him as Shane’s shoulders rise and fall with heavy, deliberate breaths. Rick lets him process, lets him breathe, watching Shane’s clenched fists and waiting until they loosen slightly before he takes another step toward him, putting his hand on Shane’s shoulder.

This time, Shane flinches at the touch but doesn’t shrug it off. “I killed him,” he says, and his voice is small and broken like Rick hasn’t heard since they were boys, when Shane’s grandfather had passed away and Shane had climbed in Rick’s window and cried on his shoulder until they’d both fallen into an exhausted sleep. There’s the same helpless grief, the same strained guilt, the same look of loss and fear in Shane’s burning eyes, and Rick wants nothing more than to comfort him, to make it okay as much as he can.

Rick pulls Shane into a firm hug and Shane lets him for a few seconds, then pulls back and puts their foreheads together like they had on the day Carl was shot, the last time Shane had been anything approaching sane in the dream world. Shane has killed people before in this world, too, and so has Rick, but it had always been criminals who’d forced the issue, deaths in the line of duty, and it’s another thing entirely to be faced with the evidence of what he’s capable of in another world and Rick knows it, has had time to come to terms with that. But Shane hasn’t, and Shane needs reassurance that he’s not that man in this version of reality. So Rick holds on to him and gives him the time he needs to calm down, hoping Shane can feel Rick’s support through his hands on the man’s shoulders.

It’s a long time later when Shane pulls away, walks a little unsteadily into the living room and sinks down into Rick’s recliner like it’s his own. Rick perches on his usual wooden chair and says, “You weren’t the same then. There was something wrong with you, and you would never do that here.”

“No,” Shane says, hoarse and goosedown-quiet. “No, that was me. That was… I feel that man, you know?” He balls his hand into a fist and pounds it against his chest. “I feel him here. Wouldn’t take much to bring him out again, not if something happened to Carl again. To Lori. To you. Always said I’d kill any motherfucker who touched any of you and before tonight I thought that was a fuckin’ metaphor, you know? But maybe it ain’t a metaphor. Maybe it’s just me.” He laughs again, still without the slightest trace of amusement. “Maybe I’m just dangerous.”

“You’re not,” Rick tells him. “And even if that man is there somewhere, you know now. You know what can happen and so you won’t let it.”

“I don’t, though,” Shane says, shaking his head and leaning forward, letting his elbows rest on his knees and his hands dangle down between them. “I don’t know what happened and I need you to tell me. And fuck, if I straight-up murdered that man… if I tried to do what I did to Lori at the CDC… what the hell did I do later? At the barn?” He looks over at Rick, his eyebrows raised and his forehead wrinkled. “What happened at the barn, Rick?”

Rick lets out a long breath, the air whistling slightly between his gritted teeth. “Nothing as bad as what happened with Otis.” He pinches the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut for a second, and then tilts his head toward Shane but keeps his eyes on the ground in front of him. “Hershel had Walkers in the barn. You gathered everybody together and we shot the Walkers. All of them. And you were right, Shane. It had to be done. It needed to be done. We weren’t safe with them there. It was just… the way you did it. In front of Hershel. In front of his daughters, Patricia.” He takes a deep breath and lets that one out between his teeth too. “And Sophia was in there. She’d… she’d been bit. Turned. Carol had to see that. But I was the one who shot her, not you.”

Jesus,” Shane says, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes. “What else?”

Rick hesitates, mirroring Shane’s position by leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. “Brother, you don’t want to know everything. Trust me.”

“Rick, I’m going to go home and go to bed and live everything,” Shane says. He sits up straight and throws his head back, staring at the ceiling. “I went to bed after I got home, and I dreamed about… I don’t know. Something stupid. I was in this flooded quarry catching frogs with Carl. It was just a short dream, couple minutes maybe. And it shook me, man, because it felt so real and I thought what the hell, you know? But I got up and had a beer and then I went back to bed and I dreamed this.” He drops his head back down until his chin rests on his chest. “So I’m guessin’ that next time I sleep I’ll dream more. So you gotta warn me about what I’m gonna see so it don’t freak me out like this.”

“You’re sure?” Rick asks, and when Shane nods decisively, Rick nods back, much more slowly. “I don’t know what you already know.”

Shane licks his lips nervously and stares at the floor. “I only actually dreamed about catching frogs at the quarry and about… being at the high school with Otis. But I know what happened before that. So just… start with after Otis, I guess.”

Rick sighs and rubs his hand over his mouth before speaking. “When you got back from the high school, you lied to everybody about what happened there. Told us all that Otis sacrificed himself so that you could make it back to Carl. And you did, and Carl was okay, and so I didn’t want to question your story, at least at first. I wanted you to be telling the truth, you know? And then… there was this kid.” Rick stops, rubs his hand over his mouth, continues. “Teenager, you know, college-aged maybe. You thought we had to kill him so that he wouldn’t lead people back to the farm, and I thought we didn’t have to, and we fought about him. A lot. And then you and I got in an argument and you were so mad, Shane. You woulda killed me. You threw this huge bus wrench at my head, didn’t pull your punches. And then you killed the kid, too, snapped his neck. And then…” Rick sighs heavily. “We were in the field at the farm and you pulled a gun on me. You were going to kill me, I know you were. You said you were. And maybe you would have gone through with it and maybe you wouldn’t, that night, but you weren’t safe to be around. You were going to kill me eventually and I had to stay alive for Lori and Carl.” He thinks about Judith, about how much of this had been about her, but he can’t bring himself to tell Shane the good news in the middle of such an awful conversation, to taint the moment when Shane finds out he’s going to be a father. And besides, he wants Lori to have that, to be able to tell Shane about their daughter with a smile on her face this time. So he takes a deep breath and continues. “And so I stabbed you. And you died.”

Shane is glaring at him by the end of the story, flames licking at his pupils and his fingers pressed into his own thighs hard, nails digging in to the fabric. “That ain’t true,” he growls. “I know that ain’t true because I would never hurt you, Rick. Never.”

Rick doesn’t say anything to that, just puts his hand over his own mouth again and stares at the floor, and after a moment Shane speaks in a strained voice. “How can you still sit here with me? How can you let me in your house, let me go to games with you, let me sleep in the same room with you and your boy? How can you trust me if I did those things?”

Rick shakes his head to dismiss the questions. “It was the end of the world and everybody had gone to shit. Some of us just took longer than others.” He looks over at Shane and locks eyes with him. “You weren’t the only one who did things they weren’t proud of. I just told you all the bad things you did, but I didn’t tell you mine. I killed people too. I let people down. And you were right, brother. You told me I couldn’t be the good guy and expect to live, and you were right. So after you died… I wasn’t the good guy anymore. I did what I had to do. And I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it’s what happened.” He takes a deep breath and wishes he had the coarse fabric of a poncho to pull over his own shoulders and make it warmer in the room. “So how can I blame you, brother, when all of us were monsters in the end?”

Shane nods very slowly, rubbing his mouth hard with the palm of his hand. “Alright,” he says after a while. He sits up straighter and nods again, faster this time. “I ain’t gonna be like that, brother. Never again.”

“Let’s hope none of us ever have to be,” Rick tells him.

There’s another long silence, but this one is smoother, less weighted. Rick waits to see what Shane wants to talk about, to let the other man take the lead this time.

“So,” Shane says eventually. “I don’t… like I said, there’s not much I actually dreamed. Just the frogs with Carl, and the night with--Otis. But I know what I was thinkin’ during those times. I know what I remembered. An’ while I was there at the, um, at the high school, I thought about this one thing.”

Rick waits, lacing and unlacing his fingers and watching them move.

“It was… Jesus, I was so pissed,” Shane says. “Damn Walker--” He breaks off and then eyes Rick. "You didn't tell me about the damn Walkers, man."

Rick raises an eyebrow, sits back a little in his chair. "I'm sure I said somethin' about that."

"No, zombie apocalypse is something I'm pretty sure I'd remember you sayin', man," Shane says. "I mean, you said 'end of the world' and all, but you never mentioned the damn Walkers."

Rick half-smiles. "There were Walkers," he tells Shane, weeks too late.

Shane leans back in the recliner and puts his arms along the armrests. "Anyway, there was this Walker coming at me and I had this thought, you know? That it would be pretty useful if that damn redneck was there to crossbow it for me. An' I remember thinkin' about him then, all dirty with his damn squirrels hangin' all over him, an' Rick... are you sure you're in love with that guy? I mean, really. You're gonna go gay, go for Glenn, you know?"

Rick clenches a fist and then consciously relaxes it, thinking of one morning when he'd caught Blue just after he woke up, looking warm and rumpled and just so damn soft, with the creases of his bedsheets imprinted in his skin, his hair sticking up crazily and an unguarded smile on his face that had lasted just long enough for Blue's eyes to focus on Rick and then snap back into sharp, vigilant focus before he ran off toward the showers with a mumbled excuse.

"Yeah," he says to Shane, conviction heavy in his voice like summer rainclouds.  "I'm sure."

Chapter Text

Rick and Shane fall silent not too long after that. Shane runs out of questions and Rick doesn’t want to volunteer anything else until Shane has had more time to process everything. Eventually, Shane stands up and tries to walk to his car, but Rick grabs him by the shoulder and steers him into the guest bedroom instead.

“Don’t want you to go too far,” he murmurs as they walk down the hallway past Carl’s room. “Not tonight.” Shane just nods and disappears into the room, shutting the door firmly behind him.

When Rick wakes up the next morning, Shane is already gone. Lori has made breakfast--her “special” pancakes, lumpy and disgusting as always, but Rick and Carl eat them happily like they always do, and when Carl asks why she’s made them on a weekday morning, Lori just kisses him on the top of the head and tells him that she wanted to do something nice for her men when they weren’t expecting it. When Carl turns back to his food, Lori places a hand softly on her abdomen and meets Rick’s eyes with a tiny smile, and Rick smiles back, and it almost feels like home again.

The only thing missing is a hunter with a soft smile and hard muscles, and now that Shane has had the dream too… Rick is going to find Blue.

He gets dressed in his police uniform and heads for the station. He and Shane are on desk duty today instead of patrol, and Rick sticks his head in to the sheriff’s office to tell her that he doesn’t know if Shane’s feeling well enough to come in. Then he goes to his desk and sits down, shooting Shane a quick “checking-in” text while he waits for his computer to boot up.

Shane never answers the text, but just as Rick starts to get worried, the man stomps in the door and slumps down into his own desk chair, his eyes red-rimmed and dark. Rick watches as Shane punches the power button on his computer with way too much force and then starts typing furiously, his fingers flying over the keyboard.

Rick gets up and walks over to him. “Hey,” he says, leaning his hip against Shane’s desk. “You okay?”

“Fuck off,” Shane growls, and Rick’s eyebrows shoot up. After a second, Shane sighs and looks up at him. “Sorry. Ain’t mad at you. Just… I just don’t wanna talk right now, man.”

Pushing away from the desk, Rick nods. “Just let me know if you need anything, alright?”

Shane jerks his head in acknowledgement and goes back to typing. Rick wanders back over to his desk and sits down.

He’s up to date on his paperwork, so there isn’t a lot to do at the desk today--he’s mostly on standby in case someone calls in for backup, or the phones get too busy for Traci to handle on her own. Rick thinks for a moment about going to find some more data entry to do like he had the other night, but quickly dismisses that thought. Let the other officers do their own damn paperwork, he thinks, and he pulls up the police database.

It doesn’t take long to find Glenn now that he has a name and some basic information--the kid had some traffic tickets from delivering pizzas a little too enthusiastically. Glenn Rhee, 22, Atlanta. He pulls out a notepad and writes the name down, then writes out the address they have on file for him. Then he writes down the names from the farm, with their address as well even though Maggie didn’t seem to live there right now. And then he starts looking for Blue.

An hour later, Rick stares at the face of the twenty-seventh consecutive mid-thirties man with blue eyes and brown hair he’s looked at who most certainly is not Blue, and he entertains a brief fantasy of punching the screen in frustration before he closes the window and pulls up man number twenty-eight.

Still not Blue. He sighs and closes the window, pulls up another one. Twenty-nine men, twenty-nine disappointments.

He looks at the search box and then clicks out to an Internet page. He types in a different set of characteristics: female, blonde, mid-thirties, Florida, civil rights lawyer. And there, fifth result down, is Andrea Harrison.

Rick hits the “print” button so hard he thinks he might break it. The page has a professional photograph of her, smiling at the camera with eyes that aren’t haunted with death like they’d been the last time he’d seen her, and there’s a phone number and email address for her office at some law firm in Tampa. Rick jumps up from his chair and strides briskly over to the printer, then snatches the paper from it and goes to Shane’s desk at a jog.

He holds out the paper. “Andrea Harrison,” he says, triumph layering his voice like a wool blanket.

Shane flicks his eyes up to the paper and then grunts and looks back down. “Cool,” he says.

Rick frowns and shakes the paper a bit to get Shane’s attention back. “She’s Blondie. The lawyer?”

“Yeah,” Shane mumbles. He frowns at his computer screen, and when Rick steps to the side to try and see what’s on the monitor better, Shane reaches up and twists the screen to the side to keep Rick from looking. “Busy, Rick. Later.”

Rick slowly lowers the paper to his side and takes a deep, steadying breath through his nose. “Okay,” he says after a few seconds, then trudges back over to his desk. Finding Andrea is a step in the right direction, but at this point he’s so convinced that everyone is real that it’s something of a meaningless victory. Just confirming what he already knows. And he’ll call Andrea one day soon, connect with her, make sure that she’s okay, but she’s not his priority right now and he knows it.

Man number thirty is Caleb Albritton. Rick sighs and clicks on number thirty-one.

//

Shane doesn’t leave when their shift is over, just keeps hammering away at his keyboard, and nothing Rick does can convince him otherwise. So Rick leaves him there and goes home, plays checkers with Carl, watches House Hunters with Lori, cleans his gun in the study and thinks about all the times that he and Blue did this together, cleaning weapons and checking ammunition, smiling at each other and laughing quietly over nothing.

He calls Shane later, but the call goes to voicemail. A few minutes later, though, a text message pops up: “Not ready to talk yet. Will call tomorrow.” Rick sighs and puts the phone down just as Lori walks into the study.

“I tried to call Shane,” she says, chewing on her bottom lip, her arms crossed tightly against her chest. “He’s not answering.”

Rick nods. “He’s goin’ through some stuff. He’s okay.”

“He needs to know about the baby,” she says, glancing back over her shoulder like she expects Carl to be standing there.

“We’ll tell him,” Rick says. “You can tell him alone, if you want to. As long as you let me be her daddy too.”

Lori closes her eyes for a moment but then opens them again and shakes her head, more in disbelief than in disagreement. “We’ll all have to discuss it.”

“We will,” Rick assures her. “I’m just sayin’ that if you want to talk to him by yourself… that’s fine with me. We got nine months to talk about the specifics.” He slides the clip back into his gun and stores it in the locked desk drawer. “Shane’s not mad at you, though. Don’t worry. That ain’t what this is about.”

“What is it about?” Lori asks. “Why did he sleep here last night?”

Rick sighs heavily. “I don’t know that I can say,” he says after a few seconds of silence. “He’s…” He breaks off, unsure. How much should he tell her? Would Shane want her to know before he’s worked through everything himself? Lori hadn’t reacted well in the dream world to the things Shane had done, and Rick doesn’t want to force that confrontation without giving Shane a heads-up that it’s coming. “He said he’d call tomorrow. And we’ll talk about everything then.”

Lori watches him for a few seconds, her eyes huge in the dim lamplight. “Okay,” she says after a long pause. “Okay, I’ll wait.”

Rick smiles at her and she smiles back, mostly convincingly. She heads off to bed and Rick finds his laptop, pulls up a search engine, starts to type. It’s hours later when he finally collapses into bed, exhausted and no closer to a name.

He pulls the covers up to his chest, listening to Lori breathing deeply in sleep beside him, and wonders where Blue is, who’s lying beside him as he falls asleep, who gets to wake up every morning and kiss him until his eyes open, hands in his hair and heart in his hands. Rick sighs and rolls onto his side and falls asleep thinking of nights in the guard tower and the sound of owls.

//

When Rick gets back from dropping Carl off at school the next morning, Shane’s car is in his driveway. Rick frowns. Lori is at her yoga class, the one she refuses to ever miss, and so there’s no way Shane is here to be with her, and Rick hasn’t missed the fact that Shane has been avoiding him as much as possible since their conversation about Otis.

He lets himself in the front door and finds Shane sitting at the small table in the kitchen, staring at a folded piece of paper lying on the wood in front of him. “Mornin’, Shane,” Rick says by way of greeting, and Shane looks up at him.

“Hey, brother,” Shane says in a strange, raspy voice. He stands up, picking up the piece of paper, and his eyes lock on the paper in his hands instead of on Rick. “Listen, I know I ain’t got any right to be here, not after all I did. And I know it ain’t right to ask you for forgiveness because… shit. You understand. But I know you’re gonna forgive me anyway, ‘cause that’s the kind of man you are, and hell, you already done it anyway.”

Rick frowns and crosses his arms in front of himself. “Shane, we already talked about this. That man wasn’t you, and you’re not ever gonna do the things he did. There ain’t anything to forgive you for, not in this world, and I get what was goin’ on with you in the other one. So we’re okay.”

“Still got to make it right, though,” Shane says, still not looking Rick in the eyes. “So I… wanted you to know I signed up for this anger management class. I don’t wanna be the man I was in the other world. And I told you the other night, Rick, I feel that man in here.” He taps his chest. “And I want to get him out before I hurt somebody.”

Rick nods slowly and takes a step forward. “I don’t think you would hurt anybody. That world… God, it fucked all of us up. We were all crazy in our own ways, you know?”

“Yeah, but most of us didn’t go around murdering people in cold blood,” Shane says. “But thanks for… believing in me.” He flicks his eyes up to Rick’s, then back down to the paper. “But anyway. Like I said. I got to make it right. So the class, yeah, but then…” He takes a deep breath and holds the paper out to Rick. “I found your Blue for you.”

Rick stares at the paper but doesn’t take it. His eyes lose focus even as he struggles to keep them locked on the paper itself. The smooth white surface is marred by the bleed-through of printer ink, the barest suggestion of a photograph of a man’s face. “You found… Blue?” he asks after a moment. His throat is dry and his tongue won’t seem to move quite properly to enunciate the words, but it’s enough for Shane to follow and that’s all he can ask for right now.

Shane nods. “Yeah. His real name’s--”

Rick cuts him off, desperation clouding his voice. He doesn’t want to hear the name for the first time on Shane’s lips--he wants to say it himself, breathe it in like smoke into his lungs, like the mist over rivers, like grace and the way that arrows cut through the air. “Don’t,” he says, and Shane clamps his mouth shut. Rick rubs his eyes and asks, “How did you find him?”

Shane huffs out a little awkward laugh. “I was thinking... I didn’t know nothin’ about him, not really. Fucker was as close-mouthed as a granny while the preacher’s prayin’. But his brother.” Shane rolls his eyes dramatically. “His brother wouldn’t ever shut his damn mouth. And I remembered one day in the quarry we was all talkin’ about stuff. You know, just random shit, nothing major. An’ them two started arguing about what year it was when he got arrested on the Fourth of July for public indecency. Um… the brother, not… Blue. But that’s pretty concrete, you know, a date and an arrest.” He shrugs. “So when I remembered that, I went in to the station and looked it up. And here it is.”

Rick puts his hand on his mouth, holds it there. His heart is racing, hummingbird-fast, and his body alternates between rushes of heat for lust and warmth for love and ice-cold for fear--fear that this won’t be him, that it won’t be right, that Blue doesn’t really exist and his heart is going to break when he looks at the paper. Or maybe even worse, that Blue does exist but he won’t love Rick back in a normal world, that it was just the stress of the apocalypse that had drawn them together and he won’t want Rick now. Not knowing is safe, comfortable. Not opening the paper means he can keep thinking that Blue loves him. It’s heartbreaking, not having Blue in his life, but he can deal with that better than he can deal with pouring his soul out to someone who won’t want him.

In the end, though, it’s not even a choice. If there’s even the possibility that Blue might love him back, Rick will take it. He reaches out for the paper.

Shane holds on to it for a moment. “Now, before you look at it and clock me one, this ain’t him. The picture. It’s his brother. But there’s contact information for next of kin and that’s him. I recognize the name, you know?”

Rick nods, relief flooding through his veins. This is less terrifying, easing into it rather than opening this page and seeing the man’s face staring at him. But the name is there. He pulls the paper from Shane’s hand and holds on to it, willing his breathing to even out. The name will be there. He’s going to find out Blue’s name.

He opens the page.

Chapter Text

“Do you think we’d’a been friends?” Blue asked, his arms crossed behind his head as he stared up into the sky, the metal roof of the prison cool against their backs. “If we’d’a met before, when the world was like it used to be. Would we have been friends?”

The hazy shimmer of the Milky Way was brighter now without the distant glow of cities to fade it into the background, and Rick sighed into the night. “Can’t really imagine not being friends with you,” Rick answered after a moment of consideration.

Blue chuckled softly. “That’s ‘cause you ain’t spent much time around Hands.” He pulled one knee up, his foot flat against the ground, and left his other leg stretched out on the roof. “Me and Hands, we was always a package deal. Friends with me, friends with him.”

Rick let out a mock groan. “I guess I could deal with that,” he said.

The quiet air swirled around them, crisp and clean and infused with silver and the sky, and neither man said anything for a long time.

“Blue?” Rick said at last, still watching the stars turn above the prison.

“Yeah?” Blue murmured back, and Rick could feel the man’s eyes on him even though he didn’t turn his head to check.

“Glad you’re here,” Rick said. “Couldn’t do it without you.” He wanted to reach out, to put his hand on Blue’s shoulder and feel the warmth of another living body for just a moment, but there was no way to do that while they were both lying on their backs, so Rick just flexed his fingers at his own side and told himself that the proximity was enough.

It was a long time later when Blue let out a long breath and mumbled, “Same here.”

//

Rick’s eyes are closed as he unfolds the printout, and he takes a deep, steadying breath before he opens them again. He looks up at Shane for a moment before he lets his eyes slide down to the paper, slipping easily down past the face of Blue’s brother--Merle, he thinks vaguely--and down to the field for next of kin. The paper is creased directly over the name, but it’s there, it’s there, it’s there.

Daryl Dixon.

He opens his mouth to say it, but nothing comes out. The paper starts shaking in his hands and he tightens his grip on it, wrinkling the sheet around his fingers. He concentrates on his breathing--in, out, in out--and when he lifts his head to look at Shane again, he knows that his eyes are lost, stunned, pleading, and the blood is rushing in his ears as the other man speaks.

“Address is on there, too,” Shane says, motioning at the paper. “I’ll… I’ll tell Lori where you’re gone off to, okay?”

“Yeah, brother, thank you,” Rick hears himself say, and the world tilts crazily for a moment before he realizes that he’s just nodding, over and over. He takes a long breath, filling his lungs to their absolute capacity, and then focuses on slowing his pulse while he slowly lets the air back out into the world.

There’s an address on the paper for a street in Bettsville, a town a couple of counties over--probably forty-five minutes away, and he has to be able to drive there. Which means that he has to get his body back under control, his pulse back to a normal speed, his hearing sharp and not muffled by his own heartbeat. Rick carefully folds the paper again, adjusting the crease so that it’s not cutting across Daryl’s name anymore, and slides it into his pocket.

“I gotta go pack,” Rick says, and this time he’s more aware of the words, of choosing them and forming them and speaking them. He swallows and nods, mostly to himself. “I need clothes. A toothbrush. In case… I have to wait for him.”

Shane puts a hand on Rick’s arm and starts steering him upstairs. Rick gently shrugs his hand off after a few seconds but offers the other man a strained, frightened smile. Shane smiles back and goes into the bathroom to get Rick’s toothbrush for him. Rick pulls out a backpack and starts mechanically putting clothes into it, making sure he adds a couple of button-down shirts that look like the ones he wore in the apocalypse. Anything to help Blue--Daryl--remember.

Daryl, he thinks, rolling the word around in his brain like a smooth river stone. Daryl Dixon. He should have known that, should have had it tattooed on his heart so he’d never forget. It should have been the first thing he said when he woke up in the hospital, the name he’d dreamed every night since then.

Daryl with his crossbow, his red shop rag, his Pixies CD and the quiet fire in his eyes when he spoke. Daryl who shared cigarettes with Rick even though Rick didn’t smoke, who took him out hunting when Lori’s disappointment weighed too heavy on Rick’s shoulders, who taught him to play gin rummy under the starry sky and made him Manhattans in empty bars. Daryl whose fingers curled into Rick’s wounded wrist like Rick’s pulse was the only thing holding him to the earth, who came to Rick’s cell later and swore to keep his children safe.

Rick needs him, and he’s going to find him. He zips up the backpack and looks at Shane again.

“I know,” Shane says, his voice low in the suffocating air of the room. “I know, brother. Go find him.”

Rick gives him a quick hug, crushing the other man against his chest, and whispers thank you into his ear before shouldering the backpack and rushing downstairs and out the door. He thinks briefly about taking the patrol car so that he can flip on the sirens and ignore the rules of the road, but in the end he slides into his own car and pushes the edges of the speed limit as much as he can possibly justify.

//

The houses in the neighborhood where Rick’s GPS directs him are older houses that have seen better times, all virtually identical in that “company-built” sort of way. The worn-down cookie-cutter houses make sense when he passes an old, crumbling denim mill that’s been long-since abandoned, most likely taking the livelihoods of the nearby people with it, and Rick wonders if the Dixons used to be denim people, if this neighborhood had ever been a place with picket fences and Sunday picnics or if it had always been full of chain-link and rust and flower beds that hadn’t seen blooms in decades.

Rick thinks of the empty house next door to his own, the grass that has started going just too long between mowings, the crepe myrtle trees along the driveway with their unruly branches and the way that dust coats the windows that no one has opened in months. That house isn’t the same as this neighborhood--it will be cared for once again someday soon, an empty structure just waiting for someone to make it a home again. These houses have lost hope, have started to crumble under the weight of years of struggling to get by, and Rick wants to take Daryl away from this, to find him somewhere to be that will let him have the life that the man deserves.

You have arrived at your destination, the GPS tells him, and Rick looks over at the house, at the faded olive-green paint and the raised wooden porch with the dirt bare underneath it, at the doghouse sitting off to the side that looks like it’s been years since it’s had a tenant. The driveway is empty, but Rick can see a TV playing through one of the windows, can see the shadowy figure of someone moving around the room inside.

It’s not Daryl. Rick knows that already, can see the difference in the way this person moves, in the cadence of his steps and the angle of his body. But that doesn’t mean that Daryl isn’t inside, too. Rick takes a deep breath, smoothing the sweat from his palms onto the coarse fabric of his dark jeans, and climbs out of the car.

The porch is old, made with worn bare pine that creaks under Rick’s feet, the scent of tobacco and spilled beer soaked into the pores of the wood so deeply that no amount of rain will ever wash it away. Rick pauses, looking around at the ashtray sitting between the two rough wooden chairs that may have been part of a dining set in an easier time, at the open can of beer with a wasp crawling circles around its rim. Then, taking a deep breath, he opens the screen door and knocks briskly on the main wooden door, his knuckles loud against the dingy paint.

The footsteps from inside are loud and low like a timpani, heavy beats instead of a lighter tread, the sound of someone who doesn’t care if he’s been heard. The door opens the same way, loud and violent, angry, and then Rick is face-to-face with Merle Dixon, whose eyes sparkle with suspicion and annoyance as he gives Rick a quick up-and-down.

“You from City Water?” he spits out, both literally and figuratively. “‘Cause I called you fuckers half an hour ago an’ told you I’ll pay on Tuesday. Better not be here to shut me off because I will file a complaint, yes sir I will.”

“No, I’m not,” Rick says, shaking his head for emphasis. “Is…” He opens his mouth to say Daryl’s name but can’t bring himself to do it, not yet. Not until he’s face-to-face with the archer himself. “Is your brother here?”

Merle’s eyes go hard and sharp, narrowing slightly, and Rick sees the family resemblance in a way he’s never noticed before. “You a cop?”

Rick blinks at the question. “No,” he says, then frowns. “I mean, yes, I’m a cop, but I’m off-duty.”

“You ain’t seein’ my baby brother without a warrant, Officer Friendly,” Merle says, crossing his arms tight across his chest so that his muscles flex slightly. Rick knows it for what it is--a challenge, a way to say fuck the police without actually saying it. He’s seen this before so many times, has even seen it before on Merle himself, and it just makes him tired. “You got a warrant?”

“No,” Rick says, gritting his teeth but trying to keep his voice calm and polite. “This isn’t official business. I’m just here to talk to him. Off-duty. Off the record. No police business involved.”

Merle stares at him for a long time, eyes still narrow and searching. “So you want to see my little brother for a social call.”

Rick very pointedly looks past Merle into the house. “Yes, you could say that. Is he here?”

“No,” Merle says. He leans against the doorframe and cocks an eyebrow at Rick. “He ain’t.”

“He lives here, though,” Rick says, dipping his head and looking up at Merle. “Right?”

“What’s it to you, Friendly? He owe you money?”

Rick bites back a groan of frustration. “No, nothin’ like that. Just let me talk to him.”

Merle huffs out a breath and shrugs. “He ain’t here. Left about an hour ago to run some errands. Prob’ly be back in a couple hours. Don’t really know, though. I ain’t my brother’s keeper.”

“Can I…” Rick sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Can I wait here for him?”

Merle raises his eyebrow again and then laughs. “Hell no, I ain’t lettin’ a cop sit on my couch while I rub one out to Days of Our Lives. Ain’t no way.” He steps out onto the porch, forcing Rick backwards. “Now you go on out back to your car and find somebody else to bother, you hear?”

“Do you know where he was going?” Rick asks, hating how every step Merle takes forward forces him one step back on the porch, hating how he isn’t able to stand his ground when all he wants is to get up in this guy’s face and make him tell him where Daryl is.

“No, I don’t, and I’ll be real with you here, jackass, I wouldn’t tell you even if I did,” Merle says. He sets his jaw and stares Rick down. “Dick like you ain’t got no business talkin’ to Daryl. He’s worth ten of you, easy.”

“I know,” Rick says, deadly serious, and Merle’s eyes widen for just a second before snapping back to narrow and suspicious.

Merle gives Rick another up-and-down look, slower and more deliberate this time, but still with ice in his gaze. “I see what’s goin’ on here,” he growls after a minute. “You’re here to fuck him, ain’t ya?”

Rick blanches and casts around inside his brain for a good answer for that, something that’s not oh god yes, something that’s not if he’ll have me, something that’s not I need him, but Merle sees it in his eyes anyway and his right hand strikes out like a panther claw and grabs Rick by the throat. Rick stumbles slightly at the sudden violence and Merle uses Rick’s lack of balance to spin him around and throw him against the wall of the house, squeezing hard at his esophagus.

“Now you listen here,” Merle growls, low and dangerous and intense. “I known for a while now that Daryl’s got a secret dick out there somewhere an’ I don’t like it, you understand?”

Rick tries to say something but the words can’t make it past Merle’s hand tight on his throat, so he concentrates on squeezing enough oxygen past the pressure of Merle’s anger so that he doesn’t pass out.

Merle’s breath is sour with cheap beer and he starts to say something else, pressing his hand even harder against Rick’s windpipe, but there’s the sound of a slamming truck door and then Daryl’s voice ringing out across the yard, the first time Rick has heard his voice, and it’s perfect, low and velvet and deep as the Georgia clay.

“Merle,” Daryl yells. “What the hell?”

Merle loosens his grip just enough for Rick to be able to breathe and they both look toward Daryl, striding across the yard with a Walmart bag in his hand and a scowl on his face, and Rick is glad for Merle’s hand holding him against the wall because at least that keeps him from falling to his knees like a fucking schoolgirl when he sees him.

He’s cleaner than he had been in the apocalypse, still wearing worn clothes but ones that look like they’ve been through a washing machine instead of just swirled around in creek water. His hair is longer than it had been when they’d first met at the quarry--long enough to hang loose around his face, brushing across his forehead, and Rick wants to touch it, to feel it in his fingers and breathe it in, to know that Daryl is real and tangible and that this isn’t just another dream.

Their eyes meet for just the barest second, cobalt meeting sky, and then Daryl’s gaze is back on Merle, his forehead wrinkled. “Who’s this?” he asks.

“Don’t fuckin’ act like you don’t know,” Merle snaps back.

Daryl ignores the steps altogether and just hops up onto the porch. He sets the Walmart bag down quickly and then grabs Merle’s shirt and turns him enough to put his hand on his chest and shove him backwards and away from Rick. Merle tightens his hand in Rick’s throat just enough to make it hurt as he’s pushed away from him and Rick’s hand goes up instinctively to rub at the scratched flesh.

“Well, I don’t,” Daryl says. He’s still looking at Merle, eyes locked on his brother’s with a challenge in them, and Rick knows that this is absolutely not the time to be noticing Daryl’s arms, muscled and tense and beautifully sun-kissed, arms that have held Rick up so many times before, arms that he wants around him when he sleeps for the rest of his life. Rick lets out a tiny sigh before he catches it, and Daryl’s eyes flick over to him quickly and then back to Merle. “Ain’t never seen this guy before,” he tells his brother, and Rick tries hard not to feel just the slightest bit heartbroken by that.

“Don’t give me that,” Merle says, then points at Rick for emphasis. “I ain’t stupid, Daryl. I know you got a secret boyfriend and I know this is him.”

Daryl doesn’t react to that at all, just keeps staring at Merle with steady eyes. A lion tamer, Rick thinks, never backing down, and fuck he loves this man with everything in him.

Finally Merle’s body goes loose and he shrugs. “Could be wrong, I guess,” he admits, and only then does Daryl give him a short, jerky nod.

“If I had a secret boyfriend, don’t you think I’d’a told him not to show up on the doorstep when Days of Our Lives is on?” Daryl asks after the tension between them has dissipated fully. “Hell, even I leave the house then, you know?”

Merle laughs, a breathy little sound, and Rick can still smell the beer and stale cigarette smoke on the air even from several feet away. “Guess you’re right.”

And then Rick decides that it must be safe to speak again, so he takes a step forward. “Um… hello,” he says quietly, then waits until Daryl has turned to look at him. He meets Daryl’s eyes easily and says, for the first time, “Daryl.”

“Oh hell no,” Merle bellows, and Daryl reaches out and grabs Rick’s bicep and starts pulling him back down the porch steps.

“Come on,” Daryl murmurs at him. “Gettin’ you out of here.” He gives Rick a little push toward his truck, letting go of Rick’s arm at the end of the motion, and then turns around and yells at Merle to go take a shower and sober the fuck up, then flips him off and climbs into the driver’s side. Rick clambers in the passenger side beside him and Daryl throws the truck into reverse and backs down the driveway, and Rick finds himself sitting in a truck with the love of his life and not having any idea at all what to do now.

Chapter Text

“Sorry ‘bout Merle,” Daryl says as the house disappears behind them. “I’d say he’s harmless but that ain’t really true. Don’t know what you did to get on his bad side, though.”

Rick looks over at him and resists the urge to put his hand on top of Daryl’s on the gear shift. “Neither do I,” he says. “He just assumed I was dating you, I guess. In secret.”

Daryl lets out a soft huff of laughter. “What’d you do to give him that idea?”

“Nothing,” Rick says, then wonders just how obvious the look on his face had been while Merle was searching it after asking Rick why he was there.

“Well, figured we’d just drive around the block a few times, let him cool down,” Daryl says after enough seconds have passed to make it clear that Rick isn’t going to elaborate. “Prob’ly best if you don’t come back to the house, though. Not if Merle thinks you’re queer.”

Rick sighs and tries to look out the window but can’t manage to keep his eyes off of Daryl for long enough to see anything else. This was not how he’d pictured this reunion, he thinks, and then it belatedly occurs to him that he hadn’t had any sort of plan when he knocked on the Dixons’ door, not even a stupid plan, and that’s a problem. Because conversations like this one have a pattern, and the next logical progression of that pattern is--

“So why were you at the house, anyway?” Daryl turns his head and glances at Rick before sliding his eyes back to the road.

Shit, Rick thinks, and mentally scrambles for an answer, any answer. “Thinkin’ about moving to the neighborhood,” he says after what’s only slightly too long of a pause. “I was… I thought I’d just… you know. Come by and meet some of the neighbors. Find out what they’re like.” It’s a shitty answer and Rick knows it even as he says it, but he tells himself that at least it sounds less crazy than his real reason for knocking on their door.

There’s a stop sign, and Daryl brakes at it and lets the truck roll to a slow stop as he turns and gives Rick a once-over. “No offense,” he says as he puts the truck back in gear and starts driving again, “but you don’t look like you’d fit in much.”

Rick doesn’t know what to say to that, either, doesn’t know how to tell Daryl that he’s willing to fit in anywhere as long as it means he gets to be with Daryl. Doesn’t know how to tell him that even a neighborhood as run-down as this one isn’t the worst place he’s lived, not by a long shot. And he especially doesn’t know how to tell Daryl that he wants to save him from it anyway, wants to give him a real home, one that’s filled with all the hope they hadn’t had the luxury of feeling in the apocalypse, one where he doesn’t have to come home to his asshole brother strangling people on the porch on a regular basis.

In the end, he just shrugs and murmurs, “You seem like a good man.”

Daryl’s mouth quirks up at that, and Rick feels like the world is just that much better for it. “Even though my brother’s got you thinkin’ I’m queer?”

Rick nods, forcing himself to look at something other than the curve of Daryl’s throat in profile. “Don’t matter to me.”

“Me neither,” Daryl says after a moment. Then, after another pause, “Merle’s a little trickier, though. You’d have to watch what you said around him.”

Rick frowns hard at that, fighting off mental images of Merle’s fists connecting with Daryl’s flesh, of Merle putting new scars in an angry layer over the old ones. “Is he gonna hurt you?”

“Nah,” Daryl says, waving the fingers of the hand on the gear shift dismissively. “Me an’ Merle, we’re all each other’s ever had. We wouldn’t hurt each other, not over dumb shit like that.” There’s another pause, then Daryl takes a deep breath and reaches up to scratch the back of his head absently. “‘Sides, if he’s figured that shit out, he’s prob’ly more pissed about the secret part than the boyfriend part. Fucker thinks I tell him everything.”

Rick’s stomach gives a sick lurch and he tries to ignore the ice water running down his skin. “So you do have a secret boyfriend,” he manages to force out past the grapefruit lodged in his throat, sour and tight.

Daryl shrugs. “You hungry? Figured we could drive through at Hardee’s and get some lunch. Maybe take it and eat it at the park. Then I’ll take you back to your car.”

“Sounds good,” Rick says, his voice weak and distant.

//

Daryl buys them each a burger and a root beer, waving off Rick’s offer to pay with the excuse that it’s the least he can do to make up for Merle’s physical assault from earlier, then drives them to a county park just outside the city limits. There’s a small lake there, with hiking trails winding around it, and Rick eyes the trails for a few seconds before Daryl steers them over to the picnic area and sits down on top of one of the old wooden tables there.

“So why you thinkin’ about moving here?” Daryl asks, taking a sip of his root beer before putting it down on the table beside himself.

Rick sits down on the bench, facing out toward the lake and leaning his back against the surface of the table. “Just need a fresh start, I guess,” he says.

Daryl scoffs. “Bettsville ain’t a town where people make fresh starts. You live here ‘cause you was born here and you move here ‘cause you ain’t got nowhere else to go.”

“So you don’t think I should live here?” Rick asks, both to keep up the charade and to give himself more of Daryl’s quiet Southern voice.

“Nah,” Daryl says. He takes a bite of his burger, chews thoughtfully. “Ain’t just you, though. I don’t think nobody should live here. Place died when the denim mill did and everything now’s just funeral arrangements, you know?”

“Why don’t you get out, then?” Rick asks, tilting his body slightly toward Daryl’s.

Daryl shakes his head. “You grew up with money,” he says, and it’s not a question. He doesn’t wait for Rick to respond, just sighs and continues. “Ain’t that easy for everybody. Just to pack up and leave. ‘Sides, I did once. Tried college for a year. Didn’t work out.”

“And you moved back,” Rick finishes. “With Merle.”

Daryl shrugs and takes another sip of his drink. “Didn’t have nowhere else to go.” He shoves the last bite of burger into his mouth and leans back, resting his weight on his hands on the table behind him. “Why’m I telling you all this? Guess I’m supposed to be talkin’ you into moving here, not talkin’ you out of it.”

“Your boyfriend lives here?” Rick asks, and he hates that he wants to know, hates that he has to torture himself this way.

“Much here as anywhere, I guess,” Daryl says. “He’s a flight attendant.” He laughs humorlessly and rubs his eyes with one hand. “God, I’m dating a fucking flight attendant. Doesn’t really seem like my type, does it?”

Rick doesn’t know how to answer that except to try and convince him that sheriff’s deputies are his real type, so instead he asks another question. “Do you love him?”

Daryl shrugs. “Been with him for years. Guess so.”

Rick bristles at bit at that, at the uncertainty and the indifference in Daryl’s voice. “You don’t sound sure about it.”

Daryl leans forward this time, putting his elbows on his knees, still staring out over the lake. “Jeff’s a good guy. Just don’t see him much ‘cause of his job, is all.”

Rick’s head snaps up and his mind sprints back to the night in the bar, to Daryl talking about the other bartender he’d been friends with, and the name Jeff sinks into place with the weight of a fucking aircraft carrier and the edges of Rick’s vision go red.

Jeff told me all the time that I wasn’t pretty enough for somebody to want to keep lookin’ at my ugly mug for long.

“He should treat you better,” Rick says before he realizes that he shouldn’t. But Daryl’s complete lack of self-worth, the months of struggle it took to make him believe he was good enough to be family, is hard enough to stomach without Rick also having to listen to him justify people telling him that he’s anything less than perfect.

Daryl turns his head away from the lake and looks at Rick, his eyes narrowed slightly. “Never said he treated me bad,” he grumbles. “And besides, it ain’t none of your business.”

“I just think,” Rick says, choosing his words carefully this time, “that you could do better than somebody you hardly ever see.”

“See him enough,” Daryl grunts out, and his voice is closed-off now, tinged with a hostility that makes Rick’s stomach clench.

Rick knows he should drop it, should let it go, but he can’t stop himself. “Does he love you?”

“You want me to start askin’ shit like this about your wife?” Daryl snaps, pointedly eyeing Rick’s wedding band, forgotten on his finger.

Rick reaches down and takes it off, slipping it into his pocket. “Just wearing it out of habit,” he explains, knowing exactly what this sounds like but having no way to prove himself.

“Still married to her?” Daryl asks, still hostile but a bit looser now, a bit less like he’s on the edge of a fight-or-flight response.

“Yeah, for now,” Rick says. “But she’s with my best friend now. Pregnant. Baby’s probably his.”

Daryl raises an eyebrow. “And you’re still callin’ the bastard your best friend?”

Rick shrugs. His hamburger is cold in its wrapper now, and he wads up what’s left of it and tosses it into the nearby trash barrel. “It’s complicated. I don’t blame either of them. I was… in a coma. When they got together. They thought I wasn’t going to wake up. So it’s fine.”

Daryl is silent for several seconds, then he grunts softly. “‘S rough, man.”

“It is what it is,” Rick says back. “We’re still all on good terms. And… they know I’m here. They know I’m… looking for something else.”

“A house in a shitty neighborhood with an ex-felon like Merle for a neighbor?” Daryl asks, the ghost of a smile showing up on his face again.

Rick wants to latch on to that smile, to grow it into the expression he knows so well, the one he misses so much. The smile he’d gotten over a bar counter, the one that said whatcha want, Rick? as loudly as the words themselves had. It’s maddening that he can’t just reach out, can’t just continue the story from here the way he wants to, and there’s a nagging ice-cold fear that he won’t ever be able to, that Daryl will never have the dream, will never really know him the way he had before. But Shane remembers. Carol remembers. And they both started to dream after Rick had convinced them--after they believed him. So Rick clings to that, to the hope that once he tells Daryl about the dream, Daryl will believe him like Shane and Carol do. And then… maybe that will be enough to get him dreaming too. To make him remember what they were to each other. What they can still be to each other.

But for now, it’s enough to be here with him, close enough to touch. It’s enough to lose himself in Daryl’s clear blue eyes, dark like the ocean just before a storm. Rick stares into them, holding his breath, and Daryl doesn’t look away, just meets his gaze and holds there, and Rick is sure that Daryl can see his soul through his irises, that this is a moment of connection and this will matter for years to come.

But then the moment is over, and Daryl picks up his root beer and drinks the last of it, the straw making a slurping sound on the bottom of the cup. “Guess I should get you back to your car,” he says.

“I just want my life to feel right again,” Rick says before he can filter the words.

Daryl looks over at him, eyes hooded and searching. “Ain’t never felt right my whole life,” he says, quietly. “Welcome to the club.”

//

Daryl drives Rick around for a while after they leave the park, pointing out the few landmarks there are in such a small town. There’s not much conversation, not really, but the air between them feels smooth, comfortable, and Rick lets himself imagine that they’re back in the apocalypse, Daryl driving while they’re out on a run, Rick cataloguing in his head the assets they have in the prison and how much of that is Daryl himself.

“Can turn on the radio if you want,” Daryl says after a bit. “Got some CD’s too.”

Rick reaches for the radio dial but then pulls his hand back. “Got the Pixies?” he asks.

Daryl blinks and turns his head to look at Rick for so long that Rick wonders if he’s forgotten that he’s driving. Then he jerks his head toward the console of the truck and puts his eyes back on the road. “Glove box,” he says. “You a fan?”

“Fairly new one,” Rick says, opening the glove box and finding the CD. It’s not the same album as Daryl had found in the electronics store where Sebastian the Walker had nearly gotten him, but Rick puts it in anyway and waits for the now-familiar indie rock sound to fill the cab.

“Merle hates this,” Daryl says, turning down a road that Rick is sure they’ve already been down. “Says it’s a bunch of California surfer bullshit.” He makes a noise that’s somewhere between a grunt and a scoff, a noise that’s just so him that it makes Rick’s throat hurt. “Told him they weren’t even from California but didn’t matter to him.”

“Bet he likes Charlie Daniels,” Rick says.

Daryl laughs, and Rick feels warm. “Yeah, and Skynyrd, and Garth Brooks, and don’t you dare tell him I told you this, but he’s a Taylor Swift fan too.”

Rick smiles a little at the thought of Merle belting out Taylor Swift. “Your brother is definitely interesting.”

“Pssh,” Daryl says. “He’s an asshole. Ain’t got to pretend like you like him.”

“But you do,” Rick points out. “You like him.”

“Hell no,” Daryl says, turning his head just slightly to give Rick a side-grin that makes Rick’s knees feel strange. “I love the bastard because he’s my brother. Would take a bullet for him, no questions asked. But I don’t hardly ever like him. He’s a jackass an’ he needs to shut his mouth ninety percent of the time.”

Rick nods, thinking of Reverend Shane and all his dumbass misogynist sermons in the patrol car, of all the times he’s stood back as Shane puffed out his chest and postured like a mountain gorilla at some guy in a bar who Shane thought was checking out his date. “Don’t have a brother myself, but my best friend might as well be. So I get that.”

“Same best friend who’s banging your wife?” Daryl asks, slanting another quick look at Rick.

“Same one,” Rick says, nodding slowly to himself.

Daryl lets out a noncommittal grunt of acknowledgement and then pulls the truck over to the curb. “This the house you’re thinkin’ of buying?” He motions at a house with a “For Sale” sign in front of it, and Rick follows his gaze and looks out at it. It’s a yellow house with white trim, one of the larger and nicer houses in the neighborhood, but it still looks tired, like it knows its best years are behind it.

“How’d you know that?” Rick asks.

Daryl shrugs and cuts the engine. “Only one for sale on this block. Figured it was a good guess.” He opens the truck door and climbs out, jingling his keys in his hand.

“What are we doing?” Rick calls to him, trying hard not to notice Daryl’s shoulders in the sunlight.

Daryl turns around and ducks his head back into the cab of the truck. “Thought we’d go have a look inside,” he says, and the twinkle in his eye would have made Rick agree to follow him anywhere.

Chapter Text

Rick follows Daryl up the cracked sidewalk to the house. “Won’t it be locked?” he asks, thinking about all the times he’s followed Daryl up sidewalks to empty houses before, how things like locks hadn’t mattered then. He doesn’t miss the apocalypse, not now that he and Daryl are together again, but there’s something to be said for the simplicity of it, for not having to worry about social conventions so much.

“Probably,” Daryl admits, and he hops up onto the porch and tries the front door. “Yeah. ‘s okay, though. I know how to get in. Come on.” He jumps down again and heads around the side of the house. Rick looks around to make sure nobody is watching them with their fingers on the “call” button on their cell phones and then trots off after Daryl, thinking about how strange it is to see Daryl without the crossbow held out in front of him or hanging on his back. He wonders if he can come up with an excuse to ask to see it tonight before he leaves.

If he can even bring himself to leave, but he figures he’ll have to find a way because it’s not like he’s going to be able to convince Daryl to let him stay. Not tonight, anyway. Not when Daryl has a boyfriend, who Rick hates unconditionally and would even if he didn’t already know the guy was an asshole.

He grinds his teeth and keeps following Daryl until they’re at the back of the house. There’s a small back porch with an awning, and Daryl gives Rick an appraising look. “How good are you at climbing trees?”

Rick wrinkles his brow and looks at the tree growing beside the house, one of its branches curling toward the awning over the porch. “Haven’t climbed one since I was a teenager,” Rick says, frowning suspiciously at the branch in question.

Daryl shrugs. “Like riding a bike,” he says, then walks over to the tree trunk and swings himself easily up into the branches.

Rick swallows down a pounding sense of self-consciousness. “I weighed a lot less then,” he says, giving a little oomph as he pulls himself up onto the first foothold.

“Really?” Daryl asks, turning and running his eyes over Rick’s body. “Musta been a scrawny-ass kid, then, ‘cause you’re skinny as hell right now too.” He smirks and climbs out onto the branch leading to the porch roof. “Makes me want to feed you a damn sandwich.”

“You already did,” Rick points out, trying to disguise the huffing in his breath from the unusual physical activity. “Back at the park.”

Daryl turns around and gives Rick a very judgmental look. “Yeah, an’ don’t think I didn’t notice that you didn’t eat half of it.”

Rick rolls his eyes, and Daryl smiles and laughs, and Rick’s limbs go weak at the sound and he nearly falls out of the tree.

“Come on,” Daryl says, hopping from the branch to the porch roof. “Better get you out of that tree before you hurt yourself.”

Rick clambers along the branch, not nearly as gracefully as Daryl had, and swallows hard when Daryl holds out his hand to help pull Rick onto the roof. “Thanks,” he mumbles, then reaches out and takes Daryl’s hand, pressing their palms together and curling his thumb around Daryl’s. They hold there like that, hands clasped firmly together, and Rick can’t decide if it feels more like just the barest second or like the vast majority of his life so far, but either way he only wants it to end if it’s going to lead to more moments like this.

Daryl pulls him over to the roof and then walks gingerly over to a window above the porch. He tugs on the windowframe and it slides up, easily enough that it’s obvious it’s been raised and lowered many times but with enough resistance to make it clear that it’s been a while since the last instance.

“You’ve been in this window before,” Rick says as Daryl swings his legs over it and inside the room.

Daryl shrugs and ducks his head through the window, then stands up on the other side and brushes dust off of his pants. “My buddy lived here when I was younger. Climbed in his window a bunch.”

“Boyfriend?” Rick asks, slipping through the window himself and standing up in front of Daryl in the dim room.

“Nah, just a buddy,” Daryl says. “Had a wicked crush on him in junior high, but didn’t never make a move or nothin’. He wouldn’t’a liked it if I had.” He narrows his eyes thoughtfully at Rick. “Jesus, why am I telling you all this shit?”

Rick shrugs, because words like destiny and soulmates are for fairytales and this is the real world, and there aren’t any fairytales about redneck princes so they wouldn’t necessarily fit here anyway. “I’m a cop,” Rick says, and then mentally kicks himself because why would he say that?

Daryl’s eyebrows shoot up. “You’re a cop,” he repeats, deadpan. “And I just committed a B&E.”

Rick smiles at him, brilliant and lopsided. “Off-duty. And I didn’t see a thing.”

“So you won’t turn me in, then?” Daryl asks, smiling back.

“No,” Rick says, then gestures at the open window. “I’d have to turn myself in as an accomplice, anyway.”

“Good. Because so far I’ve managed to avoid goin’ to jail like Merle,” Daryl says.

“You do seem like an upstanding citizen.” Rick takes a tiny step toward him. “A good man, like I said.”

Daryl rolls his eyes. “Girls in school always thought I was a bad boy. With the cigarettes and the motorcycle and all.” He walks around Rick, his bare shoulder brushing the fabric of Rick’s shirt as he slides past him to close the window. Rick sucks in a sharp breath at the minor contact and shivers, hard enough that Daryl turns his head toward him and gives him a strange look. Rick just stares back at him, not saying anything but wanting to with a force that almost physically hurts.

Daryl blinks hard as if to clear his thoughts and then turns around and walks farther into the room. “Anyway, this is one of the bedrooms. Small one. Then there’s two more downstairs. Kitchen. Bathroom. You know, house shit.”

His back is to Rick, and it’s all Rick can do not to walk up behind him and slide his arms around his waist, press his forehead down against Daryl’s strong shoulders and breathe him in, never let him go. “I feel like I know you,” he says instead, his voice quiet in the dusty room.

“I got a boyfriend,” Daryl says without turning around.

“I know,” Rick breathes, dropping his gaze from the hollow between Daryl’s shoulder blades down to the old carpet on the floor.

There’s silence then, tension hanging heavy between them and decisions in the air like drops of water, and Rick has almost decided that fuck going slow, fuck Jeff, he’s going to kiss Daryl, here in this empty house that feels as much like the end of the world as anything else has so far. But then Daryl rolls his shoulders back and heads for the door of the room, and Rick closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Come on,” Daryl says, gruff and restless. “I’ll show you the living room.”

Rick stands there in the room for a second with his eyes squeezed shut and then follows Daryl, seeing the ghost of a crossbow held high over his shoulder as he jogs down the stairs. Rick takes the steps more slowly, running his hand along the bannister, and when he gets to the living room, Daryl is already talking.

“Most of these houses were built by the denim company back when they first set up ‘round here,” he says. “That’s why so many of them are just alike, you know? Cookie-cutter shit. This one was one of the mill foreman houses, I think. ‘S why it’s bigger and has a second story and all.”

“Daryl,” Rick says.

“Should get you back to your car,” Daryl answers quickly.

Rick deflates a bit, putting his hands on his hips and looking at the floor. “Yeah, okay.”

Daryl nods, just a jerky movement of the head, and heads for the front door. “Let’s get you home,” he grumbles.

Rick follows him, and neither of them speak as they get into the truck and drive the short distance back to Daryl’s house. Daryl pulls the truck up in the driveway and gets out, and Rick climbs out too and circles the truck to stand in front of him.

“I’m sorry,” Rick says. “I didn’t mean--”

“Don’t apologize,” Daryl interrupts. “My fault for leadin’ you on like that.”

“Can I come back tomorrow?” Rick asks, very softly.

“Best if you don’t.” Daryl looks at the ground and kicks at the grass there with the toe of his boot.

“I know,” Rick says. “But can I?”

Daryl is silent for a very long time. There are kids playing in the yard of a house down the street a ways, and Rick looks over at them, watches their quick movements and listens to their shrieks of happiness.

“Better go before Merle sees we’re back,” Daryl says quietly.

Rick sighs and gives Daryl one last look, longing deep in his eyes that he can’t get rid of, and turns around to walk to his car. He’s not giving up--he can’t--but he’s also not going to win Daryl over by pushing too hard the first time they meet, and he knows that.

“Merle goes to work at noon tomorrow,” Daryl calls out, only just loud enough for Rick to hear him.

Rick turns around and raises his eyebrows. Daryl keeps looking at the ground, a faint blush coloring the tops of his cheekbones, and Rick’s face breaks out into a smile.

//

“He’s real, Shane,” Rick says, the cell phone wedged between his ear and his shoulder while he opens the door of the motel room he’s checked into for the night. “I saw him and I talked to him. I touched him. He’s real.”

“We knew he was,” Shane replies, his voice muffled like he’s eating while he talks. “Had a police printout and everything.”

“I know.” Rick pushes the door open and deposits his bag on the bed before searching around for the lights in the room and flicking them on. “But… he’s real.”

“Is he how you remember him?” Shane says. “Dirty and methy and sort of an asshole?”

You shut your mouth,” Rick hisses into the receiver.

“Okay, okay, sorry.” Shane chuckles and Rick grinds his teeth. “For real, though, man. I’m glad you found him. You staying there tonight? With him?”

Rick sits down heavily on the edge of the bed. “Not with him, no. But I’m staying in town, yeah. It’s only a forty-five minute drive but I don’t want to be that far from him. Not yet.” He pauses, picks at a loose thread on the comforter. “Is Lori okay?”

Shane hmms into the phone. “She’s pissed, but she’s getting over it. More because you just left without sayin’ anything instead of because you’re off having your gay fling.”

“It’s not a fling,” Rick tells him. “This is it, Shane. If he’ll have me then this is it.”

“That’s weird as fuck, brother,” Shane answers. “But honestly I ain’t never heard you talk like this about anybody, not even Lori. So go for it, man.”

Rick sighs, rubs his mouth with the hand not holding the phone. “He’s got a boyfriend. That’s a problem.”

Son of a--” Shane growls. “How does that guy have so many people after him? Jesus. You and Carol and Andrea and all of the farm people and I’m talkin’ about Hershel, too, man. All of you sniffin’ around after him like his balls are made of gold, and now he’s got a boyfriend in this world too?”

Rick’s eyebrows raise so high that he’s worried he’ll have to physically pull them out of his hairline. “I really don’t think all those people were after him.”

“Fucker with his crack teeth and his shitty hair,” Shane mutters.

That’s enough,” Rick snaps into the phone. “You gonna be like this, I’m gonna hang up.”

“I just don’t understand, that’s all,” Shane says. “Daryl fuckin’ Dixon, man. I don’t get it.”

“Well, try harder,” Rick challenges him. “I need you to back me up on this, man. I need you.”

“Yeah, fine,” Shane snaps. “You comin’ home tomorrow?”

Rick sighs again and flops backwards so that his back is on the bed. “Yeah. Got to. We have patrol day after tomorrow.”

“Alright,” Shane says. “I gotta go grab Carl from football before Lori freaks out. She’s texted me twice in the last ten minutes.”

“That’s Lori for you,” Rick says. “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Good luck, man. I mean that.”

“Thanks,” Rick says. He hangs up and exhales a long breath toward the ceiling and wonders what Daryl is doing, if Merle was nice to him when he got home, if Daryl is thinking about Rick at all.

//

The next morning, Rick is up at sunrise even though he can’t go over to see Daryl until noon. He showers and throws on his clothes and immediately hits up Walmart, scouring the mens’ clothes racks for something that looks like the dark charcoal-gray button-up shirt that he’d worn in the apocalypse, the one that he’d thought looked as flattering as clothes got in those days, and he actually goes so far as to track down a Walmart associate to ask if they carry ponchos.

He leaves Walmart with the shirt, some whitening strips for his teeth, and some hair gel, then turns back around and goes back inside and buys a big carton of strawberries, which he promptly drops off at the hotel in the little refrigerator and then heads back out to get a haircut.

Later, Rick is sitting on the hotel bed watching a House marathon and trying not to poke at the White Strips on his teeth when he gets a text message from Shane.

Unbutton your shirt, it says. Chicks dig that. Figure dudes do too.

Rick smiles at that and texts back a quick thank you, then gets up and goes into the bathroom to remove the strips and then brush his teeth for the fourth time this morning. He checks his hair to make sure the gel has set just right and spends a very long time deciding how many buttons of the shirt to leave open before he finally gives up and texts Shane to ask.

At least four, Shane answers, and Rick figures that if Shane would do four, he should probably only do three, so he unbuttons three buttons and looks at himself in the mirror one last time before he grabs his wallet and phone and the carton of strawberries and leaves the hotel.

Chapter Text

Daryl is sitting on the front porch when Rick gets there, wearing an olive-green sleeveless shirt and gray pants, and Rick’s heart leaps into his chest when he realizes that these are probably the very same clothes he’d been wearing the first time they met in the dream world. They’re newer now and less weather-worn, but Rick still recognizes them, and he almost wishes he was wearing a baggy white t-shirt just to complete the illusion.

Daryl has his feet propped up on the porch railing, a can of beer in his hand that’s dripping with condensation, and he watches Rick walk up the path to the house with careful eyes that are a little at odds with his relaxed posture.

“Wasn’t sure you’d show back up,” Daryl says, then motions to the seat beside him and hands Rick a beer from a little ice chest between the chairs when he sits down.

Rick takes the beer and then pulls the carton of strawberries out of the paper bag he’s holding. He holds them out to Daryl, who raises an eyebrow at them. Rick shrugs and puts them down on the ground between the two chairs. “Thought I’d be a good neighbor. Bring food.”

“Good choice, I guess,” Daryl says, leaning down and taking a strawberry out of the carton. He holds it by the leaves and takes a bite. “If I’d’a known you was bringin’ strawberries I woulda broke out the champagne.”

Rick smiles. “Beer’s fine.”

Daryl grunts and finishes off the strawberry, tossing the leafy part into the yard. “Sorry it’s just cheap shit. I try to buy better stuff but Merle’s a Natty Light kinda guy.”

“It’s fine,” Rick says. He pops the tab on the beer and takes a sip. “Merle ain’t here?”

“Nah, works at the lumber yard from noon until ‘bout seven. When he’s out of jail, anyway.” Daryl lifts his beer can back up to his face and mutters dumbass into the can before taking a sip.

“Well, that’s good, then,” Rick says. “Gives us some time to talk.” He relaxes into the old wooden chair and props his own feet up on the railing beside Daryl’s, then keeps on drinking his beer, revelling in the feeling of being near Daryl, having his anchor beside him again.

“So this is really awkward, but I gotta ask,” Daryl says after a few moments of cicada-laced silence.

“Yeah?” Rick murmurs back, turning his head to run his eyes lightly over Daryl’s bare arms.

“What’s your name?” he says, then tilts his head back a bit and laughs quietly. “We spent a long time together yesterday and I was a dumbass and didn’t never ask your name.”

Rick chuckles at that. “I know how that is,” he says, thinking of the way it felt to wake up in the nursing home and not have Daryl’s name lodged in his brain. “It’s Rick. Rick Grimes.”

“Rick Grimes,” Daryl repeats, drawing out the vowels in a way that sounds chocolate-coated and dark on his lips, and Rick flushes and wonders if Daryl is doing that on purpose, wonders if the name Rick has ever sounded so much like a sin before. “I like it.”

Rick finishes his beer, taking his time with pouring the last drops into his mouth so that he has a few seconds to recover from hearing his name in Daryl’s voice again. He sets the empty can down on the porch and Daryl hands him another one immediately.

“Drink up,” Daryl says, and pops the tab on a new one for himself.

“Ain’t it a little early in the day to be drinking?” Rick asks.

Daryl rolls his eyes. “‘M a bartender,” he says. “My perception of what’s drinking time is pretty fucked.”

Rick laughs and takes a sip of the second beer. “Sure you want to risk me getting drunk on your porch? After yesterday?”

Daryl slants his eyes over and watches Rick for a few seconds. “I’ll take my chances.”

Rick shivers, feeling something like anticipation crawl slowly up his spine, and drinks his beer. They fall into a companionable silence, downing the alcohol and breathing in unison, Daryl sucking on strawberries in a way that makes the day seem a lot warmer than it already is, and Rick honestly can’t think of anywhere in the world he’d rather be.

“So you’ve seen the neighborhood now,” Daryl says after a while. He crumbles his beer can in his fist and tosses it into the little can graveyard they have going between them.

Rick sighs happily and turns his head to look at Daryl. He’s not wasted, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s got a nice buzz going on, and he’s sitting on a porch with Daryl and everything seems so perfect that he almost doesn’t want anything else. “Yeah,” he says back.

“You think you’re gonna buy that house?” Daryl asks.

“No,” Rick says, feeling like honesty is the best policy at this point. “Prob’ly not.”

Daryl darts his eyes over at Rick. “Prob’ly a good idea. Merle wouldn’t like havin’ you as a neighbor. And Jeff would be pissed.”

“Fuck Jeff,” Rick’s beers say, and Daryl chuckles.

“Nah, he don’t let me do that,” Daryl says, cracking open another can. “Fucked it up the first time he let me try it and ever since then he ain’t let me do it.”

Rick blinks at him. “What do you mean, you fucked it up?”

Daryl shrugs, and Rick’s eyes snap to the ripple of muscles in his shoulders. “Said it didn’t feel good. Ain’t surprised, though. I’m pretty much shit at everything I do. Least when he fucks me, all I have to do is lay there and let him. Can’t really screw that up too bad.”

Rick imagines Daryl underneath him, but it’s nothing like Daryl just lying there and letting Rick fuck him. No, the Daryl in his fantasy is active, asking for it, begging for it, raking his nails down Rick’s back and encouraging him--faster, harder, deeper, please--and Jesus, Rick will give him anything he asks for, anything he needs, anything, and fuck Jeff for not being good to him.

Daryl lets out a strained chuckle that snaps Rick back to reality. “I need to quit tellin’ you this private stuff about me, man. I don’t even know you.”

Rick ignores that, still focused on Jeff and wondering how the hell someone could look at Daryl and think he was anything less than drop-dead gorgeous, anything less than the best man they’d ever met. “This guy sounds like an asshole,” Rick tells Daryl, nodding his head for emphasis.

“Sort of is,” Daryl says, staring out into the yard. Then he shakes his head and takes another sip of beer. “Lucky to have him, though. Least it means I got somebody.”

“Daryl,” Rick starts, his chest aching with the effort it takes not to lunge across the porch and take what’s his, let Daryl have him right back.

Daryl looks over at him again, meeting his eyes, and whatever Rick was going to say withers away on his lips as they have the whole conversation through silence and eye contact: from a mutual I want you all the way through the I have a boyfriend’s and the I don’t care’s until they arrive at a decidedly non-mutual I can’t, Daryl’s eyes full of regret but also steel, also conviction. Rick sighs and looks away.

“Let’s go shoot some shit,” Daryl says, his voice even gruffer than normal. He stands up and stretches, his shirt pulling up over his stomach just enough to make Rick’s pulse go haywire.

Rick swallows and forces his eyes away from Daryl’s skin. “Shoot some shit?” he repeats, a little weakly.

“Yeah, come on,” Daryl says, grabbing Rick’s arm and pulling him out of his chair. “Teach you how to use a crossbow.”

Rick sways just a little on his feet, the alcohol that he hadn’t felt while he was sitting rushing to his head and making him just the slightest bit unsteady. “I know how,” he says.

Daryl cocks an eyebrow up. “Really,” he says, and it’s not a question, just a statement of disbelief. “Up for a contest, then?”

Rick nods. “What do I get if I win?” he asks, visions of hungry kisses and grasping hands skating in and out of his brain.

Daryl laughs at that, a low rumbling sound that turns Rick’s blood into something like the fire trail left by sparklers. “Whatever you want, Rick. A million fuckin’ dollars.”

Rick reaches out and grabs Daryl’s shoulder, his eyes following his hand and watching as he rubs his thumb over the exposed skin. “You’re that sure you’ll win?” he teases.

Daryl’s shoulder muscles twitch under Rick’s fingers and he steps backwards and away from Rick’s hand. “‘S the only thing I’m good at,” he mumbles, the bravado seeping out of his voice. “Pretty decent shot.”

Rick frowns as he watches Daryl’s mask slip back over his face, the mask he hasn’t seen since the early days, since the farm and Sophia, since before he managed to break through it by showing Daryl that he needed him. He hates the way it dulls the man’s eyes, slants them down to the floor, hates the way Daryl shrinks in front of him, how small he looks.

“You shouldn’t let people tell you you’re not good enough,” Rick tells him, his voice low and intense, the leader voice he used in the apocalypse.

Daryl’s eyes are still on the bare wood of the porch when he shrugs. “Ain’t got to patronize me,” he murmurs. “I know what I am and what I ain’t.”

“Your brother told me yesterday that you’re worth ten of me,” Rick says, dipping his head and trying to force eye contact out of Daryl. “He thinks you’re good enough.”

Daryl does flick his eyes up to Rick’s then. “Merle’s the only one who’s ever thought that about me,” he says quietly, low and rough like the sand at the bottom of a river.

Rick sets his jaw, trying hard not to picture a faceless flight attendant with his hands on Daryl’s body, telling him he’s not worth it, telling him he’s no good, taking what he wants and giving Daryl nothing in return. “You shouldn’t be with that guy,” he says, so softly that he’s not sure at first whether Daryl heard him.

“He’s all I’ve ever had,” Daryl says, just as quietly, then stands up a little straighter, speaks with a little more conviction. “He’s all a guy like me deserves. An’ that’s fine. I’m lucky to have him.”

Rick opens his mouth to either speak or breathe fire at that, but Daryl turns around and heads for the backyard. “Come on,” he calls over his shoulder. “Show me what you got.”

Rick kicks viciously at a crumpled beer can but then follows Daryl around the back of the house to where a target is set up, nailed to the side of a small shed out in the corner of the yard. Daryl ducks into the house through the back door and emerges just a couple of seconds later with his crossbow, and Rick nearly whimpers at the sight of it, at the way Daryl carries it easy against his arm, at the overwhelming sense of safe that seeing the weapon in Daryl’s hands triggers.

Their eyes meet for a moment and Rick can’t fight back the flash of I love you that crosses his eyes while they’re holding Daryl’s. Daryl blinks and shoves the crossbow at him, looking out at the target and not at Rick’s face anymore.

“You first,” he mutters, holding out an arrow for Rick to take.

Rick takes the arrow and sets the crossbow point-down on the ground, then hauls back on the string to load it but can’t quite get it pulled all the way back. He frowns and releases it, flexes his fingers on it to get a better grip, and pulls again, the muscles in his neck straining with it, and almost gets it this time, but not quite.

Daryl scoffs beside him. “You fuckin’ kidding me?” he asks, some of the confidence from before sliding back into his tone. “How’d you think you could beat me if you can’t even draw?”

Rick glares up at him and yanks on the bowstring again. “Been in a coma for four months,” he grunts out. “My upper body strength ain’t back to normal yet.”

Daryl rolls his eyes and takes the bow from him, puts the bolt in his mouth and loads it easily, then hands it back to Rick with a tiny bit of a flourish. “Go on, then.”

Rick lifts the bow, channeling all those days in the woods when Daryl had showed him how to do this, how to aim, how to make the weapon an extension of his body and not something that stands alone, how to know when he squeezes the trigger exactly where the arrow will land, how long it will take to get there, the force it will use to take out its target. It’s physics and it’s complex and Rick understands it better than he ever thought he would, but it’s all mental work on his part, conscious guessing and estimation. With Daryl, though, it’s ingrained, natural, almost like fucking sorcery, the way he just gets it without having to try, and Rick just wants to take his shot and get it over with so that he can hand the bow back to Daryl and watch him shoot.

Rick’s arrow hits the side of the shed, only a couple of inches away from the target, and Daryl raises his eyebrows. “Not too bad,” he says, then claps Rick on the shoulder and takes the bow from him. Rick watches as he reloads, noticing the slide of his shoulder blades as he leans down and puts the arrow into place, and even though he should be a gentleman, should know how to control himself, a shiver of want runs through him and he hopes that Daryl won’t say anything if he notices.

Or that he will say something and you’ll end up inside on his bed, Rick’s traitorous brain supplies, and Rick bites back a sound that he’s pretty sure would have been a moan had he actually let it surface.

And then Daryl swings the crossbow up, aims, and fires in one smooth, flowing motion, and the bolt hits dead center in the target because of course it does, and Daryl drops the bow back to his side and squints at the target, his head hanging down and his eyes pointing up.

“Jesus, you’re good,” Rick says, because it’s the sort of thing a man should say when he sees an archer hit a target like that for the first time, and honestly it’s still pretty damn impressive even if he’s watched this before on a thousand different occasions from a thousand different angles.

Daryl shrugs. “Had a lot of practice,” he says. He bends down and reloads again, and Rick tries to be as discreet as possible as he checks out Daryl’s ass, the curve of it defined against the gray pants. He certainly hadn’t noticed that during the dream, mostly because he’d been oblivious to the amount of desire he’d had for the man, and it’s nice to notice something about Daryl for the first time again.

Daryl stands up and hands the bow back to Rick. Rick takes a deep breath, aims, and fires, and he actually hits the target this time, although not nearly as close to the center as Daryl could have.

“You hunt?” Daryl asks as he takes the bow back from Rick and puts another bolt into it.

Rick shrugs. “Sometimes. Shot some rabbits before.”

“Really?” Daryl gives him an appreciative look. “Not as much of a beginner as I thought you was.”

Rick smiles, thinking of the way Daryl’s fingers had lingered on his skin just too long during their hunts together. “Had a good teacher,” he says. “Somebody a lot like you.”

Daryl’s mouth twitches into what’s almost a smile, and Rick feels some of the tension in his body fade away at the sight. “Tried to teach Merle,” he says. “He’s decent, I guess. Prefers hunting with a shotgun, though. ‘Cause he’s a fuckin’ loudmouth son of a bitch.”

“How was he yesterday?” Rick asks. “When you got back?”

Daryl shrugs, squinting out into the sunny yard and propping the crossbow on his shoulder. “Took a swing at me, but nothin’ I couldn’t handle. Blocked it easy and popped him in the nuts, and then we had a civilized discussion about it.” He shrugs again. “He’s cool now.”

“Sorry I outed you,” Rick says.

“Didn’t, not really,” Daryl says. “I coulda just told him I wasn’t gay and he woulda believed me. Merle believes what he wants to believe, you know? But I figured I might as well come clean. Been lyin’ to him long enough.”

“And he’s okay with it?” Rick prompts.

“Yeah, he’s cool,” Daryl says, giving Rick a reassuring half-smile. “Don’t know if he’s cool with the rest of the gays in the world yet, but he’s givin’ me a pass ‘cause I’m his baby brother.”

“Are you going to introduce him to Jeff?” Rick asks, spitting the name out like gristle.

Daryl raises an eyebrow. “You ain’t got to say his name like that,” he says. “He’s a good guy.”

“Bullshit,” Rick says, a little too loudly, and Daryl scowls at him.

“You don’t know him,” Daryl says, his voice tight and tinged with anger.

“I know you,” Rick shoots back. “I know you and he don’t deserve you.”

“He’s my boyfriend,” Daryl says, louder now. “Been together for five years. An’ I love him. So you best stop talkin’ about him like that.”

Rick scoffs. “You don’t love him,” he says, and when Daryl starts to respond to that with what’s clearly going to be a yes I do, Rick challenges, “Look me in the eyes and tell me you love that bastard. Tell me he makes you feel good about yourself. Tell me he treats you right. Do it.”

“Fuck you,” Daryl spits out. “You don’t know nothin’ about me. You met me yesterday and now you’re talkin’ all this shit about what I need to do with my life and you can fuck right the hell off.” He turns around and stalks off, crossbow in hand, and Rick almost lets him go, almost lets the force of Daryl’s anger chase him back to his car, back to King County.

But this is Rick’s Blue, his Daryl, his right-hand man and the only one he’s ever loved like this, so instead of retreating, Rick follows him. “Daryl,” he calls out, still angry but more desperate now. He makes it to Daryl before Daryl gets the back door of the house open and grabs his arm, his fingers curling into Daryl’s bicep, and Daryl drops the crossbow and whirls around like a mountain lion, all hard grace and rage, and tries to throw a punch with his free arm but doesn’t quite have the room to land the blow the way he wants to. Rick grabs his other arm and slams the man back against the wall of the house. Daryl hisses through his teeth and struggles and Rick lets go of one of Daryl’s arms and presses his own forearm against Daryl’s chest like a steel bar, holding him against the wall.

“You best let me go,” Daryl yells, struggling hard again.

“Calm down,” Rick says. “Not gonna hurt you. I just want to talk, okay?” I’d like to have a calm discussion on this topic. Do you think we can manage that? he thinks, remembering Daryl on the ground in Shane’s chokehold at the quarry.

Daryl’s angry eyes lock on him, and for one moment, Rick is afraid he’s lost the man, that touching him was the absolute wrong move. Daryl’s a fighter, he knows that, and he won’t go down easy if he thinks he’s being attacked, and Rick hates the look of rage in the man’s eyes but even more, he hates the fear he sees underneath that, the fear that Rick is going to be just another person who hurts him.

So Rick softens his hand on Daryl’s skin, slowly pulls his arm off of the man’s chest. “I want you to be happy,” he murmurs, and god, he’s so close to Daryl, so very close, and Daryl isn’t struggling anymore, just watching him with a wariness that Rick wants to kiss out of him, and it’s all Rick can do not to lean forward and bridge the distance.

“I’m happy,” Daryl says, quietly, and Rick can smell the strawberries on his lips from this close and it’s maddening, it’s irresistible, it’s sexy as hell.

Rick rocks his body forward just a bit more, letting his feet follow the movement until he’s almost touching Daryl, the fabric of their clothes brushing against each other. He lifts a hand and puts it on Daryl’s neck. “I don’t think that’s true,” he whispers.

“You don’t know me,” Daryl says again, but there’s less conviction behind it this time, and his eyes slip down from Rick’s gaze down to his lips as his body relaxes, pressing back against the wall of the house, and he tilts his head just slightly, pushing his neck into Rick’s hand. Rick slides his thumb over the skin there, feeling Daryl’s pulse hammering against his fingers, and Daryl’s eyes flutter shut for the briefest moment when Rick touches him.

Rick puts his free hand on the other side of Daryl’s neck, using his thumbs to tilt the man’s chin up just slightly. “We got a connection, you and me,” he says. “You feel it too. I know you feel it.”

“Don’t matter what I feel,” Daryl says, the words coming out as more of a purr than an actual vocalization, and Rick lets out a sigh and steps forward again so that their bodies are touching, pressed together from thighs to chests, and he feels Daryl’s length against his hip and it makes Rick groan softly, his breath coming fast and short.

He feels Daryl’s fingers feather-light on his waist, tracing the waistband of his jeans on his sides, the callouses rough against Rick’s skin. “I want you,” Rick breathes out, eyes on Daryl’s mouth.

“Ain’t yours to have,” Daryl murmurs back. He curls his fingers into the belt loops on Rick’s jeans, holds on tightly. “I’m his.”

“Bullshit,” Rick says again. “You’re mine,” and he leans forward to kiss him, to put a stop to all of this teasing and tension and taste the strawberry flavor of Daryl’s tongue.

Only Daryl turns his head sharply just before their lips meet, sending Rick’s lips crashing against his cheek instead.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl says, letting out a shuddering breath and squeezing his eyes shut. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t. He don’t deserve this. I... “ He pushes at Rick’s hips and lets his head hang down as soon as there’s enough distance between them to do so. “I’m sorry.”

“Daryl,” Rick says, and Daryl shakes his head hard.

“No, I can’t.” He picks up the crossbow from where he’d dropped it. “I’m so fuckin’ sorry, Rick. But I can’t.” He reaches out and grabs the door handle, twists it and slides inside the house, closing the door before Rick can come through too.

Rick follows as far as he can anyway, presses his forehead against the closed door. “Daryl,” he calls out again, but there’s no answer from inside, only the soft click of a deadbolt sliding home.

Chapter Text

Rick sits down heavily in his car, pulling the door closed behind him and resting his head against the steering wheel. He’d been so close, so close to making Daryl his, to starting the rest of their lives together. And Daryl had wanted it, that was obvious from the way his body had curved toward Rick’s, his pulse feathering against Rick’s fingers, the heat in his eyes as Rick leaned in. He’d told Shane that if Daryl didn’t want him, he could be happy as just friends, and that had been true at the time. But now, knowing what it feels like to have his hands on the man’s skin, to feel Daryl’s fingertips brushing his waist, to be less than an inch away from kissing all the doubt out of him…

Rick bangs his head against the steering wheel and then sits up, pulling his phone out of his pocket. He’d turned it on silent earlier so that the buzzes and ringtones wouldn’t distract him from Daryl’s presence, and now the screen is a mess of missed calls and increasingly frantic texts from Lori and Shane.

Man, I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing but you need to get home right now, the last message said.

Rick gives up on trying to make sense of the messages and presses “call” on Shane’s name.

“Where the hell have you been?” Shane bellows without preamble.

Rick pinches the bridge of his nose, trying to make the mental switch between what just happened with Daryl and whatever is happening back home. “I’m at Daryl’s still. I told you that.”

“Well, you need to get your ass home,” Shane snaps. “‘Cause Lori’s freaking out, and I don’t know what to tell her. She’s talkin’ about prisons and morning after pills and that farm chick cuttin’ her open like a prize hog and man, brother, Rick, I ain’t got no idea what to tell her.”

Rick cranks the engine and guns it down the street, going as fast as he can safely drive. “I’m on my way. What does she remember?”

“Everything,” Shane says. “Shit, she remembers everything. Says she does, anyway. She remembers what happened to me, the shit that went down on the farm that night, other stuff you ain’t told me about yet about the winter and her bein’ pregnant and takin’ over a prison and she is freaking out, Rick, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Just hold on to her,” Rick tells him. “Talk to her. You’re good at that. I’m coming as fast as I can.”

“I’m sorry,” Shane says, and his voice sounds fractured and tired. “I shouldn’t have told her that the dream shit was real. Not without you here. But she was so pissed about you leavin’ and she was mad that I didn’t stop you and so I told her why I didn’t and she just kept pushing, man, and I had to tell her.”

“It’s fine,” Rick says, looking both ways at a stop sign before powering through it. “We’ll talk to her. It’ll be okay.”

“I hope so.” Shane sighs heavily into the phone. “Sent Carl over to Ray’s house. So at least he ain’t here to see it. Man, Lori says Carl was there. When she…” His voice trails off.

“Yeah,” Rick says after a moment. “Yeah, he was. Shane, do not tell Carl about this. You understand me? I do not want Carl ever dreaming this. He don’t need to know. You gotta swear to me right now that you will not tell him any of this.”

“Jesus, Rick, of course I ain’t tellin’ him none of this,” Shane says quickly. “Hell, I don’t wanna know any of this anymore. You get your boyfriend out of it but I just get fuckin’ stabbed in a field.”

Rick winces. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine. I was a jackass,” Shane says. “But you just get here as quick as you can and help me talk Lori down from a panic attack.”

“On my way,” Rick says again, and he hangs up and pushes the edges of the speed limit on his way back to King County.

//

Shane has more or less calmed Lori down by the time Rick bursts into the house. Lori is pale, red-eyed, and there’s a pile of damp, crumpled tissue beside her on the couch that speaks of a prolonged crying session. Shane, for his part, just looks fucking exhausted, and Rick wonders how much sleep he’d gotten the night before, how much more he’d dreamed too.

“Shane, can we have a minute?” Lori says as soon as Rick walks into the room, and Shane just nods and kisses her forehead, then stands up and heads for the guest room. Rick hears the door click closed and he sits down beside Lori on the couch.

Lori stares at the coffee table in front of the couch for a long time before she speaks. “You were telling the truth,” she says, her voice small and broken. “I mean… I knew you were telling the truth that you dreamed this. I just didn’t believe you that it was so…” She blinks hard and looks away, out into the room. “I should have listened to you. I should have understood.”

Rick sighs and rests his hand just above his upper lip. “No way you could have known. I know I sounded crazy.”

There’s another silence, then Lori speaks softly again. “It’s not that I believe Shane more than I believe you. It’s just… I could tell myself it wasn’t real when it was just you. But someone else, someone else I trust…”

“I know,” Rick says.

Lori turns toward him and takes a deep breath. “Rick, I am so sorry--”

“Don’t apologize,” Rick interrupts. “You didn’t know.”

“No,” Lori says, squeezing her eyes shut and shaking her head. “I mean… I’m sorry that I didn’t believe you. But more than that, Rick. There’s so much I did wrong. In the dream. And I am so sorry for all of it. I shouldn’t have asked you to kill Shane, and I shouldn’t have been upset with you when you actually did it. And I shouldn’t have…” She trails off, biting her lip, then takes a breath and nods as she speaks like she’s encouraging herself to do it. “I shouldn’t have gotten together with Shane without knowing for sure that you were dead. In that world or this one.”

“I forgive you,” Rick says quietly, slipping an arm around her shoulder. “For all of it. For everything. And Lori, I’m so sorry for how I treated you, too. The silent treatment and the… everything. I’m sorry.”

Lori nods slowly and leans to the side, bracing her shoulder against Rick’s. “All of this… everything here. In this world. It’s all so…” She laughs, a little sadly. “It’s all so small.”

Rick nods and kisses the side of her head. “I just want to put everything behind us. Start all over. You with Shane, where you belong. Where you want to be. And me--”

“With Daryl,” she interrupts.

Rick pauses, then tightens his hand on her arm. “Shane told you.”

“Shane just told me his name. And then I watched you fall in love with him when I dreamed.” Lori pulls out of Rick’s embrace and looks over at him. “You told me you were in love with a man in the dream. But Rick, I would have known even if you hadn’t told me. I knew. I knew then, too. I saw… the way you were with him.” She laughs softly again, still without much happiness to it. “There was one time that you were so angry about something… I don’t even remember what it was, but you were just…” She breaks off and makes a wide-eyed, furious expression. “And he walked by and just… just laid his hand on your shoulder. Just for a second. And it was like your whole body relaxed, like just knowing he was there was enough to make it okay. And then you looked at him, and Rick… you haven’t ever looked at me like that. Not in all the years we’ve been together.”

Rick leans forward, puts his elbows on his knees and presses his chin into his clasped hands. “I didn’t know,” he says, his voice raspy and quiet. “I didn’t know until I woke up what it was.”

“He knew,” she says. “All you had to do was look at him to see it.”

Rick opens his clasped hands and puts his face in them. “Maybe this is for the best, then. You and me… breaking up. You love Shane?”

Lori nods slowly. “I do.”

“Alright,” Rick says, nodding. “And I have my thing going on with Daryl, so…”

“I’ll call the lawyer tomorrow,” Lori says. “Joint custody and everything, I promise. We’ll do this as friends?”

“Yeah,” Rick says, smiling at her softly, a peace offering. “And you can have the house. I thought… maybe I’d look into buying the one next door, if you’re okay with that. That way Carl can see us both whenever he wants.”

Lori reaches out and puts a hand on Rick’s thigh, and he sits back and puts his hand over hers. “Carl would like that. And… the baby, too.” She runs her fingers over her stomach and smiles. “Did she make it? Shane didn’t know…”

“She did,” Rick says. “She was beautiful. She will be beautiful.”

“What did you name her?” Lori asks, quiet and calm.

“Judith,” Rick says, smiling at the thought of the little girl, her happy eyes and her little fists waving everywhere. “But Carl picked the name. So I think we should let him do it this time too.”

“What if he picks something else?” She leans back against the couch and folds her hands over her stomach protectively.

“He won’t,” Rick says, nodding decisively. “I know he won’t.”

Lori nods along with Rick. “If… if I call Shane back in here, will you tell us about her?” she asks, biting her thumb after finishing the question.

Rick thinks about the baby again, about how much he’d wished that both Lori and Shane could have been there to see her. “Yeah,” he says. “I can do that.”

//

That night, Shane sleeps in the master bedroom with Lori while Rick takes the guest room, and it doesn’t feel nearly as strange as Rick would have thought. Most of the awkwardness comes the next morning when Shane is sitting at the kitchen table eating Cocoa Puffs and freezes like a deer in the headlights when Rick walks in, like he thinks for a moment that he’s been caught doing something wrong.

“Mornin’, Shane,” Rick says, and makes himself a cup of oatmeal.

Shane watches him for a few seconds and then tells Rick good morning back and continues eating his cereal.

And that’s that.

Later, when Carl gets home from his friend’s, they sit the boy down and tell him what he needs to know--Mom and Dad aren’t going to be together anymore, Mom and Shane are together, Dad will be moving out soon but he won’t go far. They don’t tell Carl about the dream, or about Daryl, and the boy seems to take it fairly well, especially after the four of them sit down at the kitchen table and play Uno and laugh like a big, weird family, followed by Carl getting to stay up late and watch Transformers with Rick and Shane and eat what is probably way too much junk food.

Rick manages not to think about Daryl for most of the day--or, if he’s being honest with himself, what he really does is manage not to think about touching Daryl for most of the day. Everything that happens, everything he does, triggers a memory: Daryl smiling at him on the prison roof when he called gin for the thousandth time, Daryl giving him a tired grin after a hunt, Daryl throwing his poncho over Rick’s shoulders when they switched out for watch on a cold night. The look in Daryl’s eyes yesterday when Rick had him close, the look that Rick wants to think says I know you.

It’s Friday. Rick reasons that Daryl needs time, that Rick can’t push this too fast, that Rick is already moving faster than he should have and he has to slow down, has to coax Daryl to him like a frightened animal. He doesn’t spare a thought for Jeff except to hate the man for a few seconds with everything in his soul, both because Jeff has the man Rick wants and because Jeff doesn’t even treat him well, doesn’t make Daryl feel like he’s worth everything good in the world, tells Daryl that he’s not beautiful, not perfect, not worthy.

If Jeff was a good man, if he made Daryl happy, if Daryl really loved him, Rick would back off. He tells himself that, anyway, and he mostly believes it, but it’s hard to move past the possessive sense that Daryl is meant to be Rick’s, and more to the point, that Rick is already Daryl’s and always will be. That it’s not just proximity or circumstance, that this was fucking destined, that his whole life has been leading him to this man.

So he’ll give Daryl until Monday. And then he’ll go back to Bettsville and get him.

//

“We’re gonna save a lot of gas money this way,” Shane tells Rick as they’re parked in an alley, radar-checking people driving through town.

“What do you mean?” Rick asks, checking the radar display and deciding that three miles per hour over the limit isn’t enough to bother chasing the culprit down, strictly enforced signs be damned.

“If we’re neighbors,” Shane says. “If you buy that house next door and I move in with Lori.” He slants his eyes over to Rick, still looking tense, like he thinks this whole thing is a trap.

“You mean carpooling in all the time?” Rick asks. He reaches over and picks up his bottle of root beer, takes a long drink of it.

“Yeah,” Shane says, then rubs his head nervously and rolls his shoulders. “So we’re really doin’ this, then. I’m moving in with your wife and you’re moving in next door and we’re going to have Monopoly nights like one big family.”

Rick shrugs and puts his bottle back in the cup holder. “Don’t have to be weird.”

“Nobody does this, man,” Shane says. “Nobody.”

“Maybe they should,” Rick says back. “Why’s it got to be bad? Why can’t we all be a family?”

“We can,” Shane tells him. “But I’m just sayin’, man. We’re gonna get some strange looks when all this gets out.”

Rick shrugs, a smile hovering around his mouth. “You ain’t the one who’ll get the looks. People’ll be more surprised that I’d give up a pretty woman like Lori to be with a scruffy male redneck who I’ve only officially known for three days.”

Shane laughs at that. “It does sound pretty crazy, man,” he says, then dips his head and pauses for a second, tongue caught between his lips. “But you know, me and Lori talked about it. And we can see it. We get it.” He lifts his head back, gives Rick his thousand-watt smile for a second. “I mean, I don’t understand it. Guy’s a dick and we all know the two of us didn’t get along. But I get it. Seein’ the two of you. I get it.”

Rick smiles back. “Yeah. Now I just got to convince him.”

A car speeds by, and Rick checks the radar again, decides not to chase them. Shane takes a deep breath and speaks into the suddenly-quiet car: “I was jealous of him. You know that, right? That’s why I hated him.”

Rick’s eyebrows shoot up and he looks over at Shane quickly. “Jealous?”

“Yeah,” Shane says, refusing to meet Rick’s gaze. “You and me, man, we been best buddies since grade school. Thick and thin, you know? But then all the sudden it was him. He was your buddy. The one you listened to. The guy who had your back all the time. And it pissed me off because that shoulda been me.” He sighs heavily. “I know I didn’t deserve it at the time. I know that. But still. I’d already lost Lori and that was bad enough, but then I lost you too. To him. And I didn’t have my woman and I didn’t have my best friend and I just felt…” He trails off, then grins brightly, too brightly for the conversation. “Hell, listen to me right now. Sound like a fuckin’ girl.”

“Shane,” Rick says, and Shane looks over at him, biting the corner of his bottom lip.

“Just tell me you ain’t gonna forget about me when you start bangin’ him like a steel drum,” Shane says, rough and uncertain.

Rick lifts his hand and puts it on Shane’s shoulder, his body twisting awkwardly in the car seat to complete the motion. “I promise,” he says, and Shane meets his eyes and everything between them suddenly locks back into place, their friendship finally sliding back into its old pattern, the scars of the dream and the strained months before that fading away, and Rick breathes a sigh of relief.

“Let’s go to Dairy Queen,” Shane says after a moment, and Rick nods and puts the car into gear.

//

Later, they’re parked outside the Dairy Queen, clocking people on the radar again but not particularly caring enough about the minor speeding violations to put down their Blizzards and follow them, when Rick’s phone rings. Rick looks at the number on the screen and frowns when he doesn’t recognize it.

“Hello?” he says when he puts the phone to his ear. Shane raises an eyebrow at him but he waves dismissively at the other man.

There’s a long pause, then a low, hard-country voice. “Hey. Uh… Rick?”

Rick sits up straight in his seat. “Daryl?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, gruff and quiet. “Um… I got your number from, um, your wife. Looked up your landline and she answered and… yeah.”

“That’s fine,” Rick says, probably too quickly and brightly, but he doesn’t want to give Daryl any reason to hang up. “I’m glad you called.”

“Just wanted to apologize for bein’ such a jumpy prick the other day,” Daryl says. “I think I prob’ly handled all that pretty fuckin’ poorly.”

“It’s okay,” Rick assures him. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I shouldn’t have pushed you so hard either.”

Daryl grunts, and Rick smiles at the sound, at how very Daryl it is. “Anyway I was at work last night and this jackass customer thought it’d be funny to tip me in concert tickets instead of cash, like I can pay my electric bill with fuckin’ tickets. Usually I’d just throw ‘em away but I looked at ‘em and it’s for Rascal Flatts and I ain’t got no idea why, but I just got this feeling that you’d prob’ly like to go.” He takes a deep breath that Rick can hear through the phone. “So, um… I mean, it’s short notice. Tomorrow night. But you think you might wanna go?”

Rick just sits there, his mouth hanging slightly open. Rascal Flatts, he thinks, then quickly sorts back through the conversations he had with Daryl in Bettsville and comes up pretty firmly convinced that he hadn’t said anything at all about his favorite bands, even when he and Daryl had talked about music in Daryl’s truck. And Rick doesn’t think he seems like the sort of guy who people would just assume liked Rascal Flatts, much less someone who loved them, which means… God, it must mean that Daryl just knows. That he can just feel it, sense it, even if he doesn’t understand why.

“Rick?” Daryl’s voice has a tiny quaver of uncertainty to it now, and Rick launches into babbling.

“Oh. Yeah. Yes. Of course. I’d love to. Yes.” Rick looks over at Shane and mouths Daryl and Shane starts making lewd hip motions. Rick tries to roll his eyes but he’s too focused on Daryl and Daryl’s voice and Daryl’s lips in the back of his mind to make any sort of real movement that isn’t directly Daryl-related.

They talk for a few more seconds, mostly to set up a meeting place about halfway between Rick’s house and Bettsville, and Daryl says he’ll pick Rick up there and they’ll drive the rest of the way to the concert hall together. Then Daryl gets off the phone quickly with a see you then and when the call disconnects, Rick lets out a loud, boyish whoop, complete with a fist pump in the air.

Shane raises an eyebrow. “You got your boy?”

Rick grins at him, his eyes sparkling like the surface of a lake in the sun. “I got him.”

//

Rick spends the next hour or so alternately talking Shane’s ear off about Daryl and gazing stupidly off into the distance thinking about Daryl. Daryl wants to spend an evening with him. That gives him an in. That gives him a chance. And Rick will be damned if he doesn’t give it everything he’s got.

He’s in one of his “gazing stupidly” phases when a young man, probably college-aged, walks into view. Rick’s eyes sweep over him and then lock on, and Rick is out of the car before he’s really thought his game plan through.

“Hey,” he calls out to the guy, who freezes with wide eyes, looking around as if he’s frantically trying to pin the officer’s attention on someone else.

“Yes, Officer?” the kid says. He shifts his feet and his hands ball into loose fists at his sides.

“Where did you get that poncho?” Rick says, letting his eyes run over the coarse fabric again, the tans and the oranges and the way it sits on shoulders that aren’t broad enough, aren’t nearly perfect enough.

The guy just stares at him for a few seconds. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Your poncho,” Rick says, waving at it impatiently. “Been looking for one like it. Where’d you get it?”

“I don’t know,” the kid tells him, looking more panicked by the second. “It was a gift? From my mom? I don’t know where she got it. Probably online or something. Oh god, am I a murder suspect?”

“No,” Rick says. He pulls out his wallet. “I’ll give you fifty bucks for it.”

The kid’s forehead wrinkles. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ll give you fifty bucks for your poncho,” Rick repeats, slowly this time so the kid understands.

“You’ll pay me for my poncho,” the kid says.

“Fifty bucks,” Rick says, pulling out two twenties and a ten and fanning the bills so the guy can see.

“Uh…”

“A hundred,” Rick says, then slides the bills back in and pulls out a crisp hundred instead.

“Done,” the kid says. He snatches the bill from Rick and quickly shrugs off the poncho, holding it out to Rick.

“Thanks,” Rick says, holding the fabric against his chest. “You don’t know what this means to me.”

“Uh… you’re right, Officer. I really don’t know.” The kid backs a few steps away. “Can I go now?”

“Yeah, of course. Thanks again,” Rick says, and he wanders back toward the patrol car and climbs in, his eyes far away in the ruined guard tower of a prison.

Shane stares at him for a second. “You are weird as fuck, man. Did you know that?”

Rick ignores him and slips the fabric over his head, shrugging into it and smiling. It doesn’t smell like Daryl, not yet, but the weight of it is comforting on his shoulders and it will smell like Daryl one day, Rick will make sure of that. He smiles to himself and snuggles down into the seat, letting his eyes go unfocused and his heart swell.

Chapter Text

Rick is a little later leaving the house than he ideally wants to be, mostly because Shane and Lori both ganged up on him and made him take another shower so he could re-do his hair with not nearly as much gel. “Honey,” Lori had said, “nobody is going to want to run their fingers through that sticky mess,” and Shane had asked him if he was going for Grease-era John Travolta, so Rick had done what they said, and he has to admit he probably looks better mostly gel-less.

But he still gets to the meeting place twenty minutes before their agreed rendezvous time, and he picks up the gift bag containing the freshly-washed poncho and goes outside to sit on his hood and wait.

It’s late afternoon and the nights are getting cooler, but it’s still pleasantly warm in the sunshine. Rick lies back against the hood and stares up at the sky, looking for shapes in the clouds, and he thinks about what it would--will, he tells himself--be like to really be with Daryl, to see him every morning rumpled and warm in the bed next to him, to stand beside him while they brush their teeth at night, to just know he’s there in the house with him even if they’re in different rooms doing different things. A life with him, a real life. Maybe they could even have kids together, adopt them or get a surrogate or steal some of Merle’s accidental babies. Daryl would like that, he thinks. The man’s a natural dad and Rick wants to see him holding a baby again, wants to see him happy like that.

But that’s far in the future, Rick scolds himself. Right now he’s just hoping for a chaste good-night kiss. It won’t be nearly enough, but that would be something he can work with. Something he can hold on to while he wades through the slow process of breaking down Daryl’s barriers, showing him that they’re meant to be together.

Rick closes his eyes and folds his arms behind his head, relaxing against the hood of the car and letting the soft breeze blow over him. Their bodies had fit together so well the other day, just as Rick had known they would, and he can still feel Daryl pressed against him, can almost taste the strawberries on the other man’s tongue. Rick lets out a shaky sigh and lets his mind wander straight into Daryl’s bed, with the hunter’s skin sliding against his own, the breathless gasps and the way it would feel to just let Daryl take him, own him, love him.

The sound of tires crunching on gravel snaps Rick out of his daydream, and just in time, too, as his cock has started to take notice of the way his thoughts are swirling. Rick sits up quickly and adjusts himself with a wriggle of his hips, then slides off the hood of his car and brushes the dust from his clothes. Daryl climbs out of the truck and Rick forgets everything in the world except for the way Daryl looks in the orange light of the late Georgia afternoon.

“What?” Daryl asks, ducking his head and rubbing the back of his neck. “Got somethin’ on my face?”

It’s then that Rick notices that his mouth is just slightly open, so he closes it and snatches up the gift bag. “Hey,” he says, stepping as close to Daryl as he dares, as close as he thinks he can get without making the other man uncomfortable.

“Hey,” Daryl mumbles back. He looks at the ground, his hands shoved into the pockets of his black leather jacket.

Rick just barely resists the urge to put his fingers under Daryl’s chin and guide the man’s eyes up to his own. Instead, he just holds out the bag to Daryl. “Got you something.”

Daryl’s forehead wrinkles and he eyes the bag warily. “What?”

“I… got you a present,” Rick says, still holding the bag out.

“Why?” Daryl asks, flicking his eyes between the bag and Rick several times before settling on peering at Rick, eyes slightly narrowed.

“Because I thought you might like it,” Rick says, letting the end of the sentence lilt upwards into almost a question.

Daryl reaches out very slowly and takes the bag. “Thanks,” he mutters, then just lets the bag dangle from his fingers. “Sorry, ‘s just that I ain’t used to getting… stuff. From people.”

“You got these tickets from someone,” Rick points out, his fingers twitching to reach for Daryl again.

Daryl shrugs. “Tips are different,” he says, letting his eyes settle on the plain white tissue paper stuffed into the gift bag. “This… you didn’t have to do this.”

Rick shifts his feet a bit and hooks his fingers in his belt. “It ain’t much.”

“More’n Jeff’s ever done,” Daryl says, so softly that Rick almost doesn’t hear it. Then he pulls the tissue paper out of the bag and takes out the poncho, shaking it out and looking at it intently. His throat bobs as he swallows hard, and Rick takes a tiny step forward.

“I just… it seemed like something you’d like,” Rick says.

Daryl looks up at him, his eyes narrowed again but differently than before, more considering than suspicious. “How’d you know that?”

Rick shrugs and bites back the truth. “I told you the other day that I feel like I know you.”

Daryl grunts softly and stuffs the poncho back into the bag. “Like it,” he mumbles. “Thanks.”

Rick nods, and Daryl retreats toward his truck again. “Ready?” Daryl asks, then opens the driver’s side door before pausing and walking around to the passenger side. He holds the door open for Rick, who slides into the passenger seat with a big smile on his face. Daryl jogs back around the truck again and gets into the driver’s side, putting the bag with the poncho between them, then cranks the engine and pulls the truck out onto the road.

“So,” Daryl says after a few minutes of silence, his eyes on the concrete in front of the truck. “Do you… like this band? Or did you just say you’d come ‘cause I asked and you’re tryin’ to be nice?”

Rick looks down at his own button-up plaid flannel shirt and then reaches for the buttons and undoes them quickly to expose the Rascal Flatts t-shirt he’s hidden under it. “They’re my favorite,” he admits, and Daryl flicks his eyes over to the shirt and then lets out a surprised laugh.

“Musta been a lucky guess,” Daryl says, shifting the truck into the next gear and leaving his hand on the stick.

Rick nods, watching Daryl’s fingers as they curl around the rounded top of the gear shift. “Or you feel it too,” he says quietly. “The connection.”

“Never said I didn’t,” Daryl murmurs. “Don’t know what that means, though.”

“It means you know me,” Rick says. “It means something in you recognizes me.”

Daryl raises an eyebrow at him before returning his eyes to the road. “Ain’t never met you before.”

Rick sighs and looks out the window. Silence falls back over them, the only sound the humming of the pavement beneath the truck and the way Rick’s heart is beating in his throat like it’s trying to escape. “I know you,” he says after several minutes. He looks back over at Daryl, who doesn’t respond, not even a twitch of a muscle. “I know you,” he says again. “I know things about you that there’s no way I could know.”

Daryl scoffs. “Like what?”

Rick rubs his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and tries to sort through all the things he knows, to pick out the kernels of truth that he wouldn’t have been able to find out by misusing police resources or stalking. “You like to play gin rummy,” he says after a moment. “Your mom taught you how, before she died.”

Daryl grunts but doesn’t respond, and Rick continues. “You have four tattoos that I know of. One on the underside of your arm, one on your chest, two on your back. You always wanted a pet bobcat. You think sometimes about running off into the woods and just making it on your own, just you and your crossbow and none of the social pressures from the world.”

Daryl moves his hand from the gear shift back up to the steering wheel and tightens both hands around it, staring forward with a focus that’s too intense for just driving.

“You tried to take one of your co-workers home once,” Rick says. “A blonde girl. You worked with her before the bar turned into a gay bar. And you took her home but you didn’t do anything with her because you didn’t feel it.”

“Christine,” Daryl grumbles. “Name was Christine.”

Rick nods fast. “I didn’t know her name, but yeah. Christine.”

“How do you know that?” Daryl says, very very quietly. “Don’t nobody know that. Begged her to tell people we fucked an’ she did. Nobody knew we didn’t but me and her.”

Rick puts his hands in his lap, twists his fingers together, stares down at them. “I can tell you how I know, but you gotta promise you’ll hear me out and not just… dismiss it.”

Daryl grunts and his hands tighten even more on the steering wheel. “You stalking me?” he asks, a dangerous edge to his voice.

“No,” Rick says. “But listen before you jump to conclusions, alright?”

Daryl gives him a jerky nod and speeds the truck up a bit, and Rick wonders if he realizes he’s driving faster or if the muscles tensing all over his body just pressed his foot down harder on the accelerator without Daryl’s permission.

“Okay,” Rick says, then takes a deep, cleansing breath. “I know this stuff because you told me.”

“Didn’t,” Daryl says, his voice clipped. “Don’t know you.”

“Just give me a second to explain,” Rick says, then barrels forward before Daryl can say no. “I had this dream when I was in my coma. It was about the end of the world, surviving an apocalypse.” Rick purposefully leaves out mention of the Walkers, figuring that he sounds crazy enough without adding zombie dream to the mix. “You was there. I got to know you. You told me things about yourself. Taught me things. And there was other stuff, too, not just you and me. And when I woke up, I knew things I shouldn’t know, because they happened in the dream or I learned them there or whatever. I knew that Lori and Shane were together. I knew she was pregnant. I met this one woman who I recognized from the dream, and I’d never seen her before. And I knew things about her too, like how much of a jackass her husband was, things he’d said to her that she’d never told anyone. And I know other things, too, like how to shoot a crossbow, and how to play gin, and how to mix a Manhattan, because you taught me those things.”

Daryl pulls the truck over to the side of the road. “Get out,” he grumbles.

“Daryl,” Rick says, twisting his whole body to face the man. “Don’t do this. Listen to me.”

“‘M listenin’,” Daryl says, his voice getting lower and more Southern than before. “Ain’t likin’ what I’m hearin’.”

“I know this sounds like I’m off my rocker,” Rick pleads with him, both with his words and with his eyes, but Daryl won’t look at him and it makes him feel unsteady, uncertain, desperate. “But how would I know these things if I’m not tellin’ the truth?”

“Don’t know,” Daryl says, staring out the windshield stonily. “All I know’s I’m out drivin’ with a man who says he knows me ‘cause he’s been dreaming about me. An’ I don’t know you. An’ this is how Law and Order episodes start.”

“You do know me,” Rick says. “You feel it. It doesn’t make any sense but you feel it.”

Daryl’s lips thin out into a line and he takes a deep breath but still won’t look at Rick.

“Jeff told you that you weren’t pretty enough,” Rick says, very softly. “Told you nobody wanted to look at your ugly mug for long, his words. And somehow the bastard had you believing that, which is bullshit. It is so much fucking bullshit and that’s why I hate him, why I was sayin’ those things about him the other day, because I know how he treats you. Because you told me how he treats you. And Daryl, I have to tell you that not one thing you tell me about him is ever gonna make me think he deserves you, not after all that.”

“An’ you do,” Daryl spits out. “He don’t deserve me but you do?”

“Fuck no,” Rick says. He lifts his hand and runs it through his own hair. “But I’d at least try to.”

Daryl is quiet again, and Rick sighs and turns his body back around to look out the windshield too. He’s got to convince him, he thinks. He has to come up with something that is ironclad, something impossible to misinterpret. But at least Daryl hasn’t repeated his command for Rick to get out of the truck, so he has a few minutes to think. Surely there’s something...

“Taught you to hunt?” Daryl asks after a moment, and Rick nods. Then Daryl takes another deep breath and whistles one of the calls he and Merle use when they’re hunting, one of the calls that he taught Rick out in the Georgia woods. It’s the sound that means where are you, the sound that means I can’t find you, and Rick smiles as he recognizes it.

Rick takes a moment to look at the position of the setting sun and then whistles back north of you. Daryl blinks and then closes his eyes and whistles are you okay and Rick whistles back yes.

There’s no whistle for I love you or for please believe me. Nothing that means I’m yours for as long as you’ll have me. So Rick just takes another gulp of air and whistles out come find me, I need you, and Daryl lets out a shaky breath and then pulls the truck back out onto the road, heading in the direction of the concert hall.

“You…” Rick says, his throat dry and his voice weak. “You believe me?”

Daryl shrugs. “Don’t know. But I’ll roll with it for now.” His hands loosen on the steering wheel and his shoulders relax a bit. “So if you know all this shit about me,” he says after a moment, “figure you should tell me some things about you.”

Rick relaxes too, mirroring Daryl’s posture, the slope of his body. “I’m a sheriff’s deputy,” he says. “Have a boy, Carl. He’s just about a teenager and I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet. Never been… never really been interested in men before. Just, you know, a passing attraction here and there. Like a flash of he looks good and then it was always gone. Not enough to make me question anything.”

Daryl grunts quietly and he reaches up to rub the back of his own neck. Rick watches his hand as it moves over the tanned skin there, watches Daryl’s hair brush over the edge of his knuckles.

After a beat of silence, Rick continues. “Married my wife when we were barely out of high school. And today she’s calling lawyers. It’s going pretty well, though. Friendly.”

Daryl grunts again. “‘S not talk about the people we’re cheating on.”

Rick bites back an urge to launch into another rant about how Jeff doesn’t deserve Daryl and instead decides to just keep talking. He tells Daryl about how he played baseball in high school even though he couldn’t hit the ball to save his life. He tells him about his favorite family vacations, about Carl’s third-grade science fair project and how there are still pieces of exploded papier-mâché volcano on the garage ceiling, about some of the crazier things he and Shane had seen on the force. Daryl slowly relaxes as they drive and even starts laughing at some of the stories, and Rick drinks in his smiles and his laughter and allows himself to imagine, just for a second, that this will be the way the rest of his life will be, with Daryl happy at his side.

//

They don’t speak much once they get to the concert hall, but they move together like water, flowing around each other and through the crowd, losing each other in the masses but finding each other again with ease, Daryl’s body angled toward Rick’s and his hand coming to rest lightly on Rick’s upper back a few times, fingers brushing Rick’s t-shirt so lightly that Rick wouldn’t have felt the touch if it hadn’t come from Daryl, if he hadn’t been able to sense the man’s presence behind him and around him, energy flowing from Daryl’s fingers into Rick’s skin.

They find their seats and settle down to wait for the band to take the stage. Once they’re seated, Daryl slants his eyes over at Rick. “So in this dream… what happened?”

Rick turns and looks at him. “What do you mean?”

Daryl shrugs, his leather jacket creaking slightly as his arms move. “Was it nukes? Global warming? Zombies?”

Rick laughs a little at that. “We called them Walkers. But yeah.”

“Zombies, really?” Daryl says, raising an eyebrow. “Hell, that’s rough.”

“It was pretty bad,” Rick tells him, nodding slowly. He lifts his gaze to Daryl’s. “Only good thing about it was you, really.”

Daryl scoffs, looking back out over the concert hall. “Ain’t never been a good thing before.”

“You kept us safe,” Rick says. “Kept us fed. Saved my life… hell, so many times I can’t even count them. You were… the only one I trusted. And then when I woke up, I just had to find you. I didn’t feel right without you around.”

Daryl nods slowly, rubbing his hands on his thighs. “So you…” He clears his throat. “You want what? To be friends?”

Rick takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, his cheeks puffing out with the air as he blows it out of his mouth. “If that’s all you can give me, yeah. I want more than that.” He shakes his head incredulously. “God, I do. But I need something from you. And if all you want is friendship then that’s what we’ll do. You can decide where this goes.”

“But you want…” Daryl says, then trails off before trying again. “Me.”

“Yeah, I do,” Rick says, meeting Daryl’s eyes as best he can.

Daryl nods but doesn’t say anything else, his eyes sliding back out over the crowd. Rick leaves him to his thoughts for a few minutes, and then Rascal Flatts comes on stage and Rick leaps to his feet. Daryl stands up too, a little more slowly, and Rick turns to look at him, his eyes sparkling, and Daryl blinks rapidly a few times and then turns back toward the stage.

Rick tries to stay cool and manages it for a few songs, but then one of his favorites starts up and before he knows it, Rick finds his feet moving without his permission. Daryl turns his head and looks at Rick, and Rick forces himself to stand still again.

Daryl leans over, his lips close to Rick’s ear so he can be heard over the music, and says, “Were you line dancing?”

Rick turns deep red and runs a hand over the back of his own neck. “Yeah.”

Daryl’s breath is hot on Rick’s ear and his lips are so close that it makes Rick shiver. “Don’t have to be ashamed.”

Rick looks down at his feet and tries to calm both his embarrassment and his physical reaction to having Daryl’s mouth practically on his skin. He’s more or less successful, and he shrugs and starts dancing again, moving his feet in the rhythm, kicking his boots out a little with the song. Daryl smiles at him and watches Rick’s feet move, and then after a few seconds he starts mirroring the movements, doing the dance alongside Rick, and Rick falls just a little more in love with the man even though he hadn’t thought that was possible.

He looks up at Daryl and their eyes lock, and Daryl’s mouth curves upwards at the edges and Rick thinks that if he was to die right now, this would be a hell of a last sight--Daryl Dixon smiling at him, the reds and purples and yellows of the stage lighting reflecting in his perfect blue-gray eyes.

At some point the song changes, melts into a slower song, and Rick isn’t quite sure exactly when that happened because all his senses are locked in to the rhythm of Daryl’s breathing, his shoulders rising and falling and Rick unconsciously slipping into the same pattern so that they’re breathing together, their bodies aligning with one another, the pieces falling into place, and Rick would bet every dollar he has to his name that their hearts are beating in the same rhythm too, that they are as close to one person as any two people have ever been, and they’re not even touching but he’s sure that’s true.

When Daryl finally looks away, Rick shakes his head to clear it and turns back to the stage himself. Their hands bump at their sides and Daryl flinches, and Rick pulls his own hand away to give him room. Rick closes his eyes, listening to the song, to the liquid slide of the notes and the lyrics, and their hands brush again and Rick wonders if everyone in the concert hall can tell what’s going on here, if the sparks that he’s feeling are actually visible every time their hands slip past each other. Daryl is standing at his side, his back straight and unmoving as a Georgia pine, and Rick watches him out of the corner of his eye and tries to calm himself down.

And then their hands brush again, but instead of flinching, Daryl curves his hand and catches Rick’s palm. He slides his fingers in between Rick’s, lacing them together, and slowly rubs his thumb over Rick’s skin, and Rick lets out a shaky breath that he would be embarrassed about if he could think about anything other than Daryl’s hand in his.

And from there, the concert is easily the best thing that’s ever happened to Rick--his favorite band playing his favorite songs while his fingers are tangled with Daryl’s, less calloused than they had been in the apocalypse but still strong, still rough, still the hands of a man who loves the outdoors and works for the things he has, and Rick loves him so much that he’s afraid his body can’t possibly hold it in, that his skin is going to come apart at the seams from the force of it all, and Daryl isn’t letting go of his hand and that’s got to be heaven, right here in a concert hall in Georgia, and when Rick looks at Daryl and Daryl finally looks back, Rick is pretty sure that nothing in the world will ever be better than this.

//

It’s gotten cold outside when the concert ends and the two of them tumble back outside into the night air, still holding hands, and Rick is riding a high of euphoria like he doesn’t think he’s ever felt before. He can’t seem to stop smiling, his thumb tracing circles around Daryl’s palm as Daryl leads him back toward the truck, and his steps have a bounce to them that he can’t do anything to control.

“You’re shivering,” Daryl says as they get to the truck.

Rick hasn’t noticed it, and he tells Daryl so, but Daryl rolls his eyes and detaches his hand from Rick’s so that he can shrug off his leather jacket and swing it around Rick’s shoulders. Rick almost protests, but this is Daryl’s jacket and it smells like him and so instead of putting out a token resistance, he just slips his arms into the sleeves and gives Daryl a grateful smile.

“Aren’t you cold?” he asks him, and Daryl half-smiles and opens the door of the truck, then reaches inside and grabs the poncho from the seat.

“Not once I get this on,” he says, then ducks his head into the poncho. “Always wanted one of these.”

Rick watches the fabric settle down over Daryl’s shoulders and lets out a long breath through his nose to keep himself from whimpering. “You had one. Uh… before.” He licks his lips before he realizes what he’s doing. “Looked good on you.”

Daryl raises an eyebrow at him, and Rick laughs. “Well, it did,” he says, reaching over and inventing a piece of dust on the poncho so that he can brush it off, letting his fingers trail over Daryl’s shoulder. He leaves his hand there for a moment, letting a smile spread across his face and settle there in the corners of his eyes as he revels in the contact.

Daryl turns his head and looks back toward the concert hall, at the thinning crowd in the parking lot. “Dream’s how you knew about the Pixies, ain’t it?”

“Yeah,” Rick admits, dropping his hand away from Daryl’s shoulder and resisting the urge to touch him again, lace their fingers back together, run his hand down Daryl’s chest. “Maybe I’ll take you to see them next time. They’re touring, right?”

Daryl shrugs, looking at the ground and pushing his hands into his pockets. “Only if you want. I understand if you ain’t havin’ a very good time tonight.”

Rick watches him, bouncing on his heels and leaning lightly against the truck. “Are you kidding? This is the best night I’ve had in a long time,” he says, grinning from ear to ear, drunk on Daryl and the poncho and the ringing in his ears from the loud music. “God, probably the best night I’ve ever had.”

Daryl looks up, his forehead wrinkled slightly. “You mean that?” he asks, his voice almost too low for Rick to hear.

Yes,” Rick says, and he can feel his eyes sparkling and he hopes Daryl can see it, can see how happy he is, can feel it too.

Daryl keeps his eyes on Rick for a few seconds, then quickly steps forward, backing Rick up against the truck. “God, you’re so adorable,” he whispers, then brings his hands up and tangles them in Rick’s curls and Rick has just the barest second to register that anything’s happening before Daryl’s lips are on his and they’re kissing like the arch of lightning in a hot summer sky.

It’s a fairly chaste kiss at first, just the press of Daryl’s lips against Rick’s, still and polite, a kiss of permission and wonder, a what if sort of gesture, and Rick forces himself to keep it like that, to let Daryl lead how far this will go, but Rick’s arms snake around Daryl’s waist and splay out over his lower back, pulling him in ever so slightly. Daryl rocks his body forward a bit more so that they’re pressed together, and he tightens one hand in Rick’s hair and moves the other one down to Rick’s neck, thumb pressing lightly against the pulse point there. He moves his lips on Rick’s and Rick whimpers and responds, moving his lips too, eyes closed and heart racing, and then Daryl sighs against his mouth and parts his lips and then there’s tongue and need and pressure in all the right places, Daryl moving forward and Rick’s legs parting to let him step between them, the kiss turning hungry and Rick’s back arching into Daryl and away from the cool metal of the truck.

Daryl lets go of Rick’s hair and wraps his arms around Rick’s neck, pressing in harder and closer and pulling his lips back only so he can lick Rick’s mouth back open and drive his tongue back inside, and Rick’s hand moves up Daryl’s back to rest between his shoulder blades, pulling the man closer against him. Daryl murmurs Rick’s name against his mouth and Rick wraps one leg around Daryl’s, curling their calves together, and lets himself go boneless and weak against the archer, letting out a sound that’s half gasp and half moan and all hunger and love and desire, and when they break apart it’s only out of necessity, Rick’s hands clutching at the fabric of the poncho and Daryl’s hips pressed forward into Rick’s as they pant for breath, faces and foreheads still together, noses side-by-side, and Rick whispers I love you and Daryl kisses him again, soft and slow, his lips moving against Rick’s so gently that it’s almost reverent, almost like worship, and Rick matches the pressure and the sweetness and pours his soul into it, into Daryl, and prays to whatever god is listening that he can have this forever.

And then the kiss trails to a stop and they stay with their lips together for a long time, breathing in gradually slowing unison with their bodies melded together, and Rick murmurs Daryl’s name at the same time that Daryl whispers Rick and this is it, this is perfection, this is what Rick has been waiting his whole life for. This is what’s always been missing from everything Rick has ever tried to do. This is everything Rick has ever wanted and far, far more than he deserves.

“Rick,” Daryl breathes out again, and then he’s pushing himself away, stepping back, blinking his eyes rapidly. “I…” He stops, looks wildly around, and then opens the door of his truck. “Sorry,” he says, rough and breathless, and then he slides into the cab and closes the door and drives away, tires squealing, and Rick stares after him with his mouth hanging slightly open, watching the tail lights of the truck disappear down the road while his lips start to feel cold in the night air.

Chapter Text

Rick stares after Daryl’s truck, his fingers on his lips and his heart somewhere down by his feet. He can still feel Daryl’s body heat on his skin, taste the man’s tongue on his lips, smell him in the leather jacket still on Rick’s shoulders, and it’s jarring how less than a minute ago, he was locked in Daryl’s embrace and now he’s standing in the cold in the middle of a parking lot, alone.

He sighs and looks around. There are glowing golden arches about half a mile down the street, and Rick tightens the jacket around himself and heads for the McDonald’s. He pulls his phone out of his jeans pocket as he walks and calls for a cab to pick him up.

It doesn’t take long for the cab to arrive, so Rick just grabs himself a pack of apple slices and slides into the cracked leather of the backseat. He gives the cab driver the address for the grocery store where he’d left his car, nods at the driver’s obvious statement about how far away that is, and pays the man up front to convince him to go ahead and drive. Then he slumps back in the seat, chewing slowly on his apple slices and watching the dark road rush by outside the cab.

He’d pushed too hard. Even though he’d let Daryl set the pace, he’d pushed too hard. Rick pinches the bridge of his nose and concentrates on even breathing, tries to convince himself that Daryl just needs time. After all, even in the apocalypse, Daryl had been jumpy, at least about human interaction. Especially about physical contact. So it makes sense that he needs a break, needs to re-center himself. Rick can give him that.

He brings his fingers to his lips again, touching them lightly and remembering Daryl’s hands in his hair, Daryl’s breath on his face. It had been perfect, just fucking earthshattering, and their bodies had moved together almost like muscle memory. Almost like they were hard-wired into each other’s DNA, like it was always supposed to be like this.

And Rick had told him that he loved him. And then Daryl had left.

He pulls out his phone again and brings Daryl’s number up on the screen, then frowns and clicks the display back off when he remembers that all he has is Daryl’s landline--he’s not even sure that Daryl has a cell, and he’s not really up to calling Merle and asking about it right now.

Rick sighs and drops the phone into his lap, leaning his forehead against the cool glass of the window and staring blindly out at the road.

After a few minutes of driving, Rick’s phone starts ringing. He frowns at the unknown number on the screen and answers, “Hello?”

“Rick?” Daryl’s voice is strained, a little broken. Behind him, Rick can hear the loud ding of a cash register and the hum of voices.

Rick tries to fight down the fluttering in his chest, the pain of rejection warring with the hope of more. “Daryl?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” Rick shifts in his seat, trying to decide whether to push again or whether to just play it cool. “I got a cab. I’m on my way home.”

Daryl lets out a shivering sigh that Rick can hear through the phone. “I fuckin’ left you, man. Who does that? Shit. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Rick says, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and feeling just exhausted. “You need time. I get that.”

“Yeah,” Daryl grumbles. “But I shouldn’t have left you. I… went back for you. But you was gone already.”

“It’s okay,” Rick says again. “Don’t worry about it. You need time.”

There’s a long pause, filled with the continued sounds of cash register. “Long as you’re safe,” Daryl says at last, his voice low and wrecked. “I... gotta think. I’ll call you.”

Rick opens his mouth to respond, but the ambient sound of wherever Daryl was standing cuts out and Rick pulls the phone away from his ear and leans his forehead back against the window glass.

//

Lori nearly drops her bowl of oatmeal when Rick walks into the kitchen the next morning. He forces himself to smile at her, then goes over to the cabinet and grabs a Pop-Tart, eyes the toaster for a second before deciding that it’s not worth it, and sits down at the kitchen table to eat his cold breakfast pastry. Lori pours them both cups of coffee and puts Rick’s down in front of him, then sits down across the table with her oatmeal and her coffee mug and remarks, “I didn’t expect to see you this morning.”

Rick sighs and nibbles on the corner of his Pop-Tart. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” she says, stirring her oatmeal absently. “Did it not go well?”

Rick thinks back to Daryl’s thumb on his pulse, the way he’d looked in the top-down lighting of the parking lot, the poncho stretched over his shoulders. The way Daryl’s lips had moved on his like he wanted it as much as Rick did. “It went great,” he says, then sighs. “At least until he drove away and left me in the parking lot. Had to get a cab back to my car.”

Lori’s brow wrinkles prettily. “He left you?”

“He was… upset,” Rick says. “He called and told me that he went back for me. But I’d already called the cab.” He stuffs a big piece of Pop-Tart into his mouth and chews on it.

“Oh, honey,” Lori says, with that slightly condescending voice that never fails to slide right under Rick’s skin and start to itch furiously. “You told him about the dream, didn’t you?”

Rick frowns and takes a gulp of his too-hot coffee, then refuses to grimace when it burns all the way down his throat. “I did, but he took that part pretty well. Even seemed to believe me. Or at least… at least he didn’t not believe me.”

“Then what happened?” Lori asks.

Rick’s frown deepens and his eyes start darting toward the exits of the room. “Is Shane still here?” he asks instead of answering.

Lori looks down into her oatmeal. “He’s still asleep,” she says, softly, then reaches across the table and puts her hand on top of his. “I worry about you, Rick. Tell me what happened.”

Rick squeezes his eyes shut and rubs his chin. He doesn’t want to talk about it, especially not to her. Doesn’t want to explain how he feels, how Daryl’s hands had felt in his hair, the way they’d gasped each other’s names in unison and the way that everything about them is always like that. And he’s not sure he can tell her that without hurting her, without it sounding like the truth it is: that he and Lori have never known how to communicate despite years of trying, years of counseling and therapy and scheduled dates where they stared at each other over the table at Applebee’s and had nothing to say, but he and Daryl can have entire conversations with just their eyes and the angles of their lips.

There’s no way to say that, no way to make her understand it. So instead, he sighs again and says, “I told him I loved him. He kissed me. And then he ran off. That’s all.”

“I’m sorry, Rick,” Lori says, and she sounds sincere this time, not condescending, not patronizing.

“I’m not mad at him,” Rick tells her, leaning back in his chair and cradling his coffee mug against his chest. “I get it. And I’ll give him a couple of days.”

//

And Rick does give him a couple of days, even though it nearly kills him to do it. He tries to distract himself by looking for the others, the ones in the group that he hadn’t found yet. Amy is easy to find due to her connections to Andrea, and Rick adds her to his list of people to contact even though he’d barely known her before she died. He finds Jenner easily too, scrolling through lists of doctors at the CDC until he finds a name that resonates with him. Axel and Oscar come from the prison roster he pulls up in the police database, and he finds T-Dog through sheer dumb luck when someone at the Home Depot pages Mary Douglas over the intercom and Rick’s dream-sense goes crazy over the last name, then spends the rest of the afternoon Googling Douglases who live in Atlanta until he hits on the right one. He doesn’t contact any of them, not yet, but just having the names makes him feel better for now.

Daryl doesn’t call. Rick checks his phone at least once an hour, makes Lori call him to see if it rings properly, even calls the phone company once to make sure he hasn’t accidentally gotten his number disconnected.

And then, on the third day, Rick pulls up Daryl’s number on his phone and presses “call.”

“Roadkill Cafe. You kill ‘em, we grill ‘em.”

Rick pauses, his senses shifting their expectations from Daryl’s low, sexy drawl to Merle’s worn-out rasp. “Merle?”

“Yeah, what?”

Rick rubs his mouth, the stubble on his chin raking over his palm. “Can I talk to Daryl?”

“The fuck is this?” Merle snaps. “An’ keep in mind that I got two guesses and either way I’m gonna kick your ass if you set foot on my property again, so really you best just hang up now.”

“I just need to talk to him,” Rick says. “Just for a minute.”

“Well, he ain’t here,” Merle grumbles back. “He’s out hunting. Prob’ly be gone a few days. Who the fuck is this?”

Rick sighs heavily. “Rick Grimes.”

A loud string of profanities erupts from the phone, and Rick pulls it away from his ear and grimaces. When he finally eases it back up, Merle is still going strong. “...and if that don’t work then I’ll buy some goddamn piranhas and feed your nuts to them, an’ then I’ll grill up those piranhas and make you eat them. You hear me, Friendly? I will make you eat the fish that ate your goddamn balls, motherfucker. You come near me or my brother ever again and I’ll get some ninja stars and use your ass cheeks as target practice. I’ll smash all your fingers with a fuckin’ sledgehammer and then slam a car door on ‘em. I’ll pluck out your eyelashes with a pair of hot salad tongs. I’ll lace all your drinks with fuckin’ milk of magnesia and then scare the literal shit out of you in front of your boss. I’ll--”

Rick sighs again and hangs up. He tries again later and gets no further, although Merle has apparently used the time to come up with even more inventive death threats, and then Rick begs Lori to call, hoping that a woman’s voice might get more information out of Merle than Rick’s has.

She calls, and then when she hangs up, her face looks like it’s hovering just above an outhouse opening. “He says he’s hunting,” she tells Rick. “He doesn’t know when he’ll be back. And then he called me sugar tits and asked me if my pussy needed a date for the night.” She gives Rick a very disgruntled look and then storms out of the living room.

Rick curls his fingers into the front of the leather jacket he’s wearing, pulls it open, dips his head and presses his nose into the inside lining. He breathes Daryl in and closes his eyes, wondering where Daryl is, if he’s safe out in the woods alone.

//

Day five, and Shane is twenty minutes in to one of his “sermons,” this one about parents who let their kids run wild in restaurants, and Rick had given up on trying to defend his fellow parents about eighteen minutes ago when it became clear that the only thing that’s going to convince Shane that parenting is hard is going to be the handful that will be Judith. So Rick sits back in the patrol car, chewing mindlessly at a piece of gum that lost its flavor hours ago, and half-listens to Shane while staring off into the distance.

After a while, Shane’s sermon slithers to a gradual stop. He bites down on his tongue and puts his hands lightly on the top of the steering wheel, then looks over at Rick. “So what’s it like? Kissin’ a dude, I mean.”

Rick blinks at the change in subject and then raises an eyebrow at Shane. “Thought you didn’t wanna talk about that.”

Shane shrugs. “I’m curious.” Rick gives him a look of disbelief and Shane rolls his eyes. “Just ‘cause I’m straight don’t mean I’ve never wondered,” he says. “Is it the same as kissin’ a woman? Or is it, you know, harder? What’s a dude’s tongue feel like?”

Rick presses the palm of his hand against his forehead and closes his eyes for a moment. “It feels like a tongue, Shane.”

“Come on, man,” Shane says. “Give me somethin’ here.”

Rick rests his arm on the ledge of the car window. “Well, I mean, his face was rougher than a woman’s. And he wasn’t wearin’ lipstick, so that was nice, not to have to taste that.”

“Ohh, now we’re gettin’ somewhere,” Shane says, rubbing his palms together. “Tell me what he tasted like.”

Rick rolls his eyes and lets his head follow the motion until he’s looking at Shane. “Why you so interested all the sudden?”

Shane shrugs. “I don’t know, brother. Figure this is the kind of shit I’d be askin’ if it was a woman. Just tryin’ to be a good friend here.”

Rick nods, very slowly. “I don’t know what kissin’ a man’s like,” he tells Shane. “I know what kissin’ Daryl’s like. And it don’t have nothing to do with gender or how things taste or sex or anything like that.” He takes a deep breath, lets his voice go serious and intense. “It’s like when you’ve been on your feet all day and you go home and sit down, and your feet hurt like hell but it’s the good kind of hurt, the oh my god I can relax kind of hurt. You know? Like when you have a nightmare and you wake up and there’s somebody there protecting you. Like…” He trails off, shrugs and looks back out the window. “I can’t describe it. It just is.”

Shane looks down at his feet, shoved up into the space under the gas pedal. “Sounds like a hell of a kiss, man.”

Rick bites his bottom lip, staring off through the windshield and down the street, watching the tops of the trees just past town as they move slightly in the breeze. “What if he’s gone?” he asks Shane, so very quietly, like keeping the volume down will keep the thought from becoming real.

“He ain’t gone,” Shane says. “Just wigged out a little. Guys do that when you drop L-bombs on them out of the blue. He’ll get over it an’ you guys’ll be ridin’ off into the sunset on his shitty bike before you know it.”

Sucking in a deep breath, Rick presses the edge of his hand against his mouth. “But what if he doesn’t?” he asks again, a little louder this time but still quiet, still weak. “Shane, I can’t do this without him. Any of it. It’s like waking up one day and realizing that you only have one lung, you know? Like I can’t breathe right, like there are parts of me actually missing. An’ it’s always been like that, my whole life, but I didn’t notice it before because I didn’t know what it felt like to have everything in working order. And now I do. And what if he’s gone?”

Shane works his jaw for a few seconds, then nods while he speaks. “You told him you loved him,” he says, “and then he kissed you again?”

“Yeah,” Rick says, reaching up to knead the stiff muscles in his shoulder.

“Then he’s not gone,” Shane says, nodding harder now. “Look, a girl tells me she loves me and I don’t feel it, I bolt. Fast as hell, man. Leavin’ dust clouds like the freaking Roadrunner. I sure as shit don’t kiss ‘em again.” He looks over at Rick. “So that means somethin’. That he did.”

“But he did bolt.” Rick sighs and covers his eyes with his hand. “He did.”

“Yeah, but after,” Shane says. “What was the second kiss like? After you told him.”

Rick’s skin sings with the memory of how Daryl’s lips had moved against him, the feeling of Daryl’s body pressing him into the truck, the sweetness on their tongues like honeysuckle. “Like he felt it, too,” Rick tells Shane after a moment.

Shane nods yet again. “He’ll come back.”

“Are you sure?”

Shane rolls his eyes and cranks the car. “He’ll come back.”

//

Rick finishes filing the last of his reports from the day’s patrol and Shane is waiting for him, already running his mouth and talking about how Lori’s making chili for dinner and how he’s thinking about pulling out the grill for one last BBQ this weekend and how those damn azalea bushes will finally stop needing to be pruned for the winter before too long. Rick nods and yeahs in all the appropriate places, already trying to work out a plan for how he’s going to get some peace and quiet once he gets home even if he has to bind and gag Shane to get him to shut up for ten seconds at a stretch.

As they get out into the parking lot on the way to their cars, both of their phones buzz almost in unison, and they both pull them out and look at them: a message from Lori asking if one of them can bring home some shredded cheese. Rick sighs, wondering if this is his life now, and Shane stops and turns toward him, holding up one fist over his other hand, palm-up.

Rick rolls his eyes, and they Rock-Paper-Scissors for it. Shane always throws rock first, and Rick knows it, and he compensates for that and wins.

“Alright, man, fine,” Shane says. “I’ll get the damn cheese.”

“She’s your woman now,” Rick tells him. “This is officially your job from now on.”

“Fair enough, I guess,” Shane says, and he turns and starts walking toward the cars again.

Rick turns too, matching Shane’s stride, and then looks up and out into the parking lot and grinds to a halt, his feet stumbling a little on the warm pavement with the suddenness of the stop.

Daryl is there, leaning against the side of his blue pickup, his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the ground. He’s wearing a leather vest that Rick just knows has angel wings on the back of it and a short-sleeved blue button-up shirt, gray cargo pants, and hiking boots, his hair a little windblown and his cheeks a little flushed, and Rick has honestly never seen anything so gorgeous in his entire life.

And then Daryl looks up, locking his gaze with Rick’s across the parking lot, and Rick sucks in a quick breath as he recognizes the look in the man’s eyes.

This isn’t just Daryl anymore. It’s Blue.

Chapter Text

Shane is calling Rick’s name but Rick barely even hears him over the pounding of blood in his ears. He goes from his stunned dead stop straight into a jog, heading for Daryl, and he knows that this looks like the last scene in a damn romantic comedy, knows that this just isn’t done, a man running into another man’s arms in the parking lot of a police station, but there is nothing in Rick that cares at all how this looks to anyone else.

Daryl’s arms open when Rick gets close and then Rick is inside them, burying his face in Daryl’s neck and breathing him in, his hands hovering on Daryl’s waist. Daryl holds him close, crushing Rick against his chest for several seconds, and then he gently pushes Rick backwards enough to look him in the eyes.

They stand there like that for what feels like ages, the world spinning on its axis underneath their feet, and then Daryl lifts his hands and cradles Rick’s face with them, his palms light against Rick’s stubble-rough cheeks, and then leans in and kisses him.

This kiss isn’t like the one before, where everything faded around them except the two of them and how they felt against each other. This time it’s not Rick Grimes, sheriff’s deputy, and Daryl Dixon, bartender, kissing in a civilized world. This time Daryl keeps his eyes open, his body ready to spring if a Walker ambushes them, and the Python in Rick’s holster burns against his hip and they’re them again, and it’s not fairy tales and soft clouds like it had been at the concert but it’s even better, even truer, and Daryl is kissing him this time with knowledge and not just instinct, with a desire that comes from nearly two years of dancing around this and not from just a couple of days of confused feelings for a stranger.

And fuck if this isn’t the best kiss of Rick’s life.

“You dreamed,” Rick murmurs during a break in the kiss, digging his fingers in to Daryl’s skin and clinging to him.

Daryl kisses Rick’s jaw with just the lightest scrape of teeth. “Yeah.”

“How much?” Rick asks, throwing his head back and letting his eyes rest on the unfocused sky to give Daryl access to his neck.

Daryl grunts and slides his lips down to Rick’s Adam’s apple. “Enough.” He kisses Rick’s throat with an open mouth, trailing lips and tongue along the sensitive flesh there, and Rick moans and presses closer to him, sliding his hands down to push them under the hem of Daryl’s shirt and run his fingers over the man’s hot skin.

“Woo! Get it, boy!” Shane yells from across the parking lot, and the loud catcall is enough to break Rick out of his Daryl-centered trance. He lets go of Daryl reluctantly and steps back, eyes on the hint of collarbone peeking out from under Daryl’s shirt, blushing furiously and then letting out a breathless chuckle as Daryl flips Shane off over Rick's shoulder. Shane must have returned the gesture, because Daryl snorts and rolls his eyes before returning his attention to Rick.

He reaches out and touches Rick’s chin, and Rick looks up into the man’s gorgeous eyes, so dark now that they’re almost navy, pupils blown out with whatever it is that Rick has managed to do to him. “You said you loved me,” Daryl says, quiet and sandstone-rough. “Still mean that?”

Rick nods, and it’s too much to handle, just standing there without touching Daryl at all, so he catches Daryl’s hand with his own, tangles their fingers together. “Yeah,” he says. “Still mean it.”

Daryl flushes and looks at the ground beside Rick’s feet. “Ain’t good at words,” he says. “Kinda want to take you home. Show you.”

“Then take me.” Rick steps forward again, presses their bodies together, kisses Daryl hungrily, his mouth slanting over Daryl’s and his tongue teasing his lips open. Daryl wraps his arms around Rick, twisting his fingers in the khaki fabric of his uniform, and then opens the driver’s side door of the truck and urges Rick inside before climbing in behind him.

Rick scoots across the truck seat to settle on the passenger’s side, smiling as Daryl shoots him a quick, nervous look across the cab.

“My place?” Daryl asks gruffly, cranking the engine and pulling out of the parking lot as quickly as he can without attracting even more attention from the other officers. “‘S farther away, but it ain’t got wives and kids at it.”

“Ex-wife,” Rick tells him, digging his fingers into the tops of his thighs to keep him from reaching for Daryl like a horny teenager. “Signed the papers yesterday. We’ll probably have it pushed through the courts by the end of the month.”

Daryl raises an eyebrow. “That’s quick.”

Rick shrugs. “It’s amicable and we’re not contesting anything. And besides, she’s got lawyer friends pushing it through fast.”

Daryl grunts in acknowledgement, then reaches over and shifts gears. There’s a beat of silence, then: “Dumped Jeff.”

Rick blinks in surprise. “You did?”

“Kissed you and realized it ain’t never been like that with him,” Daryl says softly, his face furiously red now. “So when I got home, called him up and broke it off.”

Rick turns his head and looks out the side window to hide his ridiculous grin. “So you’re all mine?”

Daryl shifts gears again and flexes his fingers on the gear handle. “Been yours since Atlanta,” he mumbles. “Was just waitin’ on you to ask.”

“You never said anything.” Rick says. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“You had a lot goin’ on.” Daryl keeps his eyes firmly on the road. “Didn’t want to give you more to deal with, you know?” He sighs, lifts his hand from the gear shift to his mouth and chews on the side of his thumb. “‘Sides, ain’t really good enough for you, and everybody knew it. With my methed-out face and my buck knife,” he says, mimicking Shane’s voice.

Rick laughs at the imitation and looks over at Daryl, smiling brightly. “You’re perfect for me.”

Daryl lets out a hard breath through his nose. “‘M selfish is what I am. Takin’ you home like this when I should prob’ly leave well enough alone. Let you have a good life.”

“This is not selfish of you,” Rick tells him. “I want this too.”

Daryl makes a noncommittal noise in his throat and flicks his eyes over to Rick. “You think that now,” he says. “Ain’t got very good reviews in the past.”

Rick laughs, a little breathlessly. “You planning on touching me? Kissing me again?” Daryl grunts in agreement and Rick waves a dismissive hand in the air. “Then it’s gonna be perfect.”

//

Daryl unlocks the door and lets Rick into his house, and Rick takes a moment to look around. The decor is all greens and browns, mounted deer heads mixed in with a few framed forest scenes, such a Daryl place that Rick almost doesn’t see Merle in it at all until he notices the magazine cut-outs of scantily-clad women tacked to the wall near the computer desk in the corner.

And in the little collection of dimebags of pot on the kitchen counter, but Rick pointedly chooses not to notice those, especially when he’s in his police uniform.

Daryl shoves his hands in his pockets and looks at the floor. “Ain’t much,” he mumbles.

“It’s fine,” Rick says, then turns around and faces Daryl, letting heat flood back into his ice-blue eyes and hoping Daryl can see it.. “Besides. I didn’t come here for the house. Came here for you.”

“Alright,” Daryl says. He shrugs the angel-wing vest off and hangs it on a hook by the door. “I’ll just… get ready, then.” The hunter clears his throat and motions at the fridge. “Beer’s in the fridge. I can, um, call you when I’m ready. If you want.”

Rick blinks at him. “You look fine to me,” he says. “What do you need to do?”

Daryl flushes deeply and stares at the floor again. “You know.”

Rick frowns, trying to figure out what exactly is going on. “You need to… freshen up?” he finally says.

“Nah,” Daryl says. “Just… didn’t figure you’d want to, you know, watch. While I…” He lifts his hand slowly, as if he’s got a concrete block strapped to it, and then makes a motion that makes Rick’s blood boil.

“That asshole made you go get yourself prepared while he sat in the kitchen with a beer?” Rick grinds out, his mind exploding with potential ways to show Jeff how much of a selfish prick he is, ways to show Daryl how much more he deserves.

Daryl lets out a long sigh and puts his hands back in his pockets. “Maybe this is a bad idea.”

No,” Rick says. He takes a step toward Daryl and then softens at the look in the man’s eyes: the fear, the uncertainty, but the desire still under it all. “It is not a bad idea. I’m just gonna have to show you what it’s like to be with someone who loves you.”

Daryl pulls his hand out of his pocket again and rubs the back of his neck. “Don’t know how to start, then.”

Rick takes a deep breath, looking around the house to give himself time to think. “Beer’s in the fridge, you said?” he asks after a few seconds.

Daryl sighs almost inaudibly and nods, looking down at the floor. “Help yourself.”

“Alright,” Rick says. He walks over to the refrigerator, glancing briefly at the collection of papers stuck to the metal surface with plain silver utilitarian magnets: a phone bill, a shopping list, a phone number labeled Marie with a crudely drawn picture of a large pair of breasts beside it. He opens the door and pulls out two cans of beer, then turns around and looks at Daryl. “Let’s go sit on the back porch. Have a drink.”

Daryl narrows his eyes slightly in thought. “Thought you wanted to fuck.”

Rick shrugs and shifts the cans to one hand so that he can lace his fingers in Daryl’s. “If we do, we do,” he says, giving Daryl’s hand a squeeze. “And if we don’t, that’s okay too. I just want to be close to you.”

They head out the back door and sit down on the edge of the porch. Daryl cracks open his beer and stares at it but doesn’t make a move to drink it, and Rick’s eyes drift over the gathering dark of the yard, the last fireflies of the season flitting through the bushes around the shed with the archer’s bullseye nailed to it.

“After I left you at the concert,” Daryl says after a few seconds of a silence filled with the sounds of literal crickets, “came home and dumped Jeff. Like I said.” He takes a deep breath, then lets it out slowly. When he’s finished, he jerks his head in a sharp nod, still staring at the rim of the beer can like it’s keeping him centered somehow. “I… didn’t never have Christmas, not really,” he says. “Couple of times ‘fore she died, my ma would give me an’ Merle new shoes or somethin’ like that, somethin’ practical. Just had ‘em in shoeboxes in the living room, wrapped in the Sunday comics, you know? Didn’t even have a tree to put ‘em under, an’ we didn’t make a big deal out of it anyways, just opened ‘em before my daddy got up an’ that was all.”

Rick nods slowly, keeping his eyes on the yard to keep from spooking Daryl away from talking. Daryl talks in anecdotes, letting out the secrets of his life in snippets of memories, little vignettes from a past that Rick doesn’t understand but aches to, and he never says anything just to hear his own voice. No, Daryl’s stories always mean something. So Rick listens, waits for the story to sink into place like he knows it will.

Daryl continues, his Southern voice deep and quiet, running over Rick’s skin like rain. “An’ after she died, never had nothin’ at all. Christmas was just another day, you know, ‘cept sometimes Daddy’d get drunk earlier’n usual and pass out, an’ then Merle would turn on the radio an’ play Christmas music while we played checkers or whatever.” Daryl reaches up and runs a hand through his hair, scratching his scalp absently. “My daddy… people see the scars and assume he was some jackass monster 24/7. But he wasn’t. Woulda been easier if he was, you know? ‘Cause then I’d’a just hated him all the time an’ that woulda been that. But when he was sober he was a good dad. Took us out camping, taught us to hunt and fish. Played baseball in the backyard, shit like that. When he was sober, I loved him an’ I think he loved us too.” Daryl sighs and tilts his head back to look up at the porch roof. “‘S just that he wasn’t hardly ever sober, is all.” He shrugs, turning the still-full can of beer around in his hands. “But I always had this idea that maybe one day, one Christmas, it’d be one of the good days. That I’d wake up and he’d’a chopped down a tree and threw some popcorn strands on it, bought me a toy gun or one’a them shitty plastic Indian bows they sell at the dollar store, ones with the suction cup arrows. Maybe put some candy canes in a stocking or somethin’. Didn’t never happen, but didn’t stop me from hoping. An’ every single Christmas morning, I’d wake up with that flutterin’ in my gut, that hope that maybe there’d be somethin’ good waitin’ for me when I got out’a bed.” He puts the beer down, wipes his palms on his thighs. “Damn, this is worse than when I came out to you that night in the bar. Talkin’ your ear off when you’re just sittin’ there waitin’ on me to stop talking and let you fuck me already. I’m sorry.”

Rick snaps his head over to look at Daryl. “I got no interest in you letting me do anything,” he grumbles. “I want you to want me to do things.”

Daryl makes a pish sound and raises his beer up to his mouth, then lowers it again without taking a sip. “Ain’t nothin’ you would do to me that I wouldn’t want. Trust you.”

Rick smiles at that and then ducks his head. “Didn’t realize you were trying to come out to me at the bar.”

Daryl snorts and puts his still-full can down on the porch beside his leg. “‘Course you didn’t. You was as dense as a pile‘a bricks that night.”

“Sorry,” Rick says, chuckling softly and shifting his body to be just that little bit closer to Daryl’s.

“‘S alright,” Daryl murmurs back. “Got there eventually.”

Rick stands up. “Come on,” he says, holding out a hand to pull Daryl up. Daryl lets him, then sticks his hands in his pockets again as soon as Rick lets go of them. Rick turns around to face him, then reaches out and pushes Daryl gently but firmly against the side of the house, the way he had that first day, pressing his arm across Daryl’s chest to pin him there.


Daryl shoves at him like the movement is pure instinct and struggles briefly against his hold. “What’re you--”

“Hush,” Rick whispers, and Daryl blinks and then immediately softens under him, trust seeping back into his posture and the coil of his muscles. Rick puts a hand on the side of Daryl’s neck, his hand soft against Daryl’s adrenaline-quick pulse, and steps in, nudging Daryl’s knees apart so he can step between them. “Been thinkin’ about this. About the first time I had you in my arms out here on this porch.”

Daryl swallows hard, watching Rick’s lips as they move. “Didn’t have me. Shoulda, but didn’t.”

Rick smiles, letting something hot and wicked curl into the expression. “Yeah, I know. But we’re gonna get this right this time. You remember this?” He moves his thumb on Daryl’s neck and Daryl arches into Rick’s hand again, his hands slipping out of his pockets and resting on Rick’s waist, fingers light against his skin.

“I remember,” he says quietly. He lifts his gaze to Rick’s and licks his lips.

A shiver of lust runs down Rick’s shoulder blades at the sight of Daryl’s tongue. He brings his other hand up, uses his thumbs to tilt Daryl’s head to the right angle. “We got a connection, you and me,” he says, repeating his own words from the first time they’d done this.

“I know.” Daryl’s voice is husky, his eyes almost royal blue in the shade of the porch.

“I want you,” Rick continues, pressing his body forward against Daryl’s, feeling Daryl’s cock stirring against his hip. Daryl’s fingers twist in Rick’s belt, pulling him closer. “You’re mine,” Rick growls out, then leans forward and this time, Daryl just murmurs yes and lets Rick capture his mouth, digs his nails into Rick’s hip bones and kisses back, every move of his lips sending shimmers of light branching out through Rick’s nervous system. Rick groans and steps forward even more, plastering his body to Daryl’s, and deepens the kiss, demanding entrance to Daryl’s mouth and staking his claim there with teeth and tongue and the absolute certainty that this is it--he’ll never kiss anyone else again, will never even want to, because this is all he will ever need.

Daryl lets go of a low moan and gropes blindly for the doorknob, twisting it and flinging the door open without breaking the kiss, then hooks his fingers in Rick’s gun holster and backs into the house, pulling Rick along with him as he walks backwards toward the door to his bedroom. Rick doesn’t let up with his conquest of Daryl’s mouth, keeping his hands on Daryl’s neck, his thumbs pressing into Daryl’s jawbone and reveling in the way it feels as Daryl matches the intensity of the kiss.

Daryl maneuvers them into the bedroom and closes the door behind them, then breaks away from Rick for just long enough to pull his own shirt up over his head and toss it to the side. Rick untucks his own uniform shirt and starts pawing at the buttons, trying to get enough of them loose to pull the shirt over his head too, and Daryl steps forward and unbuckles Rick’s holster with quick, deft hands and drops it to the ground, the heavy metal of the Python loud as it falls against the worn pine wood of the floor.

He pushes Rick toward the bed and Rick doesn’t put up even a token resistance, just lets Daryl guide him backwards until he feels the mattress bump against the backs of his knees. Daryl steps away just enough to kick his boots off and work on his pants, and Rick grabs him by the back of the neck and pulls him in for a quick, deep kiss before releasing him and fumbling at the fastenings of his own pants. Daryl is fully naked before Rick is, and he steps forward again and kisses Rick just as Rick steps out of the last of his clothing, and they’re kissing skin-to-skin, their bare cocks brushing against each other with a silky friction that makes Rick’s whole body shudder with want.

Daryl nudges Rick a bit and Rick sits down on the bed, then rotates himself so he’s stretched out on it. Daryl swings his leg over Rick’s midsection and straddles him, the curve of his ass brushing against Rick’s straining erection, and he leans over and pulls a bottle out of the drawer in his nightstand. He leans down and kisses Rick deeply and Rick loses himself in the feeling, in Daryl’s skin against his, in Daryl’s weight on his midsection, and he almost misses the soft clicking sound as the bottle opens.

Rick breaks the kiss and grabs for Daryl’s wrist. “Is that what you want?” he rasps out.

Daryl’s eyes narrow in confusion. “Thought that’s how you’d want it.”

Rick lets go of Daryl’s wrist and instead reaches for the bottle in Daryl’s other hand. He gently pries Daryl’s fingers off of it and takes it for himself. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do,” Rick says. “Give you anything you want. So if that’s what you wanna do, we’ll do it that way. But I want you inside me tonight. I want you to fuck me.”

Daryl blinks several times, his mouth curving downwards. “Why? I done told you I’m shit at it.”

Rick wraps his arm around Daryl’s back and rolls them over so that Rick is on top. He opens the bottle and pours lube onto his hand, then reaches behind himself and takes a deep breath as he slides a finger in, slowly stretching himself open for Daryl. “Let me be the judge of that,” he breathes out, leaning down to suck on Daryl’s neck as he works.

Daryl lifts his hands and splays them out over Rick’s back, arching up into Rick’s body and his mouth on Daryl’s neck. “Wanted this,” he murmurs. “Wanted you.”

Rick slides his mouth up from Daryl’s neck to his ear. “I love you,” he whispers into it. He adds a second finger and takes Daryl’s earlobe in his teeth, nipping and sucking and dragging a loud groan from the man underneath him. “And I want you to fuck me.”

Daryl drags his nails over Rick’s back and lifts his hips up so that his cock presses against Rick’s stomach. “Rick…”

Hard,” Rick growls into his ear, nipping at the curve of it again. “Want you to throw me over and crawl on top of me. Want you to kiss me while you fuck me into the mattress.” Daryl’s breath is fast and hard now, coming out in little gasps as his hips tilt helplessly toward Rick, and Rick smiles against Daryl’s ear. “Want you to make me scream your name.”

Daryl lets out a low, feral growling sound and flips Rick over onto his back, then climbs over him and kisses his throat, sucking hard enough that Rick is sure there will be a mark there in the morning. Rick fumbles for the bottle again, slicks up his hand, reaches for Daryl and coats his cock with it. “Take me,” he groans out. “Now, Daryl. Make me yours.”

“Jesus, Rick,” Daryl gasps, his hips stuttering forward into Rick’s hand. “Keep talkin’ like that and I ain’t gonna last.” He leans up and grabs Rick’s ass, lifting it up and maneuvering himself into position as Rick wraps his legs around Daryl’s waist and moans out encouragement.

“Fuck me,” Rick begs him, squirming and trying to get closer to Daryl, to guide him in. “Please, Daryl, you’re all I want…”

Daryl positions his cock at Rick’s entrance and takes a deep breath before pushing forward, slow but firm, and Rick lets out a loud moan that doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to end when he feels Daryl breaching his entrance, sliding deep inside him. Daryl bottoms out, balls against Rick’s ass, and he holds there for a few seconds while Rick wriggles under him and adjusts to the feeling of Daryl filling him up.

Then Daryl leans down and kisses Rick, soft and slow like a love song. “You ready?” he asks, drawing himself back gradually until just the tip is left inside Rick.

“God, yes,” Rick says, whimpering and clutching at Daryl’s biceps. “Please.”

Daryl smiles and kisses Rick again, a quick meeting of lips before he pulls back, looks Rick deep in the eyes, and says, “I love you,” just before slamming all the way back into Rick, grazing Rick’s prostate as he moves forward, then bottoming out again.

Rick arches almost off the bed, his eyes flying wide and his mouth hanging open in a silent cry of pleasure. He lets go of Daryl’s arms in favor of looping his own arms around Daryl’s neck, pulling the man’s head back down for a deep, utterly sexual kiss, fucking Daryl’s mouth with his tongue the way that Daryl is fucking Rick’s body, matching the rhythms and the urgency and the way that their bodies move together like they were born to do this, born to be at each other’s sides. It’s symmetry and synchronization and they’ve always been like this, mirroring each others’ bodies and communicating without words so seamlessly that it’s almost fucking telepathy, that it’s almost like they’re two halves of the same soul that have finally found each other, and Rick loves the man more with every thrust, every breath, every single individual heartbeat that pounds in unison between them.

“Daryl,” he says, breaking the kiss for only long enough to say the name before diving back in, rocking his hips with Daryl’s rhythm and shuddering hard against him every time Daryl brushes the place inside him that no one else will ever touch.

Daryl curves his spine to create a bit of room between them, just enough to slip his hand there and wrap his fingers around Rick’s erection, rubbing his thumb over the tip to smear the bead of pre-come around the head. “Tell me you want me,” he mumbles, almost like he needs reassurance, moving his lips to the sweet spot where Rick’s neck meets his shoulder. He gives Rick a long, luxurious stroke and changes the rhythm of his thrusts, pulling out slow to slam back in hard and quick.

Rick moans loudly and tightens himself around Daryl, wrenching a matching moan out of the hunter. “I want you,” he pants. “Never been this hot for anybody before. Just you. Only you.”

Daryl captures Rick’s mouth with his own again, kissing him in short bursts so that he can still drag in quick breaths between kisses. “Whatcha want, Rick?” he asks, his voice rough and strained.

You,” Rick gasps out, arching against Daryl again and tightening his muscles. “Never stop. Don’t ever stop…”

Daryl’s hips stutter against Rick and he starts pumping Rick’s cock in his hand with an edge of desperation to the movement. “Come for me,” he says against Rick’s lips. “Come on, Rick, I can’t hold it much longer…”

“I love you,” Rick says again, and Daryl thrusts into him one more time and Rick’s vision whites out for just a moment as he unloads between them, yelling Daryl’s name into the quiet house and raking his nails hard down Daryl’s back. Daryl kisses him again, driving his tongue into Rick’s mouth and whimpering into it, then slams in as deep as he can go and lets go, flooding Rick with hot come and then immediately going boneless on top of him, his body resonating on the same frequency as Rick’s as they cling to each other and ride out the aftershocks in perfect unison.

Eventually, Daryl pulls out and lies down on his side next to Rick, their bodies close but no longer touching. “You gonna stay?” he mumbles, eyes on the sheets between them and not on Rick himself. “‘S alright if you don’t want to. I can drive you home.”

Rick rolls onto his side, facing Daryl, and reaches out to put a hand on the curve of Daryl’s hip. “Don’t ask me to leave,” he whispers, closing his eyes and willing Daryl to understand how much they both need this. “Not tonight. Not ever.”

Daryl looks up at Rick just as Rick opens his eyes, and their gazes meet and hold there. A tiny smile lights up the very corners of Daryl’s mouth, and it triggers a full-blown grin on Rick’s. Daryl lifts his hand to Rick’s cheek, his smile wavering into something more fragile. “Stay, then.”

“All night?” Rick asks him.

“Long as you want,” Daryl says. “Ain’t gonna kick you out of bed.”

“All the nights we spent sleeping like this,” Rick says quietly. “On runs. You remember?”

Daryl rolls his eyes but the smile doesn’t leave his lips. “Think I’d remember if we’d slept together bare-ass naked on runs.”

Rick laughs softly, breathlessly. “You know what I mean.”

Daryl grunts and kisses Rick, his lips still swollen from the harder, more desperate kissing from before. “Like it better this way. Bein’ able to touch you.”

Rick smiles and kisses back for a few seconds before rolling over, pressing his back against Daryl’s chest. Daryl hesitates for a moment, then drapes his arm over Rick’s side and tangles their legs together. “Goodnight, Rick,” he whispers, his breath warm on the back of Rick’s neck.

Rick lets out a desperately happy sigh and snuggles backwards. “Goodnight, Daryl.”

Chapter Text

Rick wakes up to an empty bed. He sits up quickly, heart racing, and looks around wildly for Daryl before he sees the note lying on Daryl’s pillow, folded long-ways. He picks it up and unfolds it.

Taking a shower. Don’t leave until I get out. Love you. -D

Rick presses the note to his chest and flops back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling with a smile on his face that a twelve-year-old schoolgirl would probably think was just too much. After a moment, he sits up again, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He pads across the wood floor to find his pants and slips the note into his wallet for safekeeping, then pauses as he hears voices from outside the door.

He grabs his underwear and puts it on, wincing a little as the movement reminds him that he gave his body to Daryl last night--not that he would ever have forgotten--then tiptoes closer to the door and listens to the argument filled with low voices and hissing sounds.

“--tie a steak to his nuts and throw him in a tiger pen. I’m gonna--”

“Merle, I swear to God--”

“No, you listen. Man ain’t good enough for you. Ain’t good enough for nobody. Man’s horseshit who left me on a roof to die.”

“Goddammit, Merle. I told you we went back for you.”

“Can’t believe you’re gonna betray your kin like this, boy.”

“Ain’t betrayin’ nobody. Just askin’ you to be fuckin’ civil to him.”

“Be civil to Rick Grimes. That’ll be the day.”

“Well, that day better be today. Because if you make me choose, you ain’t gonna like my answer, Merle.”

“You’d choose that pig over your own brother.”

“Damn straight.”

“Why?”

Rick hears a sigh slide from Daryl’s lungs. “‘Cause I’m in love with him.”

“You--”

“Shut up, Merle. Just be fuckin’ happy for me, okay?”

There’s silence for a second, broken only by the soft scuffling of large feet on the floor, then Daryl speaks again. “‘Sides, it ain’t like you got to put up with him for long. Got what he wanted last night. He’ll prob’ly be done snuck out the window when I get back in there.”

“And if he ain’t?”

“We’ll prob’ly fuck again. Many times as he wants to.” Merle starts to say something, but Daryl speaks over him. “I gotta take what he’ll give me, Merle. Before he’s gone. An’ I’m sorry if that makes me a pussy and I’m sorry if that makes you hate me for bein’ a damn fairy, but I love him and I just want to pretend as long as I can.”

“He breaks your heart, I’ll break his legs.”

“Merle, I’m askin’ you here. Brother to brother. Just… don’t fuck this up for me. Leave him alone. Roof was a long time ago and you got your hand back now, anyway.”

“You talk like that shit really happened.”

“I talk like it feels like it did. For all of us. And you’re the one pissed at Rick over everything, not me.”

There’s a long pause, then Merle’s voice: “You think he’s gonna break your heart, then.”

“‘Course he is. Ain’t gonna mean to, but he is. Man like Rick can do better than a dirty hillbilly with a fucked-up face. Somebody else’ll come along eventually.” There’s a pause and then what sounds like a sigh. “And when that happens I’ll let him go.”

Rick grinds his teeth and tiptoes back over to the bed, then slips his underwear back off, climbs under the covers, and tries to look like he’s only just woken up. He takes a deep breath and whistles where are you? and come find me, loudly enough for the sound to carry through the walls.

On my way, Daryl whistles back, and he opens the door and comes in the room followed by loud bellowing from Merle. Daryl closes the door behind himself, cutting off the worst of Merle’s anger, and looks at Rick with wary eyes as if he thinks Rick is going to bolt. “Was hopin’ I’d be back in bed before you woke up,” he says after a moment, fidgeting with the tie on his blue cotton bathrobe.

Rick sits up in the bed and smiles, hoping it looks genuinely happy and not desperate like he feels after hearing the brothers’ conversation. “You can still come back to bed,” he says. “At least kiss me good morning.”

Daryl takes a step forward, then stops. “You want me to?”

Rick nods and holds out a hand toward Daryl. Daryl stares at Rick for a moment, gives a sharp nod, and walks forward. He pauses again just before he gets to Rick, then crawls onto the bed, straddles Rick’s lap, and kisses him deeply, his trembling hands on Rick’s cheeks.

Daryl’s mouth is cinnamon-sweet, cool from his toothpaste and his face is smooth against Rick’s skin, and Rick moves his hand up Daryl’s back, skimming over the fabric of the bathrobe to curl into the wet strands of Daryl’s hair. Daryl drops his own hand, trailing his fingers over Rick’s chest and then flattening his palm against Rick’s sternum and pushing him backwards until he’s lying down on the bed again, Daryl curved over him like a painting, like a fucking work of art that belongs in a museum and Rick can’t believe that he has this now, that he gets to know what it’s like to be kissed senseless while lying in the forest-green sheets of Daryl Dixon’s bed.

Rick lifts his hips up into Daryl, hoping the man can feel even through the blankets separating them that he’s hard as a rock already and that Daryl is the one who’s done this to him. “Fuck me,” he murmurs against Daryl’s lips. “Need you again.”

Daryl moans as Rick reaches between them to fumble with the tie on Daryl’s bathrobe. “I want,” he gasps out, then gets distracted for a moment when Rick pushes the fabric aside and starts to stroke him. “This time I want you.”

Rick looks up at him and watches his eyes closely. “You sure?”

Rolling his eyes, Daryl shrugs off the bathrobe and lets it fall behind him, then lifts his hips to pull the blankets out from under him so that he can sit back down on Rick’s bare flesh. “Been fucked before,” he says, reaching for the bottle on the nightstand. “But I never saw what the fuss was about.” He leans forward and kisses Rick again, then stays bent forward while he starts preparing himself to take Rick in. “Want you to show me,” he murmurs, catching Rick’s bottom lip in his teeth for a moment before continuing. “Want you to show me what the fuss is about.”

Rick reaches between them and starts stroking Daryl again, slow and lazy, and Daryl shudders against him and rocks his hips so that his cock slides in Rick’s hand. “I’ll give you anything,” Rick tells him, his own dick straining up toward Daryl like it’s trying to head for home. “Anything you want.”

“Don’t deserve all that,” Daryl says, then reaches down to rub a coat of lube onto Rick’s cock. “Just fuck me.” He positions himself over Rick and takes a deep breath, locking their blue eyes together.

Rick snaps his hands to Daryl’s hips and holds him up, stopping Daryl’s downward movement before Rick slides inside. “You deserve everything,” Rick says, keeping eye contact, speaking with his best leader voice. “Don’t let me hear you sayin’ you’re not worth it. You give me your heart and I swear to you I’m not gonna break it.”

“I love you, Rick,” Daryl says, and he pulls Rick’s hands gently off his hips, and Rick can’t resist him--doesn’t even want to resist him--when he’s open like this, when he’s saying words like love while looking into Rick’s eyes. “Just fuck me,” Daryl murmurs again, then lowers himself onto Rick’s cock, his body opening beautifully for him. Daryl arches his back and moans with it, and Rick loses himself in it too, in the feeling of Daryl around him, making those noises because of Rick.

The archer wastes no time in starting to move, rocking and rotating his hips like he’s been riding Rick all his life, catching the right angles and the right patterns and the right pressure to make Rick’s eyes cross, and he wonders how in the hell he’s managed to live without this for so long, like everything that has ever happened to him has been gearing him up for Daryl above him, bared and vulnerable and just fucking beautiful, and Rick wants so much to kiss him but he’s mesmerized by the curve of Daryl’s neck as he throws his head back and stares blindly at the ceiling, mouth hanging slightly open as he lifts himself up and almost off of Rick only to sink back down again, moaning out Rick’s name in a strangled gasp as he takes him all the way in again.

Rick puts a hand on Daryl’s hip and Daryl reaches down, puts his hand on top of Rick’s, twines their fingers together as Rick digs his nails in, hard enough to leave little moon-shaped indentations in the skin, and Daryl shivers, gasping for air and rolling his hips against Rick like the swells of an orchestra and Rick can’t stand it anymore, can’t be this close to Daryl without kissing him, without whispering things into his neck and holding on like Daryl is the Earth and Rick suddenly understands gravity. He leans up enough to put his hand on the back of Daryl’s neck and then pulls Daryl down to him, crushing their lips together, and Daryl lets out a loud groan as the angle changes and Rick’s cock hits him in new places, fills him in different ways, and Rick invades his mouth and lays claim to it.

“Rick,” Daryl pants against his mouth, then tightens his knees against Rick’s sides and executes a rolling maneuver that turns out far more graceful than Rick had ever thought possible, and then Rick is staring down into burning cobalt eyes and Daryl licks his lips and pulls Rick’s head down so that he can growl into Rick’s ear: “Come on. Show me.”

Rick shifts around to get the right angle, and then he starts thrusting into Daryl with a long, slow rhythm while Daryl wraps his legs around Rick’s waist and meets every thrust with a snap of his own hips.

“Harder,” Daryl gasps. “Ain’t gonna break. Fuck me like you mean it.”

Rick groans and then leans up and grabs Daryl’s hips, holding him in place while he slams in hard enough to push Daryl’s whole body up the bed. Daryl arches his back and shouts Rick’s name, hands flying over his head to wrap his fingers tightly around the wooden slats of the headboard. He holds on there, eyes closed, arm muscles flexing as he uses the leverage from the headboard to push himself down onto Rick’s cock even harder with each thrust, and Rick looks down at him and lets the edges of his vision close in so that the only thing that exists in the universe is Daryl, his shower-damp hair plastered to his forehead and his chest heaving with the effort to just keep breathing through all this, the sheen of sweat and the twitch of muscle and then suddenly brilliant blue, the color of the summer sky at just the moment before the stars start to appear in it, and Rick bites his own lip almost hard enough to draw blood to keep himself from coming just from Daryl’s eyes linked to his.

“You’re so fucking beautiful,” Rick murmurs, letting go of Daryl’s hip with one hand so that he can reach down and give Daryl a long, firm stroke at the same time that he slams in again.

Daryl hisses between his teeth and his cock jumps in Rick’s hand, his eyes flicking down to where Rick is touching him and then back up to Rick’s own eyes, locking in with promises that he’s been making since they met but that Rick was too distracted to see, too blind to notice.

Rick moves his hand on Daryl fast and smooth, twisting his grip as he moves and wringing all sorts of gasps and groans from Daryl’s throat as he watches the archer start to splinter beneath him, feels Daryl’s muscles tightening everywhere, sees the knuckles go white against the headboard. Rick thrusts in as hard as he can, earning a loud “fuck” from Daryl, and then holds there, rolling his hips against Daryl, pushing against the places that make Daryl moan, and he leans down and kisses him, deep and dirty and loving all at once.

Daryl gasps into Rick’s mouth and rocks his own body against Rick, squeezing and holding and so fucking hot and perfect that Rick almost lets go, almost lets himself be selfish and finish it right here, but Daryl drags his lips up to Rick’s ear and pants into it: “Please, Rick. Oh, fuck, please.”

Rick lets out a shuddering breath and leans back up, pulls Daryl’s hips to a higher angle, and goes back to stroking as he pulls almost all the way out and then shoves himself back in, hitting just the right place in Daryl to make the man’s body fly up off the bed, and there’s a loud cracking sound from the headboard that’s almost drowned out by Daryl’s voice shouting out to God as he falls to pieces around Rick, breaths coming out like sobs as he sags back into the bed and whispers Rick’s name, over and over, and then he opens his eyes again and Rick leans down and kisses him hard, pressing their bodies together, feeling Daryl’s come caught between them, and he slides back in one more time and then he’s coming too with Daryl’s nails raking down his back hard enough to leave little red trails of stinging skin behind them.

“I’m yours, Rick,” Daryl murmurs into his ear, voice like the pine trees in the forest and the way that honey tastes on lips, and Rick laughs breathlessly, happily, and puts a shaking hand in Daryl’s still-wet hair as he kisses the man’s temple and whispers, “I’m yours too.”

//

They come down to earth slowly, eventually disentangling and moving to lie side-by-side, facing each other, Rick’s hand on Daryl’s cheek and Daryl slowly running his fingers up and down Rick’s arm as it spans the short distance between them.

“You knew since Atlanta,” Rick says, and watches as Daryl’s eyelashes slope downward, carrying the man’s eyes away from Rick’s gaze.

“Yeah,” Daryl says after a moment. “Since… you decided to go back for Merle, really.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” Rick asks him. He rubs his thumb along Daryl’s sharp cheekbone and breathes in the scent of him, of them.

Daryl shrugs, still looking down at the sheets and not at Rick. “Like I said, you had a lot on your mind. And I didn’t want to screw things up between us. You’re the best friend I ever had, you know. Only one that ever mattered like you do. And I wasn’t gonna throw that away just ‘cause I wanted in your pants.”

Rick smiles and scoots a little closer, lifting a leg and draping it over Daryl’s hip. Daryl hisses quietly at the contact between their still-sensitive cocks and Rick leans forward and kisses him softly. “Heard what you said to Merle.”

“Figured you did,” Daryl grumbles. “What with all the you’re beautiful and ain’t gonna hurt you shit you was sayin’ just now.”

“You are,” Rick says, sliding his hand down to Daryl’s neck. “And I’m not going to.”

Daryl sighs heavily. “Look, Rick, I see myself in the mirror every morning. I know what I look like.”

“Daryl--”

“And I know you could do better,” Daryl continues, speaking over Rick’s interjection. “Okay? You ain’t got to tell me I’m pretty ‘cause I know I’m not. And that’s fine, and I don’t need to be. Long as I get to keep you for a little while.”

Rick closes his eyes briefly. “I want to kill everybody who’s ever made you think you weren’t attractive.”

Daryl smirks and moves his hand into Rick’s curls, pulling at them gently and tangling his fingers in. “Wouldn’t be very fitting for an officer of the law, now would it?”

Rick lets out a startled little laugh. “Arrest them, then,” he says, and Daryl leans forward and they get lost in kissing again for a little while, just the gentle slide of lips and tongues and no real urgency to it, no desperation, just comfort and joy and warmth.

“You deserve everything,” Rick says against Daryl’s lips once the kiss has trickled to a lazy stop. “And I’m gonna give it to you. Everything I can, everything I am. I’m going to give it to you.”

“Ain’t worth all that,” Daryl says, and Rick frowns deeply.

“You’re worth more than that,” Rick says, then dips his head to try and force eye contact. “You hear me? I want you to stop sayin’ you don’t deserve things and that you’re not worth it because you’re all I’ve ever wanted and a hell of a lot more than I deserve.”

Daryl meets Rick’s eyes and gives a sharp nod. “I’ll take it. Long as you want to give it.”

“Forever,” Rick tells him, trying to infuse his voice with certainty and devotion.

“Yeah, sure,” Daryl says, then lets out a little noise that’s half-laugh and half-grunt. “Really thought… really thought I loved Jeff. At least at first. And then I met you.”

Rick smiles softly and trails his fingers over Daryl’s neck, down to his shoulders and then down his side, reveling in the feel of the man’s skin, the softness of it contrasting with the hard muscle underneath. He breathes in Daryl’s scent, pine needles and wildflowers, clean sweat and the faintest hint of cigarette smoke, the same as Blue only without the lingering scent of death that had seeped into everyone’s skin during the apocalypse, and Rick sighs happily and pulls Daryl a little closer to him.

“Thought you was crazy,” Daryl murmurs, closing his eyes and relaxing against Rick. “When you told me about your dream. Thought I was about to become a missing person. Glad I kept you in my truck.”

“Why did you?” Rick asks quietly, leaning forward to press his lips against Daryl’s forehead.

Daryl laughs, wrapping an arm around Rick’s waist and holding him close. “‘Cause you got eyes that could make a grown man cry.”

Rick grins and snuggles in, pressing their bodies all the way together. “No, really.”

Daryl rubs in small circles on Rick’s back. “‘Cause you was right. I knew you,” he says, his eyes on Rick’s lips. “Didn’t know anything about you. But somehow… I knew you.” He shrugs. “Didn’t believe you, though. About the dream. Not until I kissed you.”

Rick raises his eyebrows. “Kissing me convinced you?”

Daryl runs his hand up Rick’s spine to his hair, curls his fingers in, pushes gently on the base of Rick’s skull to bring their lips closer together. “Kissed you and all I could think about was how long I’d wanted to do that. How long I’d been waiting for it. And then… well, that’s why I ran off like that. Realized that I’d only known you for a couple of days but it felt like I’d been waiting my whole life for it. For you.” He sighs, his breath coming out in wavering pulses like adrenaline, like lust, like longing. “That’s what I was tryin’ to tell you last night on the porch. About Christmas, ‘bout how I’d wake up with that feeling in my chest that everything was gonna be perfect. That’s what it felt like when I kissed you. Like… like fuckin’ Christmas morning.”

Rick searches Daryl’s eyes and almost flinches at the raw honesty there, at the fear and insecurity and hope underneath it all. He opens his mouth to explain more, to try and find the words to describe how he feels the same, how kissing Daryl is almost like muscle memory, like they’ve been doing this with each other for years, decades, lifetimes. Like they’re somehow meant for this, like every single thing in their lives has been leading up to this bed in this house, wrapped up in each others’ arms as they should be. But there aren’t words for that, and Rick is pretty sure that Daryl can see it all in his eyes anyway.

“I should have kissed you,” Rick says eventually. “Back in the dream. At the prison. Should have seen where this was going and kissed you.”

“Thought you was gonna, a few times,” Daryl says, a smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. “On the roof. In the bar. That last day… when I left to go find Merle.” He looks down again, eyes locked on the hollow at the base of Rick’s throat. “How far did you dream?”

Rick tightens his leg around Daryl’s hip. “That night, when you came back. I’ve never dreamed past that. It’s like it ends there.”

Daryl nods. “‘S where it ended for me too.” He takes a deep breath. “I was gonna go for it, though. That night. I’d decided. Couldn’t… couldn’t go any longer without knowing.”

Rick blinks. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, pink tinging the tops of his cheekbones. “‘Course, I’d decided to go for it ‘bout a thousand times before and chickened out, so who knows if I woulda gone through with it.”

“You can go through with it now,” Rick says, eyes twinkling, and Daryl lets out a breathless chuckle and does.

Chapter Text

“Have you found any of the others?” Daryl asks later, then takes a bite of his omelette and chews, his fork dangling from his fingers while he watches Rick.

Rick smiles, wondering briefly if the expression is likely to blind everyone in the IHOP with its brightness but not really caring because he’s smiling at Daryl and part of him still can’t believe it. “Found them, yeah. Haven’t gone to see all of them, but I at least know where most of them are,” he says. “First one was Carol. She made me start thinkin’ that maybe this was real. Or… at least the people were.”

Daryl blinks hard, and Rick watches the now-familiar expression wash down over his face, the sense of oh when a name drops into place. Daryl grunts and pushes a stray piece of bacon around on his plate. “Carol, huh? She okay?”

“She’s fine,” Rick says. “Me and Shane… we got her away from her husband. Ed. He’s in jail right now and she don’t have to worry about him.”

Daryl nods, his head moving slowly like there are weights tied to it. He stares at the bacon and speaks in a gruff, quiet voice. “And the little girl?”

“Sophia,” Rick says. “She’s fine.”

“Alive?” Daryl asks, and he looks up at Rick’s face. Rick nods, and Daryl’s tanned skin goes pale with relief. “Good,” he grunts, and takes another bite of egg.

Rick finishes off his chocolate chip pancakes and leans back, just watching Daryl move, his shoulders shifting as he lifts his fork to his mouth, the light from the window hitting the curve of his neck just right, and Rick wants to press his lips there, let Daryl drag him out to the truck and have his way with him. But it’s not just sex, of course. He also wants to know what Daryl will be like thirty years from now, whether he’ll lose his hair or just let it go silver and white, whether he’ll need glasses then or if his eyes will stay sharp, whether he’ll be a crotchety old man or a sweetheart grandpa-type. And Rick will be damned if he’s not going to be right by Daryl’s side to find out.

Daryl shifts a little and looks up at Rick, his cheeks flushed from the attention. He picks up a piece of bacon and pops it into his mouth, and Rick nearly whimpers at the way the man licks his fingers after he’s done. Daryl’s always done that, he thinks. How the hell hadn’t he noticed how mesmerizing it was before?

“We could go see them,” Rick says, desperate for something to say other than the thousands of variations on the take me back to bed theme that are heavy on his tongue.

Daryl pauses with a finger stuck deep in his mouth and looks at Rick for several seconds before pulling it out, agonizingly slowly, and Rick makes a mental note to warn the man how sexy the motion is--sometime when the topic of conversation lends itself better to hooded eyes and husky voices. Not here in the IHOP when they’re talking about family. Not when there are children at the booth five feet away. Now is not the time to discuss how very sinful he’s sure that Daryl’s lips can be, how well he’s sure they can wrap around things other than his own fingers.

So Rick clears his throat and forces himself to look out into the restaurant and not at Daryl’s mouth anymore. “If you wanted to. You could drive me there and then when we were done visiting, we could go back for my car at the station.”

Daryl nods, popping his finger the rest of the way out of his mouth with a smacking sound that makes Rick shiver. “That’d be nice,” Daryl says. “Seein’ the little girl alive an’ well. Seein’ Carol again.”

“Then let’s go see them,” Rick says, nodding firmly. “I have to work tomorrow but I have all day today to spend with you. Doing whatever you want.”

Daryl hesitates, watching Rick’s face, then rolls his shoulders as if relaxing them. “I’ll spend as much time with you as you want. Only I got to work tonight.”

Rick watches Daryl’s arms move, silently thanking whatever gods are listening that the man still prefers sleeveless shirts even in this world, and it’s several seconds before he remembers to breathe. “Can I come?” he asks.

Raising an eyebrow, Daryl says, “You want to come with me to work?”

Rick shrugs and slides his hand across the table, taking Daryl’s hand and playing with his fingers, still damp from the hunter’s mouth. “I don’t want to be without you,” he says, watching the tendons in Daryl’s hands ripple under his skin as Rick moves the man’s fingers. “Ever again, not if I can help it.”

Daryl lets one side of his mouth curl upward. “Can’t follow me to work all the time. I’d never get anything done.”

“But I can tonight?” Rick asks, giving him what he hopes are extremely irresistible puppy-dog eyes.

Daryl rolls his eyes, his cheekbones highlighted with a deep flush, red turning carnelian under the tanned skin there. “If you promise to let me work and not to go home with anybody, I guess you can come with me.”

“Can’t promise not to go home with anybody,” Rick says, grinning and letting his puppy-dog eyes morph into the sparkling bedroom variety. “Kind of hoping to get lucky with the bartender.”

Daryl blushes harder. “Stop,” he mutters, but the other corner of his mouth tilts upward to join its companion and Daryl pushes the remains of his omelette around with his fork for a second before looking up at Rick through his eyelashes, blue eyes glittering with mischief.

“Shit,” Rick hisses through his teeth, feeling his pants tighten under the table. “You better stop looking at me like that if you want to go see Carol today.”

Daryl smirks at him a little and then slides out of the booth. “Alright, then. Let’s go see Carol.”

//

Daryl’s Pixies CD plays low in the cab of the truck as they’re driving back to King County, and Daryl hums along, under his breath at first and then louder as he gets more comfortable with Rick hearing him. Rick can’t seem to wipe the smile off his own face, especially when they hit bumps that remind Rick of the soreness in his body and what the two of them had done to put it there, and for a while they drive in relative silence, comfortable just being near each other.

“Don’t know how I’m gonna adjust,” Daryl says after a bit. “To, you know, lettin’ you out of my sight without worryin’ about you until you come back.”

Rick smiles, ducking his head and letting out a small chuckle. “This world isn’t as dangerous as that one was.”

Daryl scoffs. “Like hell it ain’t. Or have you already forgotten that what got us havin’ this dream in the first place is you gettin’ shot?”

Rick wants to point out that the shooting is also what got them together, but it doesn’t seem to be the time for that, not if he’s trying to reassure Daryl that he’s safe. “Yeah, but that’s much more unlikely to happen now than it was then.”

“Yeah, I know. My head knows, anyway. My stomach don’t.” Daryl glances over at Rick briefly before putting his eyes back on the road and sliding his hand over the seat.

Rick sees the movement and takes Daryl’s hand, clasping it in a grip that’s firmer than what he’s done with women but just as intimate, just as emotional. “I would have killed everybody in Woodbury to get you out that night,” Rick tells him, his mouth suddenly dry and his voice quiet.

“Nah,” Daryl says. “Not everybody. You was better than that, even at your worst.”

“Everybody who got in between me and gettin’ you out,” Rick clarifies, and Daryl makes a low noise of agreement in his throat.

“Wasn’t nobody gonna keep me from gettin’ back to you, even if you hadn’t come back for me,” Daryl says after a moment.

“Except Merle,” Rick murmurs, remembering the look in Daryl’s eyes as he walked away with his brother, when Rick hadn’t been sure if Daryl was asking him to bring him back or let him go.

“Made my choice when I came back to the prison,” Daryl says quietly.

Rick rubs his thumb over the back of Daryl’s hand. “Don’t think I could have done it without you. Kept going.”

Daryl grunts and pulls his hand slowly away. “You’d have done fine. Maybe gotten a little skinnier without me draggin’ deer back all the time. But you woulda made it.”

Rick thinks back to the prison, to a time when Daryl hadn’t come back from a hunt on time, thinks about how he’d paced back and forth in front of the gates literally all night like a caged mountain lion until Daryl had showed up just after dawn pulling a makeshift sled with the carcass of a wild boar strapped to it. Thinks about how his knees had nearly given way when he’d seen Daryl materialize from the fog at the treeline, how he’d been calling the hunter’s name before he even realized his mouth was open, how he’d always been happy to see Glenn and Maggie and T-Dog come back safe from runs but how different it felt to see Daryl, to know he was safe and sound and had survived another day.

“I don’t know if I would have,” Rick says. “I would have had to, I guess. For Carl. For Judith.”

Judith,” Daryl says, snapping his fingers. “Shit, it’s so weird not to remember names. When they’re on the tip of my tongue, you know?”

Rick laughs at that, somewhat grateful for the tone shift away from thoughts of death and being adrift at sea without his anchor. “Oh, believe me, I know. I called you Blue for weeks.”

“Blue, huh?” Daryl asks, looking over at Rick and arching an eyebrow.

“Suits you,” Rick says, blushing slightly.

Daryl leaves his eyebrow arched as he looks back out to the road, then shrugs. “Guess that’s an okay name. You gonna start callin’ me that in bed?”

Rick’s blush turns into a full-blown bonfire and he bites his bottom lip for a second before responding. “Maybe. Sometimes. Although I definitely prefer knowing your real name.”

Daryl rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling a little. “Don’t get much more redneck than Daryl Dixon, man.”

Rick laughs. “I think Merle’s got you beat there.”

Daryl chuckles too, a low rumble that Rick feels in his ankles. “He dreamed, too, you know,” he says after a moment. “Told him what you told me. Told him about the whistles. And he dreamed too.”

Rick winces slightly at that. “What did he dream, exactly?”

Daryl reaches up and gnaws on the edge of his thumbnail. “After he sawed off his hand. When he was layin’ in the woods outside Atlanta, just waitin’ for Walkers to eat him.” He slants his eyes over to Rick for a second. “Romantic, really. There he was, bleedin’ out from his stump, pretty sure he was dying, and the only thing he was thinkin’ about was you. I mean, granted, he was thinkin’ about how to make you die slow, but still.”

Rolling his eyes, Rick smiles over at Daryl. “God, me and Merle. Wouldn’t that have been a disaster?” Daryl snickers, and Rick shakes his head in amusement and continues. “Awkward, too, if he’d had a thing for me and there I was falling in love with his brother.”

Daryl falls silent and goes back to chewing on his thumb for a few seconds. “Falling in love with Blue, you mean.”

Rick wrinkles his forehead in thought. “You are Blue, though.”

“I’m not,” Daryl says, very very quietly. “I mean… I am. But the man I was in the dream… the man you really want… he had something to offer you. Something you needed. And here, I got nothing to give you. No reason you need me around. So I’m him, but I’m not him. You know?”

Rick frowns deeply. “That’s not true. You know it’s not.”

Daryl shrugs, watching the road with more intensity than strictly necessary.

“Daryl,” Rick says, louder. “You know that’s not true.”

“Forget it,” Daryl mutters.

“Daryl--”

“Don’t want to fight,” Daryl interrupts. He reaches over and takes Rick’s hand again, tangling their fingers together. “Just want to be with you.”

Rick keeps frowning, but the feeling of Daryl’s hand in his is enough to keep him from dwelling too much on it. After all, he tells himself, he has years--decades--to show Daryl that he loves him, that Daryl doesn’t have to earn his place at Rick’s side, that he’s already there and always will be.

“First thing I dreamed,” Daryl says after a minute of silence, “was holdin’ Little Asskicker. Day she was born. She was so little. Are they always that little?”

Rick smiles in spite of himself and huffs out a small breath of laughter. “I think you always forget. You hold one and they’re so tiny, and then they grow and you forget until you hold another one and realize…” He sucks in a deep breath, looks out the window. “I miss her. Judith.”

Daryl squeezes his hand gently. “She’s on her way, though.”

“Yeah,” Rick says, thinking of Judith’s soft hair, her tiny pink lips, the way she’d looked sleeping against Daryl’s chest while he read Westerns to her in the shade of a prison courtyard. “Lori says we can be in Judy’s life. Be her dads. She promised.”

Daryl raises an eyebrow. “Lori says that I can help raise her baby,” he says, disbelief heavy in his voice.

Rick shrugs. “She said I can. And as far as I’m concerned, you and me are a package deal now.” He sighs contentedly, tilts his head back and toward Daryl. “And besides, she’s had the dream too, now. And she remembers what you did for her those months, giving her your food and always making sure she had the most comfortable spot to sleep. Shane’s a little harder of a sell, but he’s coming around.”

Daryl is quiet for a few seconds, then he mumbles, “Carol knew.”

Rick raises an eyebrow at that. “About… us?”

“About my part of it, at least.” Daryl takes the exit towards Carol’s house at Rick’s direction, and Rick is momentarily distracted by the early afternoon sunshine gleaming on Daryl’s perfect biceps as he turns the steering wheel. He imagines how those muscles would flex if Daryl were to throw him on the ground and pin Rick’s own arms above his head, how they would hold his hips in place while Daryl took him on a forest floor, his teeth buried in Rick’s shoulder and his moans ringing in Rick’s ears, and holy shit Rick knows what that would be like now, what Daryl sounds like when he lets go, what Daryl’s cock feels like when it’s deep inside Rick’s body, and it’s overwhelming, it’s perfect, it’s forever. It just has to be.

He swallows and then licks his lips, breaking his eyes away from Daryl’s arms. “You told her?”

Daryl smirks and his voice gets low, embarrassed. “More like she caught me checkin’ out your ass one day and called me out on it.” He pauses. “Is she gonna know me? Is she dreaming too?”

Rick nods. “Yeah. She’s dreaming. She’s not happy about what she’s seeing there, but she did say she missed you.”

“Hell, nobody’s happy with what we see there,” Daryl says. “First thing I dreamed was holdin’ Little Asskicker. That was nice. An’ that was all I was thinkin’ about while I had her in my arms. Just how cute she was, how happy I was that she was okay. And I knew the background, the stuff that had happened before, but the scene I was seein’ was peaceful and nice and I didn’t think about the rest too much.” He chuckles very softly. “An’ then when I woke up I went out camping, tryin’ to clear my head. And let me tell you, Rick, you do not want to have this dream when you’re out in the woods alone in the dark. Just about had a heart attack every time a ‘possum walked by my tent and made a noise.”

Rick smiles at that. “Probably should have warned you that you might start to dream too. Before you went out in the woods alone.”

“No shit,” Daryl says, cocking an eyebrow at Rick. Rick laughs, the corners of his eyes crinkling with how good it feels to be with his Blue again, with his Daryl, and it occurs to him that he has never, not once in his whole life, been happier than he is right now in this moment, with his archer within arm’s reach and the rest of his family out there, safe and alive and happy.

//

When they get to the house, Rick hops out of the passenger’s side and waits for Daryl to come around and join him. Daryl closes the driver’s door and pauses, then reaches into the bed of the truck and pulls out his crossbow, slinging it onto his back with the same grace Rick has seen so many times in the dream.

Rick raises an eyebrow, and Daryl scoffs and says, “What? You never know.” He walks around to stand by Rick. “‘Sides, you said she had the dream. She knows me. It won’t scare her.”

“Yeah,” Rick says, turning toward Daryl. “I really thought that you and Carol might have eventually...”

Daryl scoffs again, rolling his eyes. “‘S ‘cause you were a dumbass,” he says. “Care about her, yeah. But not like…” He trails off, looks down at the ground, shifts his crossbow on his shoulder.

“Sorry I didn’t figure it out sooner,” Rick murmurs.

Daryl lifts his hand to his mouth and tears at the skin on the side of his thumb. “‘S alright,” he says quietly, his chin still tucked down and his eyes slanting up at Rick’s. Rick smiles, bright and sunny, giddy with the feeling of Daryl at his side, and Daryl meets his eyes more fully and lets his own lips slide into a matching smile--much more understated than Rick’s, but just as true.

“Pookie!” Carol calls from the porch, and Daryl jerks his head over to look at her, his smile broadening. He and Rick turn toward her in unison, and when Rick starts up the path to the house, Daryl falls into step just behind him, his body primed toward Rick’s like it’s always been, and Carol crosses her arms and bites the corner of her bottom lip, eyes twinkling as she watches them approach.

When they get close to the porch, Daryl breaks rank and rushes past Rick to gather Carol up in a hug. Carol’s eyes go wide for a moment before she hugs back, laying her head on his shoulder for a moment and squeezing him up against her. “I’m so happy for you,” she murmurs to Daryl, almost too softly for Rick to hear.

“‘Bout what?” Daryl asks, letting go of her slowly and taking a step back to realign himself with Rick’s center of gravity.

“The two of you,” she answers, then rolls her eyes when Rick and Daryl exchange a confused, nervous look. “Oh, come on. You don’t have to tell me you’re together. I could see it plain as day in the way you were staring at each other a minute ago.”

Daryl flushes and looks at the ground, tugging at the strap of his crossbow to adjust its weight on his back. Rick turns his head to watch Daryl’s movements, unable to stop his eyes from narrowing wickedly, and after a moment Daryl’s mouth quirks into an embarrassed smile. “Quit lookin’ at me like that. There’s ladies present.”

Carol smiles and then motions for them to follow her inside. Rick looks around as they walk through the entryway into the living room, notes the lack of pictures on the walls, the empty space where Ed’s camouflage recliner had been sitting the last time Rick was here, the trash can in the kitchen that’s overflowing with gray work shirts and worn overalls, the scent of gardenias and jasmine pushing aside Ed’s presence and making the house smell like a home.

Rick sits down on the couch and Daryl sits beside him, space between their bodies except for the barest brushing of the knees, the warmth of Daryl’s knee against his own through the layers of their jeans sending pulses of right through Rick’s entire body.

“You know,” Carol says, sitting down in an armchair next to the couch, “if I didn’t see the two of you gazing at each other out by the truck, I wouldn’t know any difference.” She motions at the intimate lack of distance between the two of them. “You’ve always sat like that. Close to each other. At least once we got settled as a group.”

For the first time since waking up, Rick finds himself actually smiling at the word settled, nodding along and agreeing with the sentiment. He looks over at Daryl, who’s got his hands spread on the tops of his own thighs like he doesn’t know what else to do with them. “It’s new,” Rick says. “This. It’s new.”

Carol raises an eyebrow. “It’s been going on since the beginning. We all saw it.”

“Rick didn’t,” Daryl says, and when Carol laughs, the archer’s breath comes out in a little puff that almost--almost--sounds like a chuckle.

“What’s your name, Pookie?” Carol smiles at him again, leaning forward a little.

Daryl blinks, then understanding washes over his face. “Oh. Daryl.”

“I guess Rick probably told you mine already?” she asks. “And Sophia’s?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, looking around the room. He pulls his crossbow off his back and lays it out in his lap, then relaxes back against the couch a bit. “Rick said you got rid of your jackass husband.”

Carol nods, following Daryl’s gaze around the room. “I know I can make it without him now. So he’s not coming back. I won’t let him.”

“Thinkin’ about going down to the jail and tellin’ him about the dream. Make him have it himself,” Daryl says. “Show the dickbag that you got people who got your back now.”

“I can handle myself,” Carol says, looking the slightest bit offended by Daryl’s suggestion.

“I know that. You know that,” Daryl explains, running his fingers along the bowstring. “But Ed don’t. And even though you can protect yourself now, I’d just as soon not have him back here again. Ever.”

“He won’t come back,” Rick says. “Restraining order’s out. And we’ll make sure he doesn’t break it.”

“He won’t if he knows I’ll put a bolt in his nuts,” Daryl grumbles.

“Don’t want you going to jail, Pookie,” Carol warns him. She smiles at him until Daryl looks up, meets her eyes, and then looks back down with a smile on his own face. Then she takes a breath, fixes her gaze on her hands in her lap. “Speaking of jail… I was thinking that maybe I should… go visit the prison.”

Rick wipes his hand across his mouth and exchanges a quick glance with Daryl. “Why?”

“Well…” Carol trails off, wipes her hands on her pants. “After everything… I just don’t feel like there’s any reason to wait before I move on. From Ed. And I just… would really like to see that man again. The blond one. To see where it might have gone if he hadn’t gotten shot.”

Daryl makes a soft grunting noise and Rick shoots his eyes over to catch the answering twinkle in Daryl’s. “Axel,” Rick says. “His name’s Axel.”

Carol laughs softly at that. “What are people going to say, when I dump my husband and then immediately start dating a felon?”

“Prob’ly that you’re movin’ up in the world,” Daryl mutters, and Rick and Carol both laugh.

“I don’t think I’m going to tell Sophia about… the dream,” Carol says after a moment. “So please, don’t mention it to her.”

Rick nods. “I’m not telling Carl either. I might someday. But he got his childhood taken away from him and I hate that. So I want him to have a little longer to be a kid before he has to deal with this stuff.”

“Makes sense,” Daryl says, then runs his hand over the curve of his crossbow and murmurs, almost too soft to hear: “Can I see her, though? The little girl?” He clears his throat, shifts a little closer to Rick. “Just… need to see she’s okay.”

Carol smiles at him and nods. “Of course. She’ll be home from school soon. Stay as long as you like.”

Daryl smiles back, and Rick takes a chance and slips his arm around the archer’s shoulders. Daryl tenses up for a moment, then relaxes back into Rick’s embrace, the tips of his cheekbones stained with red. “Love you,” Rick whispers into Daryl’s ear, and Daryl grunts in acknowledgement and nudges his knee against Rick’s, contentment flowing between them like blood through veins, like rain down sidewalks, like the way that their heartbeats have already synchronized, locking in to one another’s rhythms. Rick tightens his arm around Daryl’s shoulders and breathes in the feeling of his Blue next to him, as he should be.

Chapter Text

It’s getting dark when they get back to Bettsville, and Daryl installs Rick in his bedroom while he gets ready for work. Rick lounges on the bed, his back against the headboard, and watches Daryl move around the room, feet quiet on the wooden floor.

“Remember when you taught me to skin a deer?” Rick asks idly, his fingers curled around the broken slat on the headboard.

Daryl looks at Rick over his shoulder before turning back to his sock drawer. “Remember you pukin’ all over my boots,” he says, and Rick can hear the smile in his voice even though his back is turned.

“I didn’t puke,” Rick argues. He snuggles down into the bed, pulling the blankets up over his legs. “I just needed a second.”

“You can slice the heads off’a Walkers without battin’ an eye, but I ask you to make one move on Bambi…” Daryl says, turning and looking at Rick with his mouth curled up in a smirk.

“Walkers tried to kill me,” Rick points out. “Bambi was just standing there, minding his own business, eating grass…” He lets out an exaggerated sniffle and wipes an imaginary tear from under his eye, and Daryl rolls his eyes so hard that Rick is surprised they don’t fall out of his head.

“Didn’t seem to be a problem that night when Beth slapped a big hunk of venison on your plate,” Daryl says. He takes a black tank top out of his dresser and shakes it out, then whips off the faded gray t-shirt he’s wearing and starts to put on the tank.

“Wait,” Rick says, and Daryl freezes and looks over at him with an eyebrow raised. Rick runs his eyes over Daryl’s bare chest and abdomen, taking in the hard planes of his muscles, the curve of his shoulders, the hollow at the base of his throat that’s just the right size and shape for Rick’s lips. Rick whimpers and adjusts his pants, and Daryl rolls his eyes again and slips the tank top on.

“You’re a horndog, man,” Daryl grumbles, his cheeks tight with a suppressed smile. He switches out his regular daily belt for a nicer-looking one with a silver buckle and drops the older one on the top of the dresser.

“With all this in front of me, how could I not be?” Rick asks, his tone teasing but his eyes hot and dead-serious. He licks his lips and lets his mouth curl into a slow, wicked smile.

Daryl blushes slightly and stuffs his wallet in his back pocket. “Stop,” he says, with no real conviction behind the command.

“You sure you can’t be late to work?” Rick says, waggling his eyebrows.

“Stop,” Daryl says again, but he’s smiling this time. He walks over to the bed and leans down, presses a kiss to Rick’s lips. “If you still want me that bad when I get off work, I’ll let you do whatever you want to me tonight. How’s that?”

Rick moans and grabs Daryl’s hips, pulls him down onto Rick’s lap on the bed. “I gotta go home tonight,” Rick murmurs as he drags his lips over Daryl’s neck, leaving goosebumps behind him as he moves. “Gotta work tomorrow.”

Daryl tenses in Rick’s arms but then recovers and lets his head fall back a little as Rick kisses him. “When will I get to see you again?”

“Soon as I get off patrol,” Rick says. He bites down on Daryl’s neck, hard enough to make Daryl hiss softly but not hard enough to leave a mark. “It takes forty-five minutes to get from the station to here. I’ll be here in forty-three.”

Daryl twists his body so that he’s straddling Rick and then sits down in his lap, their clothed cocks already half-hard and rubbing against each other. “You’re coming back?” he murmurs, putting his hands on Rick’s cheeks, his palms brushing against Rick’s stubble with a feather-light touch.

“Fast as I can,” Rick promises him. He leans forward and kisses Daryl again, catching the archer’s bottom lip between his teeth and pulling on it gently as the kiss breaks. He puts a hand on Daryl’s side and starts pushing, trying to tip him over onto the bed so that Rick can crawl over him and just absolutely ruin the tank top he’s wearing, but Daryl grunts and stands up, backing out of Rick’s reach.

“You’re just gonna have to control yourself,” Daryl says, his voice low and sex-rough despite his words. His eyes flick to Rick’s lips and he lets out a little sigh. “Got pretty good at it myself,” he grumbles, then goes over to sit down on the floor and pull his boots on.

“You did, did you?” Rick teases, sitting up and watching him, trying to control his own heartbeat.

Daryl grunts in the affirmative and pushes himself off the floor again. “Fuck you for always wearin’ your t-shirt all tucked in to the front of your belt like that, man. Made me want to untuck it with my teeth an’ fuck you up against a tree.”

Rick’s vision goes sharp, like a cat sensing its prey, and Daryl laughs. “I gotta go to work.”

“Come here,” Rick demands. He holds out a hand for Daryl and tries to look smoldering, irresistable.

Daryl smiles at him again. “Gotta go to work,” he says again. “Have to be there an hour before the doors open. Which means you gotta find somethin’ to do for an hour, ‘cause I can’t let you in until seven.” He walks back over to the bed and fights off Rick’s grabby hands for long enough to lean in and kiss him again. “I’ll see you there?”

Rick forces himself not to reach for Daryl when the kiss is over. “I’ll be there.”

//

After Daryl leaves him at the house, Rick wanders out into the den, surveying the room with its greens and browns, the shiny new flat-screen TV mounted to the wall that looks like it cost more than anything else in the house combined. The DVD collection on the shelf is a mix of the expected hyper-masculine flicks--Rambo, The Godfather, Full Metal Jacket--alongside softer dramas, some romantic comedies, a few old classic movies from the 40’s. Rick wonders which of them are Daryl’s and which are Merle’s, wonders what movie Daryl pops in when he needs something comforting to watch.

There’s also a stack of women’s exercise videos. Rick doesn’t think too hard about that, especially since the lamp table on what must be Merle’s side of the couch has a half-empty box of tissues on it. Rick sits down on the other end of the couch, running one hand over the coarse fabric of the armrest and pulling out his phone with the other.

He calls Lori, gives her an update on the situation, asks her to give Carl a kiss for him. The conversation is strange and a little stilted, but she’s polite and congratulates him on getting together with Daryl and seems more or less sincere about the congratulations, so Rick decides he’ll take it.

As it gets closer to the time the bar opens, Rick gets up and takes a shower, making sure to use Daryl’s soap and not Merle’s--the difference is obvious by the notes scrawled in thick black Sharpie that say Merle, stop using my fucking soap on some of the bottles--and it’s so nice to be in Daryl’s shower rubbing Daryl’s soap on his body that Rick briefly considers taking care of things before he remembers that Merle uses this shower too, which just makes it weird. So Rick rinses off and gets out of the shower, drying off and getting dressed before walking out into the hallway on his way back to Daryl’s bedroom.

The landline starts ringing in the living room, and Rick changes direction instinctively to walk towards it. He pauses with his hand outstretched toward the phone as it occurs to him that this isn’t actually his house and he can’t go around answering other peoples’ phones. He curls his fingers into a light fist and drops his hand to his side, then starts to walk toward Daryl’s bedroom again.

The answering machine--an honest-to-god answering machine--picks up with a beep and a “Hide your daughters, it’s the Dixon boys” in Merle’s voice. Rick rolls his eyes at the recording and has his hand on Daryl’s doorknob when a man’s voice comes over the tinny speaker.

“Daryl, baby, it’s Jeff,” the voice says, and Rick grits his teeth and stomps back into the living room to glower at the scuffed white plastic of the answering machine. “Figure I can call you baby on messages now since Merle knows about us. He called and chewed me a new one, babe. I’ve never heard that much cussing in my life.” Jeff laughs and Rick’s jaw twitches at the sound. “Listen, sweetheart. I’ll be back in town this weekend. Now I know you said we were through, but we both know you’re just upset and I just need to come spend some time with you and everything will be alright. I’m sorry I’ve been busy, baby. I love you. I’ll see you this weekend and we’ll work things out.”

Rick snatches the phone up and snaps into it “like hell you will” and then slams the phone back into the receiver.

“You break that shit, you’re buyin’ me a new one,” Merle says from the doorway.

Rick whirls around and looks at the man, standing in the doorway with his keys in his hand and his jaw set angrily. “How the fuck did you not know about this?” Rick demands, motioning at the phone.

Merle shrugs and closes the door, tossing his keys onto the kitchen table. “Daryl said he was just a friend. I believe my brother.” He lets out a huff of ironic laughter. “Least I used to. Little shit’s been hidin’ all sorts of things from me lately.”

“This guy is toxic,” Rick hisses.

“I know, I know,” Merle says, his voice going higher-pitched as he spreads his hands in front of himself. “I mean, I know that now. Daryl called an’ dumped him an’ then he told me all about it. ‘S why I called him and threatened to feed his dick to some piranhas.” He shrugs, shifting his feet to give himself a wider stance, and grins at Rick. “Now I know I already used that one on you, but I only got so many threats in me so I gotta start recyclin’ sometime.”

“I don’t want him talking to Daryl anymore,” Rick says, stepping forward and dipping his head to look up at Merle with intense-eyes. “You understand me?”

Merle rolls his eyes. “Yeah, I understand ya, Friendly. But you know you ain’t gotta protect him. He’s a grown-ass man an’ he can handle himself.” He sighs heavily and crosses his arms. “Besides,” he grumbles, looking at the floor and frowning deeply. “He’s pretty set on you now. Got no idea why. But I saw him back in the woods, back at the prison. Watchin’ you like you was a bottle of water and he’d been in the desert for a week.” He grunts. “Can’t no dickbag like Jeff compete with that.”

Rick sighs, lets the tension in his shoulders dissolve a little. “You really think so?”

“Think my brother could do better than a pig who cuffs people to rooftops,” Merle mutters. “But least you’re a step up from a pansy-ass flight attendant who tells him he ain’t worth it.”

Rick grinds his teeth again but nods. “Yeah. Least I’m better than that.”

“You headin’ out?” Merle asks.

“Yeah,” Rick says. He pats the pockets of his jeans and then walks back to Daryl’s room to get his wallet and his phone, then sits on the bed to pull on his shoes.

Merle follows him and leans in the doorway. “You comin’ back?”

“Not tonight,” Rick tells him. “I gotta work in the morning. Early.”

Merle grunts and crosses his arms. “But you’re comin’ back,” he says. “You ain’t leavin’ him now that you got your rocks off. Right?”

Rick stands up and faces him, trying to infuse his eyes with all the sincerity he feels. “The only way I’m leaving your brother is if he tells me to. It won’t ever be my choice.”

Merle steps forward, his long stride eating up the distance between them. He’s in Rick’s face before Rick can properly react, and Merle juts his jaw forward and locks gazes with Rick, his eyes dark like Daryl’s but harder, rougher, angrier. “You break his heart, I’ll break your legs,” he growls out. “Little shit’s head over ass for you an’ I swear that if you treat him bad, you’ll wish I’d been serious about the piranhas because what I’ll do to you will make that seem like a walk in the park. You understand me, Friendly?”

“I understand,” Rick drawls out, holding Merle’s gaze without flinching. “But it ain’t gonna matter, because I’m not gonna hurt him.”

Merle watches him for a few seconds, searching his eyes, then nods and steps back out of Rick’s personal bubble. “We got a lot to talk about, you and me. But I’ll let you head out for now.”

Rick pulls out his phone and checks the time. “Yeah, I gotta go.” He steps past Merle and heads for the front door, then pauses with his hand on the doorknob. He turns his head and speaks to Merle: “I won’t hurt him.”

“See that you don’t,” Merle grumbles, then stomps into the living room and turns on the TV. Rick goes outside and gets in his car, plugging the address for the bar into his GPS. Calculating, it says, and Rick rests his hands on the top of the steering wheel and smiles, Daryl’s blue eyes in the back of his mind.

//

The bar is easy to miss, tucked away in a small brick building with an unassuming sign out front, and Rick likes it immediately. It’s the sort of place where there’s dancing and drinking and dartboards on the walls, with very typical bar decor so that he wouldn’t have immediately pegged it as a gay bar if he hadn’t known already. The bouncer waves him through with a flourish once he sees Rick’s name on his ID, and Rick ensconces himself on a barstool at one end of the bar, letting his eyes settle on Daryl’s back until the man’s shoulders twitch and he turns around and looks at Rick with a flash of surprise in his eyes, like a part of him didn’t expect to see him there.

Rick smiles, giving Daryl bedroom eyes. Daryl walks over to him. “No,” he grumbles, leaning in so that Rick can hear him over the music. “Stop that.”

“Stop what?” Rick asks, letting his smile morph into a full-on grin.

“You know,” Daryl says, crossing his arms with his fingertips tucked into the space between his biceps and his chest. “Can’t work with you givin’ me sex eyes all night.”

Rick gives him intense sex eyes, looking at him from under heavy lids, his mouth open just slightly. He runs his tongue over his bottom lip slowly and feels a surge of pride in himself when Daryl’s eyes snap to his mouth.

After a moment, Daryl blinks and turns to pull down a couple of bottles. He fixes Rick a drink quickly, pouring top-shelf whiskey and vermouth over the ice and then straining it into a glass. He plops a cherry down into the mixture and puts it down in front of Rick. “Drink your fruity-ass cocktail and let me work,” he grumbles, but the corner of his mouth twitches and Rick can imagine the flush on his cheeks even in the dim bar lighting.

Rick waggles his eyebrows but takes the drink. Daryl rolls his eyes and turns to a buff blond guy sitting next to Rick, mixing him a Jack and Coke before moving off to a little crowd clamoring for beers at the other end of the bar.

“So,” the buff blond guy says to Rick after a few moments. “Haven’t seen you here before.”

Rick takes a sip of his Manhattan and raises an eyebrow at the guy. “First time,” he says, figuring he might as well chat since Daryl is busy anyway. His eyes slide easily back over to the back of the archer’s neck to the fringe of hair brushing his skin there.

“You like it here?” the guy asks.

Rick hmms, still watching Daryl move, noting the way that eyes other than his own seem to snag on the man and hold there, noting even more that Daryl not only ignores them but seems to not even realize that he’s being looked at. Strange, he thinks, remembering nights in the forest, Daryl on watch with a vigilance that no one else could match. Daryl could always feel the eyes on the group--Walker, animal, or human eyes, he could feel them all--but not here. Not when the eyes were on him.

“I must not be your type,” says the guy, and Rick turns to look at him again.

“What?” he asks, wrinkling his brow in confusion.

“Just tryin’ to talk you up and you don’t seem to be havin’ none of it,” the man says, smiling brightly at Rick. It’s a Shane smile, a light-up-the-room sort of expression, and Rick has a brief, dispassionate flash of this dude has game before Daryl looks up and catches Rick’s gaze. The hunter smiles too, just a slight tilting of thin lips before it’s gone, but Rick feels like he’s been punched in the gut by it anyway. The blonde’s smile is fluorescent, all sparkle and radiant colors and the hum of electric lights, and it’s bright as hell but it’s also artificial, also meaningless. But Daryl… Daryl’s smile is an oil lantern in a dark room, small and flickering but timeless, real, captivating.

“See what I mean?” the blonde says.

Daryl turns back to the group in front of him and Rick blinks a few times to clear his head. “Sorry, I was distracted,” he says. “I’m Rick.”

“Lonnie,” the blonde says. “Distracted by the bartender, looks like.”

Rick stares down at his drink, feeling his mouth curl into a smile. “Little bit.”

“Give it up, man,” Lonnie says, clapping Rick on the shoulder. “Been comin’ here for four years and I’ve never once seen him go home with anybody. And believe me, I’ve asked a couple of times myself.”

Rick makes a noncommittal noise and sips his drink, leaving the glass up against his lips while he keeps his eyes on Daryl’s back, on the man’s shoulders as they move while he pours drinks.

“Well, if you change your mind,” Lonnie says, putting his hand on Rick’s shoulder again and leaving it there while he speaks, “I’ll be out dancing. Cut in whenever you want.”

Rick glances up at him and nods, then breaks into a smile as Daryl makes his way back down the bar toward him. Lonnie rolls his eyes and walks off into the crowd.

Daryl takes Rick’s glass from him and pours him another, something with a lot of rum in it this time. “Lonnie botherin’ you?”

“Tried to hit on me,” Rick says, letting their fingers brush as Daryl hands him his new drink. “But I told him I was after you and he told me to keep dreaming.”

Daryl scoffs. “Didn’t.”

“Did.” Rick takes a drink of his new beverage and lets his eyes sparkle at Daryl over the rim of the glass.

“Shut up,” Daryl says, smiling just a little and looking like he was really making an effort not to. He picks up a sharp kitchen knife and starts slicing limes, dumping the slices into a plastic container.

Rick turns on the stool enough to look out over the dance floor. Lonnie had melted into a group who were all crowded around a tray full of shots, gleefully tossing them back, and Rick couldn’t help but notice all the eyes that kept slanting back towards the bar. Towards Daryl.

His eyes go just the slightest bit green and he turns back around to see Daryl watching him with such an open expression that it almost makes Rick whimper. “He said you don’t go home with people.”

Daryl shrugs. “Goin’ home with you.” He bites his bottom lip briefly. “I mean… tomorrow. I know you gotta go to your own house tonight.” There’s a loud thump on the bar and a man’s voice raised to get Daryl’s attention. “Duty calls,” he grumbles, giving Rick one more heated look before sliding off toward the customers.

Rick slips off of his barstool and heads for the bathroom, weaving through the crowds and wondering just how many of these men would give their right arms to wake up in Daryl’s bed. A good percentage of them, he decides, and he tries to keep his chest from puffing out with pride at knowing that Daryl chose him, that he’s going to kiss Daryl and love Daryl and hell, maybe even run off to New England and marry Daryl, soon as he can get the paperwork finalized with Lori. And if Daryl says yes. Which Rick has to hope he will.

There’s a line at the bathroom, and Rick pulls out his cell and texts Shane: Do you think he’d say yes if I proposed?

Shane texts back almost immediately: How much have you had to drink?

Rick rolls his eyes at the phone and puts it back in his pocket.

Once Rick comes back out of the bathroom, Lonnie’s group is totally sloshed and Rick has to gently shove one of them aside to get past them. Lonnie pushes his way out of the group and backs Rick into the wall.

“Dance with me,” Lonnie says, putting a hand on Rick’s arm. The grip is tight but not crushing, and Rick could easily break free if he wanted to, but Lonnie’s drunk and tough and Rick doesn’t want to make a scene if he doesn’t have to.

So instead he reaches over with his other hand and tries to pull Lonnie’s fingers away from his arm. “Thanks, but I’m not interested.”

“Aw, come on, baby.” Lonnie digs his fingers in tighter, crowds forward against Rick a little more. “Just one dance.”

Rick twists his arm out of Lonnie’s grip and side-steps, moving away from him. “Not interested,” he says again, then turns on his heel and stomps back over to the bar.

Daryl’s eyes are on him as he walks back over, piercing him like a hawk focused on a mouse, and as Rick hops back up on his barstool, he sees the lime-cutting knife clutched in Daryl’s hand, the archers’ knuckles white around the handle.

“You okay?” Daryl grates out.

“Yeah, fine,” Rick says, smiling. “Guy’s just a little drunk, that’s all. Nothing to worry about.”

Daryl glares out at Lonnie. “Don’t like it,” he grumbles after a few seconds. “Crowds. You in crowds. Not being able to see you, know you’re okay. I don’t like it.” His hand tightens on the knife even more, and Rick reaches over the bar to gently pry his fingers off of the handle.

“It’s okay,” he murmurs, only just loudly enough to be audible over the music in the bar. “Daryl. I’m okay. Nobody’s gonna hurt me here.”

Daryl pulls his eyes away from darting around the crowd and looks at Rick. “C’mon,” he says, jerking his head toward the end of the bar. Daryl turns and walks briskly to the opening where he can slip out from behind the counter, pausing briefly to whisper something to the other bartender on duty. Rick meets him at the end of the counter and Daryl grabs his upper arm and pulls him toward a door in the back corner of the room. He pulls a ring of keys out of his pocket and unlocks the door, then pushes Rick inside and closes it behind them.

Rick looks around the neatly organized store room, at the shelves full of boxes of beer and liquor and baskets of fruit, at the sturdy metal table in the corner with empty cardboard boxes stacked on it, at the rows and rows of clear glasses of various sizes stacked on top of each other. He turns back to Daryl and raises an eyebrow.

Daryl’s eyes are dark, smoldering. Angry and loving at the same time. Rick has seen this same expression in Daryl’s eyes across campfires, from watchtowers, through smoke and fog and gunfire, and he’s always known that it meant you scared me, always known it meant you could have been hurt, but he’d never conceptualized the other half of the expression, the I can’t lose you. The losing you would break me. He wonders how the hell he’d managed to miss that part of it for so long.

“You’re not going to lose me,” Rick says softly.

Daryl’s eyes flicker, pupils creeping closer to the edges of his irises. “He had his hands on you,” Daryl says. “I wanted to gut him.”

“He didn’t hurt me.” Rick steps a little closer. “I’m fine. Nothing happened.”

Daryl looks at the floor, hooks his thumbs in his belt. “Did you want it to?”

Rick wrinkles his forehead. “What?”

“Did you want something to happen,” Daryl repeats, slurring his words a little as if he’s having to physically force them from his throat, “with Lonnie?”

Frowning deeply, Rick dips his head to try and force eye contact. “No. Of course not.”

“‘Cause I get it,” Daryl says, almost as if he hadn’t heard Rick’s last words. “I mean, he’s pretty hot. Prob’ly more your type.”

“Daryl,” Rick snaps. He puts a hand on Daryl’s shoulder, slides it up to rest on the side of the archer’s neck. “I don’t want to hear you sayin’ that I don’t want you, or that I want somebody else more than I want you. I’m yours. All yours. Hey.” He waits until Daryl looks up at him. “I’m yours.”

“You mean that?” Daryl says quietly.

“Hell yeah,” Rick answers, smiling. He takes another step forward, pressing his body against Daryl’s. “You’re beautiful,” he says, trailing his lips over Daryl’s jaw. “You’re gorgeous and you’re perfect and you’re fuckin’ sexy as hell, and I’m a damn lucky man to have my lips on you right now.” Daryl shivers, and Rick slips his arm around Daryl’s waist and pulls him in closer, moving his lips from Daryl’s jaw to the sensitive spot just below his ear. “Every man out there wants you, Daryl. Every one of them. And they’re all just gonna have to deal with the fact that I get to have you.”

“They all want you, too,” Daryl rasps, unmoving. “Saw ‘em looking. Didn’t like it.”

“Too bad for them,” Rick murmurs, nuzzling Daryl’s throat. “I’m taken.”

Daryl’s body is rigid, stock-still as Rick’s hands and teeth skim over his skin, his muscles, and Rick loves it, loves that he can feel Daryl’s pulse racing under his tongue, loves that the hunter’s breath is speeding up the more he loses that tight control. The more that Rick takes it from him, breaks it and molds it into something new, something on fire. Something that only Rick gets to have.

“I know I’m yours,” Rick says. “Let me prove it to you.”

“How?” Daryl asks, but Rick is already spinning him around, walking him backwards across the room and pulling his belt free from the buckle as they move. When Daryl’s back hits the wall, Rick drops to his knees, trailing his hand down Daryl’s chest and abdomen as he goes. Daryl sucks in a quick breath and stares down at Rick, who looks up at him with a wicked smile.

“Never done this before,” Rick says, mouthing Daryl’s hardening dick through the denim of his jeans. “You’ll have to tell me how I’m doing.”

Daryl’s voice is suddenly even rougher, burlap and wire, the way a wolf growls in its den. “Ain’t got to do this,” he says, swallowing hard as he meets Rick’s eyes.

“I know,” Rick says. He slides one hand up under Daryl’s shirt to splay his fingers across Daryl’s abs and uses the other one to work on his pants button, slipping it loose and pulling the zipper down with agonizing slowness. Daryl’s ab muscles quiver under his touch and Rick smiles to himself as he pulls Daryl’s cock out into the open. He puts his mouth close to it and stares at it for a second, watching the bead of pre-come start to gather at the tip, then looks up at Daryl and locks eyes with him as he licks it off, letting the salty taste spread over his tongue.

Daryl groans and sags against the wall, pressing his palms against the cool concrete. “Rick…”

Rick nuzzles Daryl’s balls, breathing him in and letting his hot breath ghost over the sensitive skin. “Perfect,” he whispers, his lips moving against Daryl and making Daryl’s own breath come out in a shuddering cadence. Rick smiles and runs his eyes along the beautiful curve of Daryl’s dick, focusing his gaze on the large vein running up the underside of it. “Fucking perfect,” he says again, then runs his tongue up the vein slowly and swirls it around the head.

“Jesus,” Daryl gasps out, flexing his fingers against the wall like he’s trying to find handholds in the concrete. He spreads his legs to give himself a little more stability and Rick curls his hand into Daryl’s thigh, digging his nails in lightly as he sucks lightly on the tip of Daryl’s cock.

“I’ve jerked off thinking about this,” Rick says, mouthing along the length of him again. “About doing this to you.”

Daryl moans and throws his head back, thumping it against the wall. “You gonna suck it or just talk to it?” he growls out, sounding so grumpy that Rick laughs softly.

“Definitely suck it,” Rick says, and then he kisses the tip one more time before sliding his lips down over the shaft.

Fuck,” Daryl gasps out, one hand flying forward to tangle in Rick’s hair. Rick hums happily around him and moves his head, bobbing it up and down as far as he can go and stroking Daryl with his hand to make up the rest of the length. “Jesus, Rick, this ain’t gonna take long…”

Rick moans, squeezing his eyes shut and reaching down to palm himself through his pants. He’s hard, almost painfully so, and the scent of Daryl surrounding him and the taste of Daryl on his tongue is almost enough to send him over the edge.

“You got lube?” Daryl asks, breathless and low-pitched. Rick looks up at him through his eyelashes and keeps bobbing his head on Daryl’s cock as he pulls a small bottle out of his pants pocket and holds it up.

Daryl tightens his hand in Rick’s hair and pulls on it until Rick’s mouth slips away from his cock, then pulls Rick to his feet and kisses him fiercely. “Wanna fuck you,” he growls against Rick’s mouth, taking the bottle out of Rick’s hand.

“Fuck yes,” Rick gasps, pushing his hips forward so that his clothed dick presses against Daryl’s bare one.

Daryl kisses him deeply, crushing their lips together and driving his tongue into Rick’s mouth, then releases him and spins Rick around, pushing him forward into the wall. Rick fumbles with his belt and pants fastenings and shoves the clothing down to expose his ass, then moans loudly as Daryl presses against him, rocking his hips to slide his dick over Rick’s skin.

Daryl’s fingers are slick with lube when he rubs them against Rick’s entrance, slipping one finger inside slowly. Rick hisses at the intrusion but thrusts his hips back toward Daryl, taking it deeper inside himself and letting out a whispering moan as his body adjusts to the sensation.

Daryl leans forward and bites down on Rick’s trapezius muscle, then licks the spot and growls against Rick’s skin, “Wanted to do this at the prison. Just throw you against a wall and take you, make you beg for it.” He adds another finger, pumping them in and out of Rick and brushing against the bundle of nerves inside Rick’s body that turns Rick into a shivering mess of need.

Panting, Rick throws his head back to lay it on Daryl’s shoulder, and Daryl tilts his own head to suck lightly on Rick’s neck. “You’re mine,” Daryl whispers, but it sounds suddenly uncertain, more like the hint of a question than a statement of ownership, and Rick whimpers and grinds his ass back against Daryl’s fingers.

“Fuck me,” Rick says, the words little more than a gasp. “I’m yours.”

Daryl’s fingers disappear from Rick’s body and are immediately replaced by Daryl’s cock brushing at his entrance. “Rick,” Daryl breathes, then pushes forward slowly, filling Rick gradually but completely, the thickness of Daryl’s cock making Rick’s body burn pleasantly, stretching to accommodate him. Rick moans loudly and covers Daryl’s hands on his hips with his own hands, weaving their fingers together and holding on tightly.

“Holy fuck, you feel so good,” Daryl groans into Rick’s ear. He pulls back and then thrusts forward again hard, making Rick cry out and tighten around him.

“Do you…” Rick gasps, then breaks off as Daryl’s next thrust hits him just exactly right and rips a groan from his throat. “Can you hold me up?” he asks, breathless. “Want to kiss you.”

Daryl runs his tongue over the tense muscles of Rick’s neck and then sucks hard on a tender spot, hard enough that Rick knows there will be a mark tomorrow. “Yeah,” he grunts, then pulls out and pushes himself away from Rick just far enough that Rick can toe off his shoes and step out of his pants. He pauses for a moment with his hand on the hem of his shirt, then yanks it off over his head and stands there in front of Daryl totally naked, a flush creeping up his neck to his cheeks. Their eyes meet and Rick’s face breaks into a brilliant smile, then Daryl’s hands are on his glutes and Rick is being lifted off the ground and braced against the wall.

Rick wraps his legs around Daryl’s waist and leans back into the wall. Daryl stumbles a little as he gets into position and finds the right angle for leverage and then he’s sliding back inside and Rick can’t remember a time when he’s ever been this turned on, with Daryl’s arms tight around him and Daryl’s cock driving up into him and Daryl’s lips on his, kissing deeply as he thrusts. It’s not graceful and it’s not poetic, but it’s sexy as hell and when Rick adjusts the angle of his body so that his own dick brushes against Daryl’s skin, slipping under Daryl’s shirt to rub against his abs, it’s all Rick can do not to come all over the man’s stomach right then.

“Hold on,” Daryl grunts, and Rick tightens his arms around Daryl’s neck and his legs around Daryl’s waist, still kissing him deeply, still flexing his muscles around Daryl’s cock buried deep inside him. Daryl pulls him away from the wall and carries him to the table in the corner, and Rick hisses when his back hits the surface of the table, the metal cold on his bare skin. But the new angle is perfection, deep and satisfying, and Daryl moans and starts pounding Rick hard, slamming himself inside as Rick claws at his shoulder blades and babbles Daryl’s name over and over.

“Holy shit, Rick,” Daryl hisses, thrusting hard again and hitting Rick just right to make him let out a wild yell of ecstasy. “Yes.”

Rick clutches at Daryl’s arms, rocking his hips to take Daryl in as deeply as possible, and it hits him that his own cock hasn’t even been touched except to slide against Daryl’s stomach but it’s already almost over for him, as Daryl hits his prostate again and makes sparkles appear at the corners of Rick’s eyes like fireflies in the summer air.

Rick kisses Daryl again and then pulls back enough to look in his eyes. “Come in me,” he murmurs. “Do it, Daryl. Please.”

“Hell yes,” Daryl growls, and he yanks Rick’s hips to a new angle that lets him get even deeper. Rick’s breath is coming in sobs now--broken, desperate whispers of Daryl and Blue and yes--and Daryl curses under his breath and leans up just enough to whip his own shirt off and toss it to the side.

Rick lets his eyes rake over Daryl’s bare chest, the sheen of sweat there and the way his muscles ripple when he thrusts, and that’s all he can take. He arches his back into almost a semicircle and screams Daryl’s name as Daryl hits him just right one more time and Rick falls apart, clinging and moaning and writhing under Daryl as he comes all over Daryl’s skin, painting his chest with stripes of white as Rick’s eyes roll back in his head with the force of it.

Daryl fucks him through his orgasm, hips snapping into Rick with an increasingly irregular rhythm, and when Rick finally slumps back onto the table, boneless and gasping, Daryl digs his fingernails into Rick’s waist and comes with a yell, pulsing inside Rick so hard that Rick can feel it.

Fuck,” Daryl gasps when it’s over, wrapping his arms around Rick’s back and pulling him up from the table and into a firm embrace. “Goddamn, Rick. Fuck.”

“You’re perfect,” Rick whispers, clinging to Daryl and burying his face in the archer’s hard shoulder. “And I’m so yours.”

Daryl runs his shaking hand over Rick’s curls and Rick practically purrs at the touch. “Don’t leave me,” Daryl says quietly, sounding utterly wrecked. “Please don’t give this to me and take it away.”

A bubble of incredulous laughter escapes Rick’s throat and he tightens his arms around Daryl and kisses his neck. “Won’t ever leave you, Daryl,” he murmurs against the hunter’s skin. “Never. I swear it to you right now.”

Daryl lets out a shaking, shuddering breath and nods. “Okay,” he whispers. “I’ll hold you to that.”

Rick smiles against Daryl’s neck and runs his hands slowly over Daryl’s scarred back until their breathing slows and their hearts fall back into a smooth, steady unison, beating together with the music of the bar filtering through into the background.

Chapter Text

It’s much later when Rick finally tears himself away from the barstool he’d commandeered after they’d emerged from the store room. Daryl walks him to his car and kisses him against it, slow and sweet and with an edge of sadness to it.

“Tomorrow?” Daryl asks once they’ve pulled apart.

Rick nods, dipping his head and staring at the ground. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Daryl nods back, just a firm jerk of the head. “Alright. Drive careful.” He shoves his hands in his jeans pockets and steps back from the car, giving Rick room to climb inside and shut the door. Rick cranks the engine and pulls away slowly, and he watches in the rear view mirror as Daryl stands there staring after him until Rick can’t see the archer anymore.

Rick pulls onto the highway and feels his heart sinking as he leaves the Bettsville city limits. The guest room looms ahead of him, cold and sterile, decorated in creams and corals with framed pictures of flowers that give the place the feeling of a hotel. He won’t even see his family tonight--Carl will already be asleep and Shane and Lori will most likely be in bed too by the time he gets back to the house. Rick sighs deeply and tries to resign himself to a night alone in a room that smells of dust and lavender while Daryl dreams in a bed forty-five minutes away from him.

He’s turning the car around before he even consciously decides that he’s going back.

He can’t go back to the bar. Daryl’s working and after the escapade in the store room, it had gotten impossible to focus on anything other than each other, so Rick needs to let him finish out his shift without any more distractions. But god, it had been worth it, and not just for the sex--after they’d come back out into the bar, red-faced and rumpled, Daryl had been a changed man. It had been breathtaking to watch him as he moved around behind the bar, smiling and laughing, holding his shoulders back instead of hunching in on himself, his eyes sparkling every time he looked over at Rick.

Rick isn’t stupid. He knows that a few days of being happy together and some pretty mind-blowing sex aren’t going to change Daryl’s mindset entirely, that these things take time. But still, seeing a glimpse of what a happy, confident Daryl will be like is enough to keep Rick going, to prove to himself that he can be what Daryl wants. What Daryl needs.

He stops by Taco Bell and gets a bag full of burritos, then heads back to Daryl’s house. Merle is still camped out in the living room, watching wrestling on the TV, and Rick lets himself in and plops down in Daryl’s spot on the couch. He deposits the bag of food on the couch between them and pulls a burrito out for himself.

“Brought dinner,” he says, nudging the bag toward Merle.

Merle eyes him suspiciously. “Tryin’ to poison me, Friendly?” he asks, but he pulls out a burrito and unwraps it, taking a huge bite and chewing around it with his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk.

After a few minutes, Merle gets up and grabs them both bottles of water from the kitchen, handing one to Rick with the air of someone bestowing a great gift. They watch wrestling together for a while, eating their burritos in silence, and eventually it starts feeling almost normal, their muscles relaxing and their eyes focusing more on the TV and less on each others’ movements out of their peripheral vision.

Finally, Rick clears his throat. “Daryl told you about the dream.”

Merle grunts loudly, finishing off his bottle of water and sitting it on the end table next to him. “Yeah. Night after you guys went to that pansy-ass concert. He came home an’ dumped that shitty boyfriend of his an’ then told me what you said about dreamin’ about him. That he believed you.” He shrugs. “An’ then about two in the morning I woke up with him screamin’ in the other room. Had to go in an’ calm him down. Didn’t take too long. Daryl’s a tough motherfucker--he gets over shit pretty fast. But anyways, he told me what happened to me and then I went back to bed and dreamed it too.” Merle makes a loud, angry growling sound. “Fuck you, Friendly. Just by the way.”

“Sorry,” Rick says, shrugging and trying to shake the image of Daryl dreaming alone without him, waking up afraid.

“Yeah, you should be,” Merle grumbles. “Chaining me to a roof. Asshole. An’ then stealin’ my brother from me, too. Least you treated him right, far as I know. Little shit loves you more than a punk bitch like you deserves. Could tell that even in the dream, even before he told me so.”

Rick sighs heavily. “I didn’t know I loved him,” he says after a moment. “In the dream, I didn’t know. But that didn’t mean that he wasn’t the priority. The most important thing to me in the world, ‘sides my kids. I woulda done anything for him, anything he asked.” Rick sighs again, and Merle mutes the TV but doesn’t say anything. After a second, Rick continues. “And when the two of you showed up at the prison, he asked me to let you stay. So I did.”

Merle scoffs. “You didn’t want to.”

“No,” Rick admits. “No, I really didn’t. But Daryl asked me to. So I did it anyway.”

A couple of seconds tick by. Merle flexes the fingers on his right hand and frowns. “Well, good for you, Friendly. Do you want a cookie? For bein’ just such a swell guy?”

“I don’t want nothin’ from you,” Rick says. “Just a truce, I guess. Because you’re not gettin’ rid of me and I want to be able to hang around here without having to worry that you’re gonna pull a knife on me in my sleep.”

Merle lets out a hard breath through his nose. “Hurtin’ you would hurt my brother. So no. I ain’t gonna pull a knife on you, in your sleep or otherwise. ‘Less you hurt him, of course. Then I’ll gut you like a squirrel.” He shrugs. “But as long as you don’t hurt him, we can have a truce.”

You hurt him,” Rick says quietly. “Have you dreamed that far?”

A bubble of humorless laughter escapes Merle’s lungs. “Yeah. Don’t remember it very clearly. I was piss-drunk there at the end. Damn asshole shot me in the chest. Didn’t even give me a headshot, the bastard.”

“Daryl found you.” Rick leans forward, puts his elbows on his knees. “Did he tell you that? He had to put you down.”

Merle doesn’t say anything to that, just takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly. Eventually Rick speaks again.

“You would have been part of the family eventually.” Rick reaches up and rubs his hand over his mouth while he thinks of how to word this to make Merle understand. “None of us trusted you but him. But we all trusted Daryl. And so if you’d just managed to not get yourself killed… we would have all come around. Would’ve taken time. But it would’ve happened. You didn’t have to do what you did.” He pauses, takes a deep breath. “What you did… it was a suicide mission.”

“Yeah, I know,” Merle says after a second. “I knew it was.”

Rick blinks and looks over at him. “Then why’d you do it?”

Merle scoffs and unmutes the TV. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Rick reaches over and grabs the remote from him and turns the TV all the way off, twisting his body to face Merle. “Tell me anyway.”

A long, frustrated sigh escapes Merle’s lips and he clenches his jaw and speaks without moving it. “Because I didn’t want you to ask Daryl to do it.”

Rick frowns and tilts his head slightly. “I wasn’t gonna ask Daryl to do it.”

“Yeah, you woulda,” Merle says. He picks up his empty water bottle and fidgets with it. “You always had too much faith in him.” Rick opens his mouth to protest, to argue that all of his faith in Daryl was well-founded, but Merle waves the bottle at him dismissively. “Not sayin’ that he ain’t worth puttin’ your trust in. Just… that he ain’t as invincible as you thought he was. Nobody is. And so you woulda asked him to take her in, and he’d’a done it because it was you askin’, and then it woulda been him dead in that warehouse instead of me.”

Rick feels his face going pale and he swallows hard, trying not to imagine the scene at the prison gates, the last scene of the dream, if it had been Merle walking up the dark path with Daryl’s crossbow hanging listlessly at his side. His gut twists and he has the almost uncontrollable urge to go back to the bar and find Daryl, cradle the man’s face in his hands and reassure himself that he’s okay, that Rick will never have to look into his eyes and see anything other than brilliant blue.

“Yeah,” Merle says, nodding decisively. “See that look on your face? That’s how I felt when I started thinkin’ you was gonna send him off with her. An’ I don’t know what happened after I died, and Darylina said he didn’t really either, but it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Daryl’s a damn better man to have by your side with whatever came after that than I woulda been.”

Rick nods very slowly, steepling his hands in front of his face and staring sightlessly into the living room. “Nobody knows what happened after that,” he says. “The night you died. At least… Daryl and Carol and me. We don’t remember anything past Daryl coming back that night.”

Merle shrugs. “War.”

Rick takes a deep breath and nods. “Yeah,” he says, sighing the word out into the room.

“I hope you fuckers won,” Merle says. “That asshole Governor was a bigger punk bitch than you are, an’ that’s sayin’ something.”

“I hope so too.” Rick sits up straighter and then leans back into the couch. He tosses the remote back over to Merle. “You can watch your wrestling again if you want.”

Merle watches him for a few seconds, then takes the remote and turns the TV back on, and he and Rick watch the show until Rick heads off to bed.

//

It’s almost three in the morning when Rick wakes up to the sound of the bedroom door opening. He sits up slowly, hoping he won’t startle Daryl too much, and hears the quiet sucking-in of a breath from the doorway.

“Rick?” Daryl asks, his voice quiet in the moonlight filtering in through the blinds on the windows. “That you?”

Rick rolls his shoulders back to stretch them, letting the blankets fall away from his chest and pool around his hips. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “I didn’t want to go home. Didn’t want to leave you.”

Daryl doesn’t say anything, but Rick can hear the sounds of undressing: the quiet thuds of boots being kicked off, the clink of a belt buckle hitting the top of the dresser, the soft whispers of denim slithering down legs. The archer pads nearly silently across the room and slides into the bed beside Rick, facing him with eyes like pools of midnight. Rick scoots in and kisses him, slow and languid, his hand resting on Daryl’s elbow.

“Didn’t expect you to be here,” Daryl says quietly when the kiss flows to a gradual stop.

Rick smiles, his eyes fluttering shut and his stomach settling back into itself as Daryl’s presence makes everything shift back to a sense of right. “Sleep better when you’re around,” he says, his words slurring just a bit as he feels himself drifting back off. Daryl’s skin is warm under his fingers and the whole world feels soft, like a comfortable blanket draped over them both.

“I’m fuckin’ tired, man,” Daryl is saying, and Rick snuggles in, seeking Daryl’s warmth like he’d always wanted to when they were on runs together. “So if you want it you’ll have to top, ‘s what I’m sayin’.”

Rick hmms at him and slides up close enough to tuck his head under Daryl’s chin, pressing his lips against the archer’s chest. “I love you,” he murmurs against the skin there, then sighs softly and tumbles back into sleep.

//

He’s still in that position two hours later when his phone starts ringing from the nightstand. Daryl grunts and tightens his arms around Rick, his lips in Rick’s hair and his knee wedged in between Rick’s. Rick sighs and rolls over without breaking Daryl’s grip on him, reaching for the phone. He doesn’t recognize the number, but he figures that calls at this hour are generally important, so he presses the screen to answer and holds the phone up to his ear. “Hello?” he mumbles.

“Rick?” a woman’s voice says. “Rick Grimes?”

“Yeah?” he says groggily, then hmms with deep contentment as Daryl’s lips find the back of his neck, pressing there with a sense of ownership and devotion that makes the world seem to glow.

“It’s Maggie,” the woman says, and Rick smiles at the sound of her voice and tries to blink himself more awake to listen to her better. “Listen, I’m sorry to wake you up, but I couldn’t sleep until I knew,” she says. “I gotta know if you found him.”

Rick smiles even bigger, his eyes drifting closed again, and Daryl moves closer, pressing his chest against Rick’s back and his sleep-soft cock against Rick’s ass and nuzzling him, his breath warm on Rick’s skin. “Yeah, I found him. You wanna talk to him? He’s right here,” Rick says, thinking about how nice it is that Maggie cares, that Maggie had seen it too and known what Daryl and Rick had meant to each other.

Except there’s a rather frightening intake of breath, and then Maggie practically yells into the phone. “In your bed?” she asks, loud enough to make Daryl flinch even though it’s not his ear next to the speaker.

“Yeah,” Rick says, frowning as his sleep-addled brain starts to catch up to what’s going on.

“You have my fiancé in your bed?” Maggie yells, not just practically this time.

Rick pulls the phone away from his ear just in time to avoid permanent hearing damage. “What?” he asks after a moment. “Oh. No. Daryl. I thought you meant Daryl.”

“Why the hell would I have meant Daryl?” she snaps, relief clear in her voice. “No. My fiancé. My… goddammit, Rick. Tell me you found him. Tell me his name.”

“Oh,” Rick says, feeling Daryl shift against him, his tongue darting out to flick very lightly against the back of Rick’s neck. “Glenn.”

Glenn,” she breathes, and Rick would be much more excited for her if he couldn’t feel Daryl stiffening against him, hear Daryl’s soft growl of growing want so close to his ear.

“Yeah,” Rick says, then clears his throat and wriggles against Daryl, intending to scold him into stopping but having the opposite effect. “Glenn Rhee,” he tells her, swatting behind himself at Daryl’s slowly thrusting hips. “Stop it,” he hisses at Daryl. “It’s Maggie.”

“Hey, Maggie,” Daryl says into the phone, then dips his head and starts sucking on Rick’s neck in earnest, sliding his cock against Rick’s ass and lower back.

“Wait,” Maggie says. “Wait.”

“He’s in the city,” Rick says, biting back a moan. “Glenn Rhee. Works at the Domino’s in Atlanta--the Midtown one. I don’t have his number with me, but you should be able to find him with that. I can call you later with the number if you want.”

“I’ll find him,” Maggie says. “R-H-E-E?”

“Yeah,” Rick tells her as Daryl runs his hand down Rick’s side, making him shudder. “I didn’t know you’d dreamed or I would’ve told you about him already. I haven’t talked to him. He doesn’t know any of this. Just… be careful. Ease him into it. Or you can wait and we’ll go with you to meet him?”

“Screw that,” Maggie says. “I’m going to get him. You just have to convince him that the dream is real, right? He’ll believe me.”

“Good luck,” Rick says.

There’s a long pause that’s filled on Rick’s end by nibbling at his shoulder and a hand dipping dangerously close to his groin, and then Maggie speaks with a tinge of humor in her voice, “So Daryl’s in your bed, huh?”

Rick intends to answer with a very considered, logical response, but Daryl’s long, rough fingers curl around his cock and all he can manage is a hissed-out “shit” and Maggie laughs through the phone.

“‘Bout time,” she says. “You lovebirds go back to sleep. I’m gonna go get my man.”

Daryl takes the phone from Rick. “Bye, Maggie,” he says into it, then taps the button to end the call and throws the phone onto the nightstand, sending it skittering off onto the floor.

Rick moans and rolls onto his back, and Daryl crawls on top of him and takes both of their cocks in his hand, thrusting into his fist and against Rick’s sensitive flesh.

“You got time for this before you leave for work?” Daryl growls, nipping at Rick’s throat.

Rick laughs breathlessly and starts moving his hips with Daryl’s. “Don’t think it will take more than a few minutes,” he whispers.

Daryl smiles against Rick’s skin and picks up the pace as Rick clings to him, raking his nails down Daryl’s back and arching against him in the dark as they lose themselves in each other in the early hours of the morning.

Later, when Rick bends down and presses a final kiss to Daryl’s lips before he has to leave to go to work, Daryl flips his hair back away from his cheek and stretches like a cat, snuggling his face into Rick’s pillow and sighing happily.

“I’ll see you this afternoon,” Rick whispers.

Daryl grunts and lets a small smile wash across his features. “Be safe,” he says, and he reaches up to grab Rick’s hand and squeeze it in his own, and Rick stoops down again to kiss the tips of Daryl’s fingers. He watches Daryl snuggle back down into the covers and smiles to himself before reluctantly leaving the house and driving back to King County.

Chapter Text

The sun has just broken free of the horizon as Rick drives away from Daryl’s house and heads for the highway back to his own. Not that the house in King Country really feels like home anymore--the place is Lori’s and Shane’s now, and Rick is just a guest in it. He thinks about the house next door, its empty rooms waiting to be filled up with deer heads and crossbows, classic movies and Westerns, laughter and hunting whistles. That’s if Daryl wants to move, of course, but even if he doesn’t, there will be some house like that somewhere. Some place that’s theirs, somewhere they can just belong.

It’s a lovely idea, and Rick lets the world fade away around him until it’s just him and the road and the way Daryl’s hair fans out over pillows when he sleeps, the flex of muscles and Daryl’s eyes in the sunlight. But that’s all dangerous to think about because it makes Rick want to turn the car around, work be damned, and so he deliberately steers his thoughts in another direction.

Hershel hasn’t called, but the phone call from Maggie must mean that he’s had the dream. And that he’s told his family about it, with enough conviction to have them dreaming too. The Greenes are family, and Rick needs to know that they’re okay, and part of the way to make sure they’re okay is to give them context for what they’re seeing, for what happened to them. Hershel and the two girls were alive where the dream ended, but they’d all lost so much along the way, suffered through so much, and Rick wants to make that better as much as he can.

It’s really too early for phone calls, but they do live on a farm, so it stands to reason that they might be awake already. Rick takes a deep breath and pulls up the number he’d looked up for Hershel, then presses call before he can talk himself out of it.

“Greene residence,” a chirpy little voice says. “Beth speaking.”

“Hey, Beth. Is your dad there?” Rick asks, trying to sound friendly, non-threatening. Neighborly.

“Rick?” she asks, her voice going quiet and breathless.

Rick closes his eyes for just a second before putting his attention back on the road. “Hi, Beth,” he says again.

“It’s true, then?” she says, practically whispering into the phone. “It’s all true?”

“It’s true that we’re all having the same dream,” Rick says. “And that it feels real. That’s all I know.” He pauses and then nods to himself. “I talked to Maggie last night. Told her where Glenn was, where to find him. I think she’s on her way to Atlanta now.”

“Oh, Glenn!” Beth says, and Rick can almost hear the smile through the phone line. “They’re so happy together. Does he remember?”

“Not yet,” Rick tells her. “But I’m sure Maggie can convince him. And I’ve also found Carol and Sophia, and Daryl, and I know where Andrea and T-Dog are.”

There’s a long pause on the other end of the line. “And the baby?”

Rick smiles despite the tenseness of the situation. “Judith,” he tells her. “She’s not here yet. But she’s on her way.”

Another long pause, then: “Daddy’s not here. He’s at the church. But… we all know. He told us all, and then we all dreamed.” She takes a deep breath that Rick can hear through the phone. “Daddy says that your partner, Shane… he ain’t welcome here. I’m sorry.”

Rick sighs but nods even though she can’t see him. “I figured as much. He’s changed, though. Shane. He’s getting help and he’s gonna be okay.”

“I’m happy for him,” she says. “But still. Daddy don’t want him here. Otis… Otis forgives him, though.” Her voice is filled with quiet conviction, and Rick appreciates that. “He’s not happy about what happened. But he’s a good Christian man and he forgives Shane.”

“Well, that’s generous of him.” Rick runs his hand over the top of the steering wheel. “Are you doin’ okay?”

“I’m fine,” Beth tells him. “Makes me appreciate what we have even more, you know? Maggie’s a little angrier. Keeps trying to get Daddy to pull down the barn and get rid of it, but he won’t. But having Glenn back will help.”

Rick sighs. “I’m so sorry for all we did. While we were on the farm.”

“Don’t be,” Beth says. “I mean… Shane should be sorry about Otis. And the Randall thing… But the rest of you were just tryin’ to survive. And I’m glad we met you, Rick. I really am.”

Rick pauses for a long time, letting Randall’s name settle into his brain. “Maggie knows him,” he says, remembering the day in the bus yard, the kid’s desperation mingling with Shane’s increasing anger and frustration. “Randall.”

“Yeah,” Beth says, then pauses. “We didn’t tell him. About the dream.”

“Prob’ly for the best,” Rick says, flipping on his turn signal to take the exit to his house. “I gotta go. Just wanted to check in. But I’m glad you’re okay.”

“It’s good to hear from you, Rick,” she says. “I’ll tell Daddy you called.”

//

Rick gets to his house in time to take a shower before work, then walks into the kitchen to find Carl there, eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs with a frown on his face. Rick puts a couple of slices of bread in the toaster and then goes over to the table and sits down across from Carl.

“What’s wrong?” Rick asks, kicking Carl’s foot lightly under the table.

Carl flicks his eyes up at Rick and then stares into his cereal bowl. “Nothing.”

“Doesn’t look like nothing,” Rick points out. The toaster dings and Rick gets up to retrieve his toast, then sits back down and nibbles on it while he eyes Carl with his eyebrows raised.

Carl lets out an extremely huffy sigh and lets his spoon clatter down into his bowl. “I want to know what’s going on.”

Rick leaves his eyebrows up and continues chewing for a few seconds before speaking. “What do you mean?”

“You woke up and you’re not the same anymore,” Carl says, frowning deeply. “You act weird. And you and Mom…” He huffs again. “I’m not a kid anymore, Dad. I just want to know what’s going on.”

Rick stares at him, seeing the little boy in front of him mixed with the hard-edged man that Carl had become in the dream. “There’s stuff I can’t tell you,” he says after a moment. “Stuff you don’t want to know about.”

Carl rolls his eyes incredibly hard. “I know what gay is, Dad.”

Rick blinks and tries to remember how to close his mouth. It takes him an embarrassingly long time to figure out the mechanics of how his jaw works. “What?”

“You and Mom breaking up,” Carl says, tilting his head in a gesture that Rick knows he himself has used a million times. “And then you and Shane talking about some guy. You thought I was asleep and you were talking about some guy that you love.”

“When was that?” Rick says, his tongue dry and his throat a little scratchy.

“On the way home from the game,” Carl tells him.

Rick sighs heavily and rubs his chin. “I was gonna tell you. I just didn’t want to tell you so many things at once, you know? And me and your mom, we thought it was better to show you that we’re all still going to be a family before we brought someone else in for you to meet.”

Carl picks his spoon back up and pushes the soggy Cocoa Puffs around in his bowl. “Is that why you and Mom aren’t together anymore? Because you’re gay?”

“No,” Rick says, leaning back in the kitchen chair and running a hand through his hair. “It’s more complicated than that. Carl, you know that me and your mom have been fighting a lot lately. Before I was in the hospital. And Shane makes her happy. So that’s good, right?”

“Yeah,” Carl says, then mutters, “but that’s Shane.”

“You’ll like Daryl too,” Rick says, taking another bite of his toast in an effort to seem normal.

Lori walks into the kitchen then, crosses over to the table and ruffles Carl’s hair. “Ready for school? Go get your backpack.”

Carl nods and goes to rinse out his cereal bowl, then heads back toward his bedroom. Lori raises an eyebrow at Rick. “Will you be home for dinner tonight?” she asks him, quietly. “He misses you.”

Rick closes his eyes briefly at that, at the veiled condemnation in her voice. “He knows about Daryl.”

Lori’s eyes go wide, dark. “How?”

“Says he heard me and Shane talking about it,” Rick says, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and forefinger before looking up at her.

“What did you tell him?” Lori asks softly, flicking her eyes at the hallway where Carl had disappeared.

Shrugging, Rick finishes the last of his toast. “Not much, really. He asked if I was gay and if that was why we broke up. I told him that I’m with Daryl. Didn’t get any farther than that.”

“He’s just afraid,” Lori says after a moment. “You’ve been so different since you woke up. He’s been asking about it, you know.”

Rick sighs heavily. “I know. But I think I’ll be okay again. Now that… now that I have Daryl back.”

“You need to show Carl that you still care about him. That you’re still his father,” Lori tells him. “And coming home for dinner would go a long way.”

He thinks about Daryl, about how the man’s voice will sound when Rick calls to tell him he won’t be coming to Bettsville tonight. About how it won’t be angry, or sad, or frustrated--just accepting. Unsurprised. And that makes Rick’s stomach tighten with something vengeful, with just a hint of the man who’d sliced a criminal’s head open with a machete for threatening his life, and he’s glad that neither Jeff nor Daryl’s father is anywhere near him at the moment.

But Lori must see the look in Rick’s eyes, the growing sense of no creeping over him, because she crosses her arms tightly over her chest and widens her stance. “You can’t keep staying away, Rick. Not now. Not while we’re trying to show Carl that everything’s going to be okay.”

Rick stands up and takes his plate to the sink, then stands there with his hands on the countertop and his back to Lori. “I promised him I’d go back tonight. I can’t back out.”

“Then ask him to come here,” Lori says after a moment.

Rick turns back around, eyebrows raised. “Really?”

Lori shrugs, her shoulders rising and falling with a practiced sort of grace. “Daryl took care of me. I wouldn’t mind seeing him again.”

He stares at her for a few seconds without speaking, then nods slowly. “I’ll see if he wants to come.”

//

Rick gives Daryl until noon before he tries to call, figuring that he should have gotten his eight hours by then, and besides, Merle would most likely have already gone to work. He watches the second hand of the clock as it ticks from 11:59, waiting until it lands at straight-up noon, and then pulls up Daryl’s number and calls.

It rings several times, then the recording starts up for the answering machine: “Hide your daughters and your sons, it’s the Dixon boys.” Then there’s the usual loud beep, and Rick starts talking.

“Hey, Daryl, it’s Rick--”

There’s a click and then Daryl’s voice is on the line, making Rick’s chest do an intricate little series of constrictions and swellings. “Rick, hey. Sorry, was in the other room.”

“It’s okay,” Rick tells him, then takes a deep breath. “Listen… Lori wants me to stay here for dinner tonight. Carl’s been missing me and I figure I should spend some time with him. But,” he says, rushing forward with the explanation before Daryl can leap to the wrong conclusion, “I want you to come. To dinner. Meet Carl, see Lori and Shane again. So… can you come?”

Silence. Rick holds his breath until Daryl speaks, his voice rough and unsure. “I can do that,” Daryl says. “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” Rick says, the relief rushing through him like currents in the ocean. “Thank you. I couldn’t really get out of it, not with Carl wanting me there. But I didn’t want to give up time with you, either.”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, his voice still rough, quiet. “Just, um, tell me your address and when to be there.”

Rick gives him the information and then says, “Thank you, Daryl.”

Daryl grunts. “‘S no problem. Guess I should meet Carl again. Just make sure Shane don’t try an’ kick the shit out of me.”

“He won’t,” Rick assures him, giving Shane an I’m watching you gesture from across the precinct even though the other officer doesn’t know what they’re saying. “I’ll make sure he won’t.”

“A’right,” Daryl says. There’s a long pause, then Daryl grumbles, “I’ll see you then,” and hangs up immediately.

//

Rick’s ears are well-trained to pick up on the sound of a motorcycle from an incredible distance, and he hears Daryl’s approach long before anyone else does. Rick and Carl are out in the front yard, tossing a football back and forth without much purpose to the motion, and when Rick hears the bike, his head snaps up and toward the sound, giving Carl an opportunity to hurl the football at his stomach. Rick oomphs and clutches his hands to his gut, giving Carl a look.

“Sorry,” Carl says, shrugging and not looking sorry at all.

“It’s okay,” Rick croaks out, then straightens up and takes a few steps toward Carl, stopping and wrapping his arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Listen, Carl--”

“Be nice, I know.” Carl rolls his eyes. “Best behavior.”

Rick nods and pats Carl on the shoulder before releasing him. “I know it’s weird for you. But Daryl is important to me. And he’s not going to mess up the family, I promise. He’ll just be part of it.”

“Yeah, okay,” Carl says, and Rick gives a little half-smile at the teenager-tone of his voice. Kids grow up too quickly in any world, he thinks, and then Daryl comes into view on his motorcycle and Rick’s brain stutters to a halt.

The bike is different and Daryl didn’t usually wear sunglasses in the apocalypse, but otherwise this could be Daryl driving back up to the prison after a run. He’s wearing his leather jacket with the angel-wing vest over it, his crossbow strapped securely to his back, and the look on his face is one Rick’s seen a million times as they stood on either side of a door, weapons drawn and ready to go clear the room of Walkers together. It’s Daryl’s game face, his expression of let’s do this, and Rick wants to laugh at how surreal this whole situation is.

“That’s him?” Carl asks, his eyes wide as saucers. “He’s cool.”

“That’s him,” Rick confirms, hoping that Carl won’t figure out why his father’s voice has dropped into its lowest, most primal register, hoping that Daryl will.

Daryl stops the motorcycle in the driveway and climbs off, taking off his sunglasses and sticking them in the saddlebag on the side of the bike. Then he turns to Rick and doesn’t smile, not exactly, but his eyes light up and Rick feels intensely proud of being the one to make that happen. Daryl turns to Carl and holds out his hand for the boy to shake.

“You must be Carl,” Daryl says. “My name’s Daryl.”

Carl takes Daryl’s hand and gives it a shake that’s almost comically firm, as if he’s trying far too hard to seem grown-up. “You’re my dad’s boyfriend.”

Daryl blinks and shoots a slightly panicked look at Rick, who nods and gives a helpless little shrug. Daryl turns back to Carl and says, “Yeah, guess I am. Guess I shoulda asked your permission first since you’re the man of the house, though.”

Carl’s face is solemn as he stares at Daryl. “You make my dad happy?”

Daryl takes a deep breath, running his hand through his hair, his fingers catching in the tangles from the wind of the road. “I’m sure tryin’, kid.”

“He does,” Rick says, giving a decisive nod along with the words.

Carl turns his head and glares at Rick. “Dad. This is an A and B conversation.”

One half of Daryl’s mouth quirks upwards. “Yeah, Rick. So C your way out of it, man.”

Rick rolls his eyes as Carl laughs. “Fine,” Rick says. “I’ll be inside when you two gentlemen finish your important conversation.” He shoots Daryl a quick is this okay look that Daryl responds to with an almost imperceptible incline of his head, then turns around and walks into the house and through to the kitchen. He stands at the window watching his son talk to his archer, Carl making hand motions that he can’t read and Daryl making return motions that he can, at least enough to know that whatever they’re saying is going well. Awkward, judging by the amount of weight Daryl is putting on his left leg, but not enough to trigger a fight-or-flight response, not enough to ruin this first introduction. And this will make Carl feel better about the whole thing, Rick tells himself.

Shane slides up next to Rick at the window and snorts. “Shoulda known he’d be wearin’ that dumbass vest,” he says.

Rick punches him hard in the arm. “Be nice,” he says. “I mean it, Shane. Be nice.”

“Fucker ain’t good enough for you,” Shane says, rubbing his arm.

Rick turns on him, fury in his eyes. “Don’t you dare say that to him. Even joking. Don’t say it.”

Shane scoffs at that. “Well, he ain’t.”

Rick grinds his teeth and then clenches them together and speaks through them. “I respectfully disagree, brother.”

And Shane clearly understands that, clearly knows the way that Rick says brother when he means back off and how it’s different from the affectionate way he says it other times, so he takes a deep breath and nods. “Okay.”

“Don’t say that to him,” Rick says again. “I mean it, Shane. You saying that to him could ruin everything. Okay?”

Shane nods again. “I get it. I won’t say it.”

Rick takes in a deep breath to re-center himself and looks back out the window just as Daryl and Carl turn and start walking back toward the house. He stands up straight and brushes invisible dust off of his clothes, unbuttons one more button on his shirt. Shane sees and rolls his eyes at Rick before walking over to put his arm around Lori’s waist, pulling her in possessively.

It’s incredibly disorienting, seeing Daryl in this space, in Rick’s house. This isn’t a place where the man belongs--it’s not wild enough, Georgia enough for him--and Rick launches back into fantasies of decorating the house next door, making it them. Daryl looks reasonably comfortable, though, or as comfortable as the man ever looks, and he draws himself up to his full height, crossbow still on his back, and walks over to say hello to Lori and shake Shane’s hand.

There’s so much for all of them to talk about, but Carl is in the room so they don’t. Lori enlists everyone’s help to set the table and then they all sit down and start passing plates around. Daryl is in charge of spooning mashed potatoes onto everyone’s plate, and he deliberately gives Lori an excessive amount.

“I don’t think I can eat this many mashed potatoes,” Lori says, poking them dubiously with her fork, and Daryl snorts.

“You’re pregnant,” Daryl says, putting a much more reasonably-sized portion on Rick’s plate before handing it back. “Little Asskicker needs mashed potatoes. Eat up.”

“Little…” Lori says, trailing off and looking at Rick with wide, disbelieving eyes.

Rick shrugs, fighting back a smile. “I have a feeling it’s gonna suit her.”

“Damn straight,” Daryl says, then blinks and looks at Carl. “Don’t talk like me, kid.”

“And no motorcycles either,” Lori adds, putting green beans on Shane’s plate and passing it back.

Carl frowns at that. “But what if I want one?”

“You can have one when you’re thirty, buddy,” Shane says. “How’s that?”

Letting out a hugely longsuffering sigh, Carl grabs a roll from the tray and starts munching on it. There’s a bit of an awkward silence, and then Shane clears his throat.

“So that’s not the same bike you had--” He breaks off, looks at Carl, finishes awkwardly. “Before.”

“Nah,” Daryl says, eyeing Shane with suspicion but not hostility. “That one was Merle’s. This one’s mine. I didn’t have it with me… before.”

“Don’t recognize the make,” Shane says, shoving a forkful of pork chop into his mouth.

Daryl shrugs. “It’s kind of a mutt,” he says. “Think the frame used to be a Triumph like Merle’s, but ain’t no tellin’ what the rest of it is at this point. Keep replacing parts with whatever I can find that fits, you know?”

“What kind of gas mileage does it get?” Shane asks, and from there they descend into an extremely technical discussion of motorcycle maintenance that Rick can’t seem to follow very well, but which seems to be good-natured enough to let it go on.

Rick looks at Lori. “This is weird, right?” he says, just loud enough for Lori to hear.

“What?” she asks. “Us sitting here while our men ignore us to talk about cars?”

Rick lets out a surprised, breathy laugh at that. “Yeah.”

“Now you know how I felt every time you and Shane started talkin’ about the Braves every time he came over,” she says, and a soft smile spreads over her face that makes Rick unaccountably happy, makes him believe that this can work, that they can all be a family.

Chapter Text

Later that night, Rick and Daryl are lying in bed in the guest room, Daryl on his back with his arms folded behind his head and Rick snuggled against his side, lazily tracing the tattoo on Daryl’s chest with the tips of his fingers. “Thank you for staying,” Rick murmurs.

Daryl tilts his chin and looks down at Rick’s head on his shoulder. “You looked so fuckin’ sad when I said I was gonna head home. How could I leave you with that look on your face?” He pulls one of his arms out from under his head, strokes Rick’s back softly. “Sorry I ain’t comfortable with… you know. Here. With your kid next door.”

Rick lets a gentle huff of air drift over Daryl’s skin. “I wanted you to stay for this,” he says, turning his head so that he can kiss Daryl’s shoulder. “So I could sleep beside you. Sex is just a bonus.”

Daryl scoffs at that. “Says the guy who blew me in a storeroom the other night.”

Laughing quietly, Rick moves his hand down Daryl’s chest to ghost over his stomach but doesn’t go any lower. “Never said I didn’t love the bonuses.”

Daryl sighs, a happy little noise that makes Rick smile. “Guess I’m enjoying ‘em too.”

Rick lifts himself up and props his head on his hand to look down at Daryl. “You’ve figured out what the fuss is about?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, half-smiling. “I get it now.” He reaches up and runs a finger along Rick’s jawline. “So I’m your boyfriend now, huh?”

“Move in with me,” Rick says, the words tumbling out of his mouth before he can filter them.

Daryl’s eyebrows shoot up toward his hairline. “Ain’t gonna live in your wife’s guest room, Rick.”

“Ex-wife,” Rick corrects. “And I didn’t mean here. I meant… there’s a house next door that’s for sale. I’d thought about buying it. It could be your house too.”

Daryl doesn’t say anything, just nods thoughtfully and stares up at the ceiling, and Rick doesn’t push him. He leans down and kisses Daryl’s collarbone, letting his lips linger there for a few seconds before pulling back and lying down on his back beside Daryl, staring at the ceiling with him.

There’s a long time before either of them speak. Daryl’s breaths are measured, slow and steady, a cadence like the waves of the ocean crashing against the shore, and Rick focuses on that, on the life force of the man beside him, remembers using the sound of Daryl’s breathing to anchor him in the dark Georgia woods while the archer slept. This is both exactly like that and not like it at all, a heady mix of old and new, of how they were and how they’re going to be, and Rick closes his eyes and just lets himself feel the connection between them, the bond they share in any world.

After a while, Daryl lets out a soft grunt. “Alright.”

Rick rolls back onto his side and props his head up again. “Really?”

Daryl shrugs, still watching the ceiling like all his thoughts are written there. “Give you anything you want, Rick.”

“Do you want it?” Rick asks him.

Daryl twists his torso to reach over Rick and turn off the lamp on the end table, then rolls fully onto his side away from Rick. He reaches back behind himself to pull Rick in until Rick’s chest is against his back, the tops of Rick’s thighs pressed against the backs of Daryl’s. The room is quiet, the sounds of night insects filtering through the closed window from the outside and filling the air with ambient silence.

“Do you want it?” Rick asks again, incredibly softly, almost inaudibly.

There’s another long pause. “I want you,” Daryl murmurs at last.

Rick kisses the back of Daryl’s head, buries his lips in his hair. “We can take this as slow as you want,” he says, slipping his arm around Daryl and holding him tightly. “If you’re not ready to move in together, we don’t have to.”

“‘S not that I ain’t ready.” Daryl’s voice is gruff, flat.

“Then what is it?” Rick asks him, splaying his fingers across Daryl’s abdomen and pulling him in closer.

Daryl takes a deep breath but doesn’t say anything immediately. “Just… thinkin’ about how if I move in with you…” He trails off, and Rick kisses his head again to encourage him. “‘S just that it’s gonna hurt so much more if you decide you’re done.”

Rick growls. “What do I have to do to prove I’m not ever gonna be done with you?”

Daryl sighs softly. “Don’t know if you can.” He tries to pull away, but Rick holds on to him and Daryl doesn’t put up much of a fight. “Sorry I’m so fucked up, Rick. Wish I could just believe you, you know? ‘Cause none of this is about you. None of it’s that you ain’t showin’ me you’re serious or that I don’t trust you. It’s just…” He trails off again, letting out a frustrated huff.

“I know,” Rick says after a few seconds. “I get it.”

They lie there in silence for a while, Rick’s breath tangling into Daryl’s hair. Eventually Daryl moves his hand on top of Rick’s on his stomach, threads his fingers in with Rick’s. Rick lifts his head and moves his lips close to Daryl’s ear.

“Has there been anyone else?” he whispers. “Besides Jeff?”

Daryl grunts. “No.”

“He didn’t love you,” Rick says. “Not if he treated you that way. Not if he made you feel like this about yourself.”

“I know,” Daryl says, a bit of a hard edge to his voice, but not one that’s directed at Rick. “Ain’t stupid. I know what he was doin’ to me. And I know why.” He tightens his fingers in Rick’s. “Knew it even before you showed up, just didn’t want to admit it.”

Rick moves his hand to Daryl’s hip and puts pressure there, and Daryl rolls over to face him. Rick leans forward and brushes his lips against Daryl’s. “You trusted me in the apocalypse. Even with all the shit Jeff has done to you. I’m just asking that you trust me again. Like you did then.”

Daryl leans his forehead against Rick’s. “I’d’a followed you wherever you went,” he says quietly. “That ain’t changed.”

“Good,” Rick murmurs. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Daryl is quiet for so long that Rick thinks he’s not going to respond at all, but then a small chuckle escapes Daryl’s lips and he whispers, almost as if he can’t believe it, “I know.”

//

Carl is up at the crack of dawn, and Rick and Daryl are woken up to the sound of the boy banging on the guest room door.

“Dad,” Carl calls through the door. “Dad, get up.”

Rick stumbles out of bed, thankful that he and Daryl had both slept in pajama pants, and flings the door open. “What? What’s wrong?”

Carl is beaming at him, holding two bandanas in his hand. “There’s four of us men,” he says, eyes twinkling. “Now that Daryl’s here there’s four of us. That means we can play Capture the Flag. You and me and Shane and Daryl.”

Rick blinks at his son and lifts a hand to rub the sleep out of his own eyes. He quickly sorts through his mental calendar and decides that yes, it’s Friday. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for school?” he asks.

“No, Dad, it’s Parent Conference Day and Mom doesn’t have an appointment to talk to my teachers until like one o’clock and so we got plenty of time to play before then.” He waves the two bandanas, one red and one blue, and gives Rick the saddest face that Rick has ever seen on a child. “Come on, Dad, I’ve always wanted to play. Come on. Please.”

Daryl walks up behind Rick, looks at Carl, and groans. “Jesus, Rick, how can you say no to those eyes, man?” He puts his fingers on the small of Rick’s back lightly without letting Carl see, and Rick turns and meets Daryl’s eyes for a second.

Even if he could have resisted Carl’s puppy-dog eyes, he can’t resist them and the twinkle in Daryl’s. Rick sighs heavily as if this is a huge concession and looks back at Carl. “Okay. If Shane says he’ll play, we’re in.”

Carl lets out a loud whoop and takes off running for the stairs, yelling Shane’s name as he goes. Rick turns back to Daryl and raises an eyebrow. “We’re gonna play Capture the Flag. At dawn. In the woods.”

Daryl bumps shoulders with him and smiles. “Ain’t like we didn’t do that a thousand times in the dream. Only it was more like Capture the Canned Peas instead of flags an’ we got to shoot zombies in the head while we played. An’ the opposite team wanted to kill us.”

Rick rolls his eyes. “So it’s not the same at all, is what you’re saying.”

Daryl laughs, and it’s a strangely free sound for once. “Come on,” he says, clapping Rick on the shoulder. “Let’s get dressed.”

//

“Rules are simple,” Shane says, shouldering his lime green Nerf gun and pointing at Lori, who’s sitting in a folding chair at the edge of the treeline. “Lori’s chair is midfield. This side’s red, that side’s blue. We get five minutes to hide our flag on our side, then Lori blows the whistle an’ it’s on. You get shot, you have to go stand with her for two minutes before coming back into play. Flag can be put anywhere you want to put it, only it has to be actually visible, so no burying it in the dirt under a log or anything. Game’s over when one of the flags gets carried back into the other territory.” He looks around and everyone nods. “So I’ll take Carl on my team. Wouldn’t be fair if me and Rick were on the same team since we’re so used to working together.”

Lori snorts and Shane raises an eyebrow at her. She shrugs. “Just sayin’ that I don’t think Rick and Daryl make a fair team either.”

Shane leaves his eyebrow raised. “That so?”

Rick chuckles. “Daryl and I can talk in whistles. Don’t seem terribly fair.”

Shane opens his mouth to speak, but Daryl beats him to it. “‘S cool. Me and Carl will be a team. Right, little man?”

Carl looks absolutely delighted by this development. “Yeah, that’s good. Me and Daryl against Dad and Shane.”

Shane sighs but nods. “Okay. Red or blue?”

“Blue, a’course,” Daryl says, winking at Rick.

“That’s disgusting and you need to cut it out,” Shane says, but there’s no venom in the tone. “Blue,” he mutters under his breath, then speaks at a regular tone. “Okay, so me and Rick are red. Five minutes. Go.”

Daryl grabs the blue handkerchief and cocks his own Nerf gun, then grabs Carl by the shoulder and steers him off into the woods. Rick looks at Shane. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Shane says. “It’s sappy as fuck but I’m happy for you. Okay, where we hidin’ this thing?”

Ten minutes later, Rick is creeping slowly into enemy territory, his gun loaded with foam projectiles. The blue flag is in plain view, about a hundred feet from him, and he doesn’t see any signs of Daryl or Carl. They’re probably on their own way to the red flag, he thinks, and Shane is guarding it pretty heavily, so the red team has a good chance of winning this one. He slinks forward, using a thick cedar tree as cover, and eyes the blue flag again.

A whistle rings out from above him--this one just a hello whistle without any deeper meaning--and when Rick looks up, a fluorescent orange foam bolt hits him in the forehead.

Daryl is sitting in the crook of a tree, about fifteen feet off the ground, and the shit-eating grin on his face is ridiculous. Rick flips him off and Daryl laughs. “You’re out, Friendly,” he says, motioning toward the treeline. “Two minutes.”

“Fuck you,” Rick says, scowling but somehow smiling at the same time.

Daryl swings himself down from the tree and saunters over to him. “Later,” he growls into Rick’s ear, then smacks him on the upper back and points toward Lori again. “You’re out.”

Rick pulls the archer in for a quick, dirty kiss and then releases him. “Winner gets to top?” he says, grinning at Daryl.

Daryl rolls his eyes. “Fuck no. We agree to that an’ next thing I know you’ll be carryin’ your own flag over here yourself.”

Rick swings his gun up and fires a foam bolt straight between Daryl’s eyes. Daryl laughs and gives Rick a light shove. “That don’t count since you’re already dead. Go take your time out.”

Shouldering his gun, Rick turns and jogs over to Lori for his two-minute time out. Carl is already there, pacing the treeline.

“Shane shot me,” Carl says, and the grumpiness in his voice makes Rick laugh. He pulls the boy in for a hug and kisses the top of his head, giving Lori a bright smile after he releases Carl.

“You can go,” Lori tells Carl after a couple of seconds. “Time’s up.”

Carl narrows his eyes and goes low to the ground, sneaking back off into the trees. Rick goes over and squats down beside Lori’s chair.

“You look so happy, Rick,” Lori murmurs. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you smile like this.”

Rick looks up at her and puts a hand on her knee. “You too, you know. I like seeing you happy too.”

She nods and pats his hand before he withdraws it. “Daryl’s a good man. He’ll be a good… third father. To the kids.”

Rick chuckles at that. “God, Lor, you should have seen him with them after you…” He trails off, clears his throat. “After. Sometimes he was a better father than I was, especially to Judy.”

“I believe that,” she says, then blinks at her own words. “I mean I believe he was good with them. Not that he was better than you.”

Rick shrugs. “It’s true either way.”

Lori smiles and leans over, gives Rick a quick, friendly kiss on the head. “Time’s up. You can go.”

//

“Okay,” Rick says, cocking his Nerf gun and giving Shane his best Serious Face. “Enough is enough. Kamikaze death run. Let’s end this thing.”

Shane nods, solemn and grim. “I’ll cover you. And hey, Rick.” He puts a hand on Rick’s shoulder, looks him deep in the eyes. “Whatever happens, it’s been an honor fighting beside you.”

“Yes, brother,” Rick says, putting his own hand on Shane’s shoulder and speaking hyper-dramatically. “Tonight we dine in hell.”

Shane cracks then, snorting with laughter, and Rick lets himself smile too. “You didn’t just say that, man. I know you didn’t.”

Rick grins. “Ready?”

Shane cocks his own gun and nods. “Ready.”

It’s a heroic charge, Rick rushing forward toward the blue flag while Shane tries to cover him, but it’s ultimately futile as they both get hit by foam darts almost immediately after crossing the territory line. Rick takes a shot to the head, while Shane gets hit in the thigh, and Carl and Daryl both start whooping and pumping their fists in the air as they materialize from behind holly bushes on either side of their flag.

Carl takes off running toward the red flag while Daryl and Shane start arguing loudly but good-naturedly over whether a shot to the thigh counts as a fatality. Shane insists that thigh shots are only fatal if they hit an artery and starts gesturing at his leg to show that where the foam bolt had hit was definitely not an artery, and eventually Daryl just rolls his eyes and shoots Shane with a dart straight in the forehead, and Shane bellows and starts firing foam bolt after foam bolt into Daryl’s chest, and all three of them are laughing when Carl comes running back up with the red flag to end the game. Rick leans against a tree, smiling hard enough to make his face muscles hurt, and soaks in the feeling of family and hope and joy in the cool morning air.

//

“I spoke to Carol,” Lori says later, sitting on the couch with her legs folded under her while she sips a cup of hot tea.

Rick looks over at her and raises an eyebrow in question. Shane is upstairs taking a shower, and Daryl and Carl are out looking at Daryl’s motorcycle, so he and Lori are alone in the living room for the moment.

“We think we’re going to call Andrea,” she continues. “I know she’s on your list to call, but we thought maybe she’d be less suspicious if she heard all this from a couple of women first.”

Rick nods slowly. “That’s a good idea,” he says, smiling over at her. “But… if she believes you, I want to talk to her sometime too.”

Lori turns the tea mug in her hands. “Of course,” she says. “And I was thinking… maybe we should get everyone together. Do some sort of gathering. And Thanksgiving’s coming up, so maybe that would be a good time?”

Rick thinks back to the night on the farm when the Atlanta group had cooked dinner for Hershel’s family, imagines a similar meal where there wasn’t the threat of death and fire. Where everyone could smile and laugh and have a good evening, unmarred by the horrors of the apocalypse. “That’s a really good idea,” he says. “We’ll just have to convince Hershel to let Shane anywhere near his family.”

“I think once he has his certificate from the anger management class, that will help,” Lori says. “I don’t think he needs it, really. All this… the dream… I think it’s scared him straight.”

Rick shrugs his shoulders and leans back in his metal chair. “I think you’re right. But it don’t hurt to have a little extra help.”

Lori lets out a somewhat musical laugh, her eyes twinkling over the top of the mug. Rick raises an eyebrow at her. “What?”

“Nothing,” Lori says, taking a sip of the tea before continuing. “It’s just that I’m pretty sure that Shane and I said that to you about a hundred times before we started dreaming. About how it wouldn’t hurt to get help.” Rick snorts at that, and Lori smiles. “I’m glad you didn’t listen to us, though. As much as I hate what I saw in the dream… it really puts things in perspective, you know?”

“I know,” Rick says. “And it got me Daryl.”

Rick’s phone starts to ring in his pocket, and he pulls it out and sees Daryl’s home number. He frowns and answers. “Merle?”

“Rick, hombre, I need you,” Merle says, his voice even raspier than usual. “Can you and Darylina come back to Bettsville?”

“What’s going on?” Rick asks, frowning deeply.

Merle grunts loudly and when he speaks, it sounds like his teeth are tightly clenched. “Jeff just called. He’s on his way. An’ I gotta tell you, Friendly, I don’t think my threats are gonna be just metaphors if nobody’s here to hold me back from actually chopping this guy’s dick off. So I need you to come keep me on the straight and narrow.”

Rick is on his feet before Merle finishes his explanation. “Can’t you just tell him to fuck off and not come?”

“Tried that,” Merle grumbles. “Said he was comin’ anyway.”

“We’ll be there as soon as we can,” Rick tells him, then hangs up and looks over at Lori. “I have to go. Trouble at Daryl’s house. Merle needs us to come help.”

Lori sighs heavily but nods. “Okay. Are you coming back tonight?”

Rick slips his phone into his pocket, staring at the floor while he thinks. “I’m not sure. I’ll call you later and let you know?”

She nods at that, and Rick turns and jogs into the front yard, crossing over to Daryl and Carl, who are both squatting beside the motorcycle while Daryl explains something about engines to the boy. Rick puts a hand on Daryl’s shoulder and squeezes.

Daryl looks up at him and their eyes lock for a few seconds. “Jeff?” Daryl asks after a moment.

Rick blinks at him. “How’d you know?”

Daryl grunts. “You get a special glaze in your eyes when you think about him,” he says, shrugging one shoulder. “He at the house?”

Grinding his teeth, Rick says, “He’s on his way there now.”

A hmm of acknowledgement escapes Daryl’s lips. “Better go, then, before Merle does somethin’ stupid,” he grumbles. “You ready? Can take the bike.”

Rick nods and gives Carl a quick hug before sliding onto the bike behind Daryl. “Let’s go deal with this motherfucker once and for all,” he says, and Daryl nods and fires up the ignition.

Chapter Text

As Daryl slows the motorcycle down to take the exit into Bettsville, Rick squeezes his arm and leans forward to speak into Daryl’s ear. “Can we stop? Before we get there? Need to talk to you first.”

Daryl nods. “Yeah,” he calls back, then turns into the parking lot of a closed-down diner and parks behind the building, out of sight of the rest of the town. They dismount, Daryl climbing off first and Rick following more slowly, and Daryl turns to face Rick. “What’s up?”

Rick takes a deep breath, putting his hands on his hips and hooking his thumbs into his belt. “I just wanted to check with you about something.”

Daryl dips his head down just a bit and waits. “Yeah?”

“Don’t…” Rick trails off, unable to force the words out. Don’t leave me, he thinks, so loudly that he’s surprised Daryl can’t hear. Don’t go back to him. Don’t let him talk you out of this.

But Daryl must be able to hear him on some level, because he meets Rick’s eyes and shakes his head. “Ain’t gonna.”

“You sure?” Rick says, shifting his feet and looking at the ground. “Because--”

Daryl cuts him off with a hard kiss that Rick melts into like it’s instinct, and when Daryl releases him it takes Rick’s eyes a couple of seconds to refocus in on the world. Daryl smirks at him just slightly. “Dumbass,” he says. “Ain’t got nothin’ to worry about.”

Rick slips his arms around Daryl for a moment. “I just… wanted to make sure.”

Daryl nods, pushing Rick away gently. “You good? We need to get there before Merle does somethin’ stupid.”

“Right,” Rick says. He takes a deep breath and nods back. “I’m good.”

//

When they pull up in the driveway, Merle already has what must be Jeff pinned against the wall of the house, his large hand pressing against the man’s throat like he had done to Rick that first day. Merle is yelling, re-using some of his old classic threats about piranhas and tiger pens but adding new ones involving cheese graters and hog-tying, and Jeff is staring at the man with wide eyes and squirming, clawing at Merle’s fingers against his throat. Daryl slides off the bike and walks up to the porch.

Rick hangs back for a few seconds, trying to give Daryl space to handle all this on his own, but he can’t hear what Daryl is saying and that feels wrong, like watching him walk away toward Merle the day after Woodbury, and Rick pulls the crossbow from where they’d tied it to the back of the motorcycle and slings it over his own shoulder before walking briskly up to the porch.

“Let him go, Merle,” Daryl is saying, and Merle narrows his eyes and turns back to Jeff, whose eyes go wide again as the Dixon tightens his hand on his throat.

“Listen here, you goat-fuckin’ ass-hammer,” Merle growls in Jeff’s face. “I’m’a let you loose, but you make one move toward my brother and I’ll cut off your dick and pickle it in moonshine, you understand me?”

Jeff nods enthusiastically, and Merle grunts and lets go, flexing his fingers into fists once they’re free of Jeff’s throat. Rick steps up closer to Daryl, taking the archer’s normal position this time, beside Daryl but slightly behind him, Rick’s shoulder tucked behind Daryl’s and his body angled in.

“Daryl, baby,” Jeff says, and Rick’s jaw clenches in unison with Merle’s.

Daryl sighs, crossing his arms loosely across his chest, tucking his fingertips under his biceps. “Don’t Daryl baby me,” he says, then looks at the ground. “What’re you doing here, Jeff? Said it was over.”

“I know. I heard you,” Jeff says, then moves to take a step forward but stops when Merle literally growls at him. “I’m sorry I’ve been gone so much lately, baby. I done you wrong and I’ll make it right if you let me.”

“No,” Daryl says. It’s quiet but firm, unwavering, and the tone sends a rush of relief through Rick.

“Come on, puppy,” Jeff says, tilting his head and smiling at Daryl, his eyes radiating warmth and charm, his pretty lips curving at just the right angle. “You’re just mad right now. And you should be, baby. I’m sorry. But we both know you ain’t done with me. Just like I ain’t never gonna be done with you.”

Rick takes a step forward and Daryl shoots his arm out to block him. “I got this,” Daryl mumbles, slanting his eyes over to Rick, and Rick grits his teeth hard enough to make his jaw hurt but nods. Daryl looks back at Jeff. “You need to go,” he says.

Jeff narrows his eyes and looks between Daryl and Rick. “Is this asshole who you’re leaving me for?”

“Leavin’ you for myself,” Daryl says, his voice bass-low and rough like sand. “Shoulda done that years ago.”

Merle’s hand slams onto Jeff’s chest as the man tries to step forward again, but Daryl locks eyes with his brother and shakes his head. Merle lets out a huff of frustration but takes a step backwards to let Jeff approach. Daryl stands his ground as the other man gets closer and stops just a couple of feet in front of Daryl.

“You’re just mad,” Jeff says again, lifting a hand to touch Daryl’s chin with gentle fingers.

Daryl flinches back away from Jeff’s hand. “Don’t touch me,” he growls. “Don’t. Ain’t got that right anymore.”

“And he does?” Jeff demands, jerking his head toward Rick without moving his eyes from Daryl. “Some punk you picked up at the bar, I bet. Drunk off his ass, tellin’ you stories about how his wife don’t love him no more an’ he needs a nice piece of tail like you to keep his bed warm?”

“Stop,” Daryl says, but it’s not playful like he’s said it before to Rick, to Carol.

“I’m not gonna just stand here and let this jackass take what’s mine,” Jeff says, raising his voice a little.

“He ain’t yours anymore,” Rick says, matching Jeff’s volume. “Back off.”

“Rick, you ain’t helpin’ right now,” Daryl murmurs. “Let me do this.”

Jeff, for his part, ignores Rick altogether. “Daryl, you know you’re mine. After all we’ve been through, baby? You and me, we’re a love story. We made it this far, ain't nothin' gonna stop us now."

"I'm stoppin' us," Daryl says. "Already did."

"Puppy--"

"Call me 'puppy' one more time, Jeff." Daryl tightens his arms across his chest and speaks through closed teeth. "Been tellin' you for five years to stop it and I don't have to put up with it no more."

"Daryl," Jeff corrects himself, then turns his smile softer, more intimate. "Come on, baby. He ain't never gonna love you like I do." He reaches for Daryl's chin again, and Rick pushes past Daryl's shoulder and glares at him.

“Touch him again and I’ll break your hand off,” Rick growls.

Raising his eyebrows, Jeff gives Rick an up-and-down look. “Ah, an alpha male type,” he observes, then looks back at Daryl. “That what you need from me, baby? Need me to fight for you? Okay, I can do that.” He turns back to Rick and takes a menacing step forward.

Daryl slams his hand flat against Jeff’s chest and shoves him backwards and away from Rick. “Don’t be a douchebag, Jeff. Just go.”

Jeff’s smile dissolves and his shoulders sag. “I can’t just let you go, Daryl. This asshole… he’s gonna break your heart. He’s just using you for sex and he's gonna drop you like a bad habit when somebody hotter comes along.”

“Shut up,” Daryl says. “Rick ain't like that.”

“All men are like that, puppy.” Jeff gives him a sad smile. “But me… you can trust me. I love you no matter what you look like.”

“Man, fuck you, man,” Merle yells from the porch. “Daryl's a Dixon, you cocksucking limp-dick. Ain't nobody hotter than a Dixon man.”

Jeff flips Merle off over his shoulder, not even turning to face him. Merle’s eyes narrow into slits before he locks them with Rick’s. It’s not the effortless nonverbal communication he has with Daryl, not by a long shot, but he gets the gist anyway: stay on guard, we’ll take this motherfucker out if we have to. Rick nods and Merle crosses his arms and widens his stance.

“Rick thinks I look good enough,” Daryl is saying. “That’s all that matters.”

Good enough ain’t gonna get more than a couple of weeks out of this clown, baby,” Jeff says. “Is a couple of weeks worth losing five years of love for?”

Daryl stares at him for a second. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he asks after a moment.

Jeff blinks. “What?”

“Five years of love?” Daryl repeats. “More like five years of taking the fuckin’ scraps you gave me and thanking you for it like some kinda dumbass stray cat.” He shakes his head hard and looks at Rick, his eyes begging for something, and Rick pours everything he has into the eye contact, all the love and support and encouragement he feels. Daryl stands up a little straighter and faces Jeff again. “And I’m done with it, man. I’m done.”

“This asshole don’t love you, puppy,” Jeff says. “He don’t. I can promise you that.”

“Jeff, I swear to God if you call me ‘puppy’ again I will punch you in your fucking face,” Daryl grits out. “An’ you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Rick’s done right by me and you never have, not one time.”

“I love you,” Jeff says, widening his eyes and spreading his hands in front of him.

“You don’t,” Daryl spits out, pointing vaguely toward the street where Jeff’s rental car is parked. “Go. Now.”

Jeff stares at him for a long time, then slowly nods. “If that’s what you want, baby. I’ll go.”

Daryl’s jaw twitches, but he doesn’t respond other than to leave his arm up, still pointing toward Jeff’s car.

Sticking his hands in his pockets, Jeff saunters forward, a sad smile on his lips. “I’ll miss you.”

“Yeah, well,” Daryl says, jerking his head toward the car. “Go.”

“One last kiss before I go?” Jeff asks, and before any of them can react he has his hands on Daryl’s cheeks and his tongue in Daryl’s mouth.

Rick whips the crossbow off of his back and takes aim at Jeff, and Merle whirls around and jogs into the house, but Jeff shrieks in pain and pulls back slightly, his hand shooting up to his mouth to press against it. Daryl uses the distance to shove Jeff backwards, then pulls back his fist and flings it at Jeff’s face, his knuckles connecting there with a loud, meaty thud. Merle comes back out of the house, cocking a shotgun as he walks, and Rick keeps the crossbow trained on Jeff even after he remembers that he doesn’t even have a bolt loaded in it.

“Don’t you ever touch me again, you fucker,” Daryl hisses, then looks around at Rick and Merle with their weapons pointed at the other man. “Jesus Christ, put those things down. This ain’t the goddamn apocalypse anymore. I can handle this on my own.”

Rick and Merle exchange another glance and then lower their weapons in unison. Daryl is beautiful, Rick thinks, standing there like a self-avenging angel with the wrath of God in his eyes, and Rick murmurs “fuck, I love you so much” before he can stop himself.

Daryl keeps his eyes on Jeff but points back at Rick. “See, that I believe.”

“You bit my tongue,” Jeff gasps out, reaching a hand up to touch his own mouth again and pulling it away bloody.

Merle lets out a bark of laughter. “Lucky he didn’t bite it clean off, if you ask me.”

“Just go,” Daryl says to Jeff, and he sounds tired now, the fury almost visibly seeping out of him. He gives Jeff another little shove. “You ain’t welcome here.”

Within seconds, Jeff’s repentant boyfriend facade drops, and he sneers at Daryl. “You think you’re hot stuff all the sudden, but you ain’t no better than an alley whore an’ you never will be.” He wipes his mouth, smearing the blood everywhere, and spits out, “Ain’t worth nothin’ to nobody and when this asshole drops you, you ain’t never gonna find nobody else.”

This time it’s Rick’s fist that connects with Jeff’s jawbone, and Jeff hits the ground. Rick drops the crossbow and falls to his knees beside the other man, pulling his arm back and hitting him again. Jeff cringes and crosses his arms over his face, whimpering incoherent apologies like a faucet drips water.

Rick feels strong arms around his waist and lets Daryl pull him back up to a standing position. “He ain’t worth it,” Daryl murmurs into Rick’s ear, and it’s not until Rick nods his assent that Daryl lets go of him. Jeff slowly pulls his arms away from his face and stares up at them, shaking so hard that Rick can see his muscles twitching.

Daryl reaches down and grabs Jeff by the shirt, hauls him to his feet with a rough grip. “Get out of here,” he says again, and this time Jeff just nods, slanting his eyes at Rick and then down at Daryl’s bloody fist before taking off toward the car at a brisk walk. Daryl watches him, his eyes hard and glittering, until Jeff cranks the car and drives away.

When the car has disappeared around the corner, Rick takes a step toward Daryl but the archer shakes his head and turns to walk back into the house. Rick lets him go, sighing heavily and accepting the handkerchief that Merle holds out to him so that he can wipe his hands off.

“Coulda went better,” Merle says, shouldering the shotgun.

Rick laughs a little incredulously at that. “Least he’s gone, though.”

Merle grunts in agreement. “Crossbow wasn’t loaded,” he points out.

Rick raises an eyebrow at him. “Neither was the shotgun,” he says, and Merle laughs.

“How’d you know that, Friendly?” Merle cracks the shotgun open, shows Rick the empty spaces where the shells would be.

Rick shrugs. “Just had a feeling you wouldn’t shoot a man on your lawn.”

“Well, not on the lawn,” Merle says, nodding sagely. “You’re right about that.”

Handing the handkerchief back, Rick looks up at the house. “I’ll talk to him,” he says.

//

Daryl is sitting on the edge of his bed when Rick walks into the room. His hands are in his lap, the fingers of one running over the bruised knuckles of the other, and he closes his eyes when he hears the door open and shut behind Rick.

“Hey,” Rick says, softly. “It’s over.”

Daryl just nods very slowly, and Rick crosses over to the bed and sits down beside him, close but not touching. They sit there in silence for what feels like hours, Daryl’s breath almost too even in rhythm, Rick trying to match his own with Daryl’s.

Finally, Daryl murmurs, “I know he ain’t right. But… tell me anyway.”

“I love you,” Rick says immediately, starting out with the easiest thing, the one statement that Daryl seems to believe. He reaches out his hand to touch Daryl’s face but pauses before making contact. Daryl nods his consent and Rick smooths his hand over Daryl’s cheek. “I love you and I’ll never leave you. And you are beautiful and sexy and I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, saying that someone hotter than you is out there.”

Daryl nods yet again, still not allowing Rick to make eye contact with him. “And it’s not just… the sex.”

“Daryl,” Rick says, gently tilting the man’s chin with his fingers so that they’re facing each other. “If you told me right now that we were never having sex again, I’d still stay with you. Forever. I swear that to you.”

“And you think… I can make you happy,” Daryl says quietly.

“Yeah,” Rick says without hesitation. “I know you can. Can I… make you happy?”

Daryl looks up then, meets Rick’s sky-blue eyes with his stormcloud ones. “You already do.”

Rick laughs at that, a happy sound instead of an amused one, and Daryl’s eyes start lighting back up, the dullness Jeff had brought out sinking under the weight of Rick’s joy. Rick puts his hand in Daryl’s hair and kisses his forehead, his lips curving upward against Daryl’s skin.

Daryl pulls away slowly and swishes his mouth. “Fuck, I can still taste him.” He looks at Rick, leans forward a bit. “Kiss me so I can’t anymore?”

Rick leans forward and brushes his lips against Daryl’s. “I love you,” he whispers, then teases at Daryl’s lips with his tongue, requesting entrance, and Daryl sighs into the kiss and opens his mouth for Rick.

“Do you want…” Daryl says, the words lilting up into a question even as he trails off. He kicks off his shoes and lies back on the bed, pulling Rick down with him. Rick toes off his own boots and climbs over Daryl, going back to kissing him deeply for several seconds before pulling away.

“Only if you do,” Rick says, his voice sliding down into its lowest register as he drags his lips slowly along Daryl’s jaw.

“I…”

Rick pulls back and looks down at Daryl, knitting his brow and trying to read the man’s face. There’s so much there--love, sadness, euphoria, uncertainty, desire--that Rick can’t even process all of it, but underneath it all is a primal sense of need, and not just physical need. The need to be held, to be close, to be valued.

“You’re everything,” Rick says softly, putting his hand on the side of Daryl’s neck and not breaking eye contact. “You are the moon and the stars and when you’re with me, I’m not afraid of the dark or anything in it.” He kisses Daryl, just a chaste press of lips, and pulls the man against him, letting Daryl burrow his face into Rick’s shoulder. “Don’t think about him ever again. Don’t let him get to you. Because he’s an idiot and every single thing he said was bullshit.”

Daryl takes a deep breath and wraps an arm around Rick’s waist. “Can we just lay like this for a while?” he asks, quietly.

“Yeah,” Rick says, kissing the top of Daryl’s head. “Long as you need. I’m here.”

Chapter Text

They fall asleep together even though it’s the middle of the day and they’re still fully dressed, and Rick wakes up later to the creaking of the bed as Daryl tries to slide out of it. He reaches out and grabs Daryl’s wrist, holding on and letting out a whimper of protest. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, tugging Daryl back towards him.

“Gotta get ready for work,” Daryl says, but he lets himself be pulled back against Rick’s chest.

“Fuck work,” Rick says, nuzzling Daryl’s throat.

Daryl chuckles, and Rick can feel the vibration through his lips on the man’s skin. “Maybe we shouldn’t move in together,” he says, squirming a little as Rick adds his tongue to the nuzzling. “I’d never make it to work on time again.”

“Nah,” Rick says, giving him one more kiss under the chin and then releasing him. “You’ll just have to add an extra half hour on top of your ‘getting ready’ time.”

Daryl rolls away from Rick and stands up. “I can do that,” he says, giving Rick a wicked little half-smile. “Next time.”

Rick groans loudly at the tease, then lets his face relax into an easy smile and sits up on the bed. “Can I come to work with you again?”

“Hell no,” Daryl says, pulling clean clothes out of his dresser and draping them over his shoulder. “Saw what happened last time. Spent the whole rest of my shift dodging high-fives an’ catcalls an’ threatening to bloody up Trent’s nose if he didn’t shut up about it.”

“Trent?” Rick asks, resisting the urge to press the palm of his hand against himself through his jeans.

“Other bartender,” Daryl says. “Heard you scream. Hell, half the bar musta heard you. You are one loud-ass motherfucker in bed, you know that?”

Rick laughs, tilting his head back toward the ceiling. “You like it, though.”

Daryl grunts, his cheeks heating up. “Gotta shower. You stay here.” He looks at Rick, a tiny smile flirting with the corners of his mouth, and then heads off toward the bathroom.

Rick gives himself a couple of minutes to let certain parts of himself calm down, then gets up and goes out to find Merle. The older Dixon is sitting out on the porch, his feet propped up on a cracked plastic five-gallon bucket, and Rick walks outside and leans against the post of the porch, staring out into the yard.

“Well, sit down, Friendly,” Merle says after a few seconds of silence. “Hoverin’ like that’s just makin’ me nervous.”

Rick pushes himself away from the post and walks past Merle to one of the two empty chairs beside him, noting that one of the chairs looks a lot less weather-worn than the other two. Noting that he’s pretty sure that there had only been two chairs when he and Daryl had sat out here eating strawberries. He sits down.

“You make my brother happy,” Merle says, shifting in his chair. “Ain’t nobody ever done that before. Not Jeff, that’s for damn sure. Not even me, you know? An’ I’m all he has.” He pauses, lets out a single chuckle. “Least I was. Guess I’m okay with sharin’ the load from now on. Long as you keep on doin’ what you’re doin’ and don’t fuck it up.”

Rick turns his head to look at Merle, and Merle glances up and meets his eyes for just the barest second before looking away again. Rick smiles a little and runs his palms over his own thighs. “Like I said the other night,” he tells Merle, “only way I’m ever leaving Daryl is if he asks me to.”

Merle grunts, nodding. “An’ like I said the other night, you break his heart an’ I’ll break your legs.”

Rick smiles at that, at the gruff love in the man’s voice. “You won’t ever have to, I promise you that.”

Merle reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slightly smashed pack of cigarettes, sticks one in his mouth and offers the pack to Rick. Rick shakes his head and Merle shrugs. He lights his cigarette and takes a long drag before he speaks again. “Well,” he says, blowing the smoke out slowly, “this mean you’re gonna make an honest man outta him?”

For a moment, Rick gets lost in mental images of Daryl in a tux, Daryl leaning in and straightening Rick’s tie, the smiling faces of their family beaming at them from the pews. Rick lets out a happy sigh and says, “Been thinkin’ about it.”

Merle makes a grunting noise again, rolling his cigarette in his fingers and staring at it for a moment. “Okay, then,” he says, nodding decisively. “I’ll walk the little shit down the aisle.”

Rick raises his eyebrows and dips his chin as he stares at Merle. “That mean I have your blessing?”

Merle shrugs. “Trust you with him. And besides, after what I seen in your damn dream, ain’t convinced you can survive without him. Ain’t no tellin’ how many times he saved your damsel ass so you didn’t turn into Walker food.”

Rick half-smiles, remembering the arrows that had materialized like magic in Walker skulls just when he needed them . “He knows I need him. And I’ll spend every day reminding him of that.”

“Fuckin’ fairies,” Merle grumbles under his breath, then chuckles. “You take care of him. An’ let him take care of you, too.”

Rick nods solemnly. “I will.”

//

It’s two-thirty in the morning and Rick is lying in the bed of Daryl’s truck outside the bar. Last call was an hour ago and the bar is locked, quiet. Daryl is still inside with a couple of the other employees, cleaning up and getting ready to go home, and Rick crosses his arms behind his head and stares up at the stars while he waits.

He misses the night sky during the apocalypse, the way that he’d been able to look up into the universe like ancient humans had done, with no light pollution and none of the haze of smoke and cities. The stars had been brighter, clearer, the arm of the Milky Way arching above him like a dusting of diamonds across black velvet, and he’d understood the wonder that the primitive cultures had felt, the sense of infinity and of being very small in a large world.

He misses Judith, but she’s coming. He won’t have to wait much longer for her. And he misses all of the rest of his family, but he’s finding them one by one, and eventually they’ll all be there. He’ll have them all back. He just needs to be patient.

And he misses squirrel stew, oddly enough. He thinks that he’ll have to ask Daryl to go out and shoot a few squirrels sometime, just for old time’s sake. Daryl would like that, he thinks, smiling to himself and wondering if Carl would want to learn to hunt, too, if they could all go on camping and hunting trips together sometime. That might take a while, though, because it will take time for all of them to get past their conditioned terror of the woods at night, but it can happen eventually too. Patience, again.

And now that Rick has Daryl, he can have patience for everything else. Daryl centers him, grounds him, anchors him. He’d been the only one who could do that in the apocalypse world, the only one who could bring Rick back to himself, and this world won’t be any different. They will listen to each other, respect each other, champion each other, and Rick wonders how he’d ever lived without that in his life before.

He’s still having the dreams--everyone is, from what he can tell--and he doesn’t think that will ever really stop. It will be part of all of them forever, cropping up sometimes when they sleep and reminding them of what they all mean to each other. Reminding them of what could be happening to them right now if the world had turned in a slightly different direction. Reminding them that life is short and that the only things that really matter are the people they love.

Rick wonders if there are even more versions of himself and Daryl out there somewhere. He wonders if somewhere, there’s a version of Daryl who wakes up from his own coma having the dream of this life, a dream where Rick is a police officer and Daryl is a bartender, and goes off to find Rick as Rick has done for Blue. If somewhere out there, they found each other as children, as teenagers, as old men fighting over the remote in the sitting room of a nursing home. If somewhere they’re rich and famous, somewhere they’re rival business owners, somewhere they both grew up on the streets of Paris selling baguettes to tourists. He hopes that if so, they’ve found each other in all the realities, coming together over and over like it’s destiny.

He hopes that if the apocalypse is true in some version of reality, Blue really did get up the courage to kiss him.

The bar door opens and Daryl comes out, walks over to the truck. Rick sits up in the bed and Daryl jumps backwards, his hand flying up to his shoulder like he’s reaching for a crossbow that isn’t there, and hisses out a shit before seeing it’s Rick and relaxing.

“Jesus, Rick,” he says, lowering his hand to his side and swallowing hard. “Nearly had a fuckin’ stroke, man.”

“Sorry,” Rick says, climbing over the side of the truck and landing lightly on his feet in front of Daryl. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

Daryl grunts and waves his hand to dismiss Rick’s apology. “What are you doin’ here?”

“I had an idea,” Rick says. “Merle gave me a ride over here, dropped me off. How tired are you?”

Daryl shrugs and walks forward, backing Rick into the truck like he had at the Rascal Flatts concert. “We took a pretty long nap this afternoon,” he says, leaning forward to kiss Rick very lightly on the lips. “I’m good.”

“Then let’s go back to my house,” Rick says. “Got something to show you.”

//

Daryl parks the truck on the road in front of Rick’s house and cuts the engine. He looks over at Rick with his eyebrow raised in question.

“I need to go get something,” Rick says. He reaches over and grabs Daryl’s hand, squeezes it quickly. “You wait here. I’ll be right back.”

Daryl nods, and Rick gets out of the truck and runs lightly over the dark lawn up to the house. He lets himself in, slipping through the house and grabbing two flashlights and a bottle of lube before going into the study and picking up his holster, buckling it around his waist. He’s unlocking the drawer with the Python in it when he hears the click of another handgun from behind him.

Rick whirls around and Shane is standing there, gun drawn, his hair an utter mess and his eyes wide and sleep-shot.

“Motherfucker,” Shane whisper-yells, dropping the gun to his side and glaring hard at Rick. “I thought you was a burglar, man. Don’t fuckin’ do that.”

Rick clutches a hand to his chest and quickly forces his body back out of panic mode. “Sorry,” he says. “If it makes you feel better, you’re not the first person I’ve scared the hell out of tonight.”

Shane grumbles under his breath, gazing at the floor for a few seconds before looking up at Rick, slanting his eyes without moving his head. “What you need your gun for this time of night?”

Rick laughs breathlessly. “I think I’m gonna propose to Daryl,” he says, then shakes his head. “No, I know I am.”

“With your gun,” Shane says, and Rick just shrugs. Shane runs a hand through his hair and sighs heavily in acceptance. “Well, I guess that makes sense for the two’a you. Prob’ly gonna have your wedding rings made outta bullets too.”

Rick’s eyes light up at that, and Shane punches him lightly in the shoulder. “Forget I said that,” Shane says. “Alright, go get your boy. Good luck.” With that, he turns around and stomps back upstairs.

Grinning, Rick turns back to the desk and gets the Python out of the drawer there. He slides it into his holster, letting out an involuntary sigh of relief at the comforting weight of it on his hip, and heads back outside, where Daryl is leaning against the truck.

Rick reaches into the bed of the truck and pulls the crossbow out of its case, handing it over to Daryl. “Come on,” he says. “We’re clearing out the house next door.”

“Our house?” Daryl asks, very very quietly.

The world stops for a second as Rick looks over at Daryl, who meets his eyes briefly and then drops them again with a blush that Rick can see even in the washed-out moonlight. “Our house,” Rick agrees, equally quietly, and Daryl nods and hefts his crossbow up on his shoulder.

“A’right,” Daryl says. “Let’s do it, then.”

Rick nods, hands Daryl one of the flashlights, and then jogs toward the empty house, smiling as he hears Daryl's light footsteps behind him. The front door is locked, and Rick makes a silent gesture, pointing between the two of them and then to the side of the house. Daryl brings his crossbow up to firing position and gives Rick a curt nod of understanding and then they're off, Daryl taking point this time while Rick keeps pace behind him, gun drawn but aimed at the ground.

Daryl hops up onto the small deck out back and uses his elbow to bang on the window, pausing to give the imaginary Walkers time to start shuffling out from their hiding places. After a few seconds--one minute exactly, as per protocol, and Rick doesn't have to check his watch to verify because he trusts Daryl's sense of time--Daryl nods at Rick again. Rick hops up too and tries the back door, which is also locked.

Daryl slings his crossbow to the side, letting the strap hold it as he lets go. He puts his hand on Rick's shoulder and pulls him away from the door. "We buying this house?" he asks, his voice quiet and uncertain, and Rick puts his own hand on top of Daryl's on his shoulder.

"We are," Rick says, and Daryl whirls toward the door and kicks it open with a crunch of wood.

“Then we’ll replace that later,” Daryl says, the corner of his mouth twitching up.

“I love you,” Rick says.

Daryl blinks and makes a pish sound, but he mumbles, “Love you too.”

They move through the house as if there are Walkers inside, falling easily into the same motions and eye movements, quick whistles and hand signals as they’d done together so many times before. They clear the kitchen first, then the living room and basement, smaller bedrooms, closets and bathrooms. The last room they enter is the largest bedroom, and Daryl moves quickly over to the closet and checks it before giving Rick the all clear gesture.

Rick holsters the Python and Daryl puts the crossbow down, leaning it carefully against the wall. Daryl pulls the flashlight out of his mouth and shines it around the room.

“That was fun,” Rick says, leaning back against the wall and watching Daryl walk around the room, barely restrained energy flowing through the man’s skin.

Daryl lets out a sound that’s half-grunt and half-laugh. “Funny how different it is when there ain’t Walkers to really worry about.”

Rick laughs softly and crosses his arms loosely across his chest. “So what do you think?”

“Of the house?” Daryl asks, reaching up to run his fingers over the wall. “This ugly fuckin’ wallpaper’ll have to go, but otherwise I like it. You?”

Rick shrugs. “You’re in it. It’s perfect.”

Daryl scoffs and keeps pacing the room. “So this’ll be ours, I guess? Our room?”

“Yeah,” Rick says. He pushes off the wall and walks over to Daryl, putting his hands on the man’s biceps and gently stilling him.

Daryl blinks and stares at him. “Rick?”

“I love you,” Rick says again, and he pulls Daryl against him and kisses him, softly but with enthusiasm, running his tongue lightly across Daryl’s bottom lip. Daryl drops the flashlight on the floor with a clatter and throws his arms around Rick, deepening the kiss and pressing his body into Rick’s. It’s intense, their bodies practically crackling with electricity in the places where they touch, and Rick sighs into it, melts against Daryl and lets Daryl melt against him in return.

Rick pulls back slowly but leaves their mouths close together, closing his eyes and cupping the base of Daryl’s skull in his hand. “Marry me,” he whispers, his lips moving against Daryl’s with the words. “Please.”

It’s a long time before Daryl breathes, but Rick holds him through the moment, moving his thumb slowly back and forth through Daryl’s hair. Finally, Daryl takes in a slow, deep breath and murmurs, “You sure?”

Rick laughs, breathless and incredulous, and nods against Daryl’s forehead. “Never been so sure about anything,” he says, moving forward just the slightest bit to press his lips chastely against Daryl’s. “Don’t have a ring for you, but I’ll get you one. I’ll get down on one knee if you need me to. Hell, I’ll get down on both knees and fucking beg if that’s what you want. Just say yes.”

Daryl swallows and lets out a shuddering breath. “Why?” he asks, so softly that Rick wouldn’t have heard it if he hadn’t been so close already.

“Because… you’re my other half,” Rick says. He moves his head so that they’re cheek-to-cheek, Rick’s lips near Daryl’s ear. “I know what it’s like to live without you and I don’t want that, ever again. I want this. You. All of you. Forever.” He pulls back just enough to look Daryl in the eyes, to let the other man see how serious he is through the starlight reflecting in his irises from the windows.

“But--”

Rick cuts him off with a soft kiss. “If you’re saying ‘but’ because you don’t want this, I’ll drop it and never ask again. But if you’re going to follow that up with anything about how you’re not good enough, then Daryl… shut up.” Daryl laughs breathlessly at that, and Rick smiles softly and continues. “You’re beautiful and you’re sexy and I want you so much I can barely breathe with it sometimes.” Another kiss, this time with movement but not depth. “But not just that, Daryl. You taught me how to smile again after Shane, after Lori, after everything. It was you. You did that.” He runs his thumb over Daryl’s bottom lip and then kisses him again. “You kept us alive. You kept me alive. And I’m not just talking about the hunting you did. I’m talking about how looking up at the breakfast table and seeing you there made it worth getting up and fighting another day.”

Daryl’s hands curl tightly in the fabric of Rick’s shirt. “You really mean all of this,” he says, and it’s a statement and not a question.

Rick lets the hand not tangled in Daryl’s hair slide up and down the archer’s back. “I mean every word of it,” he assures him.

“Then… yeah,” Daryl says, tightening his hands and pulling Rick even more firmly against him. “I mean, yes. I’ll, um, marry you.” He laughs again, shivering against Rick and swaying just slightly. “Never thought I’d say that. Never thought this would happen for me.”

Rick holds on tightly, supporting Daryl’s weight and letting him sway. “I’m yours,” he whispers, pressing his lips against the corner of Daryl’s mouth. “Thank you for letting me be yours. Thank you for letting me have you too.”

//

They make love in the empty house, using their discarded clothes as the only cushion against the cool wooden floor, and there’s more kissing than thrusting, slow controlled movements against each other as sweat gathers on their skin, and it’s glorious--Daryl’s calloused hands ghosting over Rick’s back and Rick holding on to Daryl’s biceps and reveling in the way the muscles feel under his fingers, and for a while they forget that they’re even having sex as the world around them shrinks into just the way their tongues feel as they brush against each other. It’s almost twenty minutes after they’ve started before Rick slides into Daryl’s body with a gasp that both men let out in unison, Daryl’s nails raking down Rick’s back and Rick gripping Daryl’s hips to hold him at the best possible angle, and their low moans and whispers and hitching breaths echo in the empty room as Rick fucks Daryl with agonizing slowness, drawing each moment out as long as it will go, taking his time until Daryl is writhing under him, begging for it, and Rick kisses him deeply and slams inside, a hundred times harder than any thrust so far, and they both shatter to pieces against each other, Daryl’s body jerking up into an arch against Rick and Rick’s knees nearly giving way on the hard floor with the force of his own release.

Later, after they’ve come back to Earth and gotten dressed again, they sit with their backs against the wall of the living room, their sides pressed together while Daryl traces abstract shapes with his fingers on the denim covering Rick’s thighs.

“You think…” Daryl asks, then grunts and goes silent.

“What?” Rick slides his arm around Daryl’s shoulders, pulls him in tighter.

“The dream,” Daryl murmurs. “You think it’ll come true?”

Rick shakes his head. “I don’t think so. Not in this world, anyway. But somewhere, maybe.”

Daryl grunts in acknowledgment. “Still. Think it’d make me feel better if we started a bunker.”

Rick laughs softly but nods. “Basement’s a good place to start.”

“Yeah,” Daryl says. “And we need a plan. Where to meet, what to bring, shit like that.”

“Definitely,” Rick says.

“Just in case.”

“Of course.”

Daryl leans against Rick and smiles. “Just so we’re prepared.”

“I agree,” Rick says, kissing the side of Daryl’s head. “And if it does happen, we’ll be ready for it. But for now, let’s just enjoy this. Us.”

“Our family,” Daryl says quietly. “Our house, our family, our life. Together.”

“Right.” Rick snuggles in to Daryl’s side. “Together.” The sun is just starting to come up, turning the midnight-blue of the sky into a lighter color, sapphire shot through with hints of amber, and Rick breathes Daryl in and thinks about the future, about decades of seeing the sunrise through these same windows with this same man at his side.

//

The timing was both terrible and inevitable, and Daryl knew it even as he trudged back up the path to the prison. He was bone-tired and his entire being hurt, from his hands to his muscles to his heart, and he hated that, hated the way that this had to happen when he had Merle’s white-eyed face swimming behind his eyelids, but there was a dangerous mix of grief and hope and adrenaline in his veins and dammit, he couldn’t wait any more. Not when tomorrow was so uncertain. Not when it was this important.

“Hate you had to do that alone,” Rick said, curling his fingers into Daryl’s shoulder, and it just had to mean something, the way his hands felt on Daryl’s body, the way he touched him gentle and firm and the way that Daryl didn’t flinch away from it anymore.  

Daryl shrugged. “Had to be me. Glad it was me.” It will never happen like that again, not for Rick. He let Merle get out of his sights and that’s why Merle didn’t die a good death, a final one. Daryl will never see Rick with eyes like that, marble instead of sky. He won’t let that happen.

“I get that,” Rick said. There was a long pause then, filled with crickets and cicadas and the sound of a coyote, way off in the distance, and then Rick said Daryl’s name like it was in a language he didn’t speak, like he was saying a word full of meaning that he didn’t understand, and any other night Daryl would just walk away. He would climb up to the roof and lie there staring at the stars and lose himself in thoughts of what could have been, in another world where they were all safe, or he would go to Carol’s cell and give her that look, the one that means just Rick and she’d put her arms around him and he’d let her steady friendship make him believe for a few seconds that it would be okay.

But Merle was gone and they very well may all die tomorrow, and it was cliche as hell and Daryl hated that but it didn’t make it not true.

He turned around slowly, keeping his eyes down, locking them on Rick’s collarbone instead of his face. He let the crossbow fall to the dusty ground of the prison courtyard, and the click of the metal hitting the earth spoke volumes and Rick just had to know what that meant. Daryl let his defenses dissolve around him, opened himself up, and then looked up and locked eyes with Rick.

All the reasons he’d never done this before were still valid--love is dangerous and it would probably get them both killed, Rick needed a friend more than he needed a lover, Daryl had nothing to offer him that he couldn’t get a better version of somewhere else. But Rick deserved to know. He could take it or leave it, but after tonight he’d at least know. And as Daryl looked into Rick’s crystal-blue eyes and took a deep breath, he saw the man’s shoulders hitch with a breath of his own, one that spoke of anticipation, of fire, and that was enough of a catalyst for a night like tonight.

I think I’ve loved you my whole life, Daryl thought, and he put his hands on Rick’s neck and kissed him, slow and deep and full of promises that he probably had no right to make in a world like this but that he’d try like hell to keep anyway.

Rick was still for a moment, a gasp caught in his throat, but when he softened under Daryl’s hands and moved his lips against Daryl’s mouth, the world shifted and settled into place and it was Daryl who finished the gasp, took it from Rick and let it out into the night between them. He stepped closer and slid his arms around Rick’s neck, feeling Rick’s hands ghost over his hips to land on the small of his back, and he just let go of everything and centered his life in Rick, in this moment.

Ain’t nothin’ like comin’ home after a hard day, Merle had always said, and Daryl had thought he understood that feeling, that he knew the way it felt to walk through a door and feel at ease, like he was where he was supposed to be, but standing there kissing Rick Grimes in the courtyard of a prison was the first time in Daryl’s entire life that he’d really understood the concept of home.

So he deepened the kiss, pressing his body against Rick’s, and let his teeth and his tongue and the fingers he had in Rick’s hair speak all the words he didn’t know how to say. But the two of them had never had much use for words between them anyway, saying everything they’ve needed to say without actually speaking, and by the time the kiss breaks Daryl knew exactly where they stood, how much they meant to each other. And maybe they’d both die tomorrow but if they did, they’d die together, they’d go out fighting side-by-side, and if that wasn’t a happy ending in a world like this then Daryl couldn’t imagine what would be.

Chapter Text

Five Years Later

All the basics are on the table at Hershel’s house--sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce. A turkey that Carl had shot under Daryl’s instruction, fried venison steaks from a deer that Shane had brought down that same morning. T-Dog had brought a peach cobbler, and Lori had brought cookies that four-year-old Judith had “helped” frost. It’s a feast, far beyond anything they’d ever had in the apocalypse, and when Hershel says a prayer over the meal, it’s heartfelt, sincere, intensely grateful.

Rick looks around the room at his family and smiles to himself. It had taken him a while to track them all down, but it had been worth it to have them all here, to be a family, like they had been at the prison only actually happy this time, the smiles and the laughter coming freely and without a solemn coating of death.

Lori and Carol had managed to convince Andrea enough to start dreaming, and she’d brought in Amy too. And Milton, although the group had unanimously (and vehemently) decided not to let him tell the Governor about the dream. Milton had agreed with that, both because no one wanted the man to remember them and lash out and because even in this world, Milton loved him too much to want him to suffer that way.

As for the others, Rick and Daryl had gone to Atlanta to find T-Dog, and Maggie had badgered Glenn until he believed her too. Dale had been harder to find, and it hadn’t been until Glenn remembered Dale’s birthday and Shane remembered the state on the license plate of the RV that they were able to do a search in the police system and find him. They’d had most of the group located and together within the first few months after Rick and Daryl had found each other.

And then there was Michonne, who nobody remembered anything useful about. Sure, they’d all known her, had all cared about her and known her likes and dislikes, but she’d been as close-mouthed about her past as Daryl had been, and they didn’t have a loudmouthed older brother to help track her down. Eventually, they had broken down and hired a private investigator to find her, and even then it had taken two years before the investigator had given Rick her number and then she’d showed up at their doorstep with a katana and a death-glare, demanding to know what weird psychological experiment they’d done on her to make her start dreaming about the end of the world.

Even after they’d located everyone, there were a few of them they’d ultimately decided not to tell, not to bring in. Mostly the people who had gained the least from everything, the people who wouldn’t have good things to balance the bad: Jacqui, Jim, Randall, Jimmy. The children. Morales and his family, mostly because no one knew what had happened to them after they’d left the quarry and so just in case it had gone badly for them, no one wanted to make them dream about each others’ deaths.

They had told Jenner, figuring that he, of all people, needed to know. Just in case. He had believed them but asked them not to contact him again, and no one was particularly upset about that request. It’s enough that he knows, that he can keep watch from the inside, and so other than making sure that the scientist always has Rick’s updated contact information, they’ve left him alone.

They’re all still on edge any time they hear strange stories on the news, every time there’s a new outbreak of ebola or swine flu or meningitis. But the dates of the apocalypse have passed by now, and although their bunkers were still stocked and their weapons were still loaded and they go over their preparedness plans at least once a year, they’ve all settled in to a life in the modern world, a life where they’re all alive and happy. A life where they have Thanksgiving dinner together at Hershel’s farm every year.

Daryl reaches up and snags a roll from the table, then grabs Judith’s arm as she runs past his chair. “Go give this to your mama, sweetheart,” he says, handing the roll to the little girl and motioning at Lori, who’s sitting with Michonne at the other end of the large table, both of them folding their hands over large bellies and watching the various kids running around the room.

Judith narrows her eyes at Daryl. “Why can’t you take it to mama?”

“‘Cause she ain’t my mama, kiddo,” Daryl says. “Plus, she’ll eat it if you ask her to. Give her them big eyes of yours and tell her you want her to eat more.”

Judith scowls but takes the roll, scampering over to Lori and handing it over. “Uncle Daryl says I want you to eat this,” the little girl says, then clambers up onto Shane’s lap and snuggles in to her dad’s side.

Lori holds up the roll and glares across the room at Daryl.

“What?” he calls to her, eyes wide and eyebrows arched just so, and Rick stifles a laugh at the ridiculously innocent tone in his husband’s voice.

“Daryl Dixon, quit trying to make me eat,” she says, shaking the roll in his direction for emphasis.

“You’re eatin’ for two, Lor,” Daryl says, smirking. “Ain’t gonna kill you to have another roll.”

Lori makes a face at him and turns to look at Michonne. “I gained thirty-eight pounds with Judith because he kept force-feeding me. Don’t let him get to you.”

Michonne jerks her head around and gives Daryl a withering stare. Daryl smiles a little and grabs another roll, tossing it easily to her. Michonne catches it and takes a bite, keeping intense angry eye contact with the archer while she chews.

Merle slips an arm around Michonne’s shoulders and pats her belly with his other hand. “Baby likes that, don’t she?” he says, and Michonne elbows him hard in the gut and stuffs the rest of the roll in her mouth.

Daryl’s mouth twitches into a half-smile. “See, Lori? Michonne gets it. Eat your dinner.”

“I am eating my dinner,” Lori says, pulling off the tiniest bit of roll and making a big show of eating it. She looks over at Shane, who’s busy slicing up a piece of turkey for Judith to eat. “Babe, tell him to let us alone.”

“Shane, tell your woman to eat the damn roll,” Daryl says, ignoring Glenn’s squeak as the other man clamps his hands over his three-year-old son’s ears and Maggie’s eye-roll at Glenn’s overprotectiveness.

Shane looks past Lori and Michonne to exchange a glance with Merle. They’re both silent for a second, then Shane leans back in his chair and says, “Nope.”

“Not gettin’ involved in a weight discussion with pregnant women,” Merle agrees.

“Smart,” Michonne says, shifting her glare to focus on Merle. “Would be smarter if some people would use condoms, but…” She trails off meaningfully, raising an eyebrow at Merle, who doesn’t look nearly as repentant as he probably should.

Merle folds his hands over his own stomach and chuckles. “Aw, baby, you know you glad to be havin’ a Dixon kid.”

“I will cut off your nose and feed it to you,” Michonne says, narrowing her eyes and staring at Merle as if she’s trying to decide if a lack of a nose would be an improvement to his face.

Merle’s eyes go soft and he slides an arm around her shoulder. “Come on, baby, you know I just think you look so damn pretty right now. You got that glow. I like that glow.”

The corners of Michonne’s mouth tighten like she’s trying to hold off a softer expression. “Well, enjoy it. This is the only time you’ll get to see it.”

“That’s cool, baby, that’s cool,” Merle says, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Ol’ Merle only needs one kid. She’s gonna be enough of a handful, ‘specially when you add Dre to the ‘quation.”

Michonne’s ‘softer expression’ blinks out, followed by another death glare. “Do not call my son ‘Dre,’ Merle Dixon.”

Merle ignores her and beams at the room. “Boy’s gonna be a doctor one day.”

Michonne leans forward and buries her face in her hands. Merle chuckles and continues, “He’s a smart cookie, that boy. An’ little peanut here,” he says, pointing at Michonne’s belly, “she’s gonna be an astronaut or some shit. You mark my words, we got a genius growin’ here.”

“Y’all picked a name yet?” Maggie asks, pointing at Michonne with her fork before taking another bite of cobbler.

Michonne sits up again, eyes narrow. Merle sees it and lets out a full-on belly laugh. “Wifey here ran outta chips at poker night an’ anted up naming rights.” He elbows Michonne, smiling from ear to ear. “Tell ‘em, sweet lips.”

She sighs very heavily and rolls her eyes up to the ceiling while she speaks. “We’re naming her Merlena.”

There’s a pause filled with echoing silence as everyone in the room tries to decide if she’s being serious, then the whole group bursts out laughing almost in unison. Michonne fixes another angry glare on Merle, who gives her his best oh come on, baby, Ol’ Merle loves you look. He leans over and kisses her, and she sighs heavily against him before returning the kiss with a little bit of a smile.

“Merlena Dixon,” Rick says when the laughter has settled out a bit. “Has a bit of a ring to it, I guess.”

Merle snorts. “Least we ain’t fuckin’ hyphenating her name.”

“Hey,” Glenn says, pointing at Merle and then letting his finger wave around the room. “There are kids present. Watch your mouths.”

Hershel chuckles from the head of the table where he’s sitting with his wife and Milton. “Think it might be too late for this bunch,” he says, eyes twinkling.

Glenn blinks, eyes wide. “And you’re okay with that?”

Shrugging, Hershel leans forward a little, fixing his eyes on his grandson. “Junior, you know you shouldn’t say those words, right?” The little boy nods, his thumb in his mouth, and Hershel sits back in his chair. “He’s a good boy. A little profanity won’t change that.” The man shrugs. “Besides, I’m not sure I can make a Dixon stop cursing, anyway.”

“We’re free fuckin’ spirits,” Merle says, and Glenn sighs in resignation and kisses his son on the head before depositing the kid on the floor to run off and join the other children, who are all sitting at a small, low-to-the-ground table in the corner of the dining room--close enough that the adults can keep an eye on them, but far enough away that they can talk a little more freely about dream matters than they could have otherwise.

After the first assault on the food has died down, the conversation turns to a lively debate on the merits and failings of Zombieland, as it tends to do at these get-togethers. In the midst of the spirited conversation, Carl walks over carrying two-month-old Emily and nudges Daryl on the shoulder.

“Think she wants her papa,” Carl says, handing the baby over to Daryl, who takes the little girl and cuddles her to his chest, beaming every bit as brightly as he had the day they’d brought her home from the hospital. Carl nods and heads back over to sit down between Carol and Oscar, tilting Rick’s hat back on his head so he can survey the room.

Rick scoots his chair a little closer to Daryl’s and leans over, letting Emily wrap her tiny fingers around Rick’s thumb. He looks up at Daryl and smiles, a little sadly. “He seems better.”

Daryl glances up at Carl and grunts softly. “He’s coming around. ‘S got to be hard for him, seein’ everybody for the first time since he started dreaming, you know? But he looks like he’s warming up to it.”

Rick frowns, still watching his daughter waving one little fist around while still clutching Rick’s thumb with her other hand. “I didn’t want it to be like this. Didn’t want him to ever have the dream.”

Leaning over slightly, Daryl kisses Rick on the temple. “It’ll be okay. Ain’t like we could really keep it a secret forever. An’ Beth said she was sorry, you know.”

Rick looks across the room at Beth, who’s sitting with Sophia and watching Rick with her bottom lip caught in her teeth. Rick remembers how devastated she’d looked when she’d mentioned the dream in front of Carl on Halloween and he’d just blinked at her and asked her what she was talking about, how many times she’s called Rick to apologize in the weeks since. And then he remembers that first night, Carl screaming so loudly from his bedroom in Lori and Shane’s house that Rick could hear it from his own, the way that the boy had barricaded himself in his room for hours before Lori could coax him out of it, the way that Carl had brushed them all off whenever anyone tried to explain.

“I know,” Rick says after a few seconds. “I’m not mad at her. She didn’t know.”

“He’s a tough kid. He’ll be okay. Already is, mostly,” Daryl murmurs. “‘Sides, it’s good for him, really. To know what coulda been so he knows how good he’s got it now.”

Rick lets out an incredulous chuckle. “Yeah,” he breathes. “I guess that’s true for all of us.”

“Yeah. So everything’s gonna be fine,” Daryl assures him, then tilts Emily up and talks to her in his softest, sweetest voice--the one he reserves for talking to infants, the one that melts Rick’s heart every single time he hears it. “Ain’t that right, darlin’? Tell your daddy it’ll all be okay.”

Emily gurgles, and Rick chuckles again and gently pulls his hand back away from her. “How can I argue with that?” he says, then turns his attention back to the Zombieland debate while Daryl shifts Emily into one arm so that he can continue eating with the other.

“I’m just saying that double tap is good advice,” Milton is arguing. “Do you want biters coming back behind you because you didn’t hit them right?”

Shane scoffs at that. “You’re just sayin’ that because you’re a terrible shot, man. Get ‘em right in the head an’ they don’t come back. Double-tap is a waste of bullets.”

Daryl speaks around a mouthful of ham. “Or you could just not use bullets. Re-usable weapons are best.”

Axel laughs, his arm wrapped loosely around Carol’s shoulders. “Man, it takes you half an hour to reload that damn bow. Guns are faster.”

Daryl swallows his ham and rolls his eyes. “Didn’t hear none’a y’all complainin’ about reload times when I saved your sorry asses twenty times a day.” He waves his fork in Michonne’s direction. “Back me up here. Sword’s better’n guns, right?”

Michonne nods, just a brief jerk of the head. “Quieter. Don’t need to double-tap with a sword, either.”

“But it don’t help with long-range,” Maggie points out. “Rifles are better.”

“Or crossbows,” Daryl insists. “Weapon of champions, right there.”

Glenn points at Rick. “You haven’t said anything. What do you think?”

Rick looks around the table, ending his gaze on Daryl. He smiles at his husband’s raised eyebrow and then looks back at Glenn. “I think I’m sleeping with the archer and the swordswoman is pregnant with my niece, is what I think.”

Everyone laughs, and Glenn speaks under the sound: “So no comment, then?”

Rick grins and nods. “No comment.”

The conversation turns to whether cardio is really more important than strength training, with Glenn and Andrea firmly siding with cardio while Daryl and Shane put in their argument for strength training. “Ask Rick about the first time he tried to load my crossbow an’ you’ll see why,” Daryl says.

Maggie snorts out a laugh. “Yeah, Rick, tell us about what it’s like to load Daryl’s crossbow.”

“Is it hard?” Oscar asks, grinning broadly. “To load Daryl’s crossbow, I mean.”

“Bet you got to put some muscle behind it so the bolt gets all the way up in there,” Andrea adds.

Rick blushes bright red at that, and Carol grins and says, “Oh, leave the man alone. I’m sure he’s gotten very good at loading Daryl’s crossbow over the years.” She snickers. “Bet the bolt just slides right in by now.”

Rick looks over at the kids’ table, notes that the little ones aren’t listening and wouldn’t understand even if they were, and lifts his hand to physically wipe the smile off of his mouth before speaking. “Honestly it’s usually more Daryl puttin’ a couple rounds in my chamber, if you want to know the truth.”

There’s a loud, lascivious chorus of ooohs from everyone except Carl, who rolls his eyes and makes a grossed-out face at Rick. Merle pumps his fist in the air. “Yeah, baby brother, you stick it to him.”

“Shut up, you assholes,” Daryl grumbles, but Rick can see the smile hovering behind the man’s burning red cheek muscles and he leans over to kiss them.

During the ensuing cheer, Travis gets up from the kids’ table and runs up to Rick’s chair, then tugs on Rick’s sleeve. “Daddy, can I have some pie?”

Rick turns and pulls the boy in with a kiss to his forehead, ruffling the three-year-old’s dirty-blonde hair before releasing him. “Did you finish your peas?” he asks.

Travis wrinkles his nose and clenches his little hands into fists. “I hate peas.”

Rick gives him a stern frown and looks the boy in his eyes, bright blue like Rick’s but slightly narrow like Daryl’s. “Now, your papa asked you if you wanted peas or broccoli and you said peas, didn’t you?”

The boy heaves a heavy sigh, his shoulders rising and falling dramatically with the motion. “Yes, sir.”

“Then you need to eat your peas, don’t you?” Rick puts his hand on his son’s shoulder and keeps eye contact with him.

Travis frowns hard. “Yes, sir.”

Rick claps the kid on the shoulder. “Well, then. Guess you better finish them, huh?”

Travis turns around and looks at Daryl with pleading eyes, and Daryl half-smiles and shakes his head. “Go eat your peas, buddy. Then you can have some pie.”

Travis lets out an extremely longsuffering sigh and mumbles “yes, Papa” before turning and trudging back to the kids’ table with the saddest poked-out lip that Rick has ever seen. Smiling, Rick rolls his eyes at the kid’s back and looks at Daryl, who’s staring at him with a slightly awed expression.

“What?” Rick asks him, his eyebrows lifting under the other man’s gaze.

“Just still can’t get over how much he looks like you,” Daryl says, motioning at his own face. “Got your eyes, you know.”

“That boy ain’t got Rick’s eyes, an’ neither does Em,” Merle calls from across the table. “That ain’t how genetics works, baby brother.”

Daryl twists back around in his chair, holding Emily securely, and gives Merle a one-finger salute. “Fuck you, Merle,” he calls out good-naturedly. “Went to a lot of trouble finding a surrogate who looks like Rick. Let me pretend.”

Merle laughs and starts needling Shane about Judith’s big blue eyes and what that means about her parentage, and Shane launches into an obviously well-practiced speech about recessive genes and both his and Lori’s fathers had been blue-eyed men so the fact that Judy’s eyes are blue doesn’t mean shit, and while the two men argue, Daryl’s eyes slide back over to Rick.

“I love you, Rick,” Daryl says quietly, and Rick looks up at him with a genuine smile blooming on his face.

Their eyes lock for a moment over their daughter, and even though they’ve been together for five years in this world and another two in another one, Rick still can’t quite believe that they’re together, that this has all worked out. That he gets to live with Daryl, raise kids together. Take showers with him, watch movies with him, fight over the last Pop-Tart with him.

Slightly mesmerized, Rick leans over and kisses Daryl lightly, and Daryl laughs against Rick’s lips, his eyes catching Rick’s again and reflecting color like the sky over the prison on a cool Georgia morning, like the blanket they’d brought Travis home in, like the future and the past and every universe in between. “I love you too, Blue,” he whispers, breathing the words out like grace, like hope, like joy, like the electrical charge that’s surged between them from the moment they met, all that time ago at the quarry.

Daryl pulls back and the corner of his mouth quirks upward, his eyes twinkling. “Whatcha want, Rick?” he asks again.

“You,” Rick says, smiling back and running his fingertips down Daryl’s arm. “Always you.”