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Astride A Pale Horse

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Rick likes Tuesday mornings the most. They're the days when everyone around him is buzzing with excitement. It's visitation day. Even Eddie, who hates anyone being in his personal space and will lash out to the point of extreme violence if that space is violated, gets jittery and enthusiastic when it comes time for the caretakers to groom him into something somewhat decent and give him the softer tracksuits that most of the residents put on when it comes time to receive visitors.

He walks into the room and smiles. There are several circular tables that would comfortably seat two, and the room is lined with little benches that can sit larger groups. There aren't many people here that get more than one visitor at a time, but Rick is special. Rick always gets three.

Someone to his left makes an angry, sad sound, and Rick turns his head to meet the eyes of James. James had been one of Rick's neighbors for a very long time during his stay, but then someone had spilled bleach a little too near him and he'd tried to lick it up and hadn't quite been the same ever since, and they'd moved him to the hallway of people that need more intense care. That are a little more of a threat on a day-to-day basis. Rick gives him a little nod in recognition and James' mouth twitches at the corners. His fingers curl and he leans forward as though about to try to say something to Rick, but then he jolts and turns away from him. James' mother is here, her face gaunt and pale, her hands trembling as much as her son's. She's talking about his father but the name brings no spark of interest to James' grey-blue eyes.

"Rick."

Rick turns away from James and his mother and his smile widens when he sees his caretaker. Well, technically all the staff there are caretakers for all the residents, but Rick likes to think that this man has become unofficially his.

"Daryl," he greets warmly, reaching out and letting his fingers trail across the man's wrist in a quick brush. Daryl's lips curl up and he bites the side of his lower lip, sharp eyes looking Rick up and down beneath his straight, dark hair. Rick makes a tutting sound. "You need a haircut."

"Yeah, like they have scissors in this place," Daryl says with a huff, but blows one of his stray bangs away from his face anyway. He crosses his arms over his chest. "Yer blockin' the way, Rick. Move over."

Rick ducks his head sheepishly and moves to one side, letting the people who have formed a line behind him shuffle in and to their respective guests. Daryl doesn't joke much. Rick has noticed that about him from his many months observing the many people who live here. But he jokes with Rick. He smiles around Rick.

Rick refrains from pointing out the special treatment that is Daryl's sense of humor. He knows as soon as he does, it'll be lost. "Are they here yet?" he asks. Since he was brought in he's had the same three visitors every Tuesday. There are some people who get visitors maybe once or twice a year. There are some who don't get any at all. Rick pities them. It's not right to be alone in a place like this. Humans are meant to survive together.

Daryl nods. "Gave 'em a bench in the back. Come on."

Rick hooks his fingers into the hem of Daryl's scrub top and lets the other man guide him through the room. It is one of the few connections Daryl allows from people – to grab onto his clothes when he's guiding them somewhere. Most of the residents, when they do try to touch anyone, are trying to hurt them. Rick supposes it gives Daryl enough of a gap that he still feels okay.

Daryl slows and Rick lets his clothes go, his grin widening when he sees the familiar faces of his family. "Shane, Lori," he says, his voice heavy with affection. Lori gives him a tight, toothless smile, her arm wound tightly around the shoulders of Carl, their son. "Hi, Carl. How you doin'?"

"Hey, dad," Carl says, looking up with a wide smile. He's wearing Rick's old Sherriff's hat and he's missing the front tooth just to the right of the main two. At ten years old Rick knows that Carl's at the age where the baby teeth will start to fall out, but this is the first one he can remember seeing.

"Aww, hey!" he says, nodding to it. "The tooth fairy leave you anything cool?"

"I got a dollar!" Carl replies with a grin, making Rick laugh.

"Hey, brother." Shane is sitting on the other side of the bench from Lori and Carl, and smiles when Rick turns to him. Daryl has moved away, lost to the other moving bodies within the room. Rick knows Daryl's eyes see everything, as sharp and persistent as a hunter tracking down a deer. Daryl doesn't talk about his past with Rick, but Rick can guess from observation. He's always been very good at observation.

"Shane," he says again, clapping his hand into Shane's palm and sitting down next to him when Shane scoots over. Typically, residents aren't supposed to sit in the benches, since it's safer for them to be on separate stools so they wouldn't be able to hurt someone by moving a bench, or risk being triggered when trapped against a wall or similarly small space, but that's never been one of Rick's problems. He has a level head. Too level, some might argue, but that was for therapists to decide, he supposes.

Lori has that wide-eyed, meaningful look on her face. She does that when she has something that she needs to say but is hoping that if she thinks it loud enough it'll just come to the other person's mind without her having to say it. Rick has never liked that about her, because it means she's allowed to go on the defensive immediately and twist her story to make her seem like the victim.

Rick sighs, tilting his head to one side and scratching at the back of his neck where his hair starts to curl. The large grey sweater he's wearing is soft against his wrists and contrasts with the harsh plastic of his wristband marking him as a resident (as if the outfit isn't enough).

"What's going on?" he says, trying to make sure he keeps his voice level and even. He doesn't want to scare either his wife, his son, or his best friend. They are the dearest people in the world to him that don't live in the facility. He knows Lori is nervous around him – rightfully she should be. He could snap her neck with very little effort if he ever got the idea to. She's always been a slim, flighty little thing. None of her strength is physical.

"Is there a vending machine or something that Carl could go to?" Lori asks, tightening her arm around the boy. "I brought him here right before lunch. I'm sure he's hungry."

Rick smiles, but it's a tired thing. This conversation isn't going to be fun. "I think Daryl won't mind taking him," he says, and lifts his head to try and spy the man in the crowd. Daryl is sitting next to Eddie, a respectful distance away from his bubble, and playing what looks like Tic Tac Toe on a piece of paper with a crayon while they wait for Eddie's visitors.

Daryl's shoulders tighten a second before he looks up. He's most definitely a hunter, able to sense the gaze of others on him within seconds. His eyes meet Rick's and Rick raises his hand with a smile, beckoning him over. Daryl nods, finishing up the game with Eddie and coming over a moment later.

"Hey, Rick, what's up?" he asks, giving a nod of recognition to Shane, Lori and Carl. He even reaches over to give Carl a fist bump and the boy does, grinning toothily at Daryl. Rick's family visits often enough to recognize Rick's favorite caretaker.

"We were hoping you could show Carl to the vending machines," Lori says, her voice soft and a little too rushed as she makes to stand. Carl swings around the opposite side, though, and scoots between his mother's back and the back of another visitor at the next table to come to a halt at Daryl's side. Daryl raises an eyebrow, looking at Rick. "He hasn't had lunch today and I figured a place like this must have some option?"

"…Sure," Daryl says after a second, resting his hand lightly on the top of Carl's hat. "Let's go, short-stop. I'll find you somethin' ta eat."

They leave with another wave from Carl that Rick answers, lifting his hand and letting his fingers curl in a goodbye. He smiles when he sees Daryl reach out to curl his fingers in Carl's shirt to make sure the boy doesn't stray too far while they're wandering around. This is, after all, not the safest place in the world for an unattended child who doesn't know how the residents think.

He turns back around and grins at Lori. "So, what's up?" he asks. He feels like he's trying to ask a wolf how its day was going – at best she's going to turn tail and hide behind her defensive strategies and averted eyes, at worst she's going to make Shane be the one to tell him whatever it is they need to tell him.

"Rick." She reaches out for him, her hands resting over the backs of his, and pets down his fingers like he's an agitated cat. Rick cocks his head to one side. "I had to come by to tell you…." Her eyes flash to Shane's, wide and nervous, before going back to land somewhere in the vicinity of Rick's nose. "Shane and I are getting married."

Rick blinks, his eyes automatically drawn to Lori's hands. No ring. Not even an engagement ring. He turns his hands so they're palm up and he can feel her heartbeat in his fingertips. She flinches from his touch, her fingers curling, and bites her lower lip.

Now that he thinks about it, she hasn't worn a wedding ring since he got sentenced here. He supposes that makes sense – there was a reputation to uphold back home. She couldn't be seen to remain loyal to someone like him.

He cocks his head the other way, breathing out. He isn't surprised. Of course he's not surprised. Shane is his best friend and Rick is…well, Rick isn't getting out of here any time soon, that's for damn certain. He's insane – at least, that's what everyone seems to think. Rick is insane and locked up here for the foreseeable future, and Shane is a good guy, and he's attractive enough for Lori, and Carl needs a somewhat available father figure, and Lori is probably hurting for money since she doesn't work and Rick's pension isn't nearly enough to keep up their kind of lifestyle.

"Rick." That's Shane's voice, low and quiet. He doesn't sound nervous, which is good, but he doesn't sound calm either. He sounds hurried, like Rick's reaction is the grand finale he came to see and he's getting impatient to see it. "C'mon, brother, say somethin'."

Rick closes his eyes and opens them again, before he draws his hands away and rests his fingers on the edge of the table. Lori pulls back, too, folding her arms across her chest like a shield.

"Do you have papers?" he asks, lifting his eyes finally. Lori blinks at him. "For us, you know?"

Lori nods, hesitantly.

"They ain't gonna give me a pen in here," Rick says, scratching the back of his neck again, "but I'm sure they'll think of somethin' so I can sign 'em."

"Rick -."

"You should buy her a ring," Rick says, nodding at Lori's hand as he looks over at Shane. He thinks he might be smiling, but he's not sure. "Lori deserves a nice ring."

Shane presses his lips together, one hand rubbing over his mouth. "Yeah, brother, I know. I'm gonna."

"Are you guys still gonna visit me?" Rick asks, looking between the two of them. He can't help the sadness that creeps into his voice. "I'd really miss ya if you stopped. And Carl, too. If you still want to come…"

"Of course." Lori reaches out again, brushing her fingers across Rick's, and he smiles. "Rick, I still love you. Of course we're still going to visit you. I just…didn't want to pretend anymore. Or make you think that this situation was one thing and it wasn't -."

"I get it." Rick laughs softly, sheepishly, smiling in that lopsided way that makes him look boyish and young. He spies Daryl and Carl's hat crossing the threshold of the door and back into the room. "Carl know?"

"Yeah," Shane says with another sigh. "Told him this weekend. He's seemed okay with it so far."

"He loves you," Rick says, nodding. There's no jealousy in his voice, no anger sinking low in his heart. He has had months of therapy and group sessions meant to combat the root of anger and try and break apart the building blocks of aggression that land most of the residents here, but that has never been Rick's problem. He has too much of a cool head, they'd say. He's dangerous, sure, but he's not angry. That's the part they can't figure out.

"Hey, dad!" Carl chirps, a smear of chocolate around his mouth when he runs up to Rick and throws himself into a hug. Rick grins, shoving his hat back so it dangles by the string around his neck, and kisses the top of his head.

"Carl," Lori scolds, her eyes wide. "Please tell me you didn't just eat chocolate."

Carl pouts. "Daryl said I could!" he says, putting his hat back on and clambering onto the bench beside his mother. Daryl gives an unapologetic shrug, immune to Lori's disapproving glare.

"Visitin' hour's almost over," he says. "You guys stayin' for lunch?"

"No, I gotta get back to the station," Shane says, his voice heavy with apology. Rick smiles as they all stand and he pulls Shane into a one-shouldered hug for a moment, before patting his back and letting him go. Lori hugs him quickly, too, and gives him a light peck on the cheek before she herds Carl away, Shane bringing up the rear.

Rick watches them go, memorizing the way Lori's hair shines in the fluorescent light and the way Carl's hat swings back and forth, too large for his head. He catalogues the stretch of Shane's shoulder muscles in his shirt, the way Lori's ring-sized tan-line looks on her hands, the way Shane's neck is red at the back. He makes sure to remember Carl's laughter, and the way his grin looks missing that one tooth, because he is sure at that moment that he will never see all three of them the same way again.

 

 

 

"Good morning, Rick. How are you feeling?"

Rick scratches at the back of his neck, grimacing when his wristband gets caught on a curl and he has to twist his hand to get it loose.

He's always hated the color orange, and although the grey tracksuits aren't much better, at least they're a lot less offensive to the eyes. The orange color feels like it's more than just a color on the fabric, but like there's an extra layer of slime clinging to it as well. It makes him feel dirty.

"Alright," he says because he realizes it's been a few moments and he hasn't responded. He lifts his eyes to look at the kindly face of his main therapist. There is another woman who runs the group sessions but this man is where he goes for one-on-one time. If Rick were to ever face release, this man is the man he would go through to get that evaluation. His name is Doctor Woodmore. Rick likes him. His wife makes excellent chocolate chip cookies. "Signed the divorce papers this morning, so." He shrugs.

Doctor Woodmore makes a soft, sympathetic humming noise. It's completely unnecessary, Rick thinks, but he allows the man to think that he's being comforting. "I'm sorry to hear that. How long were you married?"

Rick shrugs one shoulder. "I, ah, we dated since high school. Married her about twelve years ago. We have a boy. He's ten now. Carl." Rick manages a smile, looking down. "He's a good kid."

"I know you're very proud of your boy, Rick," Doctor Woodmore says with a smile. "From what I've heard about him, you should be. Seems like a bright kid." He looks down at his little notebook, tapping a pen against the edge in six short, rhythmic taps. Always six times. Rick realized that about their third session in. "Are you worried how he'll take the news?"

Rick shakes his head. "He already knew when they told me. And his new dad's my best friend, he's always been around, so I don't think the transition will be hard." He closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath. "Which is, y'know. Good. I'm sure he already gets it rough at school 'cause'a me. Don't need him feelin' shitty about a new dad, too. Shane will be a good dad, and he'll make Lori happy, and be a damn better provider than I can. So that's good."

Doctor Woodmore regards Rick, his green eyes calculating. He's an overly-friendly looking man, with a well-fed beer gut and a clean-shaven face. He has a receding hairline and black hair around his ears. His fingers are thick and pale, his cheeks red like he's always warm. If the facility celebrated Christmas, he'd be the guy you'd want to play Santa.

"Rick, if you're not feeling good about this, you can tell me," he says, setting his pen down after another six quiet taps. His eyes are concerned and caring and Rick bears his gaze steadily. "Since you came to us I've sensed that you have trouble expression your emotions. You're a very level-headed man, Rick, which is great in your line of work, but I don't think that's very healthy considering your current situation. I can't help you if you don't open up to me, at least a little."

Rick smiles. It's lopsided, the left side of his mouth lifting higher than the right. "Doctor," he says, his voice level and steady, "you don't get it. I'm not mad. I get it."

Doctor Woodmore sighs. "Your best friend is marrying your wife, scarcely months after you were sentenced here. And let's not forgot how you wound up here in the first place, Rick. It's perfectly understandable that you might feel some anger, some anxiety, some loss of control -."

"I don't," Rick replies crisply, his smile widening. He rests an elbow on his thigh and puts his chin in his hand, twisting his head until his neck cracks, before straightening up again. He lifts his eyes to the cabinet above Doctor Woodmore's head. There's a bottle there, unlabeled, but Rick knows it's got whiskey in it. Daryl told him one time. More importantly, though, he can see the reflection of the clock in it. Doctor Woodmore doesn't like his patients to see the time, because he thinks that it makes them feel anxious or rushed. But Rick can see it because Rick's not a fucking idiot. "Our time's about up, now, isn't it? I should go."

Doctor Woodmore nods. "I'll call for someone," he says, standing as well.

Rick hums, remaining seated where he is on the comfortable couch in Doctor Woodmore's office. It's one of those classic lounge couches, the ones that you might expect to see in a copy of Psychiatrist Chic Weekly, and the fabric is a deep red like old blood. Rick remembers blood, vividly. He knows what it looks like, what it smells like, how it feels when it coats his hands, how it tastes when picking it out of his fingernails days later.

The couch is familiar and friendly and Rick rests on it in a comfortable slouch until there's a knock on the door and his head perks up. He can see dark hair through the little window in the door and then the door is opening, revealing Daryl. He's wearing light blue scrubs today, his eyes a darker, complimentary shade as he nods at the doctor and then sets his eyes on Rick.

"Ready to go?" he asks, jerking his head back and Rick smiles, scrambling to his feet like an excited puppy, and holds onto the edge of Daryl's shirt as the man turns around to lead him out of the office.

"See you later, Doctor Woodmore!" Rick calls cheerfully as they exit, earning a snort of amusement from Daryl. He lets go once they round the corner and fall into step next to each other, Daryl standing slightly ahead on Rick's left. Doctor Woodmore's office is far away from the rest of the facility. In fact, it's in another building, and the walk back to the main rec room takes a solid seven minutes if they hurry. So, he hums and settles into a slow amble, knowing that Daryl won't hurry him.

"How's your day goin'?" Rick asks, running his hands down the side of his thighs. He keeps forgetting the jumpsuits here don't have pockets. Damn inconvenient, but after last month's incident with one of the cooks and Old Ken he can see why they don't take chances giving people places to hide things.

Daryl snorts again, looking up and over his shoulder to fix Rick with a disbelieving look. "Really?" he asks, shaking his head with another huff. "'How's your day goin'?"

"Just makin' conversation," Rick says with an unapologetic shrug. He reaches out to trail his fingers along the waist-high belt of green paint lining the walls. "They say it's important to remember small talk. Never cared about small talk much. But, boy, do polite society love it."

"Ain't that the truth," Daryl says with a roll of his eyes, his shoulders shrugging as though pushing off some heavy thought. "Well, fine, my day's the same old as every other day. How about you?"

"Well." Rick reaches up and scratches the back of his neck. "I ain't married no more. So there's that."

At that, Daryl stops and turns to face Rick, his expression quietly sympathetic. "Shit, man, I'm sorry. That sucks," he says, his eyes averted and downcast like he's hoping his words will cover for what his face isn't saying. Rick knows Daryl never liked Lori, or Shane. Of course, he's too polite to say anything and has too strong a survival instinct to risk insulting a dangerous inmate, but Rick had always known.

Rick smiles, reaching out, his fingers curling just shy of touching Daryl's cheek. He knows that's not allowed. Daryl lifts his gaze, his eyes hidden and his face unreadable in the relative darkness of the hallway. Rick smiles and lets his hand drop.

"I understand why," he says instead, turning and continuing their trek down the long hallway that will lead to the outside. Daryl is quick to fall into step next to him, this time walking just behind Rick, on his right. As though he is merely following. Rick smiles to himself and doesn't comment on it. "The money she'd be getting from my medical discharge isn't nearly enough to support her, let alone Carl, and Lori's not the kind of woman who gets a job. Shane's paycheck will keep them in the house, at least. Keep them nearby."

Daryl gives a non-committal grunt of agreement. "Guess that's one way to look at it," he admits. "Don't know how I'd react to findin' my guy's been fuckin' someone else behind my back."

Rick stops, turning to Daryl with a curious look. It's the most honest, open piece of information Daryl has ever given him about himself. "You have a boyfriend?" he asks, his voice neutral. He hopes it doesn't come across as condemning – throwing stones over apparent homosexuality. That'd be a trick – a murderer judging a sodomite.

Daryl's face goes red, and then white as he realizes what Rick has figured out. "Well, no," he admits. "I don't have a boyfriend. Don't really want one with these kinds'a hours. But…I'm just sayin', in your situation, I'd be pissed."

Rick laughs, and this time he does touch Daryl – he lets his hand rest on Daryl's shoulder, just for a moment, squeezing and then letting go. "Oh, Daryl, trust me. There are a lot worse things than having your best friend shack up with your wife," he says, his voice bright with humor. "I feel no possession over Lori. She is an adult and can do as she pleases. Free will. Isn't that the name of the game?"

Daryl nods, falling into step behind Rick as he starts walking again. "I guess."

"Now, if they ever take Carl from me…" At that, Rick grows solemn, his voice getting rough and dark. "That'll be a different conversation. But they promised."

"I'm sure they won't," Daryl says quietly, reaching out to brush his knuckles against the bare skin of Rick's arm. "Seemed amicable enough, right? They got no reason to keep your boy away."

Rick smiles, his shoulders relaxing, and he nods to himself. "Yes. I suppose you're right," he concedes, mostly because he knows that if he doesn't the worried, dark shade of blue in Daryl's eyes won't go away. Daryl has expressive eyes, a myriad of shades of them to match the ocean. Rick knows most of the emotions in them by now. He wonders if Daryl can read his in the same way.

They break out into the open air. The sun is shining, birds winging above their heads, trilling brightly. Rick takes in a deep breath, and sighs.

 

 

 

It's ten minutes before lights out. On Thursday nights, it's a movie night, and tonight it had been one of his favorites, the Disney version of Robin Hood. That rooster bard always gets him; he doesn't know why.

Daryl leads him back to his room and gives him a lazy salute as he walks inside. Rick grins as the door locks behind him. His room is sparse and clean, a cot in one corner and a toilet and sink in the other. At one point he'd tried putting a splash of color on the white walls but he guesses the idea behind this place is that you're not meant to be here forever. They want you to get better. They frown upon personalization or any attempt at settlement in this place.

He goes over to the sink and twists the tap, whistling the rooster's tune to himself as it fills with cold water, and bends down to splash some on his face before he turns the tap off. It drips down into the little pool of water at the bottom of the metal.

Drip.

Drip.

Rick braces his hands on either side of the basin, his eyes falling closed as he listens to it.

Drip.

Slower, now, as the water stuck on the edge of the faucet runs dry.

Drip.

He opens his eyes, looking at how the water ripples with each disturbance. It ripples out to the edge in fine lines and reminds him of blood running along wood. He opens his mouth and breathes out, before he spits into the basin. His fingers curl on the edge of it.

Drip.

He should stop biting his nails. His fingertips hurt where the metal is cold.

"Five minutes, people! Lights out in five!"

Rick sighs and lifts his head as the water starts to drain. They don't allow mirrors in the cells, not real ones like he had at home. They're too easy to smash and attack with, he supposes. But they do have sheets of metal, polished to a shine and bolted to the wall. He can see enough of himself to tell it's him.

He blinks, the frost biting at his fingertips running up his arms. His skin pebbles with goosebumps, his neck starts to get tight as the cold slithers up his spine. In the mirror, the darkness of his iris spreads out, overtakes his eye, sucks in the shadows around his face. They pool in his eye sockets and his mouth. His teeth show more prominently in his reflection, gleaming and bleached like bone on sand.

Drip.

Hello, Rick.

Rick blinks, and smiles at his reflection.

"Hello, Death."

You look thin, the mirror says, and Rick cocks his head to one side. The black shadows follow his eyes and he grins, baring his teeth when the black maw in the mirror widens as though snarling. You look pale.

"I look like you," Rick replies. "I am you."

Yes.

Rick smiles again.

It is soon. It will happen soon. You must be ready. Do you understand?

"Yes," Rick says quietly. His heart aches at the thought of all the horror that is yet to come, but he is prepared for it. He knows his mission. He's cut all ties that he can afford and he's ready to go back out into the world and do what needs to be done. The mirror nods at him, face impassive as ever. "I'm ready."

Abruptly the lights go out, snapping the sight of his reflection away like a rubber band breaking. Rick gasps, shoving himself away from the sink, and warmth returns to his limbs like a heavy gust of wind, slicing through him so that he shivers. He turns away from the mirror, feeling anxious and hot in the pit of his gut. He's antsy, now. It's coming, it's coming soon.

Drip, drip.

Drip.

Chapter Text

"Rick, you've been even more quiet than usual. Something on your mind?"

Rick lifts his head from where he had been scrutinizing the pattern of blue and brown flecks in the white floor of the main meeting room. This is where group therapy takes place and he doesn't really like it as much as one-on-one time with Doctor Woodmore. Most of this meeting is comprised of things embarrassingly similar to small talk, and he doesn't have the patience for it.

He smiles and shakes his head as the attending therapist, Miriam, makes an encouraging gesture in his direction. "No. Sorry. Just thinking to myself."

James giggles to his right, bringing his knees up to his chest and biting down on his nails. Rick looks beyond him, through the window where he sees Daryl and a few of the other caretakers smoking outside of one of the emergency exit doors. Rick tenses, something protective surging in him. He has been jittery and full of energy since his conversation with Death. It could happen at any moment, and if he isn't around then he can't protect Daryl from it. He's sure that Daryl is important to the mission, to the plan.

Miriam seems to notice where his eyes have strayed. "Have you made friends here, Rick?" she asks kindly. She's one of the people that get Daryl in trouble when she sees Daryl leading one of the residents with his clothes. Rick snaps his teeth together and glares at her. He nods and she smiles again. "That's good."

"Yeah," Rick grunts, averting his gaze away from hers after a moment. He doesn't have a grudge against her or anything. She's just doing her job, he supposes.

"What's the matter?"

"I don't like making friends," he says suddenly, the words snapping out of him before he can stop them. Her brows pull together and her mouth opens but he keeps speaking before she can ask her question; "I can't protect all of you. When the time comes."

"When the time comes." Across their circle, Jack lets out a hard, braying laugh. He walked into a mall armed to the teeth and started shooting. Killed fourteen people before trying to kill himself. Police got to him in time. Rick hadn't been on duty that day but he's sure he would have ended the son of a bitch then and there if it were up to him. "And when will that be, Mister Doomsday? You got a shittier calendar than them Mexicans, I'll tell you that."

"They were Mayans," James says, licking his lips. "Dumbass."

Jack growls, brown eyes flashing, and stands up so fast his chair rocks back and topples over. "Come over here and say that to my face, you little bitch," he threatens, taking a step forward.

Miriam lets out a worried noise, reaching out to click on her little remote that will call security. Rick stands up before she can and puts himself between Jack and James, who is still sitting on his chair and curled up into a ball.

"Jack," he warns, putting on his best old 'cop' voice, pressing a hand against Jack's chest. Jack is taller than he is, and broader in the shoulders. His jaw is square and dark with stubble, his hair buzzed short to his scalp. His brown eyes are wide and there's a knotted scar on the right side of his face from where he tried and failed to take his own life. Rick stares him down like a lion facing down another cat, daring it to make the first move and attack. Jack glares at him, enough ire in his eyes to relight a frozen forge, but doesn't try to step around Rick or push him to one side, either. Maybe he can see, can recognize in Rick the same ability that he had. The same quality that makes men take up arms and go to war.

He backs off with another low snarl, a threatening glare sent over Rick's shoulder to James. James, to his credit, doesn't even seem to notice. He's gone back to rocking in his chair and patting his hands in a soft, off-beat tempo against his knees. Rick smiles down at him and takes his seat.

Miriam clears her throat, her hand shaking. "I -. Thank you, Rick. For speaking up. And Jack, that was very good, controlling your temper like that."

Rick tunes her out, sensing that the focus has gone off of him for now. He looks towards James and the man stops his tapping, licking his lips and fixing Rick with his wide-eyed, earnest gaze. Rick knows James did some terrible things too – they all must have to land themselves in here – but all he can see of the man is a child-like soul. Maybe it's the bleach.

"You good?" he asks, raising his hand and lifting his thumb towards James, and James grins at him, toothy and wide, and pushes his thumb against Rick's.

Rick smiles again and lets his hand drop, before turning to fix his gaze back on the floor in the center of the circle. It's going to be sad to watch James die.

 

 

Rick doesn't sleep much. In his before life he had to be ready and able to get up at the drop of a hat, and it's a habit he has never quite been able to shake. In his line of work danger was around every corner and he has always tried to be a vigilant, observant man.

Sometimes, when he's alone and awake and staring at the ceiling and drawing patterns in the floating lights behind his eyes, he thinks about the night when his vigilance failed him. Only it hadn't been a night, but midday. An average day with a drug runner going a little too fast and a little too stupid to just pull over. One roadblock and one lucky bullet later, he'd been in a coma for months.

Only he hadn't been in a coma all that time. Rick knows because he remembers. You're not supposed to remember things that happen in a coma. Or at least that's what his doctors and nurses and the various therapists after that had told him. He's not supposed to know what happened to him, he had had brain activity but it had been weak. He didn't dream, they'd said. He didn't think.

But Rick remembers. He remembers because he roamed the halls of that hospital. He did it at night, when everyone else was sleeping. He counted the beds on his floor. He made note of the ones that were empty one night and full the next, the ones that had people in them one moment and when they had vanished.

He remembers the visions he'd had. The cloaked figure that had stood at his door every night. He remembers.

Rick starts awake, drawn by the sound of moment, and sits up. The lights in their rooms go off automatically but the lights in the hallway stay on, low and yellow like night lights strung along the ceiling. He hears moaning from down the hallway and shoves himself to his feet and plasters himself to the door where the little window is at face height.

The moaning is getting louder and more insistent. It sounds like Eddie, almost, when he starts shrieking because someone is too close. Rick whines, baring his teeth, and pushes his face as best he can against the shatterproof glass in the hopes of getting a better angle, but all he can see is the room opposite his and the ones on either side of that one.

He hears movement again, like a weird shuffling, and shrinks away from the window just as someone moves past it. His breath is caught in his throat and he feels cold, something like fear clawing at his lungs even though he's not sure it's sharp enough to be called fear.

A hand rests on his shoulder and Rick turns around. He can't see in the darkness, but he knows who's standing behind him. "Is it…now?" he asks, his eyes searching for the void in the darkness, the two points where the black becomes blacker, not just dismissing the light but swallowing it completely.

A soft laugh floats around him and settles on his shoulders like a great snake. No, a voice replies, and a hand touches his chest. The fingers of it are long and cold as ice. Not right now. Tomorrow.

Then the hand pulls away and Rick lets out a whimper of loss. The moaning has turned into a scream now. Rick turns back around and wants to press his face against the door again but something holds him back. Maybe it's thousand-year-old survival instinct. Maybe it's the cold wrapping around his heart. But he stands back. Very suddenly, the screaming goes silent. Rick hears another shuffle of feet like a great herd of shadows moving away. Warmth returns to the room again.

"Tomorrow," he whispers, and closes his eyes. He finds his bed again without seeing and rolls over so that he's facing the wall. He pushes his palm against it and lets the cold stone dry up the sweat on his hands. "Tomorrow."

 

 

Rick paces back and forth as the dawn starts to break. The birds haven't started their songs yet. Rick isn't sure they will. He paces back and forth, back and forth. To the mirror, but the mirror doesn't appear to him. Then to the door, but the door doesn't open. To his bed, so he can stand on it and gaze outside, but he sees nothing but the outdoor recreation area and the path that leads to the building where Doctor Woodmore's office is.

Nothing is moving. It's too quiet.

"It's too quiet," he says, shaking with anxiety. It's today, it's happening today. Rick climbs down from his bed and rubs his hands across his face. His cheeks and chin are itchy with hair, his lips are dry. He goes to the sink and cups his hand in the water and drinks a small mouthful but it does nothing to quench his thirst.

He turns and looks up at the tall white wall that makes up his cell by his bed. The toilet is made of metal, but the seat is made of plastic. He goes over to it, and lifts it, and then slams it down with enough force that it cracks.

Down the hall, someone shrieks. It's probably Eddie.

He does it again, and again, until the seat snaps into three parts, and the center part is small enough to hold. He picks it up and grabs it tight enough that the sharp edge cuts into his fingers, and his palm. He fixes his eyes on the wall again, the blood in his hand slick and wet.

"And then," he whispers, climbing up onto the bed, uncaring for the blood dripping from his hand onto the thin blanket. He moves the piece of porcelain to his left hand, letting his right hand bleed freely, and lifts his hand, fingers trailing along the wall. "the first of the seven seals was broken, and I heard a voice of thunder." He drags his fingers down through the divots between one brick and the next, painted with white. "'Come', he said. And I looked and saw a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer."

He pulls his hand away, swallowing hard. The word Pestilence gleams darkly in the dawning light, arcing through the window set high into Rick's other wall.

Rick sucks in a breath and runs the plastic shard across his palm again, drawing fresh blood. He barely feels the pain. "And when the second seal broke, I heard the second creature say 'Come'. And a red horse went out, and War sat upon him. A great sword was given to him, and he was granted the power to take peace from the Earth, and that men would slay one another at his will."

War joins its brother. Blood runs in thin little trails down the walls from the words. Rick hisses, shoving himself away from the wall and leaving a bloodied half-print behind. He hears another shriek from down the hall, and moaning. Like the souls in all of Hell screaming from down the hall.

"And…and I looked," he whispers, his eyes wide, hair damp with sweat. He drops the shard and runs his hands through his hair, smearing the blood, and jumps back onto his bed. "I looked and the third creature said 'Come'. I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it…had a pair of scales in his hand."

Famine. Rick's upper lip curls back. "Do not damage the oil and the wine," he whispers, drawing a line underneath the word, and then under War. "Do not damage the oil and the wine!"

Abruptly the shrieking stops. The lights come on within the rooms with a single alarm bell, telling everyone inside to get up. Rick's hand shakes as he stares at what he has written on the wall. Pestilence. War. Famine.

"…And when the Lamb," he whispers, rubbing his bloody fingers across his face. He colors in around his eyes and draws them on either side of his mouth, into a smile a skull would be proud of. "When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice saying 'Come'."

He backs away from the wall, almost falling off of his bed, and then moves around it, laying his hand against it. First the one soaked in his blood, and then the other. He drags them down and growls when the pain shoots up from his palms. He sucks in a deep breath.

"I looked," he says, "and saw a pale horse, and on him sat Death. Hades followed with him. And he was given authority over all, to kill with sword…" He looks up, snarling again, and wipes his hand through War, smearing it. "And with famine." He crosses Famine out, rubbing at it until the word is no longer recognizable. "And with pestilence, and by the wild beasts of the Earth."

Kill them all.

He is shaking, his hands trembling as he brings them away from the wall to look up at what he had done. He can hear movement down the hall, the orderlies and caretakers coming to let people out and into the main recreation room. He hurries to the sink, turning the faucet on and hurriedly scrubbing at his hands and face to get rid of the red.

But no matter how hard he scrubs, his hand won't heal, and he keeps bleeding. He lets out a weak, frustrated sound, slamming his hands against the edges of the sink just as his door opens.

"…Rick?"

It's Daryl. Rick lifts his head to look at his caretaker. Daryl's eyes are wide, his mouth slightly open in shock. He has one hand out, as though to reach for Rick and make sure he's okay, but then his eyes see the wall. The words War and Pestilence, at least, are recognizable. Daryl knows enough about Rick's psychosis that he knows the significance of those words.

He looks back to Rick, his expression unreadable.

"I cut my hand," Rick says, holding his open palm out for Daryl to see. He's not excusing himself. In fact, it's probably the most honest confession he's ever made, but Daryl presses his lips together and sucks in a hard breath through his nose.

He steps back and looks first one way, then the other, checking the corridor. "Come on," he says, reaching out and beckoning Rick to come to him. "Let's get you to the showers."

 

 

Daryl takes Rick to the communal showers, which is little more than a room no bigger than Rick's old living room at home, with nozzles all around the edges and a single drain in the middle. He pushes Rick inside (residents aren't allowed to stay in the showers unsupervised) and closes the door behind them.

"Mighty stupid thing you did there, Rick," Daryl grunts as Rick starts undressing, uncaring for the blood he's smearing across his clothes as he lets them drop to one side and then steps into the main shower area. "You know I gotta report this to Woodmore."

"I know," Rick replies, tilting his head back as Daryl pushes the little lever to release the water so that it would beat down onto Rick in the shower. Rick sighs, rubbing his hands through his hair as the water starts to warm up, and he can feel his muscles slowly starting to relax. "It won't matter."

"That so?" Daryl grunts, his voice a little rougher than usual. Rick turns to him with a grin, finding Daryl blushing and pointedly averting his eyes. They're fixed somewhere on the wall, still keeping Rick in his periphery but not looking directly at him. "How you figure?"

"It's happening today, Daryl," Rick says, turning around to look at the man directly. Daryl's eyes snap to him, mostly hidden in the steam slowly filling up the room. Rick smiles at him, nodding once when Daryl shakes his head. "It is. I know it is. Today's the day."

"The apocalypse, huh?" Daryl says with another grunt, blowing his hair out of his eyes. He folds his hands over his chest and turns so that he's leaning with his back against the wall. "Sorry, Rick, I ain't religious and I don't think there'll be anythin' more Doomsday than, I dunno, the sun blowin' us all to shit. So, sorry, but I ain't ready to believe ya 'til I see it."

"That's okay," Rick says, his voice gentle and understanding. He rubs at his mouth and his face, scratching at the blood until it comes clean, and rubs his fingers through his hair until the water runs clear. His hand is still bleeding a little but he pays it no mind. He's sure Daryl's next stop will be somewhere they can patch up his hand.

He looks down at himself, scratching absently at the back of his neck. The knot of scar tissue where he was shot is still slightly discolored, off-pink and ugly just shy of his ribcage. The rest of him bears smaller scars, but nothing too serious. He's grown thin since his coma and then admittance into the facility, and he's sure he's a lot weaker than he used to be. He will have to work on that if he is to survive his mission.

He looks back up and finds Daryl watching him with that same wary, calculated gaze a sheep might spy a fox at the edge of their field. They know the foxes have no interest in them but a predator's a predator all the same. Daryl isn't a sheep though. Rick wouldn't like him nearly as much if he was.

Rick smiles at him. "I'm ready to come out now," he says, and Daryl nods and turns the water off. Rick shakes his hair like a dog and waits patiently while Daryl rummages around the corner of shelves for a clear set of clothes for him. It's the grey tracksuits like they use for visiting days and Rick shrugs on the more comfortable clothing gratefully. He picks up his old clothes and presses them to his palm to slow the bleeding until they get to the med center.

"Let's go," Daryl says gruffly, his cheeks still pink as he leads Rick out of the shower room. Rick has his left hand curled in the hem of Daryl's shirt as always, and whistles the rooster's song while they walk.

 

 

Rick gets his hand bandaged up with little fuss from their resident medic. She's a short, somewhat clumsy woman with tight, fiery ringlets of hair pulled up at the back of her head, her eyes hidden most of the time by sunglasses even when she's inside. When she smiles Rick can't help smiling back at her.

"Mister Grimes, this is the first time I've had you in here!" she chirps when he's all wrapped up, giving his wrist a friendly tap. "Hope I don't see you again!"

"Thank you, Gwen," Daryl says, gifting her one of his rare smiles, and she smiles back but Rick isn't sure if she's even looking at him, since her eyes are hidden behind her glasses. He doesn't like not being able to see her eyes. But it won't matter. She probably won't see much of anything soon.

"I have an appointment with Doctor Woodmore today, don't I?" Rick asks brightly as Daryl leads him out and towards the main recreation room.

Daryl nods. "Yeah, but I gotta tell him about that stunt you pulled this mornin', Rick. Before you go see him."

Rick hums. "Don't take too long, Daryl! Today's the big day!" he says brightly, waving when Daryl fixes him with a strange look, but the caretaker nods and leaves the room without another word. Rick looks around the room, taking in the current occupants. There are two caretakers near the door on the other side, and one cook behind the glass door that leads to the kitchens. Eddie is here, and Jack, and Reggie and Marcellus and Little Mike.

Rick cocks his head to one side when he spies James, sitting in a corner and murmuring quietly to himself. He slaps at his knees when Rick walks over to him and takes a seat on the opposite side of one of the tables.

"Hey, James," he says with a smile, and James looks up at him with his wide, earnest eyes. "How you feelin'?"

"H-hi, Rick!" James murmurs, his mouth twitching. "R-Rick. Hi, Rick. Hi!"

"Hello," Rick says again, blinking slowly. James twitches again. "James. It's happening today. Do you understand what that means?"

James twitches and slaps his knees. He frowns, then blinks, then lifts his eyes again to meet Rick's. "T-today…." He looks down and his hands start to fidget. He rocks back and forth. "Today's the day? The day?"

Rick nods. "Yes."

"Oh." James blinks, scratching at his cheek. His head tilts to one side, then the other, and he licks his lips. "Oh. Okay."

"Would you like to help me, James?" Rick asks, a gentle smile coming to his face. He thinks of James' mother and father, and the sweet innocence in James' eyes now that his brain has been cooked of anything malicious that would have brought him here in the first place. He's the perfect starting point. He won't have to suffer.

James smiles. "Hi, Rick! Y-Yes. Today's the day!"

Rick pushes himself to his feet and surveys the room again. No one's paying attention to him. "Yep," he says quietly, walking around to stand next to James. He runs his hand up James' left shoulder, then his right, his fingers gently cradling James' neck, and then his jaw. He leans down and places a kiss to James' greasy blond hair. "Today's the day."

He makes it quick. Sharp snap to the left and James is gone and slumps down onto the table. Rick moves away quickly, unnoticed by the caretakers and the cook. He walks past Jack and the big man gets up, catching him by the arm and spinning him around.

"The fuck did you just do, Mister Doomsday?" he growls.

Rick grins at him. Somewhere behind Jack's shoulder, Eddie gives a startled, unhappy shriek. Rick leans in, close enough to Jack that he can feel the man's chest expand when he breathes, and Jack's eyes go wide and he loosens his grip on Rick's arm. "See for yourself."

He pulls away and melts through the crowd of people, towards the other door that leads towards the sleeping quarters. Then, he stops, frowning. He shouldn't go that way. Daryl will be in Doctor Woodmore's building.

He turns and heads towards the other door, and stops when he hears a groaning sound. Jack is standing near James, nudging him gingerly and trying to get him to wake up. James' head twists to one side, slightly off-kilter, and then his eyes open. They're almost completely white, only a thin dot in them to mark where the iris was.

Rick smiles.

"Today's the day," he murmurs. He watches James get to his feet in a staggering, drunken way as Jack calls the caretakers over.

"What's the matter?" one of them asks, patting James down as he works his jaw and groans again.

"Mister Doomsday did somethin' to 'im," Jack hisses. "I'd bet my last -."

Rick laughs and turns away, just as James snarls and lunges and the screaming starts up.

Chapter Text

Rick turns around once he leaves the building and watches the doors close, his head cocked to one side. He scratches the back of his neck and looks around, biting his lower lip as he thinks. There's a broom to one side of the door, but that won't do. He shrugs. He supposes it doesn't matter.

He grabs the broom and slides it through the door handles on the outside. Then, with his teeth, he rips at the bandaging on his hand harshly enough that it reopens the wound. It stings and he hisses, dragging his nails through it to make it open more and bleed faster.

Don't Open, he writes on one door. Dead Inside, he writes on the second. Not that it will matter, because humanity is unfortunately curious. He smiles at his handiwork, and shrinks back when he hears groans on the other side. Unlike the doors in the rest of the place, these are made up mostly of see-through shatterproof glass, which means that the dead men walking on the inside can see him.

"This shit spreads fast," he mutters, rubbing his clean hand over his face as he watches the group at the door grow larger and larger. Granted, there are about three hundred residents and about a hundred staff, not including the janitorial and management personnel. That's a good first wave, he thinks with a nod.

"Rick!"

Rick turns around and smiles when he sees Daryl running for him. Daryl skids to a halt next to him when he sees what Rick has written, sees the shuffling shadows on the other side of the door. "Rick," he rasps, reaching out for the other man. "Rick, what the fuck did you do?"

"Told you today was the day," Rick says proudly. "The dead are walking now, Daryl." He turns back and smiles at them. He sees James, suddenly, throw himself at the door, his hands smeared with black blood, his teeth gnashing and nose shoved against the door. It's probably the most lucid he's been in months. "The dead are walking."

"Holy shit," Daryl says weakly. "We gotta – I gotta get the cops, or somethin'. Rick, come with me. Now."

Daryl reaches out and grabs Rick's bloody hand, hauling him towards the building where Doctor Woodmore's office is. Rick follows readily, looking back over his shoulder just as the doors start to crack and shatter. The broom snaps, first, the doors flying open and the dead spilling out with loud shrieks and groans. Daryl doesn't look back, but flees to the other building, and when they get inside he throws the emergency locks into place and shoves a chair up against the handles.

"That won't hold for very long," Rick says, tutting in disappointment.

"Shut up," Daryl hisses, and grabs his hand again and leads him to the Doctor's office. He shoves inside without warning.

"Daryl! Rick!" Doctor Woodmore says, straightening up with a shocked noise. "What's going on? Is that blood?"

"Something's happening," Daryl says quietly. "We need the phone, Doc. Now."

"Rick, Daryl told me about your episode this morning," Doctor Woodmore says with his quiet, concerned doctor voice on, looking on in bewilderment but not commenting as Daryl locks his door and shoves his chair under the handle as well before grabbing the phone. "I find it very concerning, especially after all the progress you made."

"It happened," Rick says, smiling widely, and he jerks his head towards the window. "See for yourself."

"Hello? Yes, this is Daryl Dixon, I'm a caretaker at King's County Penn for the Criminally Insane, and we have a situation." Daryl's voice draws Rick's attention and he looks over from his spot at the window. Outside the dead have spilled out into the open recreation area, blood smeared down their faces and arms, their jaws working as though permanently chewing, their eyes blank and hollow. He sees Jack, trailing along with one leg badly mangled. He sees James, clawing absently at anything that moves. He sees Eddie catch a squirrel and rip into it with his bare hands. He smiles.

"Fuck, I mean, I don't even know? Police. We need guns. The residents have…they're…I don't even know how to describe it."

"The dead are walking!" Rick calls, grinning. "Once you get bit, you turn!"

"Shut up, Rick," Daryl hisses. "What? Oh, that's a resident here. He's…well, shit, he might be right, though. They're all turned. I don't think any of them are even alive anymore. Or what they're on. We need firepower and we need guys to take them down. Okay. Alright. Thank you." He hangs up with a huff. "They'll be here in fifteen. We just have to wait it out."

Rick shakes his head. "Everyone who dies, turns," he murmurs. "You get bitten, you turn. You die, you turn. Headshot's only thing that'll save you."

Daryl narrows his eyes. "And how exactly do you know all this, huh?"

"Because I've seen it, Daryl," Rick says, moving away from the window. He takes both of Daryl's hands in his, fingers brushing just shy of where his pulse sits. "I've seen it, for so long, and now it's finally happening. It's…it's finally happening."

"This is ridiculous," Doctor Woodmore says, shaking his head and walking away from the window. "This is insane. There's nothing wrong with those people. And there must be staff still left. We can get a handle on this."

"Doc, I really wouldn't -."

"Look, son, when you've been in the game as long as I have, you don't get scared by stuff like this. Now, you stay here and make sure Rick doesn't hurt himself. I shan't be long." Daryl swallows when the man reaches for the chair, and moves forward to stop him, but Rick catches him by the arm and shakes his head. The man moves the chair and undoes the lock and leaves the room. Rick only lets him go to redo the lock and move the chair back into place.

Daryl fixes him with a look, and goes back to the window. The blinds are drawn because the sun slants in with an unbearable heat in the afternoons, and Daryl twitches them just enough that they can both stand by the window and peer out without risk of being seen unless specifically looked for.

"He's gonna die out there," Daryl whispers.

Rick hums, nodding. "Yes, he is," he says, and rests his clean hand on Daryl's shoulder. "But that's okay. He wasn't meant to survive."

"And you are?" Daryl replies, voice harsh. "I am? What about my brother? Your wife? Your kid?"

Rick sighs. "Daryl," he says, turning the man around so that they're facing each other. They are standing very close together, enough that Rick can see the different lines of color in Daryl's irises, even though his unruly hair hides parts of his face. "No one will die who did not resign themselves to it. This I can promise. Death will not seek anyone out over anyone else. That isn't how this works."

"And how does it work?" Daryl asks.

"The dead will walk." Rick says, placing his bloody hand on Daryl's other arm. "Until the four horsemen are stopped. I've seen this. I know this. Death chose me and made sure I was ready for when the time came. And now the time is here."

Daryl shakes his head, drawing back. "Rick, this is insane," he says, throwing his arms out wide to either side of him. "You're talkin'…you're talking about the fucking apocalypse and killing horsemen and…and what the fuck am I supposed to do with this, huh? Just blindly believe?"

"You said you wouldn't until you saw it," Rick replies. "I've found that people who aren't religious believe in this kind of thing a lot more quickly." He tilts his head, gesturing towards the window. "See. Look your fill. You still don't believe me?"

"I can't believe it," Daryl insists, pressing his fingers to his chest.

"Things don't have to be believed in to be real," Rick replies calmly, scratching the back of his neck in a gesture that's almost sheepish. He squints and leans out so that the light coming in from the blinds slants across his face. "The police are here."

"Good," Daryl huffs with a nod. "We should get out of here, then."

Rick reaches out a hand, stopping him. "No," he says quietly. "We shouldn't."

"What?"

Rick sighs and pulls open the blinds a little more.

There are three cop cars pulling up. Daryl curses under his breath. There's not nearly enough of them, with one man to a car, maybe two. They should know better – this is a facility for the criminally insane, after all. It's not like even a little incident is going to stay little for long. Daryl curls his fingers along the edge of the windowsill and pulls his shoulders up. He watches one of the cops – the one in the front car – step out of his car and talk into his radio. The shuffling dead men and women in the lot are turning towards them, their groans getting more frantic and higher-pitched, their arms reaching and their jaws moving as though being pulled by strings.

One of the cops pulls out his gun and shouts for them to stop. They don't. They won't. Daryl is sure of that by now. The cop fires. It does nothing – a bullet straight in the chest and the thing doesn't fall. He fires again. Still, they keep coming. One of them shoots one in the head and it falls like a sack of bricks, still and silent. It was Jack.

"They will run out of bullets soon," Rick murmurs, placing his hand between Daryl's shoulders. Daryl tenses but doesn't move otherwise.

"We can't stay here," he says. Rick nods.

"The herd will move on soon," he says. "They will keep moving, and people will keep turning, until the whole county is overrun. Then the state. Then America, and probably everywhere else." He shrugs, turning away, his hand falling from Daryl's back.

Daryl straightens up, turning to look at Rick. "And you believe you can stop it?"

Rick smiles. "I know I can."

"How?"

"By killing the horsemen," Rick says. "Pestilence. War. Famine. Death. If we find them all, and kill them all, it'll stop. I've seen it."

Daryl shakes his head again and chews on the inside of his lower lip. "You're insane," he grunts, and shakes his head again. "This isn't fucking happening."

The gunshots abruptly stop, and Daryl looks back out between the blinds. The cops have fallen. He grimaces as he sees the lead one go down, screaming for backup as one of the dead men bites into his shoulder and rips the flesh clean off before swallowing it down. Soon there's a whole host of monsters on him, eating him alive before his cries go silent, only his gun-wielding hand visible and still clenched tightly around the weapon.

"We die, we turn," Daryl whispers. "We get bitten, we turn."

Rick hums, nodding. "It's…like a virus, I think," he says, looking at his hands and turning them over to admire the run of his veins across the back of them, then back over to see the lines in his palms. One of his hands is red, the little grooves in his palm lined darkly. "We all got infected. Pestilence, I think. He's the first, after all. The first to come."

Daryl huffs, straightening. "We…we can't stay here."

Rick nods. "But we can't exactly leave, either."

"We'll stay the night, then," Daryl says. "Until they all leave. Then…then we gotta get weapons. Supplies. We gotta warn people. We gotta get away from the city." Rick closes his eyes as Daryl goes over to the phone and picks it up. He frowns, pushing on the little lever within the cradle for the phone, and curses when all he gets is a dial tone. "What the fuck? What happened?"

Rick opens his eyes and turns to look back outside. One of the dead men walk past the window abruptly, blocking his view, growling and grunting and he moves quickly away. He's not sure it saw him, but he doesn't want to take any chances either.

"They must have walked into a transformer or something," Rick says with a one-shouldered shrug. "We should stay away from the windows."

Daryl nods. They are, unfortunately, on the bottom floor. There's a small path and a hedge separating them and a whole host of the walking dead. It's not much, and apparently glass isn't enough to keep them out either, but if they keep quiet they should be safe. The things seem drawn by scent and sound, so it they don't draw any attention to themselves they'll be alright.

Rick moves to the blood-colored couch and sits himself down on it with a sigh, rubbing his hands through his hair, before he hooks them behind his neck and looks up at Daryl with wide, earnest blue eyes. "You have to understand that I did try to warn you," he says, as though he can apologize for seeing the fucking apocalypse coming. "But I'll keep you safe, Daryl. You don't have to be afraid as long as you don't start to wish for death."

Daryl makes an ugly, angry sound. "I'll remember that," he says, looking around for somewhere else to sit. The only options, since the chair is stuck, is with Rick on the couch or on the Doctor's desk. He grunts again, looking up at the little cabinet behind his desk, and walks over and reaches for it. The little unlabeled bottle is inside, half-full and sticky at the top, and he hefts it down with a grimace.

Rick's eyes narrow and he licks his lips as Daryl screws the cap off and tips it back. It burns – it's bad shit, probably no more than ten bucks at a liquor store, the cheap prick – but it's alcohol and it'll do the trick of calming Daryl's nerves from the screaming mass of what the actual fuck that they've become.

He hands the bottle to Rick, who takes it without a word and tips it back as well, taking three long gulps until his eyes start to water. He lets it go and hands it back, gasping for breath as the liquor runs down his throat and settles somewhere warm in front of his heart.

Daryl takes another long swill and lets out a soft laugh, shaking his head. "I can't fucking believe it," he says. Rick opens his mouth but Daryl raises his hand and takes another drink. "I mean, I do believe it. But I can't fucking believe it."

"I understand it's a lot to take in," Rick says. "I had months to get used to the idea."

"And this…you saw this? All of it?" Daryl asks, using the bottle of alcohol to gesture between them, and then towards the outside.

Rick nods, looking down, and he heaves a sigh. "Death came to me, right before I got here," he says with another nod. "I…I mean, I don't wanna bore you with my life story." He rolls his eyes, reaching out and gesturing for Daryl to hand them the bottle.

"Not like we don't have time," Daryl replies, taking one more long drink before passing it off. "Seems right since you're the one who saw it comin'."

Rick considers that, his lips resting against the lip of the bottle as he watches Daryl's eyes, before he tips the drink back with a hum and lets it slide down his throat again. "Back in spring, I was shot in the line of duty," he says, his eyes moving back to Daryl's, then away. Daryl is watching him intently, attentive to Rick's story. He nods when Rick tells him this; it's common knowledge, since Rick used to need painkillers post-surgery during his first days here. "Put me in a coma for a couple months. When I was out, I had visions."

He snorts, looking down, and hands the bottle back to Daryl. "I knew they were…when I woke up, everything was normal. But in my coma it was like all this had already happened. Different, of course, but I already felt like I was in it. So when I woke up, and saw the world was still the same, I knew it was coming."

Daryl makes a soft noise, taking the bottle back. "So you decided to kill three guys?" he asks. His voice is thinly weighted with judgement, but not scorn. Daryl has learned long ago that there is a myriad of reasons why people do what they do. He's never asked Rick about the violent attacks that put him in here, but if Rick's open to sharing then he won't reject the information.

Rick nods. "I thought…I thought I'd found them. Pestilence and War and Famine. I thought I'd found them, so I thought if I'd killed them then it wouldn't happen. But Death came to me that night. I'd seen him when I was in my coma, just over my shoulder like a shadow. But he never spoke." He rubs his hands over his face, sighing heavily. "He never spoke. He just watched. Until that night, when I killed those men. He came to me, then."

"Death came to you," Daryl repeats. He shakes his head and sighs, tipping the bottle back again. There's one more swig's worth left in it and he offers it to Rick, who takes it and finishes the bottle off with one last gasp before setting it on the floor by one of the legs of the blood-red couch. "And he told you…what?"

"He told me it was coming," Rick replies. He gestures to the drawn blinds, and for a moment both of the men are silent, listening to the growls and groans coming from the outside. "And I believed him. When they came for me, I didn't fight. I didn't." He sighs again. "But Lori was scared. She said I'd been acting weird since I woke up. Chemical imbalances, or something like that. They said I was violent. They said I was…dangerous."

He makes an ugly face, shoving himself to his feet, and walks over to the window. "I'd never hurt my kid. I'd never hurt Lori."

"I believe you," Daryl says, very quietly. When Rick turns back to look at him, Daryl isn't looking in his direction. His eyes are on the floor, on the empty bottle by the couch. His fingers are dug tightly into his biceps, arms folded across his chest, one ankle crossed over the other as he rests against the desk. He clears his throat and looks up. "I don’t think you'd hurt 'em. Or anyone. Not unless they made you."

Rick shakes his head. "You give me too much credit," he says, looking away again and running his fingers across the blinds. They've been freshly dusted, but Rick can't for the life of him remember seeing any janitorial staff in this building. It's essentially empty except for Doctor Woodmore's office. "Maybe I am dangerous. I did kill three men in cold blood."

"Yeah, well, we've all done shit," Daryl replies. His fingers twitch and he sighs, straightening up and running a hand through his hair. "Damn, I'd kill for a cigarette right now."

Rick's mouth twitches. "Those things'll kill ya."

Daryl's eyes snap to him, narrowed, but his lips curl up as well as though he's fighting a smile. "Shut up," he says. Rick can tell the moment the alcohol hits him. Daryl doesn't strike him as a lightweight, but his shoulders are looser now and when he talks it's a little more low, the 'S' a little more slurred. He sighs. "Well, I'm beat, man. If we're stayin' the night we should get some shut-eye."

Rick nods. "I'll take first watch," he says, head cocked to one side as he looks back out of the window. "And we should turn off the lights. They'll be attracted to it."

"Right." Daryl walks over and flicks off the light, before he turns around and squints into the darkness. There is just a little bit of natural light still coming in through the blinds, but it will fade quickly, he's sure. Rick has made no move to come away from the window and so Daryl takes the couch, stretching out on it until his back gives a protesting pop and he groans. "Y'know, when I took this job, they made me sign a waiver saying I wouldn't come after them if somethin' happened to me. 'Cause of the residents, you know."

Rick gives a noncommittal hum. "Technically, you're still bound to that," he says lightly.

Daryl snorts again. "Shut up, Rick." He's already sounding very tired. Rick hums again and turns back to look out of the window. The herd has already started to clear. There were never many residents and staff in this facility, given that there is a far larger one on the border of Atlanta, and once all the warm bodies turn they'll spread out to seek more. There are still some gathered around the three cops, or at least what's left of them.

Daryl's breathing starts to even out soon enough and Rick smiles, glad that Daryl will be able to get some rest before the real trials set in. The mission doesn't promise to be easy – in fact, missions given by deities and forces beyond their control rarely make anything easy for mortals – but Rick believes in the mission and he trusts Death's task that was given to him.

He clenches his hand, hissing when his cut palm shoots pain up his arm. He will have to make sure that heals correctly. There should be the medicine stash near Doctor Woodmore's office once everything clears. They'll grab medicine, and food, and as many weapons as they can find and can carry. Then they'll have to go to the station and stock up on everything else. Guns will be the most effective, but they're loud. They'll benefit more with things that are sharp, throwable, and easy to get more of.

Rick's mouth twists and he heaves in a breath before letting it out. Hopefully Death will come to him soon and give him more guidance. If nothing else, a direction.

Daryl's breathing stutters. He wakes briefly as one of the walkers treks by them with a startlingly loud groan. Rick sees him sit up and look over his shoulder, eyes narrowed in the low light.

"Still here," Rick murmurs, reaching out to rest a hand on the back of the couch next to Daryl's head.

Daryl licks his lips. "It's still real," he says quietly, and Rick nods.

"I'm sorry you had to witness the end of the world."

Daryl shrugs one shoulder. "Ain't much different," he says.

Rick smiles. "I'll take care of you, Daryl. I promise."

"We should go to my house, when we're clear'a here. Get my bow. And my truck."

Rick nods. "That's a good idea."

"You got a plan for where we go after?"

"…No," Rick admits, licking his lips and turning his gaze back out towards the open recreation area. The cops are little more than black splashes on the ground now. Totally consumed. The walking dead must be starving. "But I'll think of something."

 

 

The next morning Rick wakes Daryl, just as dawn is starting to color the sky a pale blue and he's able to see and determine without a shadow of a doubt that most of the walkers have moved on. Daryl squints at him, grunting as he rights himself and wipes the heel of his hand across his mouth.

"Did you sleep?" he asks, taking in Rick's tired eyes. Rick shakes his head and Daryl growls at him. "Damn it, thought we were gonna take turns keepin' watch."

"Wasn't tired," Rick replies, unapologetic. Truthfully he's not sure he'll sleep again. He feels alive, electrified, high on the knowledge that he was right and that his mission is finally underway. He grabs Daryl's forearm and hauls him upright. "Come on. We should go wherever the medicine is stored, and then grab some weapons before we head to yours."

Daryl nods, his lips pressed into a thin line.

Rick takes a moment to study Daryl as he watches the man go to the chair barring the door and move it to one side. Daryl is strong. The thin material of his scrub top and bottoms do little to hide that. His shoulders are broad under his clothes, his arms and thighs thick. He's a hunter, and a fighter. A perfect companion at the end of the world. Rick smiles when Daryl looks at him, able to sense Rick's eyes on the back of his neck like a physical weight.

Rick moves past him to gently turn the handle of the door, careful to be as quiet as he can, and opens the door just wide enough that he can look down the hallway in one direction, then wider to peer down the other.

"All clear," he murmurs, then opens the door fully to let it rest against the back wall with a soft tap. He walks out into the hallway and takes a deep breath. His building had been left untouched, from what he can see. There are no smears of black along the walls or the floor, and the doors don't look like they've been opened all night. The chair is askew from where Daryl braced it before and not underneath the handle anymore, but the door itself is shut. He gestures for Daryl to join him. "Where are the meds kept?"

"Uh, this way," Daryl says, nodding back towards the heart of the building. There are low exit lights guiding the way and as they start to walk down, motion-sensitive fluorescent lights turn on with dull hums. Daryl goes tense as they light up, looking back over his shoulder towards the door. "Did you see any more of 'em out there?"

Rick shakes his head. "They're not…smart, really. Not anymore. They'll beat a door down but I don't think they can figure out handles or anything. We'll hear 'em coming."

"Okay." Daryl blows out a breath, his shoulders rolling. "Let's go, then."

Rick instinctively reaches out to hook his fingers in Daryl's shirt as the other man starts down the hallway. Daryl doesn't give any indication of noticing. It's a silly habit, Rick thinks, but he can't bring himself to let go. Maybe Daryl needs something familiar right now – something commonplace and normal in the new world order.

"Here," Daryl murmurs, stopping at a door almost to the end of the hallway. It's a closed-off place. There is no other way out except the doorway at the other end that leads to the outside. Rick feels his skin prickle with anxiety.

Rick reaches for the door and gives a soft curse when the handle doesn't turn. "Shit. Any idea where the keys are?"

Daryl bites the inside of his lower lip and looks over Rick's shoulder, then back at the door. "I can pick it," he says slowly. "Probably. Been a while. Need to find a hairpin or somethin'."

Rick raises his eyebrows and cocks his head to one side. "There a lot of those here?"

"Or somethin'," Daryl bites back with a roll of his eyes. "C'mon, let's see if Woodmore has anything useful in his office."

They head back down the hallway and freeze at the sound of a loud groan, close by. Rick's eyes flash to the doorway at the end of the hall but he can't tell if it's coming from there. The groan sounds again, this time getting louder and higher until it's almost a shriek, and the door pushes in with a soft thud. It doesn't open – it's meant to open outwards. But there's one out there.

"Shit," Daryl hisses, then reaches out to grab Rick's wrist. "Come on."

They hurry into Doctor Woodmore's office and secure the chair in place once again before they start to rummage around. Doctor Woodmore's office is sparse in terms of anything useful. There are pens and notepads, bookmarks, a small spiral-bound address book in the bottom drawer.

Rick lets out a low whistle when he yanks on the top drawer hard enough to break it. It had been locked, but comes apart easily as he pulls it open. Daryl growls at him, a soft "Quiet!", but goes still when Rick lifts the gun. It's a small pistol, a six-shooter and would barely take down a squirrel at a long range, but it's a weapon.

There is a small box of bullets, full, shining in the low light.

Rick searches for some place on his person to hold it, before giving up with a low huff. "Here," he says, holding the gun out to Daryl with the muzzle pointed back at him. "You should carry it."

"Don't really like guns," Daryl mutters, but takes it anyway and tucks it into the waistband of his scrub pants. He pockets the bullets, too. "Find anything else useful?"

"All I got's a letter opener," Rick replies sheepishly, scratching the back of his head and holding on the thin, long tool. "Ain't even made of metal. Will it work?"

Daryl shrugs. "Better than nothin'," he says, and goes back to looking. Rick, unable to think of anywhere else to put the thing, slides it over his ear like a pencil and tucks it into his hair. He keeps looking and manages to find a couple of paperclips but nothing else. "I think this is all we'll get," he says, holding out the paperclips for Daryl to see.

Daryl nods. "That'll probably work," he says and takes them, sliding them into his other pocket. "Alright, let's go."

They make it back to the door before another groan sounds off, this time significantly louder. It sounds like it's coming from right outside the door. Rick can hear shuffling. "Fuck," he whispers, scratching at the back of his neck. He grabs the letter opener and holds it in his hand, ready to stab. "Alright. Get ready."

"Woah!" Daryl reaches out and wraps his hand around Rick's weapon-wielding wrist, his eyes wide. "Man, we have a gun. Why are you gonna use that?"

"The sound might draw more," Rick says. "And that thing's not loaded. Don't even think Doc had the right bullets for it. We can't risk drawing more with something that loud in such a tight space, Daryl. And it's only one."

Daryl's mouth twists but he lets go. He must sense the readiness in Rick, the adrenaline and the fire that feels like it's burning in his hands. He moves the chair away and Rick takes a deep breath, his free hand on the door handle.

He taps against the door, knuckles only – six soft, light raps, and curses when something heavy thuds against the door. It's definitely one of them, and Rick can hear nails screeching down the door on the other side.

"One," he counts, his hand tightening on the letter opener and the door handle. He looks back at Daryl and nods. "Two." Daryl nods back, and Rick yanks the door open.

The thing falls through the small gap, gnashing its teeth and groaning with whited-out eyes. Rick curses and twists the letter opener in his hand and brings his arm down in one quick stabbing motion.

When Rick had killed the three men, committing the crime that had put him in this place, he remembers how he'd done it. Killing horsemen required specific things. Ritualistic, as all powerful spells must be. He remembers how easily skin had parted under his knife, how limp and heavy the dead bodies had become.

This body is heavy and feels like it crushes him when the thing chokes and growls, thrashing against him. He grits his teeth and tries to shove the knife deeper but he has no leverage. Then, Daryl is behind the thing, hauling it back by its clothes and throwing it onto the floor while Rick slams the door shut. The letter opener is still stuck in its head and it reaches for Daryl, growling and grunting. Daryl lifts his foot up and slams it down on the back of the letter opener, driving it through its skull in a final blow and the body finally goes still.

They're both breathing hard as the body goes cold and quiet, and Daryl lets out a soft curse, running his hands through his hair.

"Fuck," he whispers, falling down onto the blood-red couch. "Fuck. Ain't ever killed a guy before."

"It wasn't alive," Rick replies, kneeling down and yanking the letter opener out of its skull. Black goo oozes out behind it and the body breathes out whatever air is left in it. There's blood around the throat, red and fresh, and staining the clothes still clinging in tatters to it. Curious, Rick nudges the head to one side with his shoe. "It's Doctor Woodmore."

"'Course it is," Daryl replies. His voice is shaky. "Rick…I don't know if I can do this."

"You have to," Rick says, hauling Daryl up again, this time with one hand in his shirt so that Daryl has no choice but to look at him, as close as they are. Rick meets his gaze and refuses to let it fall away. "If you want to live, you have to do what needs to be done, Daryl. I'll look after you, but you have to be able to hold your own, too."

"Fuck you," Daryl breathes, but doesn't push Rick away. His eyes are dark, like storm clouds rushing in from the sea. Right before they break. "I haven't had a long time to get used to this, alright? But I'm not gonna fuckin' keel over and let it happen either."

Rick smiles, letting go of Daryl's shirt. "Good," he says quietly, his voice warm with affection as he gently runs his hand up to Daryl's shoulder and gives it a soft squeeze. "Because I don't want to lose you, Daryl. You're very important to me."

Daryl's cheeks go pink and he does finally look away, stepping out of Rick's hold. "Let's go break into the med room," he mutters, running his nails through his hair again. "And then we're getting the Hell out of here."

Rick nods and follows Daryl back out of the room and to the medicine room they were at before. They don't hear any more groaning or shuffling, and Rick keeps watch when Daryl kneels down and uncurls the paperclips Rick had found and sets to work.

"So," Rick says conversationally as Daryl does his best to pick the lock. "You can lock pick, you got one hell of a mean leg on you. Had a rough life, Daryl?"

"You could say that," Daryl replies gruffly, wiping his wrist across his mouth before he pulls out one of the paperclips, twists it and tries again. "Adapt or die. That's the gist, isn't it? Well, I'm good at adaptin'."

"That's great news," Rick says with another smile, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes on the far door. "I knew you'd be a great friend to have at the end of the world."

Daryl pauses, looking up at Rick. "We're friends?" he asks, but he doesn't sound offended that Rick would assume such an intimate relationship between them. Unsure, rather. Hesitant.

Rick nods. "Absolutely," he says. "I consider you one of my closest friends. Well, maybe even my closest. Shane might be dead. Lori and Carl, too."

"Ain't had a great many friends," Daryl says with a snort, turning back to squinting at the lock. "Not really sure that's what I'd call this, though." Before Rick can answer, Daryl huffs a soft breath, blowing his hair out of his face, and the paperclips twist and they both hear the soft 'click' of the lock opening. Daryl lets out another loud breath, sitting back on his heels and testing the door handle, pleased when it starts to turn. "Shit, there we go!"

"Good job, Daryl," Rick praises quietly, and lets Daryl enter the room first. Inside the room is small, packed with shelves of medication. "We'll need antibiotics, most of all, and anything to stitch up wounds."

"Right. Over here, I think," he says, leading Rick to one of the back corners. There are first aid kits with gauze and smaller bandages inside and Rick takes them. He spies a backpack on one of the shelves and takes it down and starts to fill it with anything that looks useful. Soon enough the pack is full of anything they can take that doesn't require refrigeration.

Daryl, suddenly, lets out a soft laugh. "Well, I'll be damned," he says, holding up a pair of medical scissors for Rick to see. "Guess I was wrong."

Rick grins and holds the bag open for Daryl to put them inside. He zips it closed and hefts it onto his back with a small huff, grimacing at the weight. Hopefully he'll build up his endurance and strength in the days and weeks to come. He lost a lot of weight during the coma and had never been able to build it back up. People don't take kindly to someone convicted in a criminally insane institution working out.

They head back out into the hallway, doing another quick check to make sure it's unoccupied. Daryl takes his place at Rick's right, slightly behind him as they head out to the doors. He walks awkwardly, uncomfortable with the weight of the gun at the small of his back. He'll get used to it, Rick is sure.

"Ready?" Rick asks, his hand on the door. Daryl nods and Rick leans his weight against the door, opening it with a quiet grunt.

Even though he'd seen it coming, Rick will admit he's unprepared for the sensation of walking into the end of the world. There is no wind, uncharacteristic of Georgia in autumn, and the sun beats down on their faces and shoulders as they walk out into the open.

Daryl lets out an ugly, horrified sound, and presses his hand over his nose. "Shit, the smell," he groans, and Rick can't help but nod. Without the wind the stench of death and disease wraps around them like a heavy cloak, and when Rick breathes in he can take in the undefinable but unmistakable scent of decay, of blood, and of all the other things that bodies expel when they give up the ghost.

Rick tries not to look at the sheen of black slick marking the ground, but his eyes are inadvertently drawn to the three cop cars, their lights still flashing in red and blue. Something inside of him twists, familiar and almost wistful. In another world, he could have been one of those men, who are no more than stains on the ground now, another meal for the ever-hungry dead.

"Come on," Daryl grunts, tugging on Rick's arm. "Let's see what we can scavenge for food."

Rick nods and lets Daryl lead the way to the other building. They don't see any more walkers around but that's not really a sign of anything. The glass of the door lies in shattered pieces on the ground. There's fresh blood and Rick even sees a hand on the ground, severed in a jagged line. Rick steps inside of the doorway carefully, wincing when the glass crackles beneath his feet. There aren't any walkers on the inside that he can see. Daryl urges him onward to the kitchens and snags a laundry bag on the way, dumping it out so that they'll be able to fill it with food.

Rick has never been in the kitchens, and to his knowledge the residents were never allowed inside of the place either. There are too many sharp objects, he supposes. He grabs the few knives that he can see and slides them into one of the side pockets of the rucksack along with the letter opener and then makes his way over the shelves of Jell-o packs, fruit cups and other less-perishables.

Rick snorts, grabbing a fruit cup and tossing it into the laundry bag that Daryl leaves open by his feet while he grabs more food to pile in. "Whose ass should I have been kissin' to get this every day?" he asks. He doesn't remember ever getting pudding and fruit cups.

Daryl shakes his head, one corner of his mouth twitching up in a brief moment of joy. "No one's," he says, tossing another cup into the laundry bag. "These weren't for you guys. You get grits and other soft shit. Don't wanna upset your delicate humors."

"Hey, and I thought I was the killer," Rick says, putting a hand on his heart and pouting when Daryl rolls his eyes and moves away from one shelf and to another. "Well, I guess we're just gonna have to make up for lost time." Even as he says it he opens one of the pudding cups, sticking his finger in and licking off a generous glob of butterscotch pudding.

Daryl raises an eyebrow, his cheeks pink as he watches Rick eat. He clears his throat and tears into one himself. Rick hadn't been aware of how hungry he is until he'd started to eat. Now it claws at his stomach like fingernails and he finishes the pudding cup quickly, licking his finger clean and then wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his jumpsuit.

"There's not much else, really," Daryl says, kicking at a still-full pan of oatmeal that had been refrigerated in preparation for the morning. "And if this thing is gonna get as big as you say, we ain't gonna have access to stoves and ovens for long."

Rick shrugs one shoulder. "I get the feeling we're both used to living rough."

Daryl fixes him with another look, before he grunts in acknowledgement and walks back over to the laundry bag. He tugs at the cord until it tightens and hauls it up onto his shoulder, his arms flexing and his jaw clenched from the strain of carrying the weight. "Alright, let's just go now. This place is giving me major creeps. It's never this quiet."

Rick nods, feeling strangely unsettled himself. He takes one of the knives from the backpack and holds it ready, because laden as he is Daryl won't be able to move or defend himself very quickly, and his gun is still very much empty and practically useless.

They hurry back out of the building and towards the cop cars. Rick heads for the one in the back, the one that will be easiest to pull away in, and peers inside. It's empty, and he can see the keys still in the ignition, and smiles. "This one," he says, pulling back and opening the back door before shoving his pack with medicine and weapons inside. Daryl follows suit on the other side and then they slide into the driver and passenger seat respectively.

Daryl lets out a breath, whistling lowly as he looks at the computer and radio on the dash, and the small console sitting between the driver and passenger seat. Rick turns the key and the car comes to life with a quiet purring sound, and he turns the lights off and starts to back away from the other cars so that he can turn and start down the little driveway that separates the facility from the highway.

"Never been in the front of one of these before," Daryl murmurs, before he reaches forward and grabs the radio from the dash. Every station is filled with static. He frowns and sets it back down. "That ain't a good sign."

Rick hums, his eyes closing for a moment. "They'll start evacuating soon, once they get a handle on what's going on," he says. "The hospitals will fall first." The way he speaks is even and smooth, unfeeling, as he pulls out onto the highway and towards their town. "The dead and the dying within them will turn and then the nurses, and the other patients, and everyone else."

His eyes flash into the rear-view mirror as he spies one of the walkers limping out onto the road behind them, growling and reaching for them even as they disappear around a corner.

"How…did it start?" Daryl asks. "I mean, here. Who was the first?"

Rick smiles. "James," he says.

"James?" Daryl looks at him, his eyes wide in shock. "But James was…James was healthy enough. Cooked in the head, sure, but physically he was fine. How'd he die?"

"I killed him," Rick says simply.

Daryl straightens, an expression like horror crossing his face. Rick sees him reaching for the door handle and so he speeds up, his jaw set. Daryl won't leave him. He can't. "You…killed him?" Daryl breathes, and Rick can hear the unsteadiness in it, whatever calm he'd managed to find cracking under that truth. "So you started it. You did this!"

"No." Rick slows the car to a stop and turns to face Daryl fully, his jaw set and his voice tight and controlled. Anger sweeps through him, as suddenly as a wildfire, in the face of Daryl's judgement and his disbelief. How Daryl could have so little faith in him, Rick doesn't know, and he's offended in his bones at the thought that he could have started such a catastrophic event. "No, I didn't."

"You killed James, and then he turned. It wouldn't'a happened if you hadn't killed him!"

"That's not true," Rick bites back. "If we had news, you'd see. California. Wisconsin. Florida. James wasn't patient zero, Daryl. I didn't kill him to start anything. I killed him because without killing him we'd have been sitting ducks until the plague came to us. You could have died."

"We could still die! All of us!" Daryl hisses, leaning forward and jabbing an accusing finger at Rick's chest. "But you killed him, Rick. Fuck." He turns away, running his hands through his hair, and breathes out. "You killed him and you ain't even sorry, are ya?"

"Why would I be?" Rick asks, straightening in his seat and pushing down on the gas pedal again to peel them away from the side of the road and continue on their journey. "James isn't suffering anymore. At least, his soul isn't. It's a mercy killing. He said he wanted to help me."

Daryl lets out a soft, disgusted sound and Rick's mouth twists.

"He doesn't have to be afraid," he adds quietly. "He doesn't have to…see it happen. He's gone, Daryl. He's beyond our help now."

"Shit." Daryl's voice is thick with something like remorse. Like he could have saved James, saved them all, had he been there to stop Rick in his plan. But something like this can't be stopped. Pestilence has already touched them all, his other name is Conquest and he has set out his map and his plan. War will follow, sweeping through the nation and turning brothers against each other and slaying children and husbands and wives left and right. The world will divide in a way that politics and culture and skin color never could. Then, Famine will come, and unite them all again into stronger, better people. Communities will form, and they will continue to fight, but they will rise up above like a great phoenix from the ashes of disaster.

And then, Death. Touching everyone, forever present. Rick smiles.

"Turn left," Daryl finally says after what feels like years and miles of silence. Rick raises an eyebrow and cocks his head to one side. "My house is that way. We'll get clothes, more weapons will be there, more food. Some money if shit like that even matters anymore." He sucks in a breath and leans back, his eyes closed and his head tilted back to expose his throat and so that he can rest his head against the headrest. "Swap out this car for something less flashy. Maybe Merle will be there, too. He can help us."

Rick nods and switches the turn signal on, immediately feeling foolish for doing so because there are no other cars on the road. Probably won't be for a while, until the real panic sets in. Then the roads will be flooded, everyone rushing from the cities, blocking each other in like fish in a barrel and ready for slaughter.

"You got anythin' brewin' in that head of yours about where to go after?"

"Workin' on it," Rick says, and Daryl huffs out a tired, defeated laugh. "I'll know when I know. You just gotta have a little faith, Daryl."

Daryl shakes his head. "Ain't ever been religious, Rick. Not gonna start now."

"Don't put your faith in God," Rick replies, unable to hide the distaste in his voice. Daryl, hearing it, opens his eyes and looks over at Rick. Rick shakes his head and growls. "Don't believe in God, or religion. They're not here yet. Won't be for a while."

"Then what?" Daryl whispers. "Who?"

Rick tears his eyes away from the road to meet Daryl's. They're lighter now, less stormy and more like water frozen under a thick patch of ice. "Me," he says quietly, utterly serious, and Daryl's expression doesn't change. He looks lost, wondering, like a child in the middle of a foreign crowd searching desperately for his parents. "I won't let anything happen to you. I promise. Just trust me. Just believe in me. Can you do that?"

Daryl licks his lips, lets them part, and then swallows and turns his face away from Rick's eyes. "I don't know," he says nervously, wincing when they drive through a bump in the road, the car giving a protesting creak. "But I'll try."

Rick smiles, happy enough with that answer. He turns his attention back to the road. Then, a thought occurs to him. "The station!" he says happily, drumming his hands against the steering wheel. "After your house. We'll go to the station. There will be guns, armor, and maybe more people there able to help us. That's where we'll go."

Daryl manages a small, unhappy smile. "Well, it's a start."

Chapter Text

Rick isn't sure what he'd imagined Daryl's house to look like, but this isn't it. It's not a house, not like he'd imagined or could picture his own looking like. It's a trailer, parked a little way away from the others in the lot. Rick sees no signs of life aside from a dog chained up in a yard in front of one, barking madly at them as they drive by.

Daryl's trailer is surrounded in overgrown grass, like a moat. There's a flag on the yard but Rick can't for the life of him identify what it's meant to be a flag of. It has vague hints of red, but the rest is lost in dirt and oil and mud. Next to it stands a motorcycle, positively gleaming in comparison, shiny and well-loved. Next to the bike is a worn-looking pickup truck, rusty around the wheels but otherwise looking in decent condition. The screen door is ripped and the inner door is open and Daryl tenses as they approach.

"Maybe you should wait in the car," Daryl murmurs, reaching out to grab Rick's shoulder as Rick makes to get out of the vehicle. Rick frowns, looking back at him. "Drivin' up in a cop car isn't the best start, but you're in a jumpsuit glowin' like the sun and this isn't the best neighborhood."

"You're worried about me?" Rick teases, unable to stop himself smiling.

"And myself," Daryl replies, unreactive to Rick's playful tone. His eyes are on the door. "Door's open. Merle might not be here. But his car is. So…I'm nervous."

"Here," Rick says, handing Daryl the knife he'd claimed. It's a knife meant for slicing potatoes, if he had to guess, and is long and sharp-looking. Daryl takes it without his eyes leaving the door. "I'll wait here, I suppose."

Daryl nods. "I'll whistle if I need you."

He gets out of the car and shuts the door as quietly as he can and Rick settles back to wait. He's used to stakeouts and having to wait for criminals to come to him, but this is different. Now the danger is very real and not just to him – Daryl is strong, and capable. He's sure of that. But as soon as he disappears from sight Rick feels that familiar anxiety washing over him. If he can't see Daryl, he can't see any danger that Daryl might be in. If he can't see the danger he can't protect him, and he'd promised that he would. Rick sighs, scratching the back of his neck. Without the air conditioning and with the windows rolled up the car gets hot quickly and he's already starting to sweat. He ignores it, though – the aches and pains of the body are something he's going to have to get used to, after all.

While he waits, he rummages around in the rucksack again until he finds antiseptic wipes and a small patch of gauze. He rips off one sleeve of his jumpsuit, unwilling to waste the bandaging on such a small wound, and holds it in his teeth as he wipes his injured hand down to clean it. Then he presses the gauze to his palm and wraps the sleeve around his hand tightly – not enough to restrict his fingers but enough that he's sure it won't unravel and fall away.

His eyes are drawn by movement to his right and he tenses when he sees another door open. He braces himself for the worst and curses under his breath when the door opens further, letting out the fumbling, shuffling form of a female walker. The dog in the yard starts to go crazy and she hisses, lumbering over to it and falling onto it with another growl. The dog snarls, snapping at her, but she rips into it with another growl and Rick winces as the dog goes quiet.

He gets out of the car quickly, another knife in his hand, and stalks over to the woman. She's distracted by her meal and so it's easy to kneel over her, grab her by the back of her head and slam the knife into the side of her skull. She subsides with a groan, toppling over in dead weight when Rick lets her go.

"Rick!"

Rick looks up to see Daryl standing in the doorway to his house, a horrified look on his face. Rick looks back at the two bodies in front of him and, after another moment, kneels down to bury his knife in the dog's skull as well. He's not sure if animals can turn but he's not willing to take any chances.

When he stands back up he wipes the black goo off of his knife onto the leg of his jumpsuit and Daryl hisses his name again, beckoning him over. "Get inside, Rick! Right now!"

Rick nods and follows him in, after going to the car and taking the keys from inside, locking it behind them. Food and weapons are going to start becoming precious and he won't lose such a good haul to another one of Daryl's overly-nosey neighbors. Especially if there are others who haven't turned yet.

He goes to Daryl and follows the man in, letting the screen door close behind him. The house is unoccupied and it stinks of mold and damp and he wrinkles his nose but doesn't comment on it. This is, after all, where Daryl lives.

"Merle's not here," Daryl says with a huff, kicking at an empty beer bottle that is heavy with dust. "Must'a gotten himself committed again, the asshole."

"Prison's probably one of the safest places for him," Rick offers, setting his knife down on a side table that bears a broken picture frame with no picture inside of it and a pristine-looking crossbow. He nods to it. "That yours, then?"

Daryl nods, taking the gun out from the back of his scrub bottoms and setting it down next to the crossbow. "Quieter than a gun, and I actually know how to use the thing. Can make arrows, too, so we won't run out."

Rick smiles. "Wonderful."

"Come on. We'll find you some less flashy clothes and stock up before heading out. We'll put my bike on the truck."

Rick hums and follows Daryl from the main room, down a small hallway separating it from what he assumes is Daryl's bedroom. There's another room, the door open and the bed unmade, and a bathroom on the other side of that, but Daryl leads him straight to the end and shoves the door open with a small grunt.

"In here," he says, and starts to dig around in a nearby chest of drawers for clothes. Rick plants himself on Daryl's bed, admiring the dark blue color of the single thick blanket laid over it. It's soft to the touch and warm from sunlight slanting in from the window next to it. Daryl throws a duffle bag into his lap. "There are guns in Merle's room, probably some other stuff worth usin'. Go root around in there while I stock up in here," he orders, the words coming from him quickly like he's not sure he's supposed to be ordering Rick around but unwilling to let themselves waste any more time. Rick nods and stands up again and goes into the other bedroom. The smell in here is worse and it's clear that no one has been in in this room for a long time. He goes to the closet first and opens it, grunting when the doors stick and creak when he moves them. There are guns laying on the floor inside and he smiles and grabs them. A shotgun, a heavy pistol… He frowns. It looks like one of the standard issues for cops. Something ugly twists in his stomach and he shoves the gun into the duffle bag with another huff along with the shotgun. There are a few boxes of bullets that he takes as well, before he stands and puts the duffle bag on the unmade bed.

There's a chest of drawers in the corner and he opens them all, sifting through the clothes he finds there. They stink of sweat and blood, there are stains under the arms of all of them, and he blanches when he figures out the reason the room smells so wet is because at the bottom there's a wadded-up pile of clothes covered in what he can only assume is vomit and urine. Next to it is an empty sandwich bag with dustings of white powder inside. So, a junkie brother. Well if that doesn't shed a little light on Daryl's tightly-sealed past. Or present.

Maybe not his future, though. His brother isn't here, and they'll be long gone by the time he breaks out of whatever hole he's crawled into or been sent to. Maybe they'll find each other again. Maybe the end of the world will cleanse Daryl's brother of his addictions and his time in prison will have renewed him as a person. Maybe he's not a bad person anyway, but as much as Daryl has told Rick about his past, he's never mentioned Merle with anything like affection or love. Obligation, maybe. Or maybe that's just how Daryl is with family.

This house is not a home. There are pieces of Daryl in it, Rick can see that, but Rick gets the sense that Daryl treats this place like Rick treated his cell in the asylum. It's a transitioning place. Nothing permanent, nothing worth carving oneself into.

Rick hums and takes the bag, finding nothing else of use in Merle's room, and returns to Daryl's. Daryl has changed since he left, clad now in a sleeveless black shirt and jeans, a leather vest over his back with a pair of angel wings sewn into them. The clothes look well-worn and old, but comfortable, and Rick can't stop himself smiling when he sees Daryl.

He clears his throat to let the other man know he's there. In a world like this sneaking up on one another isn't the smartest thing to do when it comes to survival. They will need to always know where each other is. They will always need to be around each other if they can.

Daryl whirls around, his cheeks pinking for a reason Rick can't figure out. "Find anythin'?" he asks, wiping his hands on his jeans, and Rick holds up the bag.

"Couple'a guns," he says with a shrug.

"Alright," Daryl says, and jerks his head towards the bed where there's already a second duffle sitting there, stocked with extra arrows and more clothes. "I think I found somethin' that'll fit you reasonably well. Here." He hands Rick a t-shirt and another pair of jeans with a belt, and some black socks bunched together on top. "Merle's boots will probably fit you well enough until we find something else. Go change in the bathroom."

"Thank you, Daryl," Rick replies, taking the clothes with another smile, and he goes into the bathroom when Daryl grunts and ducks his head away from Rick's bright gaze. Rick turns on the light and listens to the little fan sputter and groan to life. The mirror in the bathroom is missing so he can't see himself, and he rests the clothes next to the sink and closes the door behind him.

The shirt is too wide for his shoulders, he doesn't have the muscle to fill out Daryl's clothes like the other man does. The jeans are too wide as well and he cinches the belt as tightly as he can around his waist. He's unlikely to get much fatter with food about to go scarce and their days spent on the move, but hopefully he'll gain enough muscle in the coming days of fighting and raw survival that is to come.

He rubs a hand over his face, grimacing at the thick mess of scruff clinging to his cheeks and throat. The residents at the facility hadn't been allowed razors or other means to shave or groom themselves, for obvious reasons, but he's hopeful he'll be able to find something to shave with soon. Or at least cut his hair. It's starting to get long enough to bother him and tickle the back of his neck.

Maybe he can convince Daryl to cut his hair. And then he can cut Daryl's. If the man lets him near his neck with anything sharp.

Rick isn't sure what Daryl thinks of him in terms of threat level. He's clearly comfortable enough to let Rick have weapons, but then again in this kind of world now, leaving someone without a means to defend themselves would be the same as signing their death warrant. Still, Daryl had never seemed particularly uncomfortable around Rick, or any of the other residents. He isn't a prey animal, wide-eyed and wary. He's a hunter, a predator in his own right. He's big enough and muscled enough to hold his own in a fight with most men, Rick is sure. He'd damn sure be able to take Rick down if it came to that.

Still, Rick has been diagnosed as insane. Religious delusions. Paranoid schizophrenia. Narcissistic personality disorder. Dangerously charismatic. Psychotically driven. Too level-headed. Too cold. Too passionate.

Rick sighs, bracing his hands on either side of the sink, and closes his eyes. His fingers clench. "I'm not crazy," he whispers. After all, he'd been right. His visions, his dreams, his delusions had come true. "I'm not crazy."

He pushes himself away from the sink and yanks the door open, and almost runs into Daryl. "Fuckin' Christ," Daryl hisses, dropping the two duffle bags and visibly flinching away from Rick, reaching for one of the knives Rick can see in the open bags.

Rick stops, giving Daryl space and time to calm himself down. When Daryl takes a deep breath, Rick reaches out, and Daryl flinches from him again, biting his lower lip as he tries to cover the action by grabbing for the bags.

"Are you afraid of me, Daryl?" Rick asks quietly, following him back out into the main room.

Daryl scoffs, but doesn't answer.

Rick decides to amend his question. "Are you afraid?"

"Of course I am," Daryl replies with a hiss, going to the small space in the corner of the main room that Rick guesses is meant to serve as a kitchen. "Fuck's sake, Rick, there are Goddamn dead people walking around trying to eat anything that moves. I just watched people I've known and cared for for years just turn and try to eat me. I'm a little fucking freaked out."

"If it's any consolation, I doubt it's personal."

Daryl turns to look at him, an expression on his face like he can't decide if he wants to punch Rick right in his face, or laugh in it. "That…ain't much of a consolation," he bites out, before he lifts Rick's mostly-empty duffle onto the counter and starts to go through the cabinets for food. "Fuck, I knew those people, Rick. They were the closest thing I had to friends, and now they're all dead or worse."

Rick sighs. It's a sad, quiet sound, before he walks over to Daryl's side and starts to help him look through the cabinets. There are cans of food that he packs, and boxes of cereal that, while they could go stale, certainly won't spoil to the point of being inedible. He doesn't bother with anything in the fridge.

"Would you like to talk about them?" Rick asks, turning back to Daryl when the man pauses to look at him. "The caretakers. I didn't know a lot of them myself except you, Woodmore and Miriam. I mean, I knew the other residents but…" He shrugs one shoulder. "I'm sorry. I guess I just don't feel their loss like you do."

"What if it had been your family?" Daryl asks. "Your boy? What if he'd been the first to turn?"

Rick's mouth twists, that ugly feeling running up the back of his neck again like someone is running oil-slick, cold hands up his spine. "Then at least he wouldn't be suffering," he says after a moment, and goes back to reorganizing his duffle bag so that the guns are on top and therefore more easily accessible. "You have to understand, Daryl – the survivors, whoever is still alive, and whoever is still alive at the end of the year…they'll be afraid. They'll be starving. They'll have had to kill or be killed. People are going to change. The other caretakers and the doctors – yes, they were overrun, but if they hadn't been they probably wouldn't have made it anyway. There are certain things we have to be able to do, now. You have to…pick your people. Pick the group that you are going to protect, and care for, and kill for, and you have to do that with everything that you have."

"So that's that, huh? Us and them? Kill or be killed?"

"Until I stop it," Rick says with a nod, lifting his eyes to meet Daryl's. "I will kill for you, and I will take care of you. And if we find my family, and we find your brother, then I will kill for them and take care of them as well. All I ask is to be given the same."

Daryl licks his lips but doesn't look away. It looks like he's searching Rick's eyes for something – or maybe deeper, down to his soul. Rick wonders what he might actually be seeing there.

"We have to stop the horsemen, Daryl," Rick says when Daryl doesn't reply for a long, long moment. "I'll know them when I see them. I'm sure of it. And when they're all dead, then it'll be over, and we can go back to the way things were. People will recover. People are good at that."

"You didn't know them before," Daryl replies roughly, his voice hoarse like he's been screaming his whole life. Maybe he has. Maybe, in this new world, Daryl can flourish into the person he's meant to be. Rick believes that Daryl is destined and capable for far more than just to be nurse and babysitter to bad people. He deserves the world and this one will burn and from it a new one will rise, pure and clean, and it will be his. "The three men you killed. You thought they were the horsemen but you were wrong. How can you be so sure you'll know them now?"

Rick smiles and zips his duffle bag closed. "Now they've awoken. Death came to me, which means he's walking the Earth. So are they. And there will be…signs. If I learn how to read them and pay attention and obey Death, he will guide me to them. I know this."

"I can't believe you," Daryl whispers, and shakes his head, finally breaking his eyes away from Rick's. "You have to get it, Rick. I can't believe you. Not yet."

"I'll prove myself to you," Rick says, panic settling like a snake around his neck at the thought of Daryl pulling away, of losing faith, of leaving. Daryl shakes his head again and licks his lips, shouldering his own duffle bag that's now laden with clothes, food and weapons. "I'm not crazy, Daryl. I saw this coming. I can fix it!"

Daryl shakes his head one more time, turning to Rick and jabbing an accusing finger at his chest. "You started this whole thing. You brought it to us. You killed James, and those other men, over this belief that Death is coming to you and telling you to kill more people! That's, like, textbook crazy, Rick!"

"I'm not crazy," Rick growls. "You saw with your own eyes, Daryl. These people ain't sick, they ain't just low on their fucking meds, they're dead and they're eating people and that's real!"

"I can't just jump on your magical fix bandwagon, okay?" Daryl bites back. "Look, I'll ride with ya, and I'll travel with ya, but as soon as this gets too crazy, if I even smell something off about something you say, or do, I'll plant one between your eyes myself."

Rick blinks at him, before he relaxes with a relieved sigh and a smile. "So you'll stay with me?"

Daryl huffs a breath, sounding defeated and raw. "Yeah. 'Course I will. You're the only one who seems to have a plan, anyway."

Rick steps forward and grabs both of Daryl's hands, holding them tightly. "Thank you, Daryl," he says quietly, emphatically, like a prayer. Daryl bites his lip and tugs his hands away and Rick lets them go, his fingertips dragging across Daryl's knuckles before the touch separates.

"…We should get goin'," Daryl says. "'Fore they clean the station out."

"Right," Rick replies with a nod, grabbing his bag and following Daryl outside as the other man grabs his crossbow and hefts it onto his shoulder. Rick takes the other gun and his knife and follows him outside. Daryl goes to the old truck, first, throwing everything into the bed of it, and Rick follows suit before he goes back to the cop car. Daryl goes to the motorcycle and Rick would protest taking the vehicle, but it's smaller and faster even if it is louder, and who knows when they might need to take separate vehicles. At least this way Daryl will be in the truck with him for the ride.

In police vehicles there are typical, standard things one can expect to find. A rifle, for instance, tucked into the truck. A taser. Extra magazines already loaded. A first-aid kit, an extra set of handcuffs. If there had been anything left of the police officers that had fallen, or if he'd thought to raid the other cars first, they'd have more, but they're going alright so far. At least the bullets in the car fit the rifle, and the pistol he found in Merle's closet.

He hopes Shane thought to grab his old gun from the house before they fled. If they fled. He hopes they fled. But the day is young and the nightmare is only twenty-four hours old. Who knows what state the country is in.

He brings the rest of the haul, including the bags of things they'd scavenged from the facility, to the truck and packs it in around the wheels of Daryl's motorcycle. It really is an attractive bike and gleams dully in the daylight. He can picture Daryl on it, looking comfortable and at home, the wind whipping his hair from his face, his eyes narrowed and focused. He smiles.

"You're riding shotgun," Daryl orders as he climbs into the cab of the truck and leans over to open the door for Rick. "Shouldn't'a let you drive in the first place."

"Worried someone's gonna pull us over?" Rick asks, grinning as he climbs into the passenger side and closes the door behind him, before he pulls on his seatbelt.

Daryl snorts. "Well, guess not, but still. It's the principle of the thing."

Rick subsides with a shrug, and remains silent as Daryl turns the truck on. The machine gives a protesting series of wracked-sounding coughing noises before it roars to life and settles into a loud, rattling idle. Daryl pulls on the clutch until it swings into reverse and starts to back out.

Rick reaches for the radio and turns it on. A woman's voice comes over the air, urgent sounding and afraid;

"What can only be described as a deadly flu virus has taken the state by storm. Several medical facilities across King County and the Greater Atlanta Area have been overrun and shut down as the virus continues to spread. Several violent outbreaks have happened in the more densely populated areas. Citizens are urged to stay in their homes to try and wait out the virus if possible. Medical units are on standby for extreme emergency and can be reached -."

"Turn it off," Daryl mutters, reaching out to press on the power button on the radio, and Rick looks to him with a raised eyebrow. "We know the world's fucked. Don't need to hear about the panic setting in. Puts my teeth on edge."

"Do you have a phone with State-wide news?" Rick asks, and Daryl shakes his head. "We should find out. See how much it's spreading. If outbreaks have happened elsewhere, too."

"Elsewhere?" Daryl repeats, his voice high.

"Well, think about it, Daryl," Rick says with a shrug. "All you have to do is die to turn. James isn't the only person who will have died yesterday. It could be everywhere by now."

"Jesus Christ," Daryl breathes, bringing his hand up to his mouth to chew on the cuticles. "So many people are gonna die."

Rick nods.

"You think it's just the States?" Daryl asks, looking over to Rick as though begging him to say 'Yes'. "Or…the whole world?"

"Probably the whole world," Rick replies with another small nod. "Pestilence's reach is wide and has no favorites."

"What if these…horsemen you gotta find – what if they ain't even in the States, Rick? What then?"

"They'll be here," Rick says.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because they'll be looking for me, too." Rick leans onto his knees, elbows braced against them, and rubs his hands over his mouth. "'Cause I'm after them. If I'm winning, if I'm still alive, they'll try and hunt me down. I'm Death's vessel. If I'm still around, I could still win. So, they'll be looking for me. They'll try and come for me."

"Fuckin' great," Daryl scoffs. "Now you got a bullseye on your back too, huh? Now we gotta fear the living just as much?"

"Don't be naïve, Daryl," Rick says with a disapproving look. "You should have always been afraid of the living."

 

 

 

 

They don't even make it to the station. Daryl turns a corner and slams on the breaks to avoid rear-ending a Civic in front of him. The hazards are on the car but it's not running, and Daryl lets out a low curse as he sees the rows and rows of cars stretching out ahead.

"Evacuations," Rick says, his mouth twisting. "I'd hoped we'd've had more time before that started."

"We should be doing the same thing," Daryl hisses, pushing the truck into reverse and backing away onto the road before, then turning to continue down it. There are vehicles littering the sides in various states of abandonment. A crash had happened a few blocks ahead. Rick can see the lights and smell the leaking engine.

"We should," Rick agrees. "But we need weapons. Ammo." He reaches out to put a hand on Daryl's arm. "Let's go to my house. My family might still be there, and if not that, then maybe they left some of my weapons behind."

"Where to?" Daryl asks. "Your wife seems like the suburbia type."

At that, Rick can't help letting out a small smile. "You're not wrong," he says, and gestures for Daryl to make a left-hand turn. "That way. Third right. Keep going."

Daryl follows his direction, guiding his car through the zig-zag of cars lining the roads and the larger four-lane they're driving down. In front of them the lights are red, but Daryl can't see any other cars so he doesn't bother stopping and drives right through.

They both jump as they hear a phone start ringing. Rick raises an eyebrow, looking in Daryl's direction as the man curses and reaches into his back pocket. He doesn't have a modern phone, but a simple flip one. The kind that will probably outlive them all. "Hello?" he grunts. Rick hears a voice on the other side, low but urgent. "Fuck's sake, Merle, where the fuck are ya? We were just at the house." A pause, and Daryl curses again, but turns when Rick points him down a side-street to the right. "Alright. Shit. Stay where you are. We'll come get ya."

Then, he hangs up and lets the phone drop into one of the cup holders. "Merle's just outside of town," he says with a shake of his head. "Probably tweakin' out of his mind. Apparently the 'friends' he was with, one of them OD'd, he got out."

Rick raises his eyebrows but doesn't comment.

"Probably doesn't even believe this shit is real," Daryl continues, before he abruptly slams on the brakes again as he turns down onto Rick's street. "Fuck."

The road is full of walkers. Dozens of them, Rick can see, all massed together in the middle of the road around a burning car. Daryl immediately kills the engine, unwilling to draw attention to themselves from the noise, but there's one nearby that hears them. Rick hears it hissing, stumbling towards them, and his gut twists when he recognizes one of his neighbors. The man is missing an arm, his jaw half-torn off but still moving as it stumbles closer. Rick grabs his knife and opens the car door.

"Rick, the fuck you doin'?" Daryl hisses, but can't reach across in time to stop Rick from getting out of the car. Rick holds the knife ready, his jaw set, and advances on the walker. It shrieks at him, its eyes wide and white. Rick's breath comes in quickly, through his nose, the air thick with humidity and the scent of decay.

The back of his neck turns cold.

He steps forward and slams the knife into the man's skull, grunting when it falls at his feet and almost rips the knife out of his hand. He yanks back on it and hears another one of them groaning to his right, and turns to stab at it as well.

"Rick!" Daryl yells, and Rick feels the thing fall against him, making him land hard against the side of the truck. He pushes his forearm against its neck to stop it being able to bite him, but now the angle is all wrong to get a good stab in. He tries to shove it back but is too weak, the thing grasping and grabbing at him like he's the steak to a starving man.

Then, Daryl is there, throwing his weight against the walker and sending it flying. Rick stumbles, breathing hard, and watches as Daryl's arm comes up and he stabs hard into the thing's eye. It goes silent with another gurgling hiss.

Daryl steps back and Rick sighs. "Thanks."

"Don't you ever," Daryl hisses, turning around and brandishing his knife in Rick's direction, "take off like that again, you hear me? What if that thing had bit ya?"

"There's going to be danger everywhere, Daryl," Rick says. "I can't let something like fear or odds get in our way. The odds will always be against us."

"I swear, I'll put a bolt in your eye if you ever pull anything like that again," Daryl growls, then turns away as the herd of walkers in front of them apparently become aware of their presence. There's no way forward around the burning car with their vehicle, and Daryl curses again. His stance changes easily, ready for a fight, and Rick has a moment to admire how easily the other man shifts into readiness before the walkers are on them again. There are many, or at least it seems that way. Rick's knife finds a home in a woman's skull next, her blonde hair matted with blood and ooze. Then a man, and another man. He keeps Daryl in his line of sight and keeps his ears pricked for any sound of distress from the man, but focuses on the walkers coming at him with a vengeance. Like they recognize who and what he is.

The back of his neck still feels cold, and as he fights it slides down his shoulder, into his knife-wielding arm. He stops feeling the heat, and doesn't feel the ache of his body moving and dodging and fighting against so many enemies.

He slams his knife into the last one, breathing out harshly as the cold abruptly disappears from him, leaving him aching and sore. His arms tremble as he pulls the knife back out, too weak to do it just from his upper body strength, and shoves his foot against the dead woman's shoulder to be able to pull it out all the way. A little way from him, Daryl is standing, his chest heaving and his face shiny with sweat.

"Are you alright?" Rick asks, still breathing hard as he wipes a blood-spattered hand across his forehead.

Daryl's eyes sweep to him, wide and dark. "Are you?" he asks instead of answering, and Rick supposes that's fair.

Rick nods. "Still breathin'," he replies with a smile, and Daryl huffs and looks down at the mass of bodies around them. They had to have killed at least ten each. "Death was here."

"What?"

"I felt him," Rick says, standing taller and pulling his right arm across his chest, wincing when the joint pops in the shoulder. "He was with us. We're going in the right direction."

Daryl shifts his weight, looking around uneasily. "Do you…see him? Now?"

Rick shakes his head. "No. The warmth is back," he says, licking his lips, before he tucks his knife into the belt at the small of his back, blade outside of his borrowed jeans. "If you pay attention, and if he decides to show himself to you, you'll start to feel when he's near. The air gets cold, and time gets slower. It feels…like you're standing at the edge of the universe and gazing outward."

"I'll take reality, thanks," Daryl replies thinly, before he jerks his head in the direction of the burning car. "Come on, let's get what we can from your place and then go get my brother."

Rick nods, ducking his head as he falls into step next to Daryl. There's one more walker near the car and Rick ends it with a swift blow, throwing it to one side. His house is two down on the left from the car. The outside looks pristine, the windows unbroken, the whole area unlooted. The grass in the yard is green and shiny, a single sprinkler spraying out in little spurts across his place and his neighbor's. The windows are dark. Nothing else moves.

"There's no birds," Daryl whispers, looking into the top-most windows of the house. Rick cocks his head to one side. "No…sound. Nothin'."

"They won't be here," Rick says, finishing Daryl's unspoken thought. "That's okay. I trust Shane will have gotten them as far as he could once he realized what was going on."

After all, his family hadn't been with the undead. They might still be alive – or, if not alive, then not dead here. Perhaps, even, holed up somewhere inside the house. Wouldn't that be a neat twist.

The door opens to his touch and he sighs through his nose. The inside looks a little messier, evidence of a house lived-in and loved-in. He sees evidence of his go-bag gone, the front-door closet raided of coats and shoes. So they did leave. He goes upstairs immediately and heads for the safe in his and Lori's bedroom closet.

It's unopened, and he smiles when he keys in the password – Carl's birthday – and opens it. His pistol sits inside, gleaming dully with promise, along with two boxes of ammo for it. He takes the weapon out and holds it for a moment, loving the weight of it in his hands. It's been a long time since he held his weapon, longer than the days since being committed to the facility. It slides into his hand like an old friend, fairly thrumming with happiness at being in the hands of its master again.

He can hear Daryl rummaging around downstairs, most likely scavenging what food is still left, and so Rick takes the opportunity to grab some of his own possessions. Clothes that fit, for starters. They aren't hanging in the closet or in the chest of drawers anymore, but neatly labelled in boxes in one corner of the room. That's fair, he supposes. After all, he hasn't lived here for months, and his room had been destined to become Shane's.

He pulls the boxes away from the wall and sets the first one on the bed with a quiet grunt of effort. Inside he finds most of his work clothes, and his gun belt. He takes it out with a smile and sets it to one side. In the next box, he finds more clothes and quickly hauls Daryl's shirt off over his head, replacing it with a loose-fitting, thin grey t-shirt. He finds a pair of black, comfortable jeans and slides those on, setting Daryl's belt next to the gun belt on the bed. The clothes fit him the same as they always used to, and he can feel the horrors of the previous months sliding off of him as he dons them.

It feels like coming back to himself, as he fastens the gun belt around his waist and slides the Python into the holster at his side. The weight is familiar, the leather warm against his thigh, and he smiles more widely than he can remember doing in a while. He grabs a few more sets of clothes and rolls them up, stuffing them into one of Lori's old suitcases that he finds under the bed.

That done, he goes to the en-suite bathroom. He sees Shane's razor, still plugged in, and flicks on the light to reveal the rest of the bathroom. It's clean and white, just as he remembers it except with little accents of Shane thrown in. It really doesn't bother him, seeing his friend's imprint in his house. He loves Shane like a brother and Lori like an old friend and the mother of his child. He bears them no ill will, honestly.

He flicks the razor on and turns to the mirror, eyeing the scruff on his face with distaste. He doesn't bother with shaving cream, just wets the razor and puts it to his face in an effort to get the scruff off as quickly as he can. In this day and age, there is no time for vanity, but comforts will come few and far between and he figures he can indulge himself a little.

His hand burns as he works, and he shivers when the air turns cold again. He blinks, and turns, and gasps when he sees Death standing in his bedroom. The air around the shadowy, cloaked figure is dark as though someone is shining black light through fog, and he can't quite make out the edges of the figure's silhouette.

"Hello, Death," he says quietly, turning the razor off and setting it down. The quick job will do for now.

Death grins at him as he always has, head tilting down and Rick imagines he's admiring the gleam of Rick's gun. Rick's weapon is one made for death – there is no use for it in hunting. It is a weapon meant to take the souls of men, to put giant holes in their chests and their foreheads so that they can't be a threat anymore.

Hello, Rick, Death says, the voice slipping under Rick's hairline and around the back of his neck like a cold serpent. Then, Death's head turns, attention drawn by the sound of Daryl moving around downstairs. You have a follower.

"Yes," Rick says, exiting the bathroom and switching off the light.

I have no need of followers, Death says, the voice oddly light like discussing what food is in season this time of year. Death moves, hands shifting along the shaft of his wickedly curved scythe. For all the times Death has come to Rick, he has shown his weapon once, maybe twice. Rick is enamored with it. He imagines it feels like holding power in his hands, liquid and burning and raw. My power does not rely on the faith of men.

"Maybe mine does," Rick replies, lifting his chin as Death grins at him. He knows what Death is saying – Daryl. There is no need for Daryl in Death's eyes. Rick has a mission. Extra weight will slow him down. "He is very dear to me. I won't let you take him from me."

He may be taken, your will or not, Death says, but moves again and the scythe fades away. Rick fights the urge to reach for his own weapon. It will have no effect, but Death doesn't take lightly to disobedience, or being cheated. Then, Death's head tilts to one side, the skull wavering for a moment. But, if it is my servant's will, I will extend to him protection. I will only take him from you if he willingly gives himself to me.

Rick smiles. "Thank you, Death," he says sincerely, nodding his head in a gesture of respect and submission – Death answers it in kind, head bowing briefly in acknowledgement of their deal.

Then, Death moves towards him, one hand outstretched, and Rick shivers when the bones of his fingertips brush Rick's now-smooth cheek. He loves you, Death says kindly. As the Angels love their God. Treat him kindly, Rick.

"I will," Rick says breathlessly. Of course, he knows Daryl thinks of him as close to a friend. They are all they have at the end of the world, until they find their families again. He is not naïve enough to call that love, but Death's words warm him all the same.

Death nods and draws back, about to fade away, and Rick steps forward. "Wait!" he calls, and the skull looks at him, hollow eyes as black as the night between stars. "Where should we go? Where would you have me go?"

Death considers him for a moment. Go to Atlanta, Death says, before the vision fades away from Rick's sight entirely and warmth returns to the room. Rick feels his hand grow wet, and looks down to see blood soaking out from his bandage. He curses, closing his fingers, and grits his teeth.

Altanta. A major city, probably overrun with walkers. Daryl won't take too kindly to that.

He breathes out a heavy exhale through his nose and grabs Lori's suitcase before heading downstairs. He finds Daryl in the living room, sorting through the boxes of food, and cans, and other weapons he'd pilfered from the kitchen. He looks up when Rick approaches and whistles lowly.

"Don't you clean up good, Officer Friendly," he says with a nod.

Rick smiles, feeling his cheeks heat. "Shane's razor is upstairs if you want to use it," he says with a jerk of his head.

Daryl shakes his head, smiling a little. "Nah, I'll pass," he says, blowing some of his hair out of his face. "Well, your wife's got a mean knife collection, I'll give her that. Found some lighter food, too, but that's about it. You got anythin'?"

"Shane raided most of our safe, but I found this," Rick says, gesturing to the gun at his thigh. Daryl's eyes flash to it, an unreadable expression on his face, before he licks his lips and nods again. "And some ammo for it, and I grabbed some of my own clothes."

Daryl's eyes flash to his hand. "You're bleedin'."

"Yeah. Happened when I was shaving."

"How the fuck you do that when you're shavin'? Got a straight razor or somethin'?"

Rick can't help laughing, and shakes his head fondly. "Worried I'm going to hurt myself, Daryl?" he teases, and Daryl fixes him with a look like he wants to punch Rick but decides against it out of laziness and nothing else.

"I'm worried about a lot of things," Daryl concedes after a moment of silence, looking back down. "But yeah, you hurtin' yourself's up there. Rick…I know you were right. You saw all this coming, the apocalypse and shit, but you were still committed. You – I saw what you wrote on the wall. Maybe we should'a grabbed you some meds too."

"I never took 'em anyway," Rick replies with a one-shouldered shrug, setting his suitcase down by Daryl's haul, and Daryl looks up at him with a raised eyebrow from his perch on the couch. "I'd put them under my tongue and then spit 'em out in the bathroom."

Daryl utters a low curse. "Fuckin' Mahoney was meant to check that shit. Worthless piece of trash."

"Hey, now, don't speak ill of the dead."

"Fuck you," Daryl says, but without much heat. Then, he sighs, standing. "Alright, let's get back to the truck and go pick up my brother. I'm sure he'll have his own two cents to add to this mess."

"Sounds like a plan," Rick says, helping Daryl collect their things and leave the house. He doesn't bother shutting the door behind him. "Then, we need to head towards Atlanta."

"Atlanta?" Daryl repeats incredulously. "Fuckin' biggest city around here? Why? That place will be crawlin' with walkers."

Rick hesitates in his answer. He doesn't want to, suddenly, tell Daryl how Death came to him, because he doesn't feel like he'll stop at just that, but be compelled to relate the rest of what Death said. Death is a candid fellow, and Rick doesn't think Daryl will take too well to what he had to say.

"Shane and I were both cops," he says instead, throwing his suitcase over the side of the truck when they reach it. Another stray walker approaches them and is put down quickly by Daryl before he throws his own haul in. "And when we were in the Academy, we used to watch shit like Die Hard and old cop or apocalypse movies on marathons. And we agreed on an escape plan for shit just like this. And that plan included this cabin Shane's parents own on the outskirts of Atlanta. It's easy to defend and easy to secure. And we agreed that if anything happened to either of us, we'd rendezvous there. So, that's where he'll have taken Lori and Carl."

Daryl eyes him for a moment, chewing on his lower lip. Like he can tell Rick's full of shit, but isn't willing to be the realist and call him out on it. It warms Rick to think that Daryl trusts him enough to obey him even when he's clearly lying.

"Alright then," he says, and heads to the driver side door. "Merle, then Atlanta. Sounds like a plan."

 

Chapter Text

"You know what I'm going to miss most about the facility?" Rick asks lightly as Daryl expertly navigates their way around the edges of Rick's suburban neighborhood. They have yet to see any more major signs of disturbance except for the occasional walker that they just drive past now. It's strange how easily the human brain is meant to cope with new things to the point of apathy, how quickly it ceases to care.

Daryl tried to hit one, once, his face grim and his jaw set. Rick chose not to comment when he swerved at the last moment, avoiding the limping wretch of what had once been a man.

Daryl gives a grunt in reply. His fingers twitch towards the radio. He doesn't seem like a man who used to talk during long drives. Lori talks, Rick remembers. She likes to point out funny billboards, or sing along to the radio with Carl and Rick when they all knew the song. She likes to comment on how yellow the fields are turning or when the leaves start to change. Inane, innocent things. Rick likes that about her. It was always easy to tell when she was upset because she would go quiet.

"What's that?" Daryl finally asks when Rick doesn't continue. Like maybe he thinks Rick is upset when he's silent too. Rick has never considered himself a particularly conversational guy. He talks enough with his friends and family, and he likes to talk to Daryl, but usually in the facility talking meant you were in some kind of therapy and that's not and never has been his style. He'd rather keep his emotions tight to his chest like a hand at poker.

"The noise," Rick says with a sigh. He cocks his head to one side and looks out of the window. They have them rolled down, maybe so they can feel a breeze, maybe so that they never quite move past the stink of death. It's a reminder, he thinks, that they're not safe. There's no birdsong, there's no other noise at all. It's strange, he thinks. People should be evacuating by now.

Daryl grunts. "Won't miss that," he says. "The moanin' at night. Eddie goin' fuckin' crazy in his cell. Always creeped me out."

"I don't mean that," Rick replies with another sigh. "But yeah, that was creepy."

"What do you mean, then?" Daryl asks instead of acknowledging Rick's statement.

Rick shrugs. "I guess, more specifically, I'm going to miss Tuesdays," he says. "I liked Tuesdays."

"Tuesdays," Daryl murmurs. "Visiting days."

"Yeah." He smiles. "It was always the same ring of people. Like Jack's cousin, or Grant's wife and his kids. James' parents."

"You killed James," Daryl says tightly. As though he's determined not to let Rick forget. Rick nods and hums. "I don't understand you, man," Daryl adds with a shake of his head. "I don't understand any of this."

"I would rather be out, with you, knowing what's going on, than sitting and waiting for it to come to us," Rick replies stiffly. "What if someone had gotten sick and turned and I hadn't been there to protect you?"

"I think I would'a done alright," Daryl replies, his voice equally tight. Challenging.

Of that, Rick has no doubt. Daryl is a survivor, one strong and capable enough to take care of himself. But he wouldn't have known right away – not what Rick does. He wouldn't have known how to stop it, just how to survive, and who knows what might have happened after. Maybe he'd go searching for his brother, or maybe he'd have gone to his house and been taken out by that neighbor once she'd turned. Who could say.

"I didn't mean to offend you," Rick says after another moment of that blistering, raw silence. He finds himself strangely uncomfortable in Daryl's silence, but he never has before. Daryl is the kind of man who says a million things with the jerk of his finger or the twitch of his mouth, or the color of his eyes. They're dark, now, the deepest blue of the ocean where the monsters live. Rick likes that color.

Daryl bites his lower lip and his shoulders relax, just a little. "You didn't," he says, but the strain of his voice betrays his lie. Rick lets it slide. He did offend Daryl, but he didn't mean to. It's just going to be a fact of life, now – humanity, they're stronger together. Pack animals in a predator's skin. Even now Daryl seeks out his family and Rick seeks his, though it's a backburning thought. They're stronger together, they're more likely to succeed together. And if Rick should fail, they will all fail together.

"There he is," Daryl says, tapping the horn once so it lets out a quiet little yelp, too shallow and sudden to draw too much attention. Rick straightens up and looks ahead to see the hunkering shape of a man sitting on the curb. He straightens, his face hidden because the sun is behind him, and Daryl slows to a stop.

"Hey, baby bro! What took you so long? Prom date stand you up?"

"Shut up, Merle," Daryl hisses, and there are at least seven layers of venom hiding the soft affection beneath it all. "Get in the car."

"Who you got here?" Merle asks, climbing into the backseat of the truck. Daryl doesn't even wait for the door to close before he's pulling away. "Got yourself a boyfriend?"

Daryl lets out a low growl, but before he can respond Rick turns to look over his shoulder and shoots Merle a smile. "Name's Rick," he says, offering his hand out to shake. "I was one of the crazy people Daryl was looking after."

Merle's grey eyebrows shoot up to the middle of his forehead and Daryl lets out a low curse. Perhaps Rick is being a little too candid, like Death, but he figures he should get all of the secrets out of the way. Well, most of them anyway. He doesn't need someone like Merle causing a scene when there are other people around in the future.

Merle is not what Rick had pictured when Daryl said he had a brother. For starters, he had thought the man would look more like Daryl. Merle is much older, his hair thinning where it still clings in little fuzz to his head. His face is rough with at least a week of stubble. His teeth are yellowed and dirty and his lips are chapped and wide. Were it not for the eyes, Rick doesn't think there would be any assumed blood between them.

Merle sizes him up just the same. Rick can feel it like he's put weights on Rick's head and tested him against a pound of golden hide. Then, he slaps his hand into Rick's and pushes the shake away, settling instead on an awkward, off-center high-five. He lets out a low whistle and slams the same hand onto Daryl's shoulder, causing him to jerk the wheel a little harshly to the left.

Merle was a prisoner too, Rick thinks. There are certain similarities between them. The hunted look in the eyes. The way the air feels against their faces. They're dogs let out of their pens, Daryl still holding the leashes, albeit loosely. Daryl's jaw clenches and he keeps his eyes forward.

"What, I break outta the can and I don't even get a 'Hello'? I'm hurt," Merle says, his accent turning his voice high and lilting like a scorned lover. Daryl shrugs off his hand. "Bet you didn't even think of ol' Merle, neither. All that pretty loot in the trunk and none of it's mine, eh?"

"You're free to use what you're able to," Daryl says tightly. "But I ain't turnin' back." Then, he sighs. "You know what's been goin' on?"

"Got clued in pretty quick," Merle says, sitting back against his seat with an overly-loud huff. Merle is a loud person, Rick knows that immediately. Hopefully he knows how to be silent too. In this world, silence is survival. "I break out, fresh and clean, and go to that good ol' Lizzie's house. You know the one, Darlena, with the massive tits you could suffocate yourself in. Well…" He sighs, shaking his head. "I get there, and wouldn't you know it, looks like Lizzie was partyin', and she partied too hard, 'cause she's coming at me all wide-eyed and open-mouthed, and it wasn't to service good ol' Merle, that's for damn certain."

"She turned?" Daryl asks, politely and pointedly ignoring the way Merle has decided to graphically mime out what 'Ol' Lizzie' used to do for him back in her living days. Rick turns to face forward as well, a little nauseous, though he's not sure if that's for the conversation or carsickness. Probably carsickness. He usually drives.

"Guess if that's what you wanna call it. Had a pretty nice stash all spread out, mid-party looks like. Kicked her away and locked her in the closet and partied all by myself 'fore I thought to call you." Then, Merle grins, slick and sly. Rick can hear it in his voice. "But looks like you had the same thoughts I did, lil bro. Got yourself a hot piece of ass to comfort you in these tryin' times. Poor Merle's got nothin' but a hand and a memory."

"I'm sorry for your loss," Daryl bites out, disgust and judgement written deeply into his face like someone carved it there. Rick resists the urge to reach out and touch him. He's sure it wouldn't go over well, either to Merle's teasing lilt or Daryl's nerves. His fingers curl into his jeans and find a hole in the thigh, and he frowns down at it. Animals must have gotten to it, but that seems out of place in his old house. Lori would never tolerate rats or moths. They must have been there longer than he assumed.

"I'm sure there'll be plenty of time for loose women," Merle says with a vague dismissive gesture. "But I guess we gotta focus more on what the actual fuck's happenin' now."

"It's the end of the world," Rick says, lifting his head and smiling over his shoulder at Merle. "The dead walk the Earth."

Merle raises an eyebrow at him, and lets out a low whistle. "Man, I know the hot ones are crazy, lil bro, but this dude must be dynamite in the sack."

"Not that it'll change your opinion," Daryl snaps, "but we're not fucking. And, he's right. He saw this all coming."

"Been saying it for months," Rick adds with a nod, his smile still on his face. He's not ashamed of what people will think of him when he tells them what he knows. All the good prophets were rejected at first. Besides, it's hard to deny the hard proof standing (or, in this case, shuffling) right in front of their faces.

"So…" Merle gnaws on something that might be tobacco, might just be a piece of tire for all he seems to be enjoying it. "What? You die, you become one o' them?"

Rick nods. "Headshot's the only way to make sure what's dead stays dead," he says, digging his finger through the hole in his jeans until he can feel skin. His nail tickles and he withdraws it, drumming his hand on his thigh instead. "Started yesterday. Gonna spread fast."

"S'already spread," Merle says in an uncharacteristically quiet voice. "Shit, if anyone who dies turns, the whole place'll be overrun in days."

Daryl grunts. "That's why we need to get outta here. Get supplies, weapons, hole up somewhere safe for a while, until the mass hysteria dies down. Until people get smart again."

Merle lets out a whoop, slamming his hand onto Daryl's shoulder again. "Great idea, Darlena! Knew you were more than just a pretty face. So!" He claps his hands together and rubs his palms. "Where we goin'?"

"Atlanta."

Merle is quiet a moment. "Now, here I was thinkin' you were turnin' smart. The fuck's in Atlanta?"

"Rick's son, his wife, his friend," Daryl says. "He's a cop, he'll have weapons, and they'll want to know Rick's safe. They're good people."

"They're probably dead people," Merle replies, his drawl like iron filings across a sheet of glass. Rick feels something unpleasant and angry drag up his spine but he forces himself not to react. "The fuck you doin' risking your hide for folks that ain't blood?"

"They been more a family you ever were," Daryl says. As he talks, the angrier he gets, the worse his speech gets. Like Merle brings out the worst in him. Rick feels the angry-shard sharpen to a point on his tongue, ready to strike like a venomous snake. "And they're smart. They ain't dead." His knuckles are white on the steering wheel. "Any case, you either come with us or you get out. Your choice."

"Yer in my truck," Merle says, but it's petulant, the voice of a child who knows they've lost the argument. Rick hears him settle back against the seat with a huff, and then the creak and whine of the leather as he moves to lay down. "Fine, you lovebirds go on your insanity mission and drag ol' Merle to his death with ya. I'm grabbin' some shuteye."

"There is a God, then," Daryl says under his breath, and it abruptly dissolves the point of poison on Rick's tongue and he laughs, his head thrown back, teeth flashing. He sees Daryl's mouth twitch in a smirk. It's one of Daryl's secret smiles – one that Rick can't remember anyone else getting in a long while. With Merle's judgmental eyes out of the way, Rick reaches out and lets his fingers brush across the hem of Daryl's shirt in that familiar way he used to be allowed.

Daryl doesn't flinch at him, and his expression softens from the tight, tense and angry thing it had been before. Rick remembers Death's words to him and feels his chest grow warm and tight with affection. Daryl is his follower, his friend – maybe more if fate and circumstance could have allowed it. Rick has never been particularly religious, vaguely Protestant because that's what their part of Georgia demands, but he does believe in a God, and believes in things like the soul. Around Daryl, his soul feels comfortable and welcome, like two wolves in a pack.

He loves you, Death had said. Maybe not love. Maybe something like it, men in a war driven together out of need and out of shared experience. Daryl knows things about Rick no other living thing does, and Rick likes to think Daryl has shared pieces of himself that others rarely see.

They are stronger together. Maybe with Merle, too. And when they find Shane, and Lori, and Carl, the pack will be even better than it was.

 

 

They don't make it to Atlanta that day. Between the scavenging and the driving and the fight, they're all wiped out. Merle snores because Merle is the kind of man who snores, loud and uncaring, a bear in the woods to frighten other predators. Only this time it will merely draw them near.

They find a house that's been abandoned and force the garage door open so that they can hide the truck inside. There must be survivors like them that will look at a haul like that and think it easy pickings. They can't afford to lose the food, and even less to lose the weapons. The house they break into and clear is empty, one of the new ones in a new lot just built, advertising Prime Real Estate, starting at $150,000, three bedroom and four bedroom plans available. It's the kind of place Rick would have retired in, he thinks.

There's still food in the house and apparently the male residents had been about Merle's size because he finds clothes that fit reasonably well. Daryl orders him to take a shower because who knows how long running water will work for, but the water doesn't run here yet. "Can't sell a home without running water," Rick mutters, frowning in disapproval at the smiling real estate agent's face. He doesn't know Deborah Jones, has never met her or seen her face before, but he hates her in a petty way. She's probably dead anyway.

"Guess you'll just have to put up with eau de Merle and all its glory for a while longer," Merle says, grinning like a pleased cat as though forcing his stink upon them gives him no end of pleasure.

"I'll take the couch," Daryl says in response, shrugging off his angel-wing vest and draping it over a chair. "Keep an eye on the door."

"I'll sleep in the dining room," Rick replies, eyeing the space. The way the house is laid out, the door opens to a wide entrance with the stairs beckoning people upwards, but the living room on the right and the dining room on the left are wide open. He walks over and pulls the curtains shut.

"Insanity," Merle mutters. "I'm takin' on'a them nice beds, then. Night, lovebirds!" he says with a salute and a whistle. Rick watches him go, the heaviness of his steps and the sway in his walk. He looks sweaty. Might start detoxing soon.

Daryl, apparently, shares a little of the sentiment. "Should have just driven past him," he mutters, with that same off mixture of fondness and aggravation. Rick supposes siblings do that to people. Lord knows Shane had been a trial at his worst and could bring out the irritation in Rick as easily as the humor and ease. "Fucker even got high, so he'll start gettin' the shakes soon, start becoming a…"

He doesn't want to say the word. "We'll find somewhere safe," Rick says gently, reaching out and resting his hand on the back of the couch. Daryl is standing on the other side of it, using it like some kind of barrier between them. Rick doesn't like it, but it must be necessary. People like Daryl don't invite physical closeness when they're uncomfortable. And maybe Merle's jibes had landed harder than he'd let on. "Somewhere he can get clean, where we can protect him. Then we'll move on. It doesn't matter if it takes us a while at first."

Daryl blinks at him, and shakes his head. "He don't deserve that," he says. "Merle's a fuckin'…a fuckin' mess."

"But he's your brother," Rick replies, and finds it strange that he's imploring one of the kindest men he knows to compassion. Maybe Merle's door to Daryl's heart has been sealed off and locked long ago, but Rick can't believe that. He would never think that of Daryl. "It's okay. No one starts a marathon at a sprint."

"What kind of…?" Daryl shakes his head and huffs a strange, bitter-sounding laugh. "Fuck Hallmark, man. Makin' your brain go fuzzy." Then he looks past Rick, to the dining room. There are cushions on the chairs but not much else in terms of adornment. "You sure you're okay sleepin' over there? Ain't even a carpet or nothin'."

"I like the floor," Rick says pleasantly, straightening up and looking over his shoulder at it. "Besides, the door opens to that direction. I'm the first thing someone'll see when they walk in."

Daryl's eyes narrow. "I don't need you to protect me," he says coldly, and Rick knows that's true. He doesn't need Rick for protection. He already has it from Death.

"I never said you did," Rick replies, letting Daryl's anger settle inside of him like a shot of whiskey. Anger is good. Anger means there's a will to keep living, a will to turn his back on Death and reject his offer and remain with Rick. "But maybe it's something I need." At that, Daryl blinks, his shoulders lowering. "Daryl, there's a reason I became a cop, okay? And…I spent so long being taken care of. By doctors, by caretakers, by you…"

"Hard habit to break," Daryl says quietly, and Rick stops speaking. He blinks at Daryl, tilting his head to one side, and abruptly ducks his gaze, lifting his hand to scratch at the back of his neck. It's strange. He'd never considered that the compulsion to care for someone so strongly, to care for Daryl so strongly, might go the other way as well. "But you don't need to keep puttin' yourself in the first line of fire, Rick. I'm…gonna be okay."

"I'm still going to sleep there," Rick says, straightening up and smiling. It doesn't come as easily this time. He feels strangely thin, and meek under Daryl's ocean-blue gaze. "I won't budge on that. I know we're going to find Carl, and Shane and Lori, and I'm going to protect them. But… Daryl, you're family, and I'm going to look after you."

Daryl doesn't answer. He shifts his weight, looking down and breaking Rick from the power of the tides. He blinks, one slow movement of his lashes, his hair falling to hide his eyes, and bites his lower lip. He shifts his weight again and looks somewhere in the area of Rick's chest.

"Yeah, well, you're family, too," he says, before he turns away and strides into the kitchen, and Rick guesses that means that the conversation is over. The warmth in his chest explodes outwards, bubbling and giddy, and he smiles.

 

 

Rick has had enough visions and nightmares to immediately tell the difference when he's having one.

In the visions, he has no free will. This is already destined, predetermined. He can't fight it, can only move passively through the horror and watch it happen and do nothing. His words, when they come, are meek and thread along on a fishing line, yanked from his mouth and forced outwards. There is no changing the visions. There is no altering their course.

This is not a vision. He walks down an abandoned highway, Daryl on his right, Carl on his left. In his hands he holds a long machete, the handle red and dripping with fresh, human blood. Dirt and oil and sweat cling to his skin. Behind him, shadows move, but he can't make himself turn around to see their faces. They are his people, though, his pack, following his lead like sheep to a slaughter, or lemmings off the edge of a cliff. Behind them, farther back, a herd of walkers follows them.

He can hear them, and feel their breath and smell their stench like they're holding onto his back, claws ripping into his skin. He lets them, breathing deeply as his back burns. His hand aches, too, where it's holding the weapon. He keeps walking.

Beside him Carl, lets out a sharp breath. His eyes are wide. He's wearing Rick's old Sherriff's hat, the one that Shane always teased him about when he wore it, all the while lifting his eyes to shield them from the sun while Rick could see free and clear.

"I smell water," he says, and Rick becomes abruptly aware of how thirsty he is. He licks his lips and they crack. He tastes blood. Maybe it's his blood on the machete. Maybe it's not blood at all, but wine. Maybe if he drank it, he would know.

He looks down at it and licks his lips again. It shines like gems. Daryl reaches out and grabs his arm.

"I hear it, too," he says, urgently. His eyes are wide, the same blue as shattered stained glass. Rick wants to kiss him, to soak into him. Maybe Daryl's mouth is as full of water as his eyes are.

Behind him, the shadows of his kin move, restlessly. "Water," they all seems to whisper. "Water. Lead us to water, Rick."

He nods at Carl and Daryl and loosens his hold on the machete. "Which way?" he asks, and Carl and Daryl both head to the right. Rick follows them, anxiety curled up in his stomach when it means they aren't heading away from the walkers. They can cut across and catch up if they're smart enough to do that.

They hurry through the woods, the air damp and resting on their shoulders like a psychical thing. It's amazing how vivid Rick's dreams are ever since he woke up from his coma. He can smell, and taste, and touch and it all feels so real.

Daryl's winged shoulders disappear around a tree and Rick lets out a startled yell, rushing forward, only to blow out a breath of relief when he sees the hunter come back into his field of vision. Daryl doesn't seem to have noticed his distress. Carl, by his side, stays as a silent shadow.

Daryl leads them through the woods and then they break out the other side of the swath of trees. There's a river, dried-up mostly. The banks are still muddy where water once was. Rick licks his lips again and looks behind him but he can't see the rest of his pack.

Carl rushes forward and they kneel by the edge of the stream, the three of them. They cup their hands in the water and drink, hastily – rushed. The walkers aren't far behind, after all. The blood on Rick's machete stains the dark mud.

They fill their water bottles and then run over the stream to the other side. No one follows. Rick looks behind him and sees shapes hulking out, humanoid but swathed in grey. Rick doesn't recognize them as human, nor the shapes of his kin. He's sure if he were to see them he would recognize them. Isn't that what faces of strangers were in dreams? Re-compositions, mish-mashes of what the brain has already seen.

They fall into the water as though it's a thousand miles deep, only their eyes and foreheads showing. "Rick," they seem to whisper, thickly through the water. "Lead us to water, Rick."

"I have," Rick says in reply, helpless. Daryl is staring at him, in the dream. Or maybe in real life, too. Rick feels eyes on him and he's not sure who they belong to. Behind the river, the walkers break through the trees. Daryl grabs his arm.

"We have to go," he says.

"We can't leave them," Rick replies. Maybe they can't even see the rest – Daryl and Carl. Maybe they're blind. Maybe it's all in Rick's head. Maybe he is insane, imagining people who aren't there. He takes a step forward and Daryl's hand tightens and shakes on his bicep.

"Rick," he says, his voice far-off and meek. "We have to go, Rick."

"I can't leave them behind," Rick replies, his voice a low snarl. "Come on!" he yells, this time louder, jerking from Daryl's hold. "Get out of the river. Come with me! Get out!"

"Rick, lead us."

"I'm trying."

"Rick!"

It's Daryl.

"Dad!"

Carl. Rick looks behind him and sees his son's eyes on the walkers, wide and terrified. Carl inherited Rick's blue eyes. They're full of anxiety and stone-cold acceptance. Rick will be responsible for his death. This has to be a dream.

The air gets cold, and Rick trembles and falls back. The walkers are at the water now, sinking up to their knees in it. His machete is still on the bank. The blood is darkening, turning brown. A walker steps on it and stumbles to its knees. "Get out of the river!" he yells. "Get away from there!"

They don't move. Daryl grabs him again and hauls him back, into the trees. The walkers will feed, destroying his pack and feasting on his friends. The grey shapes have wide, accusing eyes. The faces of the dead, of spirits. Maybe of people he'll be responsible for. Maybe the people he will let down.

They disappear into the trees. Rick hears them being devoured, hears their shrieks of betrayal and anguish. It's so clear, even through the water. "Daryl, we have to go back."

"We can't," Daryl bites out, his hand never leaving Rick's wrist. Rick's hand burns, aching for his weapon. He turns it and holds onto Daryl's shirt instead and lets the man guide him. Daryl moves without effort through the trees, his feet soundless where Carl and Rick stumble, making noise, giving away their position.

They start to run. Rick's breathing grows heavy, and tired.

"We have to go back," he says again. "We have to save them."

"Rick!"

Something tugs at Rick's consciousness. An awareness that shocks him like a splash of ice water to the face. Rick jerks away from Daryl and then suddenly he's sitting up, on the dining room floor. He's sweating and raw, breathing hard.

Daryl is there, a shadow kneeling at his side. He's holding Rick's head and Rick's shoulder and Rick gasps against him, shuddering and sobbing. His face is wet and stains Daryl's shirt.

"It's okay," Daryl whispers. His hand is cradling Rick's neck, wrapped thickly in his curls. Rick is reminded of James, when he first started to break. He'd shriek and cry and sob until someone – usually the tiny redheaded nurse who worked in the kitchens usually – would come and hold him and pet him and soothe him. Maybe Rick's insane, his brain just as cooked. Maybe this is a dream, too. Maybe he never woke from his coma.

Daryl hums, lowly, as Rick chokes on another sob. "It's okay," he says again. "You're awake. I'm here."

"I don't know that," Rick replies. He clings to Daryl like he's hanging off the edge of a cliff. Maybe it would be better to fall. His mouth is dry and his jaw is cramping from grinding his teeth together. "Maybe you're not even real. Maybe I'm insane."

Daryl lets out a soft, disbelieving sound. "I'm here," he says, and that does make Rick feel better. He's sure his own subconscious has never been so assuring. And he's sure he would never be able to, in all his wildest dreams, create someone as amazing as Daryl and as grating as Merle even if he tried. "You were just having a nightmare. Reckon we'll all have them, eventually."

"Did I wake you?" Rick asks. His breathing is evening out, but he doesn't withdraw from Daryl. Daryl smells real, sweaty and bitter with anxiety. He smells of truck oil and fear and vaguely like pudding cups. He smells alive.

He feels Daryl shake his head, his long hair brushing Rick's forehead. "Nah," he says. "I was awake."

"I'm sorry," Rick says, because he knows Daryl is lying. He must have said something, or moved, or moaned in such a way that Daryl had come to himself, tense with fear because sounds of pain are now sounds of a predator. They won't sleep soundly for years. Daryl's fingers rub in a circle at the base of his neck. "I'm sorry," he says again, and curls his fingers in a loop of Daryl's jeans. Daryl shifts his weight, allowing the touch, so that he's up on the balls of his feet instead of his knees, curling around Rick like a protective shield from the chaos of his own mind.

"What were you dreamin' about?" he asks.

"Death," Rick replies simply, and doesn't elaborate if he's talking about the thing or the act of dying. It doesn't matter. They are one and the same and they surround everything now. The room is warm, stiflingly so despite how cold it must be outside. Maybe that's just Daryl, though, his proximity. Maybe Rick will always burn around him.

Daryl nods again. "I was dreaming about fire," he says. Maybe that's why he smells like ash, maybe that's why he's so warm. "Lost my momma to it, years ago."

Rick blinks. Daryl has never talked about his parents. Even with as little as he knows about Daryl, he can guess the tale of Mister and Missus Dixon doesn't start or end very well. His training in the academy had told him about correlations, about patterns. One brother in jail and a drug addict, the other tough and callous on the outside and stashed with weapons and at ease around dangerous criminals. It isn't hard to guess, or think about, those grey-shaped people with sullen faces and hard mouths that had begat the Dixon brothers.

"I'm sorry," he says, but he's not sure he means it. Death is not a punishment. Death isn't cruel. It's freedom, liberation. And if Daryl's mother had been alive, and his father had been a little more kind, they might never have met. Rick won't allow that – he's possessive of his place in Daryl's life. He will fight to defend it.

Daryl grunts. "I'm not," he says. His fingers haven't stopped moving in Rick's hair, his other hand is warm on Rick's shoulder. His eyes are on the door. Rick can feel them as though they're on him. He's always on watch, always on guard. Rick needs to find a place where they'll be safe – where Merle can detox and Shane and Lori can love and Carl can grow. He needs to find a safe haven for them so that, when his mission demands it of him, he will be able to leave them and continue on, knowing that they will continue to exist and thrive without him.

Finally, Rick pulls back, more because Daryl's thighs are starting to shake from holding his position than anything else. He doesn't want Daryl to move away from him. Daryl, it seems, shares the feeling, because he goes to his knees and his hand moves from Rick's shoulder and neck but he doesn't get up. His eyes gleam in the darkness, deep and shining, and Rick licks his lips.

In the darkness, things feel calmer. In the garish daylight there is no hiding from the reality of the world, but here, in the house, in the dark, they are just two people. Rick's throat feels dry, his tongue heavy and dumb. He wants to reach out for Daryl again. He has always been fairly physically affectionate, craving touch even if it's just a handshake or a pat on the shoulder. Now he feels like a cat in heat, and wants to plaster himself to Daryl, to hear his heartbeat and soak into the feeling of having something living, breathing next to him.

Daryl isn't moving away. Rick can't see much of his face except for the vague blue glow of his eyes. His face is probably silhouetted too. He wonders if Daryl is searching for the same things he is. Unfortunately, the dark also makes them blind.

Then, Daryl clears his throat. He shifts his weight back onto the balls of his feet. Rick hears his palms rub against his jeans. "You gonna be okay?" he asks, voice low and raspy.

Rick swallows, hard. "Yes," he says, because it would be unfair to say otherwise. "Sorry I woke you. You should get some more sleep."

"Yeah," Daryl whispers. Then he pushes himself to his feet and lets his hand trail across Rick's shoulder as he moves away. Rick knows his shoulder is lower than Daryl's hand naturally falls, which means he meant for the touch to land. It warms him, knowing that Daryl might be just as touch-starved as he is. Living the life they both had, physical closeness had been as distant a dream as freedom.

"Goodnight, Daryl," Rick calls after him. He feels a flash of panic again, knowing Daryl's moved away from him, knowing that he won't be able to reach out and touch him. His fingers curl and dig into the bandage on his palm.

"Night, Rick."

Chapter Text

The next morning, Merle is not well. The withdrawal has already started to sink in, Rick can tell. He's sweating, shaky, and moaning like a walker when they wake up the next morning. Rick climbs up the stairs because he had woken up and hadn't seen Daryl, and panic had spurred him upwards. He gets to the top of the stairs just as Daryl closes the door to the room Merle had claimed.

His face is stony, tired and angry. "He's comin' down," Daryl mutters, looking back over his shoulder with a look of thinly-veiled disgust. "He detoxes fast, usually, but it'll still take a couple days."

Rick hums. He wants to reach out to Daryl since the man is so clearly in distress, but refrains from doing so. Right now Daryl is a savage dog, hackles up, ears back. The intimacy that the night had brought them has no place for them here.

"Fuck," Daryl hisses, running a hand through his hair. "We should just leave the asshole. Fat lotta good he's gonna do to us anyway."

"We can't leave him," Rick says quietly. "He's your brother."

Daryl huffs. "I know," he says.

Rick regards him carefully. "We should go to the truck," he offers. "Get somethin' to eat. I'm starving."

He sees the shift in Daryl, from angry and withdrawn to open, more relaxed. This, at least, is familiar territory. Sometimes the residents, when they first come in, are confined to solitary while they sweat and beat out whatever substances they happened to be on. Some of them are caught and convicted so fast they're still withdrawing. Rick has never been in solitary, but he imagines Daryl must have cared for some of them, too.

Daryl's used to taking care of people. By offering himself as a vessel to Daryl's care, Rick is giving him something to do. Something else to focus on. It is a selfless kindness as much as it is a selfish pleasure. To have Daryl's attention is like a first kiss, shocking and soft.

He follows Daryl down to the truck, finding it undisturbed and unmolested. They fish around inside and find cans of soup, fruit cups and pudding cups – one of each for the three of them – and bring their haul back inside. There are no utensils in the kitchen, let alone bowls, so Rick snaps the tab back and opens it and tips the soup back. It's cold and overly salty but it's food. He's digging into the pudding cup when Daryl brings the food up to Merle. He doesn't follow, out of respect.

He scoops out the pudding with his finger, humming to himself as he does so. Rick had fallen into this habit when joining the facility. Even with all the noise and the moaning at night, the rest of the time could be so eerily and awfully silent. He likes humming, breaking out into whatever tune is on his mind. He likes the sound of his voice, how it vibrates in his throat. He hopes it doesn't annoy Daryl.

Daryl comes back about twenty minutes later and throws the empty containers into the sink, uncaring for the spray of juice and mess it makes. He runs his hands through his hair and sighs. "Got him to eat, at least," he says. "He'll start getting jittery, then mean, then he'll just sit there and moan like a whore until he's clean again."

He looks down, drumming his nails on the counter, and Rick perks up. "Where's your phone?" he asks.

Daryl looks at him, one eyebrow raised. "The car," he says with a shrug. "Why?"

"I remember Shane's number," Rick says. "If phones still work, I'd like to try calling him."

Daryl regards him for a moment, before he nods. "I'll be right back," he says, and disappears around the side of the room to where the door opens to the garage. Rick fights the urge to go after him. He really doesn't like having Daryl out of his line of sight. He's not sure that's something that will be cured any time soon.

Daryl comes back with the flip phone and offers it to Rick, who sets his empty pudding cup down and flips it open. There had been no place for pen or paper at the facility and so Rick made sure to memorize Shane's and Lori's numbers, just in case anything happened. It comes easily to him now, swiftly remembered, as he punches the numbers in.

He lifts the phone to his ear as it starts to ring. It goes straight to voicemail and he lets out a low curse. Then, he tries Lori number.

It rings, at least. Rick closes his eyes, expecting to get the generic voicemail message because Lori never figured out how to personalize it, only to stiffen in shock when Lori answers on the fifth ring.

"…Hello?"

It's her. God, she's still alive. Rick lets out a shallow breath and smiles. "Hey, Lori," he says, his voice soft and warm and familiar. He sees Daryl move away, back to the couch – maybe he's trying to give Rick some privacy. Maybe he doesn't like hearing Rick's voice when it's sweet and affectionate towards someone else. Their love, whatever kind they have, he's sure it is a jealous kind.

"Oh my God, Rick?" Lori's voice goes high-pitched and shrill. Rick can hear Shane repeating his name, in the background, and Carl's little peep of 'Dad?' "Rick, shit, we thought you were dead. We heard what happened at the facility, and -. How did you get out? Are you out? Holy shit, Shane! He's alive!"

"Lori, it's okay," Rick says, trying to make his voice soothing like he's comforting a wet cat freshly rescued. He shushes her and reaches his hand onto the counter as though it's her arm, brushing his fingers across it. "I'm safe. Daryl got me out."

"Rick, where are you?" Lori demands. "We'll come get you."

"No," Rick says and shakes his head. "No, don't. We have a vehicle, we have food and weapons, and we're in a neighborhood that should be safe." He licks his lips, his eyes on the back of Daryl's head. Daryl is purposely not looking at him or even in his direction, intently focused on his crossbow as he fiddles with it, laid across his lap. "Don't come back. Keep driving away. We can't move yet – Daryl's brother is withdrawing from a high. We're going to stay here a while, and then come meet you."

"Rick, you can't possibly think we're going to leave you," Lori says, her voice clipped. It's her scolding mother voice. She speaks to Rick as though he's a child. On the couch, Daryl's hands have stopped their restless movement and he's looking at Rick, surprise and gratitude written on his face. "Tell me where you are, right now. If nothing else we'll stay with you. Shane has guns, and we have clothes and blankets and food."

Rick pauses, considering that. His eyes meet Daryl's. Such a jealous, possessive love.

He sighs. "We'll be going towards Atlanta," he says. "After Merle is better. I'll see you then. Be safe, and give Carl and Shane my love."

Then, he hangs up, and puts the phone to silent. He's sure she'll try calling him, again and again and again. He won't have Daryl bear the brunt of her anger.

Daryl says nothing for a moment. Then; "You're not going to meet them?"

Rick shakes his head. "Merle can't move yet."

"He don't deserve your charity," Daryl says. "You should be with your family."

"I told you last night; you're my family, too."

"You've told me a lot of things."

"Do you think I'd lie?" Rick challenges, but it's not an aggressive one. He cocks his head to one side.

Daryl eyes him a moment longer, and then shakes his head. "No," he admits, and looks away as though unable to hold Rick's gaze a second longer. "But Merle don't deserve it and I sure as Hell don't think you should hang around with us when you could be with your family. Or at least have them come here."

"Won't risk it," Rick says, and then he stands up. The phone is bright with an incoming call but doesn't vibrate and doesn't ring. "They're probably halfway to Atlanta by now, if not there already. No sense them coming back if they're already somewhere safe. They can wait for me."

"They might die waitin'."

Rick pauses. He's by the back of the couch now. Daryl is looking up at him but not quite meeting his eyes. Rick wants to run his hands through Daryl's hair, test the softness, the shine of grease. He wants to feel Daryl relax against him.

"They might," Rick says with no inflection. Daryl's eyes flash up, then back down to somewhere around Rick's heart. "Death will tell me if they do."

Daryl nods, and turns his head away, staring across to the empty fireplace. It probably doesn't allow a real fire. Rick doesn't know.

"You really believe that," Daryl whispers.

"With all I am," Rick replies. "Do you?"

"No," Daryl says. "But I believe you do. So I guess that'll work for now."

 

 

 

 

When Rick wakes up, the sun is up and shining. He doesn't hear birdsong, or the skittering of animals outside like he used to hear in the time before. Lori would often send him out to chase away the racoons or, on one occasion, a stray cat, that had gotten into their garbage cans on a Monday morning. The absence of such a mundane sound irritates him.

He pushes himself to his feet and winces when his shoulder protests the fact that he spent all night on a wooden floor. He pulls it across his torso until it pops and lets his arms swing down with a sigh, before he walks across the entrance to the living room.

Daryl is not there. His crossbow is gone. Panic settles in Rick's stomach as heavy as lead and he resists the urge to call out for the man. He can't hear Merle moaning upstairs, or hear the sounds of someone moving around up there. His fingers flex by his sides and he goes to the kitchen even though he can see that Daryl isn't there either. The panic starts to flutter and grow wings, flying up to his throat.

He goes to the garage. The truck is still there, at least. It doesn't look like anyone's been out here since they ate last night. He goes back into the kitchen, feeling like a caged tiger eyeing the door to where it gets fed. "Daryl?" he chances, calling out softly, but gets no answer.

Finally he paces back to the dining room. The curtains are drawn. He goes to the front door and yanks it open a little harder than he'd meant to.

"Jesus Christ!"

Rick looks to his left and finds Daryl sitting on the porch, his legs on either side of a rung. He glares at Rick, looking startled. "Scared the crap outta me, man. What the fuck?"

"I…You…" Rick's breath dies in his throat. How can he describe the sheer, violent fear that had gripped him at the thought of Daryl being gone? He's read about this kind of thing: dependency, attachment, the pattern of an inmate developing a close relationship with one of their guards or one of their fellow inmates. It doesn't feel real, his need for Daryl, not yet, but he can't deny how panicked and helpless he'd felt when he'd woken up and not found Daryl where he expected him to be. "I couldn't find you. Can't go sneakin' off like that," he says instead, sounding weak.

Daryl snorts and turns back to looking at the street. He leans his forehead against the railing. He's smoking a cigarette, or at least he was. The thing is little more than the butt now. "I can do whatever the fuck I want," he bites back, but there's no real heat to it. He sounds tired. "You're not my fuckin' babysitter."

"Daryl." Rick takes a step forward, then stops. He wants to be near the man, but Daryl's coldness chills him like someone injected ice into his spine. "I didn't mean it like that. Please don't be angry with me."

Daryl turns to look at him again. The crossbow is next to his thigh, unloaded but ready. The fletching of his arrows is bright against the wood, green and white and orange. Rick swallows, and feels transparent under the weight of Daryl's gaze.

"I'm not mad," Daryl says, and it sounds like an apology. Rick takes a step closer, hesitant like a wild animal, and Daryl heaves a sigh and closes his eyes. "S'just…being in that house… I don't like it. I'd rather be outside. And Merle…"

"What did Merle do?"

"Talkin' shit, like usual." Daryl huffs and takes one last drag of his cigarette before he flicks it towards one of the barren rings of brick surrounding a patch of dirt where flowers were meant to be planted. Rick watches the end glow for a second before it dies. "But maybe he's right. Druggies, they always got a way of gettin' to the heart of ya. You'd know that, as a cop."

The spiritual high. Rick nods. Sometimes he wonders if Death might have come to him sooner if he'd ever partaken. He smoked weed once with Shane in high school and had thrown up almost immediately. Shane had laughed and teased him about it for months. To this day Rick doesn't know how Shane managed to lie on his polygraph and said he's never done drugs.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Rick asks, and he knows before Daryl shakes his head what the answer will be.

Abruptly, their attention is caught at the sound of an engine. Daryl's head snaps up and he scrambles to his feet and Rick comes forward and grabs his arm.

"We should get inside," he whispers and Daryl looks at him with a raised eyebrow.

"Why?" he asks. "More survivors is a good thing. Getting a good group together -."

"Daryl, these houses were never lived in for real," Rick says. Something is tingling on the back of his neck, an inherited feeling for danger back from when their kind were little more than dumb beasts, driven by instinct. He thinks he can see, in his peripheral vision, the shadow of Death. "No one's coming home, that means they're here to raid. We need to get inside."

Something in his voice must hit Daryl, because the man nods after another moment and allows Rick to usher him back inside. He keeps his crossbow ready and Rick grabs his pistol, loading it swiftly, and they take their places at the dining room window. There's a small bench here for them to brace against, one knee up, ready, and they look out from either side of the curtains.

It's a red Honda, one that Rick doesn't recognize as belonging to anyone he knows. He can't see who is inside of it or how many there are, because of the angle of the sun glaring off the windshield. It drives down the street slowly, as though assessing the houses. Rick feels the prickle on his neck sharpen and grow cold.

"Who would come here?" Daryl asks.

"Maybe people like us," Rick says slowly. "Maybe people we don't wanna meet."

Daryl snorts. "Hard to be afraid of people drivin' a fuckin' mom car," he comments, and while Rick would normally agree, he knows firsthand that a vehicle is a vehicle. Necessity doesn't submit to reputation. The car slows at the end of the street, red lights glaring as the brakes are applied. Then it turns, smooth and quiet, and starts to come down the other way. "Looks like they're lookin' for something particular."

Rick bites his lower lip and tries to look and see if there are any signs of this house in particular being occupied. He's not sure there is any, but then he sees the driveway and utters a low cruse. "The truck left marks," he says, pointing, and Daryl growls out a swear of his own. There's a small smear of dirt and blood where the truck jumped the curb, barely noticeable, but it's enough if someone is looking hard enough to notice.

Sure enough, the car slows to a stop on the opposite side of the road. Rick lifts his gun, making sure it's ready. He's not going to chance anyone coming in for a fight. Maybe they're good people, looking for others to join up with because packs mean better chances of survival. Well, in a way, Rick supposes. It means a better chance that when someone dies it's not going to be you.

The car stops, and Rick still can't see who's inside. It's infuriating. The cold feeling has yet to leave. Then, the lights shut off and the exhaust pipe stops letting out little clouds of fumes. The driver-side door – the one closest to them – opens. First a little, then all the way, and a man gets out.

Rick's eyes widen. "Holy shit," he whispers, and Daryl lowers his crossbow as well.

"Is that…Shane?" he asks.

"Fuck," Rick growls, straightening up and sliding his pistol back into the holster. "I told them to go to Atlanta!"

"I guess they were worried about you," Daryl replies. "Should we…go outside?"

Rick thinks about it for a second. Maybe if they remain hidden and pretend they aren't here, Shane will move on. He sees Lori getting out of the car as well now, Carl in tow and tucked under her arm almost immediately.

His mouth twists. "Yeah," he says. "He brought Carl and Lori here. I can't send them back."

Daryl makes a low, annoyed sound, and Rick thinks back to the look Daryl had sent him before when he'd talked about calling Lori or Shane. Something possessive and jealous has twisted itself around them, bound them together. He wants to reassure Daryl, but that's not where their relationship is right now, and he's sure Daryl wouldn't welcome such an open proclamation anyway. Daryl's shoulders are tight and his face is carefully schooled when he backs away from the window and gestures to the door.

"Go ahead, then," he mutters, his eyes downcast, and Rick wants to reach out and touch him and hold him by the hair and see his eyes, but he forces himself not to.

He hears the car doors slamming outside and makes a low, rough sound of irritation. Damn it all, can't they be quiet?

"Rick!" It's Shane's shouting. "I know you're here, brother. Come out!"

"God damn it," Rick hisses, and raises his voice for the last part as he opens the door and waves to get their attention. Next to him he hears the second car door to the garage open. Daryl must have done that. "Get the car inside and be quiet!"

Shane looks at him like he's gone even crazier than they claimed he was when he was admitted, but obeys without another word. Lori and Carl hurry to the door and Rick ushers them inside as Shane drives into the garage and Daryl closes the door behind him.

"How did you find me?" he asks.

Lori looks at him, then around them, her eyes widening when she sees the collection of weapons Daryl had brought in. "Shane hacked the phone you used," she says quietly. "Or something. I guess you can activate things like that. I don't know. Rick…" She turns around and looks at him, then, her eyes bright and afraid. "How did you get out? What's happening?"

"I told you to go to Atlanta," Rick says, his voice hard. He hears Daryl and Shane joining them from the kitchen. "Why didn't you just go to Atlanta?"

"Man, Atlanta's overrun." That's Shane's voice. "Fuckin' suicide tryin' to go there."

Rick turns around to argue with his friend, and freezes.

Death is standing there, between Daryl and Shane, the ever-present grin on the shadowy face. There's a hand on Shane's shoulder, bony and long-fingered. In Death's other hand, the scythe arcs forward, over both of their heads. He can see a sword in Shane's hand but he knows it's not there.

Rick stumbles back. His back hits the stair bannister. And I heard the second creature say 'Come', and on a red horse appeared War…

The Honda. A red Honda.

"Where did you get that car?" he asks. Lori didn't own it and Shane drives a black sedan when he's not on duty.

"It was abandoned in the street when all Hell broke loose. Didn't have time to get to my place." Shane is looking at Rick like he's afraid Rick will burst into flames, like he's a time bomb ticking down to the number zero. "You okay, brother?"

No, Rick wants to say, but it's Death's voice in his head.

Rick stares at Death, who grins back at him.

No mission given by Gods and forces of nature are easy.

He shakes his head and the vision abruptly clears. The sword disappears from Shane's hand. Death fades away. The room gets warm again. Rick blinks. Maybe it's just a test, like Abraham and Isaac, to put his conviction and his reason on the line. It can't be Shane. Rick would have seen it before… Before.

But then, why would Shane come back, unless he felt the need in his vassal's skin and bones to destroy Rick just as Rick is destined to destroy him?

It can't be him.

He sucks in a breath and Daryl is looking at him like he knows what Rick just saw. Lori's fear is a tangible smell, like sweat and rust.

"Rick…?" It's her voice, saccharine and high. Rick closes his eyes.

"Why did you come to find me?" he demands, but his voice comes out weak and frail as though it belongs to an old man. "Why didn't you just go? You should be halfway across the country by now. Somewhere safe."

"We weren't going to leave you behind," Shane replies, his voice hard. He steps forward and slides a hand onto Rick's shoulder and Rick fights the urge to flinch from him, expecting the sharp edge of a blade at his throat. He clenches his jaw and looks down, with wide eyes, at Lori's shoes. They look a little worn, a little muddy, but she, Shane and Carl are a damn sight cleaner than Rick, Daryl and Merle are. "Soon as we knew you were alive I turned back."

Rick tries to smile. Shane is such a good friend.

"How did you get out?" Lori asks, and looks to Daryl when it seems Rick is unable to answer. Daryl shifts his weight and scratches the back of his head.

"Hid out overnight when everyone turned," he says, quickly like he's afraid to have the attention on him for too long. "Then, when the – when it was clear, we went to my place, grabbed what we could, picked up my brother, and now we're here."

As though knowing he's being spoken about, a loud yelp sounds from upstairs, and then a loud thud. "Motherfucker!" It's Merle's voice, thready and high and Daryl curses.

"Everyone stay here," he says. "Asshole probably fell outta his bed again."

Again? Rick frowns. He doesn't remember hearing such a loud banging from before. Maybe the rest of his dreams had been undisturbed. Daryl disappears up the stairs and Rick fights the urge to run up after him.

The rest of them are left in uncomfortable silence. Rick doesn't remember being so uncomfortable around his friends and his family in such a long time. Even when he'd come home, blood on his hands from the three men he'd slaughtered, he doesn't remember being so shaken. Shane's hand is warm on his shoulder.

Finally, Carl breaks the silence. He looks up from under the brim of Rick's old hat, his eyes wide and relieved, and then throws himself at Rick's stomach in a tight hug. Rick hugs him back just as tightly, his eyes falling closed. Relief is allowed to touch him, then, flooding his senses like a drug and he lets out a rough breath. Shane lets him go and Carl steps back, their hug over.

"Rick…" Lori looks so pale. She has always been lovely and tan, able to spend hours outside and soaking the sun in like a lax lioness. The back of Shane's neck is red from heat and sunlight. "Rick, how are you holding up?"

Rick frowns, wondering how she can ask him that. She's looking at him like he's a dog on a very thin chain, a foreign one that might be friendly and might not be at the same time. Schrödinger's rabid animal.

"Why?" Rick asks.

"We're just worried about you, brother," Shane says. He's standing closer to Lori now, outwardly relaxed, but Rick sees the gun at his hip and knows enough about Shane's body language that he wants Rick to see it, see how close his hand is resting on his belt. Anger stirs in Rick's belly and he sees the glint of a sword in sunlight again. "I mean, if you saw the whole facility turn -."

"I didn't just see it," Rick says, and shakes his head. "I knew it would be yesterday. None of you believed me. But it happened and I was right."

"What -?"

"What supplies did you guys get?" Rick asks, looking to Shane. "We have guns, knives, clothes and some food."

Shane presses his lips together and runs his hand over his mouth. "Yeah, I got some guns. Clothes for Lori and Carl, blankets….Not a lot of food, but I figure enough people will have been turned quick enough that we don't have to worry too bad."

Rick frowns. Small minded, selfish. Shane just wanted his family out. For that Rick is grateful, but they can't be stupid about these kinds of things.

"We should go to the station," he says. Shane's eyes flash to him. Rick isn't sure what he sees. Maybe Shane can see the skull behind Rick's skin, too, or the shadow of his scythe thrown against the wall. Maybe Shane feels the same uneasy, dangerous aura thick in the air. "There will be guns there, radios. Weapons. Bullets."

"Man, we can't go to the station," Shane protests. He doesn't want Rick even more armed. Rick's fingers twitch by his gun. "It'll have been overrun. Or cleared out. There's nothing there."

"We have to try," Rick growls.

"Carl, you should come with me," Lori says suddenly, grabbing Carl by the shoulders. Her eyes are on Rick's hand where it rests against the leather wrapped around his pistol like a lover. "Let's get you some clean clothes and get you cleaned up a little bit. Come on."

Rick watches them go.

"She's afraid of me," he says.

"Yeah," Shane whispers. Then, treacherous and soft; "Can you blame her?"

It would incense Rick. It should. It does, if he's honest. He's not crazy, but maybe he is. He's not dangerous, but of course he is. He killed three men in cold blood and has put down several walkers in the last twenty-four hours alone.

He turns around and glares at Shane. "I'd never hurt her," he hisses. "Or Carl. You gotta know that."

Shane presses his lips together, and looks Rick up and down. There's black blood splattered up Rick's arms, and his own blood staining one wrist around the bandage. He's sweaty and dirty and it probably won't be long before his clothes are stained again. It's a reality now.

"We got married, Rick," Shane says quietly. "After we visited you. Had an appointment at the City Hall and everything."

Rick smiles. It feels strangely like he's baring his teeth. He's angry, but not at that. He already let Lori go. "Benefits can't wait, I suppose."

"Yeah, fat lot of good it was worth," Shane says, shaking his head.

"I hope you got a honeymoon, at least."

Something passes over Shane's face, something uncomfortable and dark. A flash of red across his cheeks before it's gone. Rick is certain in that moment that Shane hates him, or at least hates that he survived.

"I don't want to fight you, Shane," Rick says. "I'm not going to try and 'get Lori back', or whatever. You're my best friend, my brother, and I meant what I said when you told me you guys were gettin' hitched. I knew you could protect her when the time came, and you did. And you protected Carl."

Shane blows out a heavy breath through his nose, his dark eyes shining with gratitude when he looks at Rick. There's no fight in either of them. Anger, maybe, or maybe it's just strings threaded too tight and high over the massive gaping crevasse that is the apocalypse.

"But you also came back to me," Rick says, stepping forward and lowering his voice. "And Daryl and Merle are my responsibility now, and you've made you, Lori and Carl my responsibility too. There are rules in this world, Shane. We all gotta follow them."

"What kinda rules?"

Rick smiles. "First, I don't wanna hear any of you callin' me crazy again." Shane's mouth twists, but he nods. "Second, no noise if we can help it. We pack light, and weapon-heavy. Clothes can be reused. Bullets and food are the most important things. You figured out the headshot thing, right?" Shane shakes his head. "Headshot's the only way to permanently put 'em down. Doesn't matter if they're already turned, if they die of natural causes. You get bit, get scratched, you fuckin' eat a bad egg and die of food poisoning, headshot."

"Okay." Rick sees the goose bumps on Shane's arms. He's scared. Rick lifts his chin and takes a step back, giving Shane his space. Shane is the kind of dog to attack when it's cornered.

"Everyone gets a gun," he says. "Or a weapon. No time to be uncomfortable or moral in a crowd like this."

Shane sighs. "Lori won't like that."

"Lori doesn't like a lot of things," Rick replies, and it's not said with judgement. Lori and Carl had the luxury of being uncomfortable around guns and knives. Now they all have to get used to it. Even Daryl might have to fire a gun. "You hungry? We have pudding, fruit and soup."

Shane snorts. "Sure, brother."

Rick leads him to the garage and flicks on the light and Shane lets out a whistle. "That Daryl's?" he asks, nodding to the truck.

Rick shakes his head. "The bike is. Truck is his brother's."

"The drug addict," Shane says flatly. Rick nods and Shane lets out a soft, ugly sound. "He doesn't…have a stash in there, does he?"

"You gonna arrest him?" Rick asks with a laugh, climbing up onto the truck bed and rooting through the laundry bags until he finds the one with the fruit and pudding cups. Shane lets out a low chuckle as well.

"Just hopin' this is the last withdrawal we'll have to deal with."

"You can still leave," Rick says. "Go to Atlanta. Set up for us."

"I think we can both agree Atlanta is a monumentally stupid idea, brother. Why you so set on goin' there?"

Rick finds a fruit cup and tosses it down to Shane, who catches it. He jumps over the edge and lands with a low grunt, before he stands and dusts his hands on his jeans. "You'll…call me crazy," he says.

"I think we agreed that we weren't allowed to do that anymore," Shane says, his voice carefully flat still. Rick can't tell what he's thinking since he immediately pulls the lid of the fruit cup back and tilts it back so the glazed fruit slides into his mouth. It's two swallows at best but it's enough for Shane to school his expression so that by the time he's finished and crushes it in his grip and throws it into the nearby garbage can, Rick still can't tell what he meant to feel when he said that.

Rick shakes his head. "Fine," he concedes, scratching the back of his neck. He still has his residency bracelet there, the plastic scratching his neck. He should find some scissors. "Death told me to go there."

"Death," Shane repeats. It doesn't matter that he doesn't say it, Rick can feel the You're fucking insane sitting on the back of his tongue. "This the same Death that told you to kill those guys, way back?"

Rick sighs through his nose. "No," he says. "That was me. That was my mistake."

"How many more we gotta kill, Rick?" Shane demands. "This ain't right." He doesn't turn towards Rick, but looks forward, to the tools lining the walls. Or rather, the dusty outlines of where they used to be. Daryl has probably raided them for anything sharp and usable. "I just gotta…I gotta know what you're thinkin' man. I can't just blindly follow you. I can't, and I'm not gonna make Lori and Carl do it neither."

"Well, it's too late for that now," Rick says. "You brought them to me. Now we're all stuck to each other, no matter what it is you want."

"Which is what?"

"You want to lead us to safety," Rick says. His voice doesn't hold any judgement. It is not the personality of Shane or War to cower in the face of an enemy. Shane is a dog that will fight until it's dead or it wins. Rick isn't a dog. He's a ghost. "You want to be in charge. You don't think I can lead. You don't think I'm stable."

"That's not what I said, man," Shane says.

"Your thoughts are loud enough," Rick replies, pushing himself away from the truck with a sigh. He turns to look at his friend. Shane's face is cloaked in shadow and he can't quite read his eyes. "But it doesn't matter what you think. I'm going to Atlanta when Merle's better. I hope you'll join me."

"Rick!"

Rick doesn't stop, and Shane doesn't chase after him. Maybe later, when the day is old and the night grows quiet, Shane will come to him and try and 'talk some sense' into him again. Don't they know you can't reason with crazy?

Rick chuckles and shakes his head. The front door is open and he can see Carl and Daryl sitting on the porch again, Lori standing on the stairs. He frowns and heads outside to join them.

"Where's Shane?" Lori says quietly, her voice urgent like seeing Rick coming back has just confirmed all of her worst fears. What has Shane told her already? It's not like Shane knows anything more about Rick than she does – they're the closest people in his life and he has never tried to hide anything from them. Except, well, the whole delusional vessel-of-Death thing. But even then, he hasn't tried to lie about it.

"In the garage," Rick replies. "Showed him our stash of food, gave him some." He looks down. He's standing behind Daryl, unconsciously drawn to the man's shadow, and nudges him with his knee until Daryl squints up at him. "How's Merle?"

Daryl snorts and turns away, squinting back out to the street. "Maybe we'll get lucky and his heart will give out."

"Daryl!" Lori gasps, and Carl looks at him with wide eyes. "You can't mean that. He's your brother, right?"

Daryl's jaw clenches. He doesn't like being under their scrutiny. Daryl, Rick senses, doesn't quite like Lori. He's never liked Lori or Shane, really. He doesn't hate her, but Rick remembers the one and only conversation they'd had about her – I'd be pissed if I found out my wife was fucking my best friend. Maybe Daryl feels some sense of righteous anger for Rick's sake. Maybe he just doesn't like white suburban moms. Who knew with Daryl Dixon. He wouldn't tell you.

"Nah, I don't mean it," Daryl sighs, lifting one hand to gnaw at his cuticles. Then, "So what's the plan, Grimes?"

Rick sighs and puts his hands on his hips, lifting his head to join in staring down the street. "Same as always," he says. "We'll stay until Merle's better. Then, Atlanta." He looks at Lori. "Shane isn't happy about that plan. I won't be mad if you both decide to leave with him."

"I'm not leaving you," Lori says tightly, her voice breathless and furious. Rick blinks at her but nods his thanks, his hand resting on the top of Carl's head as the boy looks up at both of his parents. Her hand brushes down his arm and Rick doesn't miss the way Daryl abruptly bites through his nail and yanks it until it bleeds.

"Shit," Daryl mutters, and scrambles to his feet. Rick moves to let him pass.

"I need to go," Rick says. "Please, come inside."

"We'll be alright," Lori replies, a little harshly, and Rick sees Shane's shadow in the doorway so he figures he can let them be. He carefully extricates himself from the clinging hands of his family and rushes inside. He can hear Daryl in the kitchen and goes to him.

Daryl's shoulders are tensed. "I'm fine," he says, clipped and sharp. Ready to bite. "S'just a finger."

"It bothers you," Rick says, "to see her touch me."

"Ain't no business of mine what either of you do."

"Daryl," Rick murmurs, "don't do us both the disservice of thinkin' that's true."

"Well, the fuck you want me to do then, Rick, huh?" Daryl hisses. He wipes his fingers on his jeans and turns the full force of his glare on Rick. Rick doesn't back off, and they're standing close enough that Rick can see the flecks of grey in his eyes. "That's your son, your ex-wife and your best friend out there, and they can say and do whatever they want because they're your family."

"Daryl, I'm tired of having this conversation with you," Rick growls, and Daryl scoffs and turns away, shoulders up and hunched, and Rick reaches out and grabs his arm and whirls him back around. "As far as I'm concerned you're my family too, and I'll be damned if I let you think you're lesser than them or less important to me because I happen to have known them longer."

"Let go of me," Daryl hisses, and jerks away from Rick's grip. Rick lets him go and Daryl hits the kitchen island with his back, softly. He doesn't keep moving away. His breaths are coming fast and shallow – it's a panic reflex. Rick is threatening him. How?

Rick immediately takes a step back, pulling his arms in, ducking his head. He tries to make himself look as small and non-threatening as possible. "Daryl," he says again, and wants so desperately to reach out when Daryl looks at him. "I know it might not mean much to you, but you…you're important to me. You're my friend, and I want you near me. I need you."

"No, you don't," Daryl whispers, and Rick can't find his voice. "I'm gonna go check on Merle again," he says, and then he's practically fleeing up the stairs, away from Rick as fast as he can. Once he leaves, the room seems dull and lifeless to Rick's eyes. He sighs and rubs his hands over his face and up through his hair.

Chapter Text

Lori and Shane take a second bedroom, leaving Carl with the third, the farthest away from Merle's space. Rick and Daryl sleep downstairs again. No one seems to question it, and Rick is glad that it's that way. He and Daryl are the front lines, the warriors, the first defense between them and the outside world. They have to be, because they know, and they're ready. Shane, to Rick's knowledge, hasn't killed any of them yet. Lori and Carl probably can't, yet. Rick's in no hurry for them to start.

He doesn't go immediately to the dining room. Daryl is still tense, a wounded dog in the corner of its pen, ears back and dark eyes fixed on the movement of others outside. Rick sits in one of the uncomfortable padded chairs that flank the couch and face the fireplace. His eyes are on it, catching the details of the fake coals at the bottom, and the black maw of the chimney behind it.

Daryl is laying down on the couch, his back to Rick and to the room, but he's not asleep. Rick has heard Daryl sleep enough by now to know when he's asleep and when he isn't, and he definitely isn't. His breathing is too even, too shallow, and too soft. Like he's afraid of Rick knowing.

Rick sighs and tilts his head back, slouching in the chair until he's braced against the edge of the cushion. Daryl makes an annoyed sound.

"You gonna sleep, or what?" he asks.

"I'm not tired," Rick replies honestly. He has never slept much and even with the few shredded hours he got last night, he's sure he'll be okay for another day if he stays awake. He doesn't want to say what his main motivation is, though – he can't help but think, behind his closed eyes, that if he falls asleep for even a second, the shadow of War will cross into the room and slit his throat while he's unable to defend himself. He can't shake the vision of Shane from his head, coated in blood and holding the massive sword of the horseman. He came in a red car. The thoughts wrap around his brain like barbed wire, treacherous and strong. He wishes Death would come to him and put his fears at ease.

Daryl abruptly rolls over with another annoyed huff, and swipes his hand across his face to move his hair away so that he can glare at Rick in full force. "Your thinkin's keepin' me awake," he gripes, and Rick smiles. Daryl is speaking like he would about Merle, angry and annoyed but soft beneath it all. Rick opens his eyes and looks at the other man, warmth and affection settled low in his stomach like alcohol. "What's goin' on?"

"I'm sorry I scared you," Rick says, because he doesn't know what else to say. Daryl narrows his eyes at him, his nostrils flare out as he blows out an angry, protesting breath. "I know I scare people. I know Lori doesn't feel…safe, around me. Not anymore. I know there are going to be people who…think I'm insane. And sometimes I feel like I am."

"Kind of a moot point," Daryl says, his voice quiet now, like he's in a church. "I mean, you were right."

"I wish I could sleep," Rick whispers, turning his face away towards the fireplace again. "I wish I could dream. But all I dream about now is this. Have since the coma. And sometimes they're not dreams. They feel like the future, something I can't stop." He takes in a shaky breath and remembers one such vision, a blonde covered in blood and Daryl bent over her corpse, silent with grief while another woman screamed.

"So you can see the future now?"

"God, I hope not." Rick leans forward and shoves himself back so that he's sitting on the chair properly again, and rubs his hands over his face and up through his hair until they curl and his fingers link at the back of his neck. His wristband catches and he straightens, looking at it.

Daryl notices. "We should cut that off."

"Maybe we shouldn't," Rick says. "It marks me. Lets people know…that I'm dangerous. That I'm crazy."

"What do you want me to say?" Daryl demands, pushing himself upright. One arm braces against the couch cushion, supporting his weight, and he nods to Rick's wristband. "That you ain't? Shit, Rick, you are insane. Even without the visions, I read your chart. You've got a whole mess of issues, man. We all do."

Rick hums. "You're right," he says. "I'm not special."

"That's not what I said."

"I used to be able to tell exactly what people meant to say when they talked," Rick murmurs. "It was my job. Shane's, too. We can say a whole lotta shit without usin' the words." His fingers curl and bend and he tugs at the wristband, before he sighs. "Do you think I'm dangerous, Daryl? Do you think I'd hurt you?"

Daryl sighs. It's a soft thing, like a summer breeze. Rick closes his eyes. "No," he replies, and Rick opens his eyes again to look at the man. Daryl's face is open and honest, shadowy in the dark and half-hidden by his hair again.

"I wouldn't," Rick says, heavily. "I wouldn't hurt you. I wouldn't."

"I believe you."

"I should let you get some sleep." Rick pushes himself to his feet and Daryl lets himself fall back onto the couch and pulls one of the spare sheets Lori brought up over his bare shoulders. Rick walks forward and stops by Daryl's head. His fingers curl. "Daryl, I…"

He stops talking. He's not sure what he would say even if his tongue hadn't abruptly turned to stone in his mouth. He wants to reach out and touch Daryl so badly that his hands are shaking.

"What, Rick?" Daryl asks, quiet and still like a rabbit in an open field. Aware, tense, twitching. Ready to bolt. Would he calm under Rick's hands? Would he come alive? He feels pale, and thin, like he's fading from the world.

Rick sighs. "Nothing," he says, and forces himself to walk over to the dining room and take his place on the floor again. He won't sleep, he knows that, but to rob Daryl of the opportunity is selfish. Daryl needs to sleep. Shane and Lori and Carl need to sleep. Rick can keep watch. Death never sleeps.

"…Rick?"

Daryl's voice floats to him across the vast expanse of the entryway. Rick lifts his head but Daryl isn't looking over the couch. He can't see him. "Yes?"

"…Me, too."

Rick licks his lips and lays back down, his eyes open and staring at the white ceiling. Me, too. He doesn't have to guess what Daryl means. He smiles, running his hand through his hair and letting the back of his hand cushion his head as he rolls over to his side so that he can see the door.

"I don't think you do," he says.

Daryl snorts. "Well, I don't think you're crazy."

Rick lets out a low laugh and closes his eyes. So they're both lying to themselves, then. At least they're on the same page.

 

 

Rick wakes up first. Well, to say he had been asleep would be a lie, so in truth he waits until the sun starts to peek in through the curtains, lighting up the little strip they reveal on the floor, and then he gets up. He goes to the truck and grabs enough food for the whole group and pulls a separate serving for Merle for them to bring up and goes back to the kitchen.

Daryl wakes up next and takes Merle's food up to him while Rick prepares the rest. Preparing, just like saying he was asleep, would be too generous a term. He sets a can of soup, a pudding cup and a fruit cup at a table setting for each of the five of them – one at the head of the table and two on either side. It's a little social experiment. He goes to the bathroom on the bottom floor and waits until everyone else is awake.

There's no running water in the building, he remembers that, and runs his fingers through his grimy hair with a small, annoyed twist of his mouth. When they find somewhere with running water he's sure they'll all want to bathe. Merle, especially, must be a very specific kind of ripe by now.

When he comes back out everyone's awake. Shane has taken the spot at the head of the table, Lori to his left and Carl next to her. Rick smiles and goes back to the truck in the garage until he's sure Daryl has joined them. When he comes back again, Daryl has taken the spot across from Carl, his eyes down and his arms up around his food like he's afraid it's going to be stolen away, which leaves the only spot on Shane's right and next to Daryl.

Rick takes his place happily and opens the pudding cup first, grinning when Carl makes to follow suit.

"Soup, first," Lori scolds, lightly tapping on Carl's hand until he lets go of the pudding. Carl pouts at her but obeys. Without gas or heat the soup is cold, but most of it is broth-heavy and altogether not too unpleasant to eat cold.

"I don't think it matters what order he eats in," he says lightly, digging his finger into the pudding cup to get what's at the bottom. Beside him, Daryl has folded the lid into a spoon-shaped object and is digging out the pieces of fruit, getting juice all over his fingers.

"We shouldn't just abandon everything so quickly," Lori replies, her tone clipped. She's not looking at him. Shane is shaking his head. "After all of this blows over, it'll be good if some people remember basic table manners."

Rick cocks his head to one side. He doesn't miss how her eyes flash to Daryl, and something protective and hot flashes through his heart, but he doesn't comment on her look. Daryl hasn't seen, after all, and seems determined not to acknowledge them at all.

They continue to eat in silence before Shane sits back, clearing his throat. "How long do you think until we're able to move on?" he asks.

Daryl grunts. "Merle's more lucid now," he says around a mouthful of soup, understanding the real question that's being asked. "He'll start gettin' to his mean phase. Couple more days, max. I'd recommend keepin' clear of him."

Rick swallows back his sympathetic sound. He can hear the aggravation and pain in Daryl's voice. He's probably had to listen to all-too-many of Merle's 'mean phases'. He presses his thigh against Daryl's under the table, pleased when the man does nothing to move away from the touch. If anything, he seems to press closer.

"Why should we move on at all?" Lori asks. "Aren't we safe here?"

Rick looks at her. "We gotta go to Atlanta," he says.

"No, we don't," Shane replies, his tone harsh. It's his 'enforcement' voice, the voice that is meant to cower first-grade thugs into giving up their supply routes or their stash zones or the names of their superiors. It's never worked on Rick. Rick looks at him and blinks until the red crown on Shane's head disappears.

It's not real. You're insane. Not Shane. It can't be Shane.

"We don't have to go to Atlanta," Shane says again. "There's nothin' for us there."

"Yes, there is," Rick says. "I have to go."

"Damn it, Rick." Shane sits back and bites his tongue, shaking his head. He's braced open and wide, his arms spread out and resting on the arms of his chair, his thumb running along his lower lip, his legs spread out so that he takes up more room than Rick. Posturing. It's grating to watch. He wants to say that Rick is crazy so bad, Rick can see the words branded behind his eyes. But he's holding himself back, their tenuous agreement sitting in the air between them like a fog. "Why do you have to go there? And give me a real reason, not some…. Give me a real reason."

"I don't need to justify myself to you," Rick says, quietly, lined with steel. He can feel the point of a sword digging into the back of his neck. "I shouldn't have to. Why can't you trust me?"

"Do you really want to ask that?" Lori whispers. Her fingers are curled around the edge of the table. There's a ring on her finger, now, glistening and bright. It's not diamond, Rick knows enough about the salaries of cops to know that, but it's pretty and shiny and wrapped like a gold snake around her finger. Keeping up appearances. Always. Rick wonders how long it will be before she loses it or throws it away because she can't fight properly with it, or almost loses her hand when a walker's teeth snags on her finger.

He smiles and lifts his chin. She's drawn her hands back, hiding them under the table again. It feels like her heartbeat is audible, so quick and frail in the silence.

Daryl's thigh moves away from him, like he senses Rick's need to stand, but Rick holds himself back. He doesn't want to physically intimidate them, or risk an escalation by raising his head above Shane's. Every pack has a few fights to establish the order and the rank. This is natural.

"You don't trust me," he says, finally. "That's okay. That doesn't matter. I was right. I was right about the end of the world, and I'm right about this. So, I'm going. I never asked you to come back here. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to see you guys alive, really, but if going to Atlanta means leavin' you behind, then I'm gonna. You can stay here and hole yourselves up and wait until it's overrun or someone meaner comes along. That's fine. I can promise to keep you guys safe, I know what needs to be done. I was right, so you don't gotta trust me, but you're damn sure gonna believe me now."

"Brother, calm down," Shane says, lifting his hand and putting it next to Rick's empty soup can. "I just…I just gotta know why Atlanta. It's a big city and it's gonna be overrun at this point. We don't have enough weapons for that kinda mob."

The fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.

"I'm going to Atlanta," Rick says, and finally stands and grabs his empty containers to throw away. "With Daryl. As soon as Merle's better, too, if he wants to come with."

"You're going to go with him?" Lori asks, her eyes on Daryl again and her voice heavy with judgement. Rick wants to bare his teeth at her and put his body between the fire in her eyes and Daryl. "You're just going to blindly follow him like that?"

Daryl blinks at her, and then looks up at Rick. Something passes along his face, something defiant and angry, and he smirks and looks back to her.

"Damn fuckin' right."

Oh, Rick could kiss him. Lori’s face goes white, although whether it’s because of the swear – to which Carl stifles a laugh behind his hand – or the admission itself, Rick can’t be sure. She clenches her jaw until the corner of it bulges and glares between the two of them.

"You’re insane," she hisses. "You’ve both completely lost your minds."

"Better that than losing our heads," Rick replies, grinning widely when she continues to glare. "I’m not forcing you to decide now. We don’t have to decide now. We don’t have to decide at all. Daryl and I are going to Atlanta."

He can see them weakening, cracking under his decision. Because humans aren’t meant to be solitary, aren’t meant to break away from each other. And even though Shane is now the Alpha of the family, Rick has always been the one at the center. Even when imprisoned, they came to him because he is the kind of man who draws people and binds them together with iron and saltwater.

Lori presses her lips together and casts her eyes down, visibly deflating when it looks like Rick will not budge, and Shane sighs, sensing the exchange of power. He’s not the leader of Daryl, or Rick – never has been. And if Rick goes forward, so will they. They turned back so that they could be with him, and just as Lori claims she will not leave him behind, she will also not allow any of them to be left either. Such is the way of things.

Daryl stands, gathering his empty containers together along with Rick’s, and Carl’s since he notices the boy is done. He leaves Shane’s and Lori’s. Pick your people. "We’ll give it another two days," he says to Rick. "Merle should be lucid enough by then. Then we can leave."

 

 

Rick sits outside on the porch for most of the day. There isn't much else to do – these houses were all empty which means there isn't much to scavenge in terms of food or blankets, there's no utensils or things they can use to eat out of, and there aren't any televisions or radios where they can tune in and listen to the news. Lori's phone doesn't get great internet and Rick senses that soon enough the phones will give out anyway. Networks and data centers require constant monitoring and it won't be long before the panic or the death sweeps through them all and wipes all the employees out.

He wonders, idly, how long it will be before the generators keeping New York afloat will fail, until the city falls into the marshes.

He tilts his head and catches the shape of Carl coming through the front door in his periphery. He smiles and moves over on the porch step so that the boy has a place to sit, and Carl does with a small huff. His hat is pushed back on his head and he's squinting off into the bright glare of the road. He's holding a hunting knife in his hand that Rick recognizes from Shane's fishing gear. Shane doesn't fish often – Rick remembers his father used to a lot, though. Maybe he intends to reclaim the skill. It's a good skill to have.

"Shane won't let me have a gun," Carl says, and Rick laughs.

"You shouldn't have a gun," he says. "At least not one of ours. They're too heavy for you."

Carl blinks at him, as though betrayed by his father's answer. "I need to know how to shoot," he protests. "In case one'a them things comes along. I don't know how."

Rick nods. "Well, that at least is true," he says, "but it'll have to wait until we're somewhere safer. They're attracted by the noise, you know." He taps his finger against Carl's knife, trailing along the knotted leather that sheaths the tip. "S'better, if it's just one or two, to stab them in the head instead. Assumin' you can reach."

Carl shoves his shoulder against Rick's playfully, grinning when Rick laughs. "I'm tall enough," he says, his voice high and young and offended, and Rick laughs again and slings an arm around Carl's shoulders, pulling him close.

They continue to stare out into the road in silence. The road is as though ghosts haunt it, only the wind and the sun as their companions. Nothing moves, nothing makes a sound. There aren't even birds.

"I'm scared, dad," Carl says after another moment, his voice just as quiet. Rick loosens his arm just enough that Carl can straighten up. The boy's jaw is clenched and he doesn't look at his father, but down at his knife. His knuckles are white against the handle. "It all happened so fast, and mom and Shane wouldn't tell me what was goin' on until we were on our way to Atlanta. I…" Carl swallows hard, his throat clicking. "Shane hit a person, and there was this black goo all over the car, and I saw it slide past my window and onto the ground. I knew it wasn't a person anymore, but one'a them things, and I saw it and it was still moving."

"Headshot's the only way to kill 'em," Rick says, "or, you know, stabbing 'em in the brain. That'll work, too."

"What are they?"

Rick shakes his head. "They're…the undead. The walking dead, I guess. I've been callin' them walkers. I feel like there should be a better name for them, but…" He shrugs.

"So everyone's just going to die? And turn?" Carl asks. He doesn't sound scared anymore, even though Rick can see his hand shaking. He sounds resigned, like an old man facing the end of his days. Rick hates that – Carl is only ten, for God's sake – but this is the world they live in now. They don't have the luxury of youth or innocence.

Still, he hesitates on his answer. He doesn't know how much Carl knows, or how much he was told, about Rick's delusions and the reason he ended up in the facility in the first place. Of course, it was hard to hide the fact that someone's father murdered three men in cold blood, but does Carl know the why? The how? The where? Did he spend hours in the library or on the internet after Rick's conviction, searching for the details of the case? Did he find Shane one evening when he was drunk and his tongue was looser than usual and ply him for details?

He licks his lips and stares straight ahead, his eyes on the house opposite them. "Carl…" he starts, stops, looks down and scratches at the wristband on his arm. "How much has your mom told you about why I was locked away?"

Carl looks at him, then back down. "She said you…got really stressed out," he says, and Rick wants to roll his eyes but he stops himself and makes sure his face remains blank, "and that you just needed a lot of time to be alone, by yourself. That after your coma you came out different and needed time to cope."

Rick nods. Truthfully that's a lot kinder than Rick had expected of her, considering how afraid she is of him. She must sense, somewhere in her psyche, that he means no harm to her and isn't dangerous to the family.

"I suppose that's true," he says. He scratches at the wristband again and sighs. "I…wasn't well when I woke up. When I was in my coma I had a lot of very dark, scary dreams, and when I woke up I guess I had a hard time telling that I was awake, you know?"

Carl nods. "I've dreamed I've woken up and then woken up again. I get it."

"Right." Rick blows out a breath and runs his hands through his hair, hooking them at the back of his neck. "Well, I actually dreamed about this. The whole walking dead thing. And…and I also dreamed that there was a way to stop it. And so, I tried to stop it, but I was wrong. So, I went away for a while."

Carl remains quiet, twisting the knife around in his hands. "How do you think it should be stopped?"

Rick closes his eyes. "I don't know if you're ready for that part," he says, and Carl looks at him with an irritated, offended eye. He's young, but thinks himself a man. Rick remembers Shane in those days, and himself. At least Carl comes by his inheritance honestly.

"I'll tell you, one day," Rick promises, finally breaking his eyes away from the other house and turning to look at his son. "I promise I will. When the time comes, when it feels right to do it. I don't want you to worry, though."

"Mom says you're crazy," Carl says. "I remember the sign on the place you were staying. Criminally Insane." Rick winces, scratching the back of his neck. "Are you insane, Dad? Are you a criminal?"

"I suppose, technically, yes to both," Rick replies. He doesn't want to lie to his son, after all, and approaches it with the same air as he had introduced himself to Merle – the more people know of the situation beforehand, the less of a surprise and a problem it will be when and if their group merges with another, or takes on people to grow larger. People will need to be able to trust him, and follow him, if they want to be kept safe, and that is more easily done when he already has a pack. It's much safer to follow a pack than a lone wolf.

"Really?" Carl asks, young and afraid.

"Yes," Rick says, nodding. "Because I believed that these dreams were real, and because I told people about them, they called me insane. But, Carl, you have to remember – especially in the world as it is now. Just because they call someone crazy, and just because someone might be a criminal, it doesn't mean they're dangerous. You don't need to be either thing to be dangerous. There are going to be people who mean us harm, or who can become our friends, and they might have done bad things or never harmed a fly. You're going to have to start trustin' your gut about what people are, now."

Carl nods, and bites his lower lip until the edge turns white, before letting it go. "Okay."

Rick doesn't ask what Carl's gut is telling him about Rick, or Shane. He doesn't deserve the knowledge and doesn't want to have his suspicions confirmed. Carl loves Shane. To have him doubt that love would be crueler than all the other things they are about to suffer.

"Carl!"

Lori's voice shatters the silence, slicing through like an ice-cold blade, and she appears in the doorway and deflates like she'd spent all day running around after the child. Her voice is shaky with relief when she says; "Get inside, please. Shane is making a net and says he could use your help."

"Okay!" Carl replies, apparently unable to notice the dark look Lori is sending Rick's way, and he goes inside and Lori pulls the door shut behind them.

"What were you guys talking about?" she asks, for all the world so nonchalant, but she's never been a particularly good actor. That was, actually, one of the things Rick fell in love with. She is as honest as she is able to be, but she cannot lie worth a damn either. She can't fake anything.

She comes forward and remains with enough distance between them that Rick wouldn't be able to reach out and grab her. Rick remains sitting, in the relatively submissive posture, and smiles at her.

"What are you afraid I'll say?"

Lori huffs an irritated breath. "Whatever you please, I imagine," she replies. "I don't want you alone with him."

"Do you want me alone with anyone?"

"I'm sure Daryl doesn't mind you." There's something in her voice, almost accusing if she had any right to accuse him of anything anymore. "But that's not the point. You were convicted, Rick, and you don't even bother denying that you're a murderer. I don't want that around him."

"It's around him whether you want it or not," Rick says. "You don't have the luxury or power to deny him reality."

"This isn't…" She lifts her hand to her forehead, placing it flat and pushing her bangs out of her eyes. They're bright with tears, unshed for now, and she turns away. "God damn it, Rick. I had hoped after so long in there you might be better now. But you're just as -."

"Crazy?" Rick says. "Delusional? You're going to look at the world as it is now, you're going to see the blood on the streets and hear the gunshots and think I'm the one being delusional?"

"Damn it, Rick, you said Death was speaking to you!" Lori shrieks, turning back around, her hair a whirl until it settles on her shoulders again. The tears have started to fall. "You might not remember it but I do! When you would…hurt yourself, and write on the walls. I had to paint over the bedroom. Shane couldn't get it out no matter how hard he scrubbed, I had to repaint it. And the…the nightmares. The muttering." She looks down at him, a weeping Angel, finally gone still. "You were losing your mind and I was losing my husband, and Carl kept asking me "Why's Dad doing that?", "What's wrong with Dad?". And I didn't know what to tell him. And you'd get this look in your eyes, like you didn't even see us anymore, like we weren't real, and you'd talk to the open air. Don't you get it?"

Rick pushes himself to his feet, then, moved by her grief. Despite the fact that his passion for her has cooled to gentle affection, and that she has clearly moved to greener pastures as well, he still loves her, and feels something in him that makes him human and makes him a man tug at the sight of her tears. He reaches for her and holds her hands and brings them up to his chest, holding them between the two of them.

Her shoulders are shaking and he wants to hug her, but now is not the time.

"What happens when you do that again?" Lori demands. "What happens if we're in Atlanta and there's a mob of them coming for us and you don't even see us?"

Rick licks his lips, and pulls Lori's knuckles up to kiss them, lightly, before he lets her arms fall. "I can't say anything that will reassure you," he says, "because all I have to offer is what scared you, before."

"What do you mean?"

"Death still comes to me, Lori. I haven't told Carl, I haven't even told Daryl, not that it still happens, anyway. But he can promise us safety while I…do what I need to do."

"Oh, my God." She closes her eyes and shakes her head. Then, she laughs. "Of course. Of course."

"I will keep you safe," Rick says. "I will protect you. Daryl will, too, if you let him."

She lifts her hands to dab under her eyes, fingertips pressing at the dark circles there. "Right. The kid with the crossbow."

"He got me out. I owe him my life."

Something strange passes across Lori's face, guilty and curious and a little uncomfortable. "Rick…Now, I don't mean anything by it, but I want to ask…" Rick cocks his head to one side. "You and he aren't…are you?"

Rick frowns at her, before he takes a small step back and lifts his chin. "Would it matter if we were?" he asks, uncaring that they aren't. But maybe they are – he thinks back on the times when he saw that jealous love in Daryl's eyes, and his own possessive desire to be close to him. And he thinks of what Death had told him, and what Daryl had himself confessed – what they both had confessed – in the darkness last night. So maybe they aren't, maybe they never will. Maybe they will, though, and Rick won't hold back or hide behind the norms of society. Society is literally eating itself alive.

Lori blinks at him, her eyes wide. "I just…didn't realize you were gay," she says, as though their years together had just been a trick, or a fluke. Rick blinks at her. "I mean…I guess it's understandable. Being around someone that much without many other options…"

"Stop." Rick holds up a hand, his fingers curling, and shakes his head. "I'm not having this conversation with you."

"I think it's a conversation we should have, Rick," Lori protests. "I mean, what am I supposed to say to Carl?"

"Say what? What, exactly, do you think I'm doing?"

She doesn't get a chance to answer, because Daryl comes through the front door abruptly, his crossbow slung across his back. Rick feels himself smiling in abrupt reaction, all the tension and anger melting away from him when he sees the man. He sees Daryl's lips twitch upwards before he turns his face so his hair hides it.

"Daryl," he greets warmly. "Everything alright?"

Daryl nods. He has one arm bent, thumb tucked under the strap of his crossbow so that he can remove it quickly. "Was gonna go scout out, see what I can see. I figure there might be some stuff in a neighborhood nearby, or somethin'."

Rick nods. "Would you like some company?"

Daryl grunts, lifting his free hand to bite at his cuticles. "Figure if it's just me, I can slip in and out if things get bad."

Rick frowns. He knows enough about Daryl to know when a question is being avoided. Lori steps back towards the door. "No one should be on their own," she says kindly, resting a hand on Daryl's arm and Daryl turns his head to look at her out of the corner of his eye. "Rick should go with you. I think we'll be able to hold down the fort long enough."

She goes into the house without another word, leaving Rick and Daryl behind. Rick shifts his weight and scratches the back of his neck. "I don't need to go with you if you want to be alone," he says, but he hopes that Daryl can hear how desperately he wants to go. The idea of Daryl being separated from him isn't a pleasant one, and he knows the man can handle himself, but that doesn't mean Rick's brain will allow him to rest if he knows Daryl is gone, somewhere unknown, and he's unable to help him. He can't protect Daryl if he's not around.

Daryl sighs through his nose. "Nah, come on," he says, stepping down onto the little pathway that leads to the street. "Got somethin' I wanna teach ya, anyway."

"Oh?" Rick follows him, his hand resting lightly on his pistol as he falls into step behind Daryl and they head towards the opening of the little cul-de-sac.

"Yeah," Daryl licks his lips and looks to the left, and then to the right of them. Down the street there is a similar red-brick opening sporting the name of the neighborhood, likely leading to similarly empty houses. The other way, to the left, the road stretches on for several miles towards the highway. There will probably be more inhabited places that way. They decide on it silently but as one, and turn left down that way.

They walk in companionable silence for a while, Daryl on Rick's right, their steps silent on the road. "When Merle and I were younger, we would go out huntin' together, or we'd just go out in the woods when we wanted to be away from home. Came up with this system so that we could communicate if we decided to separate."

"How?" Rick asks.

"We'd whistle," Daryl says. "How loud can you whistle?"

"Pretty loud," Rick replies with a smile. "I'd have to get Shane's attention or somethin'. Whistlin's a good way to get people to shut up and listen to you."

"Right." Daryl nods, his eyes downcast. "Well, so there are a couple whistles we have that always mean the same thing." He lifts his head and looks behind them, making sure they're alone for the most part. He's sure any walkers that might be nearby can be handled. "There's 'All clear'," he says, and then he whistles softly – one long, low note, then a sharp higher one to follow. Rick mimics him. "Good. Then there's 'Come quickly, danger'." He lets out three sharp, high-pitched sounds in quick succession, and Rick nods. Daryl looks at him, his cheeks turning a little red, and then he shrugs. "Those, at least, will be good to know."

"What about directions? If we get separated and I need to find you?"

Daryl nods. "North." One whistle, low and short. "East." Low and long. "South." High and short. "West." High and long. "Where are you?" Start high, end low, as long as it seems he can make it. Rick swallows and nods.

"Probably should write this down," he says.

Daryl snorts. "You'll pick it up easy enough, I imagine," he replies.

Rick smiles. "You have a lot of faith in my ability."

"I know you're smart, Rick, you don't need me to tell you that," Daryl replies with a smile. It's one of his rare, happy smiles, and Rick wants to reach out and touch him until Daryl purrs. Then, the smile fades, and Daryl clears his throat and looks ahead of them again. "You think Shane and Lori will come with us?"

Us. Such a sweet word when he says it. Rick swallows and looks ahead as well, his eyes on the edges of the road and keeping watch for anything that might lurch out of the trees at them. "I think so," he says. "You don't want them to."

Daryl grunts, but doesn't say anything.

"…I don't want them to, either," Rick admits, quietly, almost under his breath. He can feel Daryl's surprised look on the side of his face. He stops, putting his hands on his hips, and breathes out, looking at the road. Daryl stops in front of him and turns to face him and Rick raises his eyes again. "I don't…I don't think Lori will ever be comfortable around me again, and Shane and I are gonna keep fighting, and Carl's so scared, and I think I scare him, too."

"He'll come around," Daryl says, but it's weak.

Rick runs a hand across his face. "Daryl, I…" He chokes on his exhale, a knot in his stomach rising up and stopping his breath for a brief moment. "I think Shane might be War."

"War." Daryl's eyes are wide. "Like…like one'a the horsemen? One of the ones you gotta kill?"

"It can't be, right?" Rick says, shaking his head. "I want…God, I wish I was just crazy. But he came…in a red car, and when I saw him again Death was there, and I keep seeing – seeing this crown on his head, and I can't stop feeling like…" He lets go of one hip, fingers curling, and taps his knuckles against his thigh. "I feel like he came back on purpose. Like he's testing me. Like he knows, but he can't know, because I'm crazy, right?" He looks back up at Daryl, helpless and weak.

"What do you want me to say?" Daryl asks, his voice quiet and meek.

"Tell me I'm crazy."

"I already said I don't think you are."

"Well, then tell me I'm wrong."

"Haven't been so far."

"Damn it, Daryl!"

"Well?" Daryl throws his hands out to either side. "What do you want me to say? You haven't been wrong so far, and if you're right, that means you ain't crazy, doesn’t it?"

"I see things that aren't there," Rick says. "I see things. And I hear voices. Lori was right."

Daryl blinks at him, frowning. "The fuck your wife gotta do with this?"

"It's what we were talking about, before you came out." Among other things. "She's…she's worried I'm still crazy. That I didn't get better. Did I get better?" He steps back, looking behind them, and then turns his gaze to Daryl again. "You watched me. You were my friend in there. Did I get better?"

"Until you gave your wall a paint job, I'd'a said yes," Daryl replies. "But it doesn't matter anymore."

"Does it matter what anyone says anymore?" Rick whispers. "Does it matter what I say? Will anyone believe me? Will it matter?"

"Of course it matters!" Daryl takes a step forward, closing the distance between them like he's going to knock the sense into Rick if it doesn't come of its own accord. "You're…the one who saw it coming, Rick. You're the one Death came to – it don't matter if you're insane 'cause you're the only one who sees it. I don't have to see him, I don't want to see him. Haven't seen them Northern Lights either, but I know they exist. And I believe you when you say we need to go to Atlanta. That's enough for me." He tilts his head to one side and ducks so that Rick has to meet his eyes. They're gorgeously dark, blue as the depths of the ocean. Rick feels like he's drowning.

"And is my word enough?" he asks. "When I think Shane is War? I might have to kill him. My best – my oldest friend." At that he breaks away from Daryl's gaze. His own vision is getting blurry and he takes in a shuddering breath.

"You have to know," Daryl says. "You said…you said you'd know if you saw. Maybe it's just stress right now. Maybe he's just the first guy you saw. I mean, you never saw this on him before, right?"

Rick blinks. Yes, Daryl is right about that. Before the dead started walking Rick would have never suspected Shane of a thing. He nods. "Yes," he says. "And…and the other horsemen will be compelled to kill me. They'll have no choice. Shane hasn't…tried anything."

"There you go!" Daryl's hand rests lightly on Rick's shoulder, turning him back so that they're facing each other. "He hasn't tried anything – and if he does, then you'll know, and it'll be a moot point. Self-defense, right?"

Rick blows out a breath and lifts his face to the sky, squinting. There isn't a cloud in sight. It's a gorgeous day for the end of the world. "Yeah," he says. "I guess so."

"So don't worry about it." Daryl's hand doesn't move from his shoulder and the other man seems in no hurry to move on. His touch is warm through Rick's t-shirt, the sound of his breathing comforting. Rick can catch hints of his scent as the air stirs up around them, like every part of nature is pushing Daryl closer to him. He wants to turn and wrap himself in the other man, wants to sheathe his soul inside of Daryl's so that he can always feel him, and draw upon him, and know what he's thinking. Of course, humans aren't capable of that kind of connection, but in the quiet and the stillness Rick thinks he might be able to get close.

Rick sighs, and rubs a hand through his hair. "Did you really think we'd find anything out here?" he asks. Daryl straightens and pulls his hand away and Rick feels it like the loss of the sun. He even reaches out to try and catch Daryl's arm before he thinks better of it and lets it hang again.

Daryl huffs a laugh and shakes his head. "Just wanted to get out of that house. Too nice for my kind," he says, scuffing one foot against the asphalt. "'Sides, it was getting a little much. Bein' around them."

"I know you never liked them," Rick says gently. "It's okay."

"It's not that," Daryl says, shaking his head. "It's…I'm sure they're good people, and I know you love 'em. I just think…"

"What?"

"They should have treated you better," Daryl admits. "I mean, I would see 'em sometimes, cuddled up together while they were waitin' to be seated, and then they'd go visit you and they'd act so proper and shit around you 'cause they're so fuckin' scared of you, of how you'd react. Lori cheated on you and didn't even tell you for weeks, maybe even longer. And now they're back here when you asked them not to be, and they're comin' here actin' like they can tell you what to do."

"On your turf?" Rick asks, grinning lopsidedly. Daryl sends him a look that tells Rick he's closer to the truth than he'd care to admit. "I love how protective you are of me." Daryl makes an ugly, dismissive sound. "No, honestly, Daryl. I love that. I adore that about you: I know that you'll take care of everyone. If the worst should happen."

"Don't say shit like that," Daryl growls, shifting his weight. His shoulders are coming up, his head ducking down like he's trying to hide his face and protect his neck. "Don't talk like that."

Rick cocks his head to one side, an idea suddenly springing to him. "Hey, does this signal exist?" he asks, and then whistles softly. One short, low note, arcing up into a high one, then a separate low one again. Daryl frowns, but shakes his head. "Then that'll be ours. Just ours."

"What will it mean?" Daryl asks.

"Does it have to mean anything?" Rick asks, smiling. "Don't you just want…one thing, that's just ours? I like the idea of it. We can teach others the necessary ones, but that one – can just be ours." He can see Daryl fighting a smile – something fond and accommodating like one would smile at a child's art project. "What do you think?"

"I think you're a Goddamn fool," Daryl says, letting out a small laugh. "But alright. I like it."

Chapter Text

"Rick. Lead us to water, Rick."

They're strung up high, hanging from a bridge. Swaying to, fro, two out of the four in a gentle rotation. One of them didn't get his headshot and shrieks and growls at them, reaching desperately for the nourishment their bodies will provide it.

"How do they breathe?" he asks.

They don't.

"Why do they eat?"

Hunger.

"Why am I not hungry? Am I not alive?"

Hunger is different for the dead.

He can't turn his head and see who is talking to him, but there is only one who talks without speaking, who can be heard without sound.

"I'm thirsty," he says after a moment.

The voice laughs. I know you are.

"Why?"

He can finally turn his head, and gazes to the side of him. The figure is cloaked in shadow, standing farther away than Rick had assumed he was, since his voice is so loud. Of course, it's expected to be, in his head.

"Rick! There's water this way!"

It's Daryl's voice, but Rick can't move, can't see the man. The rope suspending the one moving walker is starting to snap. Rick looks ahead of him again and sees a man, swathed in red like Death is, but not in a cloak. His head is exposed, and the sun flashes sharply off of the gold in his crown. Around his feet, Rick can see shadows, dog-like but not dogs, their eyes glowing red. The man holds a sword in his hand, dripping with blood. Or maybe it's wine. Rick licks his lips.

He wishes he could see the man's face.

"Rick!"

"Don't you see him?" Rick whispers. He turns back to look at Death. He can hear War's dogs starting to bark and growl. They sound curiously like the walkers. Do animals turn? Will they have to fear the dogs, the cats, the animals breaking out from the zoo? The bears and the gorillas?

"Rick, come on! Please, come on!"

Daryl, he has to find Daryl. But he can't see anything except War and Death and the walkers above them. One of the ropes holding the walkers snaps and they plummet to the ground with a heavy-sounding splat. Rick winces and shrinks back when War's dogs leap forward and feast on the bodies, snarling and ripping the flesh apart as easily as a peel from a banana. The smell is nauseating.

"Rick!"

"Where are you?" Rick whispers, looking around. He can't see anyone – just Death, and War, and the dogs and the walkers. They're almost gone already. "Daryl!" Where is Lori, and Shane, and Carl? Where is Daryl?"

"Rick!"

His shouting has drawn the attention of the dogs and more walkers. They're coming in on him from all sides. His family must be somewhere close. He runs in the opposite direction to War, but there's no scenery to guide him home. There are no trees, there is no road, no houses or cars. "Daryl!"

What happens when you can't see us?

A walker lunges for him and sends him slamming back onto the ground. Rick struggles, pushing at the thing's face to keep its gnawing mouth away from him. He can hear Daryl calling his name again, louder this time and more insistent.

"God damn it -."

There's no weapon near him. He doesn't have his gun, or his knife, or even the damn letter opener. He shoves at the walker until it falls off of him but it moves quickly, too quickly for what it is, and leaps at him again and Rick is once again pinned to the ground.

"Rick!"

"Daryl!"

A sharp pain sinks into the side of his neck. It feels like someone is grabbing him, like the dead are trying to rip his flesh from his bones, and he shrieks and tries to turn around and the pain sharpens, grows a point, sinks in -.

There's asphalt under his nails. He abruptly feels heat on his face, and a chill right down to his bones. He's shaking and shivering. He can taste blood in his mouth. He coughs, pushing himself to his hands and knees, and suddenly gags. Blood and spit drip from his parted lips, his back heaving as he tries to suck in air around the knotted ball of rope and wire sitting in his throat.

The road is warm on his hands and knees, rough. His head is pounding but it doesn't feel like someone actually tried to rip his hair out or peel his skin back. He touches his face and winces. It feels tender, like someone hit him.

"Sorry, had to." It's Daryl's voice. Rick is abruptly aware of the man's presence next to him. He turns his head and sees Daryl, his shoulders bare, his knuckles red. He's shaking his wrist and Rick licks his lips, spitting out another wad of bloody saliva onto the ground beneath his hands, before he sighs and sits back on his heels. It feels like Daryl hit him twice, once on his jaw and then once on the side of his face, higher along the cheekbone. It'll probably bruise nicely.

Rick looks around him. They're in the street, a few houses down from the one where Carl, Lori, Shane and Merle are likely still asleep. He swallows and works his jaw to test that it's not broken or cracked. It aches like a bitch – Daryl sure has a mean swing on him – but he's sure it's not broken.

"What happened?" he asks.

"Woke up, you weren't there," Daryl replies. "Waited for a second, then I heard you outside, like you were talkin' to someone. Tried to get your attention, but you must'a been sleepwalking or something."

"Or something," Rick replies, rubbing at his jaw again. "I don't…know what that was. I could hear you calling for me, but I couldn't see you, and then – did you tackle me?"

"Had to," Daryl says. "You were freaking out."

Rick nods. "I dreamt you were a walker," he says. "Well, that a walker was after me, not that you were…"

"I get it," Daryl murmurs. He shifts his weight to match Rick's pose, resting on his knees and his heels tucked under him, his hands braced against his thighs. He has no weapon on him, nothing at all to defend himself with if Rick had tried to pull a weapon. He reaches up and runs a hand through his hair, pushing it to one side. Rick is starting to shiver – there's sweat under his arms and down the back of his neck and it's starting to warm up and dry, sticking and tacky and unpleasant.

"I'm sorry I woke you," Rick says quietly. The sun is just starting to break past the tops of the houses, the road uncharacteristically warm on Rick's knees. Maybe that's just being around Daryl. "I'm sorry I…" He sighs, lowering his head and putting his face in his hands, then running them through his hair and curling his fingers around the back of his neck. "God, Daryl, I'm so sorry."

"You don't have to apologize to me," Daryl says, and Rick is at once supremely glad that Daryl hadn't said 'It's okay' or 'You don't have anything to be sorry for' or some other weak, meaningless platitude. Because Rick has so much to be sorry for, to regret. And Daryl isn't saying Rick is blameless, or without fault and without failing. But that he is, and that it doesn't matter. At least where Daryl is concerned.

After another moment of silence Daryl shifts his weight and lets out an uncomfortable-sounding cough. "Do you…wanna talk about it?" he asks. Rick shakes his head and Daryl lets out a small breath of relief. "C'mon then, let's get inside 'fore Lori and Shane wake up and wonder what we're up to."

"I'm sure they have ideas already," Rick says, somewhat darkly as they both stand and start the slow walk back to the house, remembering the judgement in Lori's eyes and the angry feeling he'd gotten when she had looked at him like he was nothing more than page in her memory book.

Daryl blinks at him. "S'that supposed to mean?"

Rick swallows, and licks his lips. He can still taste the blood in his mouth, and he turns his head and tries to spit out what's gathered since he last did it. It coats one side of his mouth, between his teeth like a stubborn piece of popcorn, and he can feel the tender inside of his lip where it almost split.

He sighs. He knows Daryl already gets enough of a hard time, if his reaction to Merle's teasing had been anything to go by. Besides, they do live in Georgia, and even if there were places like that (Rick doesn't really know, it's not like he's ever gone to look), he doubts they were overly welcoming to people with Daryl's personality and hours. In his head, when Rick conjures up the stereotypical image of a gay man, Daryl is not the first thing that comes to mind.

But Daryl is attractive, Rick knows enough about what he likes to know that. His shoulders are broad and strong, his arms thick, his eyes so Goddamn beautiful that Rick can and has repeatedly thought about them for hours at a time, and stared into them for far longer than is necessary. His voice is smooth and low, his features sharp. Rick doesn't think he'd have much trouble finding someone to the spend the night with if he put his mind to it – like a hunter, he'd track and asses and then go in for his kill.

"Lori asked me if we were together," he blurts out, figuring it would be safer to rip off the band-aid than dance around the subject and try to avoid it. Daryl doesn't feel like much of a dancer, and he doesn't waste time fucking around with mincing words. Small talk, it's a good thing they both hated it.

Daryl snorts and rolls his eyes. "Oh yeah?" he asks, but he says it guardedly, like he doesn't want to laugh too hard at it in case Rick is being serious, but he doesn't want to make himself too vulnerable to the idea should Rick be tricking him.

"…Does that bother you?" Rick asks.

Daryl shrugs one shoulder, noncommittal and avoiding eye contact. "Kinda funny," he says in that guarded tone. "I mean, I know my brother says shit like he does 'cause he's known for, like, years about…about me. And he kinda assumes any guy I'm hanging around with I'm fuckin'."

"And…was that the case?" Rick asks, unable to help himself. He can't stop it – the image of other men, with their hands on Daryl, touching his waist or pulling his hair or pressing their mouths against his neck, his lips, over his heart. In some dark, shrouded room, moving together with skin and teeth bared, selfish and base.

Daryl smirks at him and halts. They're at what would have become the next-door neighbor's house, still a safe talking distance away. "Jealous of my sex life, Grimes?" he teases.

"I might be," Rick replies, openly and without shame. Daryl blinks at him. "Just like you're jealous of Lori."

"Yeah, well, I got more reason," Daryl says, his voice hardening from the teasing tone it had just been. "She's here, with your kid, you were married to her for years."

"She's fucking my friend," Rick replies easily. "She doesn't get to claim me anymore, and I have no interest in winning her back. She doesn't wear my ring, she doesn't have my last name anymore, and she thinks I'm fucking my caretaker. I couldn't care less what she does."

"You still love her, though," Daryl says. "You have to still love her."

"Yeah, well…" Daryl's staring at him – willing him to keep talking, maybe, or wishing he would just shut up. It's hard to tell when Daryl's eyes are shaded by his hair, so that Rick can't see what exact color of blue they are. He takes a step forward and Daryl shifts his weight, like he's going to try and bolt, but he doesn't otherwise move.

Daryl's fingers curl by his sides, his arm twitching like he wants to reach out. That must be what he's trying to do, because there's no weapon on him to reach for otherwise.

"That night," Rick says, a quiet whisper like he's in a church. The air between them feels reverent, slowed down to the speed of moving pieces of Earth. "That night, you said 'Me, too'. What did you mean?"

"Does it matter?" Daryl breathes. "You didn't believe me. Said so yourself."

"You can't pick and choose what you pay attention to," Rick says, unable to stop himself smiling.

"Ain't that what the faithful do anyway?"

"Daryl." Rick reaches out, finally, and rests his hand gently on the back of Daryl's neck. He doesn't pull him in, yet, but he can feel the muscles in Daryl's neck stiffening, like he's forcing himself not to lean in, not to rest their foreheads together and breathe out. "Please don't hide from me."

"I don't know what you expect me to say," Daryl replies.

"You could say that I'm insane, or that I'm a murderer, or that I'm…whatever else you can think of, as a reason not to believe me. But don't drag up something that doesn't matter anymore. Lori and I…are done, as far as I'm concerned. She's not allowed to want me, she's not allowed to judge you."

"What'll you do if she does?"

Rick shrugs one shoulder. Daryl's hand comes up and wraps around Rick's wrist where it rests against his neck. "What I have to."

"Rick…"

"Yes?" Rick tilts his head to one side. They're both standing so close. Daryl's eyes skate around like a hunting cat, on Rick's mouth, his eyes, down to the street beneath them, to the holster on Rick's hip, to his own hand, back up.

"…You know what I meant, when I said it," Daryl finally says, his eyes honest and the same blue as the sky when it darkens to black after the sun retreats. His pupils are wide despite the brightening day, and he reaches out with his free hand, his right, the knuckles still red from punching Rick, and places it on Rick's chest. His fingers curl into Rick's loose shirt. "You gotta know."

Rick sighs, relief washing through him as he exhales. He hadn't even realized he'd been holding his breath. Daryl seems to deflate as well and they rest their foreheads together, and Daryl's hands feels so warm against Rick's arm and his chest. Rick moves forward with his other hand, resting his fingers lightly under Daryl's bicep, holding him steady. As soon as he touches Daryl it's like his trembling calms and he goes still with relief and surrender.

Rick remembers saying there is so much a man can say without using the words. He feels Daryl's love, his pain, his longing for touch through where their bodies are connected. He feels it like something physical, his own soul desperate for the connection reaching back out through his skin. Touch-starved, broken things, the both of them. He closes his eyes and lets out another breath.

When he and Lori had first been dating, he had been the one to say 'I love you' first. He'd freaked out about it, too, because she hadn't said it back. Just 'Me, too'. He hadn’t imagined hearing Daryl say it would bring up such different feelings. When Daryl says it, it isn't like a dismissive, meaningless thing meant to calm a child or satisfy a suitor or pacify a racist uncle. It is involvement, diving deep into the emotion, it's Me, too. I'm here. What you're feeling, I am feeling. What you are, I also am.

Daryl breaks the silence after another moment, his fingers curling against Rick's chest. He feels like he wants to withdraw but Rick doesn't loosen his hold on the other man. This is to be expected, when things are raw and vulnerable – the need to retreat and the need to hide is natural and necessary. Daryl licks his lips.

"Rick, let me go," he whispers. Rick's hold loosens and he takes a step back, but Rick can see the desperate need to be close again, written across his face before he tries to school it. "I don't want to…while she's here."

Rick blinks, and nods. The air rushes in between them, hot and stagnant now like they're standing in a swamp. He misses Daryl's touch immediately, like a balm on bruised skin. His face hurts.

"Don't make me sleep away from you," he says, and Daryl looks at him like that's the last thing he expected Rick to say. He shifts his weight and huffs a soft, embarrassed laugh, his cheeks turning pink as he looks at the ground and scratches the back of his neck.

"I won't," he replies, equally softly, equally earnest. It feels like he's wrapping Rick up in his voice, like his soul is petting across Rick's face and hands like a charming animal, sleek and soft against his skin. "I just…don't want to do anything while she's here. Where she can just walk in on us or something. Not until we're…"

Safe. Separated. Far away from them. Not until it's done. "I understand," Rick says, and he does. Daryl's love is thorny and jealous and insecure, a rose stem without the flower, waiting to blossom under Rick's care. Rick smiles, just a little, and whistles out their little tune – low, high, low. Daryl looks at him and smirks, his cheeks getting a little redder.

"Yeah, me too," he says, and steps past Rick, brushing a hand across his chest, and Rick's smile widens as he realizes that their whistle has become, suddenly and yet in a totally expected way, their way of saying I love you.

 

 

"What do you think Atlanta's like, by now?"

Rick looks up from the wide array of firearms that he, Daryl and Shane had managed to collect. All in all, they have a good stock – several pistols with extra magazines, a couple of the rifles that come standard-issue in police vehicles. Likely pilfered from the car Rick stole and then the one he and Shane used to ride around in. Rick wonders, idly, who Shane's new partner is. Or was. If he liked the man. If he killed the man.

"Lotta people probably hiding, or turned," Rick replies with a shrug. "By the time Merle's ready to move, it could be totally overrun or abandoned. Mass evacuations, hysteria, panic. A lot of death and violence."

"Fantastic." Shane rubs a hand over his face, then traps his tongue between his teeth and fixes a look on Rick. "And you're still set on goin' there, huh?"

Rick nods, tensed up for another fight, but Shane just sighs and lets it slide. "Well, I think between you, me and Daryl we'll be alright. Not sure how good that brother of his is with a gun but I'm not sure I want to give him one either, if he's still strung out. Lori and Carl…can have the knives and shit, I guess. Hopefully we'll be able to clear it for them so nothin' gets too close."

Rick nods. He and Shane hadn't ever done anything really big, in terms of danger, in their careers on the force. There weren't things like shootouts and bank heists in King County, not like in the bigger cities. The biggest thing had been the bust of a drug den years ago, but even then, the cops had far outnumbered the crooks and it had been over quickly.

Still, he remembers sitting with Shane like this before, planning things out, pretending. How many men they'd put in that direction, who would guard the door, how many guns and reloads they had. Shane approached video games as though they were really life and death, down to the fact that he would spend time planning strategies on how to beat them and encourage Rick to do the same. Rick smiles, thinking back on those moments.

"Honestly? I'm just worried about getting' overrun," Shane says after another moment of silence, sitting back as his dark eyes look over the host of weapons. "And not just from those things, either. People might come along, and we have more food or whatever, and they decide to just try for it."

Rick nods. "I'm not as worried about that," he replies, and starts to push the rifles to one side since only Daryl's pack is long enough to hold them, while his and Shane's can handle the pistols. They keep them all unloaded, just for now. "I don't have a problem with doing what needs to be done." He pauses, then, raising his eyes to Shane. "Will you?"

"What do you mean?" Shane asks, and Rick's eyes narrow. Shane knows what he means – but if Rick admits it first, then he's the worse one. He's the villain. Still, it's necessary.

"Are you willing to kill a man for Lori and Carl?" Rick asks flatly, without inflection. Shane blinks at him and sits up a little straighter. "You gonna look someone in the eye and plant one right here -." Shane stands, abruptly, and Rick stands with him, pushing his fingertip against his own forehead. "Because they threatened your family and you have to?"

"What, like you would?" Shane bites out.

"I have," Rick replies, letting his hand fall. "I did."

"Yeah…" Shane traps his tongue between his lips, and nods, putting his hands on his hips and shifting his weight so that his stance grows wider. "Yeah, you did."

Something changes in the air between them, from hostile and aggressive to distrusting and wary. Rick lets his shoulders fall, submits to Shane's larger frame for now, and cocks his head to one side. "You pick your people," he says, quiet and just like he'd said to Daryl, "and you decide, for those people, there isn't anything you won't do. You can let Lori cling to her manners and traditions if you want. I don't give a fuck about that. I'm going to stay alive for you, and for her, and for Carl, and for Daryl and Merle – and if that means someone else has to die, then so be it."

Shane wants to call him crazy so bad – Rick can see it in his eyes, the slight drop of his mouth, the way his tongue keeps flicking against the back of his top teeth. But he doesn't. Instead, he says; "So, Daryl and Merle, huh? They count as family now, too?"

"As far as I'm concerned, yes," Rick replies, and wonders if Shane can see what Lori saw so easily, see the heat of desire and adoration in Rick's skin, the twist of his mouth, the slope of his shoulders, the curl of his fingers.  He wonders if perhaps there is some mark on them, Daryl and him, that binds them together so obviously that whoever doesn't notice is either a fool or blind. "But you don't know him as well as I do. I understand if you -."

"It's just, I ain't ever seen you like this, man," Shane says.

"I've always been like this."

"We both know that ain't true." Shane shakes his head and Rick blinks at him. "It's like you're…more alive than you were before. In that place, and then before that, in the hospital, you were so…thin, and faded. I don't know." Shane abruptly drops his imposing stance and brushes the vague thoughts to one side.

Rick looks down at the bags of guns, licking his lips, and then scratches the back of his neck. "You remember the first time I saw Lori?" he asks, and Shane tilts his head, regarding him with a wary eye. "We were…it was like third day that year, and I saw her, and I leaned over and told you that I had to find out who she was. That I was gonna marry her."

"Yeah," Shane says, quiet and hoarse. "I remember."

"I love you, Shane," Rick says. "I'll say it open and honest, man, you're my brother and my best friend. And you…" He huffs a laugh, shaking his head. "You told me she'd never give me the time of day. She'd never go out with me, or anything else." Shane smiles, fondly. "But I went up to her anyway, and I asked her out, and she said yes – and because of that she has Carl, and now she has you, and I think…I think it all worked out, when all's said and done."

"What's your point, Rick?"

"I'm just asking you to believe me," Rick says, stepping forward and reaching out to gently touch Shane's arm. "You didn't believe I would marry Lori, but I did. You don't believe that we should go to Atlanta, but I'm saying we should. Just…I'm just asking you to believe me. When I say I have to, because I do."

"This…ain't even close to the same thing, brother," Shane says, but there's no real fight in him anymore. He's tired to his bones, Rick can see that. In contrast, Rick has never felt more alive, more present, than he does right now. He lets his hand fall from Shane's arm so that the man doesn't feel pressured. Then, Shane lifts his eyes to the ceiling and rubs both hands over his face, then up through his hair. Rick can hear his nails scraping. "But…okay. I'll admit you're usually right, annoying as that makes you."

Rick grins, wide and bright with victory. "So you'll come with me to Atlanta?"

Shane nods. "Yep. Atlanta it is."

Rick lets out a little whoop of victory, reaching forward and grabbing Shane's forearm and grinning when the man holds his in return. They shake, once, and then Rick pulls Shane in by the back of his neck into a tighter hug. He can't remember the last time he hugged Shane. His friend is warm, his scent a little sharp with old sweat and stress, the muscles of his back tense under Rick's closed fist.

They stand like that for a while, before someone clears their throat and forces them apart. It's Daryl, looking between them with impassive eyes, and Rick smiles at him. "Daryl," he says, automatically stepping towards the man, drawn to him like a meteor to Earth. He wants to crash into Daryl, tear his flesh open and make a home for himself in the man's heart. Daryl is carrying one of the bags they'd stuffed full of medicine.

"Am I interrupting?" he asks gruffly.

"No," Rick says, shaking his head. "What's in the bag?"

Daryl looks down at it, as though forgetting he was holding it, and lifts it up a little. "Dunno why I didn't think of it before," he says. "Got enough painkillers and sleeping shit in here to knock out a rhino. I figured we could just give it to Merle and move 'im."

Shane makes a dismissive sound. "How far you think we're gonna get with all that dead weight?" he asks. "What if we get surrounded and have to make a quick getaway?"

There's something cold in Daryl's eyes when he shrugs his shoulder, looking down. "Ain't my fault he decided the first thing he was gonna do was shoot up at the end of the world," he says, a little defensively, but mostly just resigned. Like he's tired of fighting this, with himself and with others. Rick can't imagine how many of these conversations Daryl has had to have in his head, every day of his life. "If it comes to it, I can leave 'im behind. But we can't stay here too long, can't afford to get comfortable."

Rick nods and takes the bag from Daryl, opening it up and looking through it. "Need us to help?" he asks, because he's sure there's more to Daryl not bringing it up than it just slipping his mind. Rick knows his priority in the pharmacy had been painkillers and gauze and things to sew up wounds, antibiotics and shit like that. He hadn't thought to get something to help people sleep. He wonders, idly, who Daryl might have been thinking about when he was grabbing it.

Daryl licks his lips and nods. "Please."

"We doin' this now?" Shane asks, sounding startled.

Rick nods. "Now," he says. "Grab the guns and get Lori and Carl ready to leave. Daryl and I will handle Merle."

"C'mon, brother, I know you're stubborn but you can't lift a guy on your own. You'll get crushed."

"Merle is heavy," Daryl admits. "You saw 'im."

Rick rolls his eyes. "Look, Lori will be a lot more amiable to moving if it's not me suggestin' it, okay? So I'm gonna make myself useful and help with Merle but that's the only place I can help. So, please, just do what I say for now."

Shane traps his tongue between his lips and sighs through his nose, nodding. "Alright. Fine. In the garage in fifteen." Then he disappears through the kitchen into the backyard where Lori and Carl are. Rick nods to Daryl and shoulders the laundry bag before they both head upstairs.

"What were you two talkin' about, 'fore I got there?" Daryl asks half-way up, his steps slow, his face hidden by his hair. Rick can hear the anxiety and tension in his voice, and wishes that he were able to reach out and soothe Daryl's insecurities like they were physical things, as easily as brushing back his hair or letting his fingers trail down Daryl's arm.

"I was trying to convince Shane to come with us to Atlanta," Rick replies, and Daryl nods and gives a non-committal huff. "I don't know if he's War, and I don't want Lori or Carl or him to get into that much danger, but I know we're stronger together."

"Didn't say we weren't," Daryl says. They're at the top of the stairs now and Rick shadows Daryl's left, blocking his way to the room where Merle is staying. The room is quiet. He must be asleep. Rick remembers seeing drug addicts recovering sometimes in their cells when they'd get arrested. Most of the time they just slept. The other times they moaned and howled like demons. "I just…"

"What?" Rick asks. He ducks his head to try and catch Daryl's eyes. "You just…what?"

Daryl lifts his eyes, his face shadowed and pale. "Nothin'," he says.

Rick swallows hard enough he can feel his throat click, and reaches out to run his fingers down Daryl's bicep, curling around his elbow. Daryl's fingers twitch like he wants to grab his knife and stab Rick's hand.

"Daryl, I promise," Rick says, stepping closer.

Daryl shakes his head, stepping back. "You don't even know what you're promisin' me."

"Anything," Rick breathes. "Everything."

"Rick, stop." Daryl raises a hand and pushes against Rick's chest, forcing him to halt a safe distance away. Rick lets go of his arm and his hand feels like it's burning where it was touching him. He wants to reach out and curl his fingers in Daryl's shirt, push his chest against Daryl's, feel the man's breathing and heartbeat as though it's his own.

Daryl pulls his hand back, his breathing unsteady. "Stop sayin' shit like that," he says, and shakes his head again. "Stop it."

"Why?" Rick says, soft but demanding. He doesn't press closer but wishes with all his might that Daryl would let him.

Daryl sighs, shaking his head one more time. He moves past Rick in the hallway and Rick allows it, following close behind as they go to Merle's room. When Daryl opens the door, Rick can't help wrinkling his nose at the stench. It smells like old piss, sweat and vomit – is probably a healthy mix of all three. Merle is on the bed, wrapped up tightly in bedsheets, completely bare except for his filthy underwear and a dirty wife beater, slick with sweat and clinging to his body.

"Fuck's sake," Daryl mutters.

"If it helps, you're definitely the prettier brother," Rick says, and that makes Daryl roll his eyes and shove at Rick's arm. His cheeks are pink, though, and bulge where he's trying to fight off his smile.

"Help me get him upright," Daryl says. There's a can of soup, half-full by Merle's hand on the floor. It's slick with spit and Rick blanches, nudging it to one side. He curls his hands under one of Merle's arms, Daryl on his other side, and they haul him up.

Merle thrashes against them, bellowing loudly, his eyes wide and glazed over. "Get yer fuckin' hands off me!" he yells, throwing himself back hard enough that both Rick and Daryl have to let go. Rick jumps back when Merle's fist comes flying his way.

"Just keep back," Daryl says, his expression cold and calculated. He's had to do this before, Rick is sure. "He'll get tired in a second. Just stay back."

"Aww, shit," Merle groans, trembling, and his eyes sharpen suddenly and snap to Daryl's face. "Oh, baby brother! Knew you'd come f'r me. Help ol' Merle up."

"Just tried," Daryl mutters, kicking the mattress. "Almost clocked us one."

Merle groans again, sounding more broken and empty than the walkers outside. His eyes rove away from Daryl, across the ceiling, before settling on Rick. "Hey, it's – it's the nutter!" he says, reaching out and grasping weakly at Rick's shirt. Rick is reminded, suddenly, of James, with his brain cooked to all Hell and his stuttering voice. Sweet James. At least he didn't have to suffer.

"Hey," Merle says, stringing out the word for several seconds. He wraps a hand limply in Rick's shirt and tugs. "Nutterbutter, you can sweet-talk my lil bro, can'tcha? He's a real sucker for eyes like yers."

"Merle," Daryl growls, embarrassed and horrified. He grabs his brother's arm and hauls him back until Merle lets go of Rick's shirt. "Shut up and go back to sleep before I smother you with a Goddamn pillow."

"You're gonna kill me," Merle moans, his eyes closing as though he's suffered a terrible offense. "Leave me all alone here, kill me in my sleep and ride off into the sunset. I know the likes of both a'ya's."

His words are starting to slur together, quieter and slower as he succumbs to the terrible weariness of withdrawal. He rolls over onto his side and Rick winces at the large, yellow stain he can now see under the mattress where Merle once was. Daryl draws back, eyeing him carefully, before he straightens up with a nod.

"Gimme the bag," he says, and Rick hands it to him wordlessly. Daryl roots through it and after a moment comes back up with two small, white boxes. They don't rattle – they're the kind of pills that come in packs of two and have to be pushed out. Daryl pushes out eight.

Rick raises an eyebrow, but doesn't comment. "There's a half-can of soup here," he says, bending down and grabbing it from the floor and holding it out in offering. "We could crush 'em up and make him drink it."

Daryl nods, biting his lower lip, and sets the eight pulls down on the bedside table. He pulls out his hunting knife from his belt, still sheathed, and holds the knife so that the handle is not in his hand. With one hand braced against the end of the handle and the other wrapped around the sheathed blade, he grinds the handle against the pills with a small grunt. They break easily under the pressure and soon become a chunky white-yellow powder, matted against the shiny varnish of the wooden table.

Rick nods at the little pile. "You've done this before."

Darl grunts and slides his knife back through his belt. "We've all done stuff," he says. "Gimme the can."

Rick hands it to him and watches as Daryl bends down to scrape the powder into the soup can, using the side of his hand to do so, before he straightens and wipes it off on his jeans. He swishes the can around like it's an empty beer, searching for those last few drops.

"You hold his nose, I'll pour," he says, and Rick nods and leans over the bed enough to hold Merle's head still, and pinches his nose closed as Daryl grabs his chin and tips the soup-sleeping-pill concoction into his mouth. Merle gurgles, fighting against it, but Rick and Daryl hold him down and Daryl works to pet his throat, encouraging him to swallow.

"That should do it," he murmurs when the can is pretty much empty, setting it back down, and pushes himself back to upright. "Can't do much about the state he's in, but it'll have to work. We can get him wrapped up in the backseat or somethin'."

"That'll be fun," Rick says. "Should provide entertainment though. Could listen to him go on about my eyes some more."

He's trying to make light of the situation, but he can tell from Daryl's face that it doesn't quite land. Daryl's mouth twists and he makes a sound like he's trying to scoff, but it comes out more of a gasp like someone punched him. He grabs Merle's shoulders and hauls him to a vaguely sitting position. "Gonna help or just stand there?" he says, and Rick sighs and tucks himself under Merle's arm, taking his weight across his shoulders.

They manage to, limpingly, unsteadily, get Merle downstairs. Daryl barks out an order for someone to get him a blanket and Shane comes out of the garage, holding out a thin sheet he must have pilfered from the beds they'd been borrowing over the last couple of days.

His nose wrinkles and he looks like he'd rather not go near any of them with a ten-foot pole. "So…this is the brother, huh?"

"I'm sure he cleans up fine," Rick says, grunting as they work to wrap Merle up in the sheet. It's a cheap, toga-like burrito they end up with but it'll do the trick of keeping him warm and preserving his modesty.

Daryl barks a laugh. "Wouldn't know what clean looked like on him, promise," he says, and then he and Rick continue the last part of the journey of getting Merle into the truck. It's a difficult task and Shane ends up having to help with that final haul. Rick isn't as strong as he used to be and Merle is a large guy, even without being dead weight in their arms.

"What I wouldn't give for a shower," Shane complains, wiping his hands off on his thighs. Rick can't help agreeing with a nod. It feels like there's a second layer of skin on him at this point, a little bit too old and uncomfortable to ignore once he's started to think about it. And now, of course, he smells a little too much like eau d'Merle.

Carl comes running around the front of the truck and skids to a halt in front of the men, Lori on his heels. "Where are we going, dad?" he asks, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Rick smiles and reaches out, ruffling Carl's hair gently.

"Atlanta," he says, raising his eyes to Lori's sullen, resigned expression. Shane must have told her a similar thing – they were going, and that was final.

Atlanta is half a day's drive, and Rick is sure they will make it there by nightfall. Still, part of him hesitates. Atlanta, Death had told him to go to Atlanta, but he hadn't actually said what Rick would find there. Maybe this is a trick to shed the dead weight – Death had promised him Daryl, but the rest of Rick's family, and Merle, were not part of the negotiation. Rick hopes that Death is understanding, is accommodating.

"It'll be dark soon," Lori says after a moment. "Do we need to leave today?"

"We should," Rick replies with a nod. "If it gets too dark before we're there, we'll stop somewhere else. I'm sure we'll manage."

Lori presses her lips together, before she grabs Carl's shoulders and steers him back towards their stolen car. Daryl moves around the driver's side door of the truck, and Rick turns and grabs Shane's arm before he can follow Lori and Carl.

He pulls Shane close to him and speaks directly into his ear; "This goes south, you take them and run," he commands, his hand tight on Shane's arm so that the other man can't pull away. "Promise me."

Shane sucks in a breath and nods, his eyes wide. Rick looks at him for another long moment, assessing, calculating, before he determines that Shane is lying to him and lets him go. Oh, he'll get Lori and Carl safe, of that Rick has no doubt. But the implication that he would stay away and not come back for Rick – that he won't agree to. Rick sighs and turns away, climbing into the passenger seat of the truck. Daryl turns the car on, rolling the windows down so that the ripeness of Merle's scent doesn't get to them so badly.

Shane hauls the garage doors open for them. The road is bright and clear, the day sunny, and Daryl rolls out of the garage first once Shane moves out of the way. He waits, idling on the road, for the second car to come out of the garage, and then they're off.

They drive slowly, eyes open and wary for any of the walkers drawn by the noise, or other people creeping between the houses or the trees. There don't seem to be any, not even any wildlife picking at the bodies already fallen – though those are scarce as well.

Rick looks over his shoulder occasionally, to make sure Merle is still asleep and secure, and that the second red car is following closely behind them. For the most part, though, he tries to close his eyes and rest. When his mind is clear it's a lot easier to hear what Death is saying to him, and a lot easier to conjure his presence in Rick's mind. He takes in a deep breath, but can't concentrate over the burbling roar of the engine and the tense silence sitting between him and Daryl like a great serpent.

Finally, he sighs, opening his eyes again.

"You're angry with me," he says. He doesn't need to see the white in Daryl's knuckles or the bulge in his jaw to know that. He can feel it, sliding across his skin like water.

Daryl blows out a breath. "I ain't," he replies.

"Frustrated, then," Rick says, rolling his eyes.

"Ain't that either."

"Well, you're something," Rick insists. His hands are folded in his lap but his fingers are laced tightly. It's a habit he picked up to stop himself fidgeting or scratching at the back of his neck. Sometimes he scratches so hard that he bleeds. He tilts his head back until it rests against the headrest, staring with eyes half-lidded out onto the road. "Does it bother you that much?"

"What?" Daryl asks, and it's challenging.

"You know what," Rick says. If Daryl is determined not to name it, not to address it, then Rick won't give him the satisfaction of folding first. Daryl must feel his adoration like sunlight – Rick isn't exactly subtle about it. He can't be, if Lori picked it up so quickly. And they'd talked about it – hadn't they? Did their short, non-committal conversations count as acknowledgement?

He searches for something, some collection of words from what he knows, that will satisfy how he feels with what Daryl is comfortable acknowledging. He can't think of anything to say.

But Daryl breaks first. "It ain't easy bein' what I am in Georgia, Rick," he says quietly. His hands have loosened on the steering wheel, petting the seam in the leather almost absently. "And it ain't gonna be easy bein' what you are, either. I get…I don't like thinking about combining those two things."

What I am. What you are. "What, gay and crazy?" Rick says, and Daryl winces at the words. "We'll all be murderers soon, Daryl. What does it matter?"

Daryl shakes his head. "Something's gotta matter," he replies. "Even in…even in all this, Rick, somethin's gotta matter."

"Daryl…" Rick reaches out and lets his hand rest on the bench seat between the two of them. Daryl's thigh goes tense, he'd pull away if he wasn't driving. He can feel Daryl's uneasiness, taste his reluctance. It makes him want to cover and consume the man all the more.

Strange, how the words can come so easily to him with Shane, or Lori, but not this man.

"Don't you dare," Daryl hisses, his fingers curling around the steering wheel again. Rick blinks at him, finally lifting his head and turning it to face the other man. Daryl's jaw is clenched so hard Rick can hear the squeak of his teeth as they grind together. "Don't."

"But I do," Rick says. "And I promise."

"And if we get to Atlanta, and we get overrun, and I lose you – then what? What happens then?"

"You won't, you won't lose me. I promise."

"You can't promise that."

"Daryl -."

He's interrupted by the screech of brakes behind them, and Daryl slows to a stop as Rick turns to look over his shoulder. He doesn't immediately see the second car and that alone is enough to make him panic, but then he sees movement.

A pack of walkers has come out of the trees, drawn by the sounds of the engines, and they've surrounded the car. There's eight, maybe ten of them, and Rick presses his lips together and reaches down to make sure his gun is on him. He has a hunting knife as well tucked into the other side of his belt.

Daryl is already scrambling out the other side, understanding like before that there isn't much he'll be able to do to stop Rick. The walkers are mostly around the hood of the car and stumble back as Shane revs the engine, knocking a few of them down and away. Rick takes those out first, stabbing them swiftly in the side of the head where the flesh is soft and gives easily.

"Rick!"

Rick looks up just in time to see Daryl lunge for a walker that was getting too close to him, stabbing the thing in the eye and shoving it away with a grunt. "Watch yourself, you idiot!" Daryl yells, and Rick grins and blows out a breath and leaps for another walker.

The walkers are turning towards them, more enticed by the fresh meat in their midst than they are interested in beating through the windows of a car. As they move away from the car Rick hears a door open and growls under his breath.

"Stay in the car!" he yells, assuming it's Shane. "We've got this!"

You need to be able to run.

There's a sound, then, sudden, a scrape of metal against metal, a sword being unsheathed. Rick knows it's in his head – it has to be in his head, none of them have weapons like that – but that doesn't stop the sudden, icy rush of fear and dread running down his back. The air feels hot against his neck where the blade of the sword rests. Or maybe it's his scythe. He doesn't dare look.

The sound of a gunshot shatters the relative silence and Rick flinches when a walker's head explodes near his shoulder. Its mouth had been open, curling claws ready. Rick looks over and sees Shane, his gun pointed towards Rick.

Rick can't hesitate any longer. There's another walker lunging at his neck and he shoves it away, onto the ground, and kneels over it and stabs it through the skull. Daryl takes out another in his periphery. He doesn't hear Shane fire his gun again.

The last one goes down with another snarl and Rick grimaces, yanking his knife back out from its head and straightening with another sigh. He wipes the back of his hand, still holding the knife, across his forehead. Black goo and blood is smeared down his hand now and across his face. He pays it no mind.

Then, the door slams and Shane is stalking towards them, puffed up and angry. "You outta your fucking mind?" he demands, using his gun to point at Rick's chest. Rick goes tense, unsteady. There's a crown on Shane's head, glinting and golden, and the car is still idling, purring and puffing like a horse ready to charge. Shane jams the muzzle of his gun against Rick's chest. "Throwin' yourself into a pack of those things? You almost got yourself killed!"

"You almost got me killed," Rick says, tilting his chin up. "I know how you shoot." You sure you were aiming for the walker?

"What you tryin' to say, Grimes?" Shane hisses. "You think I would'a shot if it wasn't clear? That thing was almost on you."

Rick shakes his head and sighs. He's not sure, exactly, what he's trying to say at all. Maybe he isn't trying to say anything – maybe like with Lori, and with Daryl, he's trying to get the other person to admit it first. But he's never been good at that.

He lifts his hand and nudges his knuckles against Shane's gun, pushing it to one side. Shane deflates with another angry sound and lowers it, his hand still gripping it tightly.

"Lori and Carl okay?" Rick asks.

Shane traps his tongue between his teeth and looks over his shoulder at the car. Lori is still inside, her face pale with fear and her eyes wide. Carl is visible between the two front seats, an awed expression on his face.

"Probably a little spooked, is all," Shane finally replies.

Daryl makes an anxious sound next to them, drawing Rick's attention. "The shot'll have drawn more. We should keep moving."

"Right," Rick says. He sends another look Shane's way and waits for his nod before he turns his back. He doesn't miss how Daryl lingers, his eyes on the trees and hand on his knife, before he subsides too and hurries back towards the truck.

"Must'a come outta nowhere," Daryl says, his door shutting with a creak. He adjusts the rear-view mirror to make sure Shane is following them again before he continues to drive.

Rick hums, nodding.

"The fuck was that whole show about?" Daryl asks. Rick turns his head to meet Daryl's eyes, and he's not quite sure what to say.

"You'll think I'm paranoid."

"Maybe," Daryl says with a shrug. "But you should tell me anyway. That's how it's gotta work, Rick. I decided that, just now. Honesty and loyalty's gotta matter, nowadays. So, tell me."

Rick blows out a breath through his nose and scratches the back of his neck hard enough that the sweat-dry skin chafes and stings under his nails. "I…I don't know how to explain it," he says. "Shane is – he might be War. But he can't be War because it doesn't make sense. So I'm paranoid. But I can't help thinking that…" He sighs, closing his eyes. "Shane doesn't want to go to Atlanta, doesn't want to bring Lori and Carl there. It'd be a lot easier for him to get what he wants if I was out of the picture."

"So you're sayin' he meant to shoot at you," Daryl says. "If he hit you, unhappy accident."

"Shane ain't that good a shot," Rick agrees. "I've seen him. Unlikely he got much better since I was away. He could just as easily been aimin' for me as that walker."

"But you don't know that."

"No." Rick shakes his head. "I'm so…tired of thinking this way. I don't want to think this way. I don't want to doubt my friend."

"Rick…" Rick raises his head, opening his eyes again to look Daryl's way. The other man is chewing on the inside of his lower lip, before he sighs and shakes his head, hand tightening on the steering wheel. "Nothin'. Don't even know what to say to that."

"You don't have to say anything," Rick replies, smiling a little. "That's one of the things I always liked about you."

Daryl huffs, his lips twitching in response. "You should get some rest," he says after a moment. "Cat nap or somethin'. I'll wake you if we need you. Know you haven't been sleepin' worth a damn."

Rick would protest, but he feels tired to the bone and he's not sure he wants to fight Daryl on that. He shifts in place until his shoulder is braced against the sun-warmed window and rests his temple against it. Walker blood smears across the glass but he pays it no mind.

Chapter Text

There's a whistle – many voices coming together to make the sound. It's not one of Daryl's whistles but Rick still follows it, his breathing heavy and shallow, his heart pounding. Fear is making his neck and hands feel cold and it's a different kind of cold than when Death appears. Death's cold is like acceptance, it's what Rick imagines freezing to death feels like, when the body starts to give up and go calm. This cold is frantic, panicked. He's not ready, he's not ready.

He hears the snarls of dogs and they sound strangely like engines. He can't see the bodies of them, but he can see their eyes shifting between the trees. They're red, glowing, burning with anger. Rick can feel them like they're gnawing at his flesh. He scratches at the insides of his arms and his fingertips come back red.

"Rick!"

It's not a voice he recognizes – it's not Lori's, or Shane's, or Carl's, or Daryl's. It's no one he's heard before. It sounds jovial, like a long-lost uncle welcoming him home. He heads towards it, something like dread sinking in his gut. His shoulders feel heavy as though he's carrying a great weight, his booted feet drag through the leaves and make him trip over fallen branches and rocks, snapping twigs. He can't afford to be silent.

He crests a hill and he's looking out into an open plain, the trees fading from him like passing shadows. He sucks in a huge breath of air, and it's like he's finally able to breathe now. His hair is wet as though it's been raining and it's so fucking cold.

"Rick! You made it!"

There are three figures standing in the little valley below him. He knows who they are, even if it weren't for the giant horses circling them or the fire illuminating their weapons and garb. War is standing facing away from him. To his right is Pestilence, and across from him is Famine. Rick steps forward slowly, taking Death's place at War's left side, and he wonders if he'll finally be able to see the man's face.

Behind him he hears a breath from a great beast and turns, looking into the dark eyes of a horse at his shoulder. The animal is gigantic, its shoulder almost past Rick's head. It is as pale as a ghost, almost see-through. It winks at him, shaking its mane, which is long and rolls from side to side on its neck as though passing through the flesh, like the hair is no more than an illusion. Or maybe the horse is. Rick reaches out to touch it, lays his bloody fingers on the animal's neck. Its ears prick forward towards him.

The dogs break out of the tree line, barking and braying, and the four horses scatter. Pestilence's takes the lead, flashing white and stark like a stain of paint on the green velvet of the plain. Behind it, War's horse, red as blood and shining as though wet with it, follows. Then Famine's, indistinguishable once the firelight stops from the blackness of the night sky. Rick's follows at a break-neck speed, flitting between the four of them like a shroud of mist. It's the smallest of the four, fleet and fine. Rick smiles, watching it go.

The dogs follow after the horses and disappear.

Rick looks back at the other three. There's a fire in the middle of them, like they're out camping on any normal day. War's crown glints in a mesmerizing way, taking on the movement and dance of the flames, growing large on his head. Rick can't, for the life of him, make features out of his face. Across from Rick, Pestilence is as white as his horse, his eyes huge like a fly, beaded, glistening. His teeth are yellow and crooked in all directions, his fingers long and curled up against his chest. He stands like an upright fetus, curled in on himself and cloaked in grey. Laying on the grass by his bare feet is a staff, sharpened to a needle-like point on one end and Rick can see a thin vein of mercury-like liquid moving around within the staff, ready to infect and spread its disease.

Famine cackles on his right. He looks like an incredibly thin man, his face human but strangely sharp, like whoever created him didn't bother with muscle but merely stretched the face over a skull and decided to keep it that way. His mouth is open and gaping, like one of the walkers, and Rick can hear the faint roar of air being drawn in as though Famine is aching to consume even their breaths. His eyes are on the fire, ravenous. He twitches, hair that is thin and sleek laying limp on his neck. His hands are his weapon, fingers clawed like those of a bird of prey.

War stands among them mightily, tall and proud as any great King or general should. He's wearing armor that shines in the firelight, polished to a brilliant glow. His sword hangs by his side in its scabbard, but that isn't the only weapon he has. His red cloak is tucked up tight to his neck but doesn't conceal his face. Rick wishes he could see them, see the men they will possess so that he will know them on sight – so that he will know if Shane is one of them.

They stand in silence, unmoving except for the occasional twitch from Famine. Rick licks his lips, too aware of his mortality among them. He lifts his hand and scratches at the back of his neck until he starts to feel pain.

Pestilence abruptly sucks in a breath, looking up at the three of them gathered. "I guess I'll speak first," he says, his voice raspy and gentle. Rick blinks at him. "Seems only right."

"Yes," War says. "Only right."

Famine giggles next to him, high-pitched and mad, his head twitching to the side. "Nice to see the final one's arrived," he says, eyes flicking to Rick, then back to War. His jaw doesn't move when he talks but the rush calms for a brief moment.

They all look at him and Rick blinks again. "…Sorry I'm late?" he hazards, and Pestilence lets out a hissing laugh.

"We know what you're up to, Death," he says.

War laughs, the noise booming like a canon. "You can't hide from us."

"We'll find you," Famine whispers.

Rick swallows. He wants to step back from the fireplace, to find his horse and flee with the animals. This can't be a vision. He hopes to God or whoever might be listening that it's not a vision. "Won't matter," he whispers, fingers flexing. It's reassuring to feel the weight of his pistol at his thigh. "I hope you find me."

Pestilence laughs, and War joins in, and Famine starts in with his own insane cackle. Rick's fingers curl into his palm and he flinches back when they all turn towards him, reaching for their weapons. His hand reaches instinctively for his gun and Pestilence blinks, his bugged eyes clicking with the movement.

"That won't help," he hisses, gleefully.

War grins, hand on the pommel of his sword. "You're in our world now."

With a shriek, Famine lunges for him, and Rick feels his clawed hands digging into the side of his neck.

"Rick! Rick!"

Rick jerks awake with a shout, shaking so hard he's sure he's going into shock. This is how being shot felt, he's sure of it – panic and blood and why is there blood?

"Rick!"

Daryl slams on the brakes on the truck and pulls off to one side of the road, killing the engine immediately. He grabs Rick's hands and pulls them away from his neck, where Rick realizes he had been clawing. There's blood under his nails and coating his fingertips.

Daryl holds his hands tightly, not letting go when Rick flinches from him. "Rick, I'm here," he murmurs, his thumbs resting lightly on the inside of Rick's wrists. It stings there and when Rick looks down he can see where he was scratching there too. "I'm here."

"D -." Rick sucks in a shuddering breath. It feels like he's having a panic attack, he's slick with sweat and cold all over. There's goose bumps on his arms and he feels the harsh prickling feeling down his back and thighs like they're there, too. He licks his lips and tries to think of something that will help to calm him down but every time he closes his eyes all he can see is the hunger in Famine's eyes and the chill of Pestilence's voice and War, always War, looming over him like a mountain peak. "Daryl."

"I'm here," Daryl says again, and he drags his hands up Rick's forearms, and back down. The motion is gentle, soothing, smearing the blood down Rick's skin. His neck hurts. His wrists hurt. Daryl's hand catches on his wristband and Rick lets out a broken-sounding sob.

He turns his hands and catches Daryl's forearms and holds on. He wants to squeeze, as tight as he can, but his fingers feel weak and unresponsive. His face is tacky and he realizes he's crying, too.

"Fuck." Abruptly he draws away, wiping the back of his hands across his face to remove any evidence of the tears. His hands are shaking terribly, like they're attached to his arms by nothing more than a thin piece of twine. He turns to face the front of the truck and puts his head in his hands and shudders. "Oh my God, fuck."

"You're alright," Daryl whispers. His hand flattens on Rick's shoulder, rubbing lightly. There's no fear – there should be fear. Rick feels like he's seconds away from losing his damned mind. "You're awake now. It was just a dream. I'm here. I'm right here, and you're awake now."

Rick squeezes his eyes shut so tightly that new tears are forced out, and he sucks in another harsh breath. He has to get it the fuck together, before Shane or Lori or Carl sees him like this. Daryl had slammed on the brakes really hard and he's sure he has their attention. He can't hear the other car idling behind them.

He licks his lips again and tries to whistle, because that's something he can be sure about in his waking hours. But he can't make his mouth stay long enough to make the shape, and he can't get enough air in his lungs to create the sound.

Daryl understands. He whistles softly – low, high, low. Rick shudders and sobs again. The blood on his hands is starting to dry but his neck aches and his wrists sting.

He reaches out and grabs hold of Daryl's thigh, squeezing tight. "Me – me too," he stutters, and opens his eyes, and closes them again. He takes another deep breath. "God, Daryl, me too."

Daryl hums the little tune again, and squeezes Rick's shoulder. "We're going to stop for the night," he says quietly. "I'll tell Lori and Shane."

"Don't leave me."

It's whispered, so quietly Daryl could ignore it if he chooses to. Rick wouldn't blame him. But he doesn't. He doesn't pull away and he doesn't move his hand from Rick's shoulder.

"I won't leave you," Daryl says, and it's like a vow – something more sacred than Rick has ever spoken, more holy than a church. "I'm right here, Rick."

"Please, please don't leave me," Rick whispers again, shaky and soft. He can't make himself loosen his hand on Daryl's thigh. His voice is thick with tears he won't let himself shed. "I'm – he's not here. And they're coming. And if you – I can't lose you. Please don't leave me."

This isn't healthy. Rick knows it, and he can't make himself stop, any more than he would willingly stop eating fast food or staying up late watching horror movies when he has early court appointments in the morning. Knowing it's bad for him and knowing it's unhealthy doesn't make him want it any less.

Daryl licks his lips and his hand slides to the back of Rick's sore, clawed neck. His fingers curl in Rick's hair and pet there gently, uncaring for the sweat and blood already caked in there. "I won't," he says again, just as solemnly, just as full of promise. And Rick wants to believe him, so he does. Daryl sighs. "You gotta stop hurting yourself."

"I don't mean to do it," Rick replies. He ducks his head and submits to Daryl's light petting, closing his eyes again. The firelight burned into the backs of his eyelids is starting to dim and fade away. "When I dream, things attack me, and when I wake up I feel the pain. I don't know how to stop."

Daryl hums, his mouth twisting. He doesn't say anything in response but Rick can feel him thinking. Maybe they'll pick up a strait jacket for Rick, for when he sleeps. Maybe they should have gotten one at the facility. If Rick can hurt himself in his sleep, he can hurt others.

"We passed a trailer park about a mile back," Daryl says after another moment. "We can probably hole up there for the night."

Rick nods and finally manages to unhook his hand from Daryl's thigh. Daryl starts the truck without another word and puts his hand back in Rick's hair once he's able to. Rick doesn't even try to fight the desire to slide closer to Daryl's side and sigh, contented and on his way to calm under Daryl's touch.

Daryl pulls a u-turn and slides up to the red car. Shane rolls the window down and fixes Daryl with his best "the fuck was that?" expression. "We're stopping for the night," Daryl says, his tone leaving no room for argument. "Trailer park couple lights back."

Shane presses his lips together, his eyes searching for Rick behind Daryl's shoulder, before he nods. "Lead the way," he says, and Daryl drives on without any pre-amble. They make it back to the trailer park within minutes. There are abandoned cars littered everywhere, but truthfully Rick wouldn't be able to say if those were there before the apocalypse or not. Stray dogs dart in front of the truck as they pass, disappearing between the trailers. Daryl drives to the one farthest back. It's a little removed from the rest of them and he pulls up onto the little patch of lawn surrounding the thing.

There's an American flag slung across the doorway. Daryl snorts, smirking, and lets go of Rick's hair.

"You okay to clear it with me?" he asks, and Rick nods, licking his lips and getting out of the truck. His knees are weak and his steps are unsteady but he manages to follow Daryl to the trailer. They tap on the door and wait for any tell-tale hiss or groan or sound of movement. There's a window by the door and Rick flinches when a walker slams itself up against it, hissing and snarling.

"Goddamnit," he grunts, running a hand through his hair. Daryl huffs and nods towards it. Rick sucks in a deep breath and wills his hands to stop their shaking. "Alright, I'm good."

Daryl nods and yanks the door open. The walker hisses at him and falls against him and he grabs it, hauling it out of the trailer and to the ground, stabbing it through the skull without ceremony. He's yanking the knife out of its skull when another walker stumbles into the doorway and Rick leaps forward with a yell.

He slams it against the door and drives his knife into its eye – once, twice, gritting his teeth as it claws at him. It groans and hisses and finally collapses with a groan, slumping down onto the floor. Rick steps back and wipes the back of his wrist across his forehead.

Daryl's hand on his arm startles him and his fingers clench tight around the handle of his knife, before he remembers that it's Daryl and he sighs. "I'm good," he says again, reaching down and tapping where Daryl's hand is on his arm.

Daryl nods. "Think it's clear?" he asks, looking past Rick into the darkness of the trailer beyond. Rick looks back, licks his lips, and lets out a loud, high-pitched whistle. Nothing moves inside. Daryl pulls back and looks behind him when Shane pulls up in the second car.

Shane, Lori and Carl all get out as once and Shane sighs. "Sorry, ran into a…snag," he says, and comes to the front of the car, kicking at what looks like an arm stuck in the front wheel of the car. "Literally."

Rick huffs a laugh, running his hands through his hair. "This trailer's clear," he says, stepping down. "We can spend the night here." The sun has just started to set, the sky turning reddish. Rick swallows and tries not to think of the color of War's cloak, or the gleam of the fiery gems in his crown. He tries not to think about the fact that red has always been Shane's color.

"You think it's safe?" Lori asks, looking around and clutching Carl tightly to her side. She looks around at the other trailers but there doesn't seem to be anything moving around inside. Which is…weird. Rick frowns at the other trails and steps down from the door so that he's standing on the ground just past the steps.

Shane seems to sense Rick's wariness. They were friends and brothers, cops and partners for a long time and can read each other's changes in mood like the pages of a book. Shane shifts his weight, his hand on his gun, apparently nonchalant but ready and eyeing the trailers on the other side of where Rick is looking.

After a long pause, Rick licks his lips and takes in a deep breath through his nose. "It's so quiet," he says, looking over at Shane. The red glow has faded from the sky by now, darkening and deadening to a royal blue. Soon it'll be black.

Shane nods, slowly. There's a lamp at the edge of the lawn and it illuminates the side of the cars and shines off of the handles of the doors on the nearest trailers. "You think they're hidin', waitin'?" he asks.

Rick scratches the back of his neck with the hand holding his knife, not caring that he's smearing walker blood through his hair. "You guys sleep first," he says. "I'll take watch."

Lori makes an unimpressed noise, but doesn't argue and hustles Carl inside before it gets too cold. Neither Daryl nor Shane move, and Rick can feel their eyes on him, but he doesn't turn around. Eventually he hears Daryl sigh and follow Lori inside. He'll probably take the spot closest to the door, or maybe where he can see out of the window and keep Rick in his sights.

Rick goes and climbs up onto the bed of the truck and pulls the back up so that he has a place to hook his legs over. There isn't much space between the bags of food and Daryl's motorcycle but he makes do.

The silhouette of Shane's head and shoulders moves around until he's standing by the back wheel of the truck. They sit in silence for a while and Rick forces himself not to look to see if Shane's hand is still on his gun.

"S'too cold out here, brother," Shane finally says. The truck creaks as he leans his weight against it.

Rick hums. "It's pretty cold," he admits. He scratches the back of his neck and winces when his nails scratch over the stinging wounds he already put there.

Shane sighs. His breath mists in the air and he scratches his nails across his scalp, through his hair. "I don't get it," he says, and Rick braces himself for another lecture on how he's insane, about how Atlanta is a bad idea. "This isn't how…how things go. Where's the panic? The looting? The bodies in the streets, the cars backed up for miles?"

Rick blinks. It's a question he hadn't expected, but now that Shane mentions it, he can't help but agree. "Maybe everyone's staying in their homes, like the radio said," he offers, but he doesn't believe it himself. "Or maybe…"

"What?" Shane asks.

Rick shrugs. "Maybe by the time it started, it was already too late," he says. "When the facility turned, it went down in…minutes. Literally minutes. You get one death in a hospital, one heart attack in traffic, one accident, then…" He snaps the fingers of his free hand together.

"So we're either going to be dealing with holed-up people scared outta their minds and desperate, or an army of fucking undead." Shane rubs a hand over his mouth and shakes his head.

"I think I should go into Atlanta alone," Rick says after a moment. "You're right, Lori and Carl shouldn't be in that mess. And if I don't come back, then you guys should…go West. Or something. Find other people. I shouldn't have dragged you into this."

Shane looks at him, and Rick knows his eyes are wide. He wants to argue, but he also really doesn't.

"I know you think I'm insane," Rick murmurs, looking down at the knife in his hands. "Sometimes I think I am, too, even though I was right. But it's not safe to go to Atlanta. I just…have to go there, Shane. But you don't, and neither of them do."

"Brother, I…"

"You don't have to pretend," Rick says, smiling weakly. "I'm not…angry, Shane. I never have been. You gotta know that. I ain't that kinda guy."

Shane blows out a heavy breath. "So what're you gonna do?" he asks.

"When dawn comes, I'll walk the rest of the way. We can't be far now. I'll help Daryl give his brother more shit to make him sleep, grab enough food for a day, and a couple of the guns, and I'll go."

Shane nods slowly. "And what about Daryl and his brother? You think they'll wanna stick around?"

Rick's fingers curl around the handle of the knife hard enough to start hurting. His knuckle is bruised and his fingertips hurt from scraping the pavement. There are so many small wounds he hasn't paid attention to until now – things that he can't afford to pay attention to anyway.

He turns to look over his shoulder. Daryl's silhouette is in the window, he looks like he dragged a chair there and is sitting, the curtains slightly adjusted so that he can see outside, but Rick can't see any of his features. They don't have lights on.

"I don't know," he finally says, realizing he hasn't answered. I hope so. God I hope so. He turns back around to put his gaze on the rest of the trailer park. "Daryl said he'd stick around. Can't speak for his brother, though."

"Not sure having a junkie around is the smartest thing."

Rick nods, once. "I agree, but he's Daryl's brother. That means something."

"Does it?"

"It has to. You have to trust and be loyal to your people." Rick tilts his head to look down at Shane and shrugs again. "If Daryl says to kick him aside, then that's what we'll do, but I trust Daryl and Daryl wants him around, so that's what's gotta happen."

Shane seems to consider that for a moment, before he sighs. "Well, if you're set on this crazy mission, then you should at least sleep. I can keep watch."

"I'll wake you in another hour or so," Rick says. "Go, rest. Get warm."

"Rick -."

"I got some shuteye in the car," Rick adds, and doesn't mention that it had all been nightmares. "I'm not tired. Go."

Shane eyes him for another long moment before he subsides with a huff. "Suit yourself," he mutters, and reaches over to tap Rick's knee in a farewell before he turns and hurries inside the trailer. Rick is sure that Lori has already claimed the bed if it's clean enough to sleep in, and they'll have piled blankets onto a chair for Carl. Or he'll get the couch. Hopefully there's a second room for Daryl. Or maybe he'll sleep on the floor. Or the roof.

The image makes Rick smiles, and he looks down at the gleam of his knife in the lamplight. He lifts his head when he hears the door open and close a second time. It's strange how the sound of Daryl walking is so distinctive to him. He would recognize the man in a forest, in the desert, on concrete. Rick doesn't think there would be any place or any time where he would not recognize Daryl.

"You should get some sleep," Rick says as Daryl approaches. Daryl grunts and pulls down the back of the truck, jostling where Rick was perched, and hoists himself up to sit beside Rick. There's even less room with the two of them but at least it's warm.

"Ain't gonna sleep with Stepford in there watchin' my every damn move," Daryl replies, pulling his heels up to rest against the lowered gate of the truck, bracing his arms against his knees and biting at the cuticles of one hand. Rick laughs warmly, unable to hide how filled with joy he is whenever Daryl is near him. "'Sides, they're probably gonna start fuckin' and I don't wanna hear that."

Rick frowns. "With Carl in the room?"

"Carl's on the couch, they took the bedroom. Kid's out cold but I got good hearin', so…"

Rick laughs again. "So you decided to freeze your ass off with me?"

"Maybe I just like bein' around ya, Grimes."

Warmth, affectionate and kind, floods Rick's chest and he smiles, ducking his head again so that he can resist the urge to lean it on Daryl's shoulder. He's pretty sure he's blushing and thanks the bad light that Daryl probably can't see it.

"I like being around you, too," he says, because Daryl has gone quiet and still, like he realizes he said something he shouldn't have. Rick nudges his shoulder against Daryl's side and moves his thigh so that it's pushing against Daryl's hip. Daryl looks at him for a moment, then lets his leg relax outward so that his thigh rests across Rick's knee and their legs are almost sharing the space. Rick's smile widens and that warmth in his chest starts to spread out to his hands. He wants to wrap himself in Daryl and rest. "I'll fall asleep like this. You relax me too much."

Daryl huffs a sound that's almost like a laugh. "Someone needs to keep an eye on ya," he says.

"I was telling Shane," Rick says, "that I'm going to Atlanta on my own, at dawn. I don't want Lori or Carl to be there if it's as bad as we expect."

Daryl turns to look at him. "What, you're just gonna walk into Atlanta on your own?"

Rick grins. "That was the idea."

"Fuck, no," Daryl hisses. He drops his hand from his mouth and jabs his finger into Rick's chest. "I ain't lettin' you outta my sight, Grimes. No way in Hell you're going in alone."

"I gotta," Rick says. "I can't…let any of them get hurt for me. I can't let anyone get hurt 'cause'a me. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if…"

"I don't give a fuck," Daryl replies harshly, shoving his finger against Rick's sternum again. "You're not leavin' me here, you ain't leavin' me behind." Rick blinks at him, because this feels like they're talking about something different than Atlanta. Daryl's voice is thick with worry, and he pulls his hand away, fingers curling. He's shivering but Rick is sure it's not just from the cold, and he remembers the panic in Daryl's eyes from before, in the house. For all the things Rick knows about Daryl, there are a thousand more that he doesn't, and yet more he may never know. "Fuck," Daryl hisses, kicking his heel against the gate of the truck and running his hands through his hair. "I ain't lettin' ya," he says, his accent thick. "I ain't lettin' ya go alone."

"What would you have me do?" Rick asks, quiet and solemn like he's in a church. The air around them feels holy and sacred and so, so fragile. Rick worries about shattering it by speaking too loudly or moving too quickly.

Daryl heaves in a breath and straightens up, his eyes towards the sky. The lamp shines on his face and makes his skin look almost yellow. His eyes are overly bright and something sad and thorny in Rick's chest twists at the thought that he made Daryl scared enough to cry.

"Tell me you won't leave me," Daryl whispers, and Rick reaches out because how can he not? He wraps his hand around Daryl's thigh where it rests over his leg. He doesn't squeeze, there's nothing sexual in the touch. He just couldn't stand another moment of not touching this man. With his other hand, he catches one of Daryl's and lays it across where he's holding Daryl's leg. It's an awkward pose for both of them but neither of them move to correct it.

Rick sighs, brushing his thumb along the back of Daryl's hand, tracing and learning the rise of the bone, the flex of each tendon, the rough skin on his knuckles. Daryl's fingers curl around his in kind, not learning, just holding on and ready to tighten if Rick starts to pull away.

Daryl draws in a breath when Rick remains silent, and it's shaky. "Tell me you won't leave me," he says again, and Rick raises his eyes from their joined hands to meet Daryl's gaze. His hair is putting most of his face in shadow, casting a silhouette from the lamplight. Rick wants to move it away, but to do that he'd have to let go of Daryl and he's not willing to yet.

He licks his lips and tries to smile. "You should know better than this," he murmurs. Daryl's mouth thins out and he frowns. "They talk about dependency a lot. I mean, I don't care, but I'm crazy. You should know better."

"I don't think you're crazy," Daryl says.

"You're biased." Rick smiles. "I can't promise what you want me to, Daryl."

Daryl frowns at him, pulling back just a little. "Why not?"

"Because the horsemen must die," Rick says. "And if I'm one of them, that means me, too. C'mon, you're smart, you gotta know that."

Daryl shakes his head. "But that can't…Death can't die."

"Either I'm right, or I'm crazy." Rick squeezes Daryl's fingers. "You just said you don't think I'm crazy, but you don't think I'm right, neither. S'gotta be one or the other."

"No, it doesn't." Anger, now, sweeps across Daryl's face, something black and shadowy. He pulls his hand away from Rick's and flexes his fingers as though ridding them of the feeling of Rick's warmth. "So, what? That's it? All this, you kill 'em, then yourself and it all goes away?"

Rick licks his lips and nods. "That's the idea, yes."

"No," Daryl says. "I don't accept that. I won't accept that. You're not allowed to leave me." He looks away from Rick, towards the streetlight, and then back to him. His shoulders are hunched up against the cold, he looks like he's bracing himself against the whole world. He shakes his head, once, in a short and sharp motion. "Promise me."

"Do you want me to lie to you?"

"I just…" Daryl's breath is coming heavier now, shaky once more. Rick wants to reach for him, and he would, if he didn't know that it's him causing this distress in the first place. The cold is biting at his hands so much more harshly since Daryl stopped touching him. "You told me – you said "Don't wish for death". Well, I want you to promise me that you won't, either. You gotta…don't you wanna stay? Don't you wanna live?"

Rick nods, frowning. "Of course I do."

"So if…if one'a these horsemen come at you, you're gonna fight 'em, right?"

Rick nods again.

Daryl breathes out, apparently satisfied with that answer. "Okay," he says, biting his lower lip. "Okay." He straightens his leg out and Rick feels the loss immediately. He bites his lower lip to stop himself letting out a whine like a beaten animal. Still, he doesn't let Daryl move too far away from him – not that there's room to in the bed of the truck – and he plasters his leg along the other man's, humming at the warmth soaking in through their clothes.

He rests his hand, palm up, on Daryl's thigh. Daryl looks down at it, and Rick's eyes are on his face. His jaw clenches, bulging at the corner. "I won't leave you forever," Rick says quietly, "not of my own free will. That's all I can promise. It will never be my choice."

Daryl huffs a breath out through his nose, the air misting in front of his face. Then he rests his closed fist in Rick's hand, spreading his fingers out so that they form a promise of interlocking. They're not holding hands, not quite, but it feels intimate and precious as it is. Rick knows that even if he lost his entire sense of who and what he is, his soul would still recognize Daryl, his existence wouldn't let him forget.

"I guess I'll take it," Daryl says, trying to sound like he's joking, but it falls flat. He licks his lips and turns his head to look Rick in the eye. They're very close together, huddled against the cold, the clouds that their exhales form mingling together before disappearing.

They sit in silence for a long time before Rick smiles and turns his head back towards the light, remembering that technically he's meant to be here to keep watch. There hasn't been any movement or sound, and he doesn't hear any telltale sound of a walker lured over by their murmured conversation. Still, he's not sure that he would hear anything at all, when his entire being is tuned into Daryl – the sound of his breathing, the scent of him, the way his warmth feels so nice against Rick's.

"You should get some rest," Rick finally says. "I promised to wake Shane for the second watch."

Daryl nods. "You promise you won't leave for Atlanta without me?" he asks, and he sounds so young – Rick forgets, sometimes, that Daryl actually is younger than him. The man has a world-weariness about him that makes that easy to forget.

Rick tightens his fingers around Daryl's fist and smiles, and then hums the tune of their whistle.

Daryl shakes his head, laughing, and slides off the truck bed. "You're abusing that," he teases.

"You like it," Rick replies, curling up a little tighter, shivering now that Daryl is no longer next to him. "And it's true."

Rick can't see the awkward, happy smile, or the pink on Daryl's cheeks, but he can imagine it well enough. Daryl closes the back gate of the bed of the truck and reaches over to tap his fingers against Rick's boot as he moves away.

"Yeah, me too."

Chapter Text

Rick contemplates just keeping watch the whole night, but if he's going to be going into a hot zone, he should have his wits about him. He can only hope the nightmares don't come and ruin his and his family's attempts at sleeping.

He goes into the bedroom and stalks over to the bed. Shane and Lori are curled up together, a single sheet resting over both of them. Rick's shared enough tents and cars with Shane to know how warm he gets, so he doubts they're cold.

He reaches out and rests a hand on Shane's shoulder, putting more and more pressure on the soft skin just inside the joint until Shane wakes with a startled noise.

Rick draws his hand back immediately, stepping back out of range of any weapon, and holds a finger to his lips even though he's sure Shane can't see him. "S'just me, brother," he says, listening intently to the sound of Shane's heavy breathing. "Second watch is up."

"Right, right," Shane grunts, wiping a hand over his face, before he carefully slides out of bed and to his feet. He's fully clothed except for his shoes and Rick smiles, nodding his way before he leaves the bedroom. Shane follows quickly behind and closes the door. "Uh, sorry you had to see that."

"See what?" Rick asks. "My best friend and the woman he loves asleep? I think I'll manage."

"You know that's not what I meant."

Shane's voice is hushed but insistent, a harsh whisper in the silence of the trailer. They try not to wake Carl or Daryl in the main room as they walk back out to the cars, but Rick is sure Daryl is awake anyway. Shane goes to the red car and reaches inside for a bottle of water.

"I know what you meant," Rick says quietly before Shane can continue. "But I already told you, it's okay. I understand, and I'm not angry about it. Really."

Shane eyes him and gives a cautious-sounding hum.

"This can't work if we don't trust each other," Rick adds. "I need to be able to trust and believe you, and you need to be able to trust and believe me. I need to know that you have my back and you need to believe me when I say I have yours."

"I do believe you," Shane says, shaking his head. "I've always known you had my back, man. Never doubted that for a second."

"Then why are you acting like I'm going to lose my shit?" Rick demands. "Why do you think I'm gonna try and, shit, I don't know, man. It's like you don't trust me anymore."

Shane sighs and takes a drink of water, his other hand on his hip. He's turned away from Rick, looking towards the street, and he doesn't answer. Rick sighs, shaking his head, and walks back towards the house. Shane is silent and doesn't call him back.

Rick enters the house as quietly as he can and finds Daryl curled up in the corner, his back to the wall. He's not asleep but his eyes are closed and Rick walks over to him, settling himself down next to the other man. Daryl stretches his legs out and Rick braces his over them, so they're sitting against adjacent walls in the corner and his knees are over Daryl's, his feet flat on the floor.

He sighs, closing his eyes and leaning the back of his head against the wall, fingers rubbing absently on his thighs. Daryl rolls his head back and forth along the wall, before he blows out a breath and opens his eyes.

"Can't sleep?" Rick asks before he can say anything.

Daryl sighs again. "Nah," he replies, tilting his head up and scratching absently under his chin. "You gonna?"

"Was thinkin' about it."

"Don't let me stop you."

"You're thinking too loud," Rick says, grinning lopsidedly. He opens his eyes and peers at Daryl from the side of them, half-lidded and relaxed. "Can't sleep like that."

"S'your fault," Daryl mutters, rolling his eyes. "Got a lot on my mind thanks to you."

"Wanna talk about it?"

"Not really."

Rick laughs quietly, closing his eyes again. "We should sleep."

"Just like this?" Daryl asks, a thread of humor in his voice.

"I wouldn't mind," Rick says with a shrug.

"Well I would. Ain't natural."

"Lay down then."

"Move," Daryl mutters, shoving at Rick's knees until the man falls to the side, and Daryl pulls his legs up to him and pushes them out along the wall, away from Rick so that he can lay down with his back still to the wall. Rick moves a little away so that Daryl's face isn't pressed up right on his thigh and sighs.

"Better?" he asks.

Daryl grunts, moving one arm up to act as a pillow. "It'll do," he says, and tilts his head to squint up at Rick. "You're seriously not gonna sleep?"

Rick shakes his head. "Probably not."

"You're crazy," Daryl mutters, shifting his weight on the floor and hissing in discomfort until he seems to find a way to lie down that suits him. He sighs and closes his eyes again, his hair tucked back from his face, his expression slowly smoothing out into something more relaxed. Rick doesn't stare because he knows Daryl will feel him doing it, but he keeps the other man in his periphery and fixes his gaze on some knot in the laminate on the opposite wall.

 

 

Tomorrow. It's going to happen tomorrow.

"Fuck, fuck…."

They're everywhere, they're fucking everywhere. Rick darts around the corner, his knife in one hand, pistol loaded and ready in the other. There's a pack of them ahead but a fire escape just past one of them. It turns and hisses, grabbing at his clothes and he leaps for the fire escape, just barely holding on by wrapping his knife-wielding arm around the side of it.

There's a hand grabbing his ankle and he kicks at it and bashes the face of the wretched thing in. It collapses with another snarl and Rick puts his knife between his teeth and starts to climb. He doesn't have the ammo or the luxury of making noise, so his pistol slides back into the holster at his side and he takes his knife in hand again, climbing as quickly as he can.

He makes it to the second floor, pulling himself up onto the little walkway. Through the grating that makes up the floor he can see the pack has gathered by the steps. They haven't figured out how to climb yet. He hopes they don't.

His heart is hammering in his chest and the air is harsh with sunlight, and slides across his skin like a physical thing. He lifts his hand to his forehead and squints upwards to see how high up the thing will go. If he can make it to the roof he'll have a chance at recovering, or maybe making it back down through the building itself.

There are no walkers on the fire escape, so he turns and hurries up it until he reaches the top and jumps over the slightly raised wall that makes up the edge of the roof.

There is a single walker on the top of the roof and it lunges for him. Rick grabs it by the coat and spins it around, sending it flying over the edge of the roof, and winces when he hears the tell-tale splat below. The roof is large and open, a little glass conservatory in one corner, and a raised section with a door that leads to the stairwell just beyond that. There are pipes running about a foot off the ground, bright and red, and a small collection of gardening tools next to the glass conservatory.

He walks over, out of curiosity more than anything else, and nudges the pile with the toe of his boot. There's nothing sharp enough to be useful in the little collection, and anything that might have been growing in the greenhouse has long since turned sour if the smell is any indication, so he moves away with a small huff. He sheathes his knife and sticks it in his belt at the back.

Momentarily out of the woods, he allows himself a deep breath, and stands still and closes his eyes. There's a breeze up here, free from the tight confines of the world below, and without the immediate sight of his flesh he can hear the walkers starting to disperse.

"Your timin' sucks," he mutters, shaking his head hard enough that his hair, soaked with sweat, plasters across his face and down his neck. He feels like a dog running through rain.

Time is arbitrary. A day to you is a lifetime to a fly.

Rick licks his lips and sucks in a deep breath. He's dying for water. "I'm a fly?"

More like a cockroach.

Rick turns and sees Death standing by the door to the stairwell, that familiar grin on the skull's face. Rick laughs. The air hasn't turned cold so he knows he's dreaming. Or maybe the sun is just too damn hot. "Is War here?" he asks.

Death's head tilts. Do you feel him here?

"Should I?"

I don't think you'll have a choice.

Rick frowns. "So if I doubt…"

Doubt is human. Instinct is animal. Knowledge is divine. You're smart, Rick, and you're willing to do what it takes to make sure we never meet as shepherd and flock. That's why I chose you. Don't cheapen my attention by implying either of us don't know what we're doing.

"But I don't know what I'm doing," Rick says with a sigh. "I'm just…you said Atlanta. So I'm going to Atlanta. If I'm…" He pauses and looks around. This has to be a dream, because he's alone. He doesn't remember getting here. Where is Daryl? "This is a dream, right? Or a vision?"

Death reaches out to him, bony fingertips landing lightly on Rick's cheek, before the skull bobs in another nod.

You're not really here, Death says. And neither am I.

 

 

Rick wakes with a start, gasping quietly and shoving himself away from the wall. He had fallen asleep upright, still staring at that knot of wood. His lungs feel static-filled and his head is heavy as he pushes himself to his feet and away from the little corner of the trailer.

Daryl is still asleep, and Carl, and Lori as far as he can tell. The sky is still almost black, teases of brighter colors on the horizon when he looks outside. As quietly as he can, he opens the door and steps into the frigid air. His breath mists almost immediately and he shivers and goes to the truck bed.

Shane is still there, and nods at Rick when he approaches. "More borin' than a stakeout," he comments, and Rick doesn't reply with how their stakeouts used to end, with too much ice cream and laughter.

"I wanna take one of the rifles," he says, "and another pistol. And some food. I'll aim to be back by nightfall."

"Got a phone with juice?" Shane asks, climbing down from the truck, and Rick winces at the creaking sound it makes. He shakes his head. "Shit, what did you use to call Lori with before?"

"Daryl's phone."

Shane lifts his eyes to the trailer, then looks back to Rick with an unimpressed expression. "What, he jerkin' off or something? Where is he?"

"Asleep," Rick says. "He's not coming with me."

Both of Shane's eyebrows go up. "He know that?" he asks, and Rick can't fight a smile that even after all this time and all this distance his friend still knows him so well. He shakes his head and holds his hand out for the rifle Shane hands him, and takes one of the backpacks, emptying it out and stuffing enough food for two days into it before he slings it across his shoulders, the rifle tied with loose straps at his side. Shane also hands him a box of ammo for the gun and a second knife, just in case.

Shane blows out a breath, looking Rick up and down slowly. "I don't like the idea of you goin' in alone, man," he says.

"Someone needs to stay behind with Merle," Rick replies with a shrug. "And you don't want to bring everyone with me. You shouldn't want to bring everyone with me. I'll be okay."

"But what if you're not?"

"I will be." Rick reaches out and rests his hand just below Shane's shoulder, on his arm, squeezing once. Shane looks like he's seconds away from cuffing Rick to the damn truck to stop him from leaving. But at the same time, things would be so much simpler with Rick out of the way. They both know that. "If I'm not back by nightfall, leave. It's not safe this close to the city."

Shane nods, biting on his tongue before he sighs. "I'll…see you in the next life, brother."

Rick smiles, and moves his hand up to the back of Shane's neck to pull him into a hug. The gun clacks when Shane's arm wraps around him, hugging him tightly, and Rick closes his eyes and tries to commit the memory of Shane's warmth and his hug, tries to burn it into the backs of his eyelids, right next to the sound of Carl's laughter and the sweet smile Lori used to give him when he made terrible jokes. When they let go, Shane's eyes are wet and Rick is sure he doesn't look much better.

"I'll be back soon," he promises, and then turns to leave before he can be convinced to stay, or to wait for Daryl to wake up. Each step feels like a mile, but he forces himself to continue onward, down the little path and then down the road, and then out of the park. One foot in front of the other, like drill marches.

The rhythm comes easily even though it's been years since Rick was in the academy. The air is chilly and crisp and feels like breathing minty smoke when he inhales, and burns his nose when he exhales. His backpack is a light weight on his shoulders, his gun a little weird afterthought that makes him want to lean left.

He keeps his eyes and ears open for any walkers or other people. There are a few strays that he dispatches with his knife, quickly and easily, but for the most part he goes on his trek unmolested by dead or living. At one point a dog trots by his side, nosing his hand for food, its leather collar muddy and ripped in places. He keeps that companion for just long enough to remove the collar from its neck until it realizes he has no food and leaves his side.

He wasn't sure how far they stopped outside of Atlanta, having slept for the drive and not noticing any signs when Daryl doubled back to the trailer park, but the sun is almost a foot above the tree line before he realizes that they must have been farther away than he thought.

It's the first time Rick has been truly alone in as long as he can remember. Before this there was the facility, and yes, he had his cell to himself, but he had neighbors who were loud and reminded him constantly that he was never truly alone. And, on top of that, he had Death as his constant companion. Before the facility, he'd had his family and his friends, the other policemen in his department, Carl's friends' parents and his teachers. Lori was usually home when he was, a bright mark in his day when he'd come home. He wonders how long it took before she moved onto Shane once he was sentenced to the facility. Maybe before that. Maybe when he was comatose, when they'd thought he would never wake up. Maybe before that.

He shakes his head and sighs. It hardly matters anymore. They're together and Rick is happy for them – besides, it's not like his own heart hasn't strayed elsewhere as well. In such close proximity there was bound to be a connection between anyone he shared space with for any length of time, but even still he can't deny that he feels an especially close bond and kinship with Daryl.

He stops at the crest of a hill, hands on his hips and catching his breath as he gazes out across the little valley he sees before him. He can see a highway, and bridges, and in the distance, some of the great shining skyscrapers that make up the Atlanta horizon. He smiles.

It will be a long walk, he can tell that. "Daryl's gonna be so pissed," he mutters, wiping his hand over his face and scratching at the back of his neck, before he starts to walk again. He'd promised that he wouldn't go to Atlanta without Daryl, but if things go south he can't in good conscience put the man in danger like that.

And if he should die, Daryl doesn't need to see that. He doesn't need to bear witness to that.

A soft whicker catches Rick's attention and he looks to his left. There's a field by the side of the road, occupied by a single horse. Its ears are cocked towards him, tail flicking lazily back and forth like a dog wagging its tail. Rick smiles and walks over to it, one hand outstretched. The horse snorts and walks over to him, head low and neck relaxed, and pushes its muzzle against his hand.

The horse used to be white, Rick is sure. Its coat is caked in mud and grass stains and it looks like it hasn't had a bath in a while. The skin around its muzzle is almost pink, the eyes a pretty and intelligent blue as it winks at him.

Rick's smile widens and he rubs his other hand up and down the horse's face, between its eyes, and scratching under the tuft of mane hanging down its forehead. "Aren't you gorgeous," he says, grinning when the horse lips at his thumb and snorts into his hand.

He bites his lip and looks back towards the city scape. It's been a long time since he's ridden, but he's sure he can remember enough of the basics to try again. He can see a little stable in the corner of the field. There's probably at least a saddle and bridle in there.

Looking around to make sure he's not being watched, Rick climbs over the fence, landing in the soft grass on the other side with a grunt. The horse gives another quiet whickering sound, nudging its nose against his backpack and Rick grins, reaching out to pet its face again.

"Come on," he says, walking towards the stable. He can hear the soft steps of the horse following him. The door to the stable is open and it looks like the only door to a smaller stall has been kicked down from the inside. Rick stops and raises an eyebrow at the horse, which winks right back at him. "Alright, troublemaker."

There is a wall lined with shelves of brushes and harnesses and all the other things that a person might own when they own a horse. Rick looks over them quickly, not too interested in the various grooming implements (although the horse is in desperate need of a bath). In the back of the stable is a saddle rack with a saddle slung over it. It's big and broad, thickly padded in the western style, and Rick smiles.

He looks back over at the horse who has managed to find a bag of feed and seems intent on trying to get into it, and Rick turns back and hefts the saddle up into his arms. He walks over and the horse's ear cocks towards him but otherwise it doesn't seem particularly interested in whatever he's doing.

He hoists the saddle up onto the animal's back with a grunt. It gives a little whinny of protest but otherwise doesn't move, and Rick is immediately grateful that apparently, he's managed to find the one horse in all of Georgia that doesn't bolt if it's not attached to the wall.

The horse – a male horse, Rick can see now – snorts at him and turns his head to blink at Rick. "Don't look at me like that," Rick says, and the horse shakes his mane out and flicks his tail at Rick's thigh. "I'll take it off as soon as I can, alright?"

He goes over to the other side and grabs the girth strap, hoisting one side of the saddle up so that he can attach and tighten it until he's sure it won't slide off the animal. He can't find a bridle for the life of him but he sees one of the bit-less harnesses hanging on the open stable door and grabs it. There's a rope that attaches by a clip to one side of the harness and there's a ring on the other side for it to attach there, but no second clip at the other end of the rope.

His mouth twists and he looks around again. There are other ropes, and straps made of leather, and he sees a second harness with a similar setup hung on the wall. He unhooks the rope from that one and clips it to the other side of the halter and ties the two ropes together halfway down. It's long and ugly but it'll do the trick of acting like reins. He just hopes the horse is decent enough with amateurs to understand what he's trying to do when he guides the animal.

He holds the harness up for the horse to look at it. It snorts and blinks at him, like it too is telling Rick how much of a jackass he's going to look like with that setup. Rick grins and shakes it, before he walks back over to the animal and throws the mess of makeshift reins over its head so the knot rests at the pommel of the saddle.

The halter goes on easily since he doesn't have to persuade the animal to take a bit, and he tucks the horse's ears in front of the last strap and pulls on its fringe of mane so that it's not struck in the strap that goes across its forehead. The horse shakes his mane again and flicks his tail.

"There, you look fine," Rick says, patting the horse's cheek. "Fit for a king."

He gently tugs on the loose part of the reins hanging on either side of the horse's neck and leads it over to the mounting block that's right outside of the stable door. He climbs onto it and gathers the reins up, shoves his boot in the stirrup closest to him and swings his other leg over quickly, paranoid that he didn't tighten the saddle enough and he'll go sliding off the other side.

The horse takes his weight with a quiet nicker, ears cocked back to listen to him moving around and getting comfortable. Rick winces when the gun tugs awkwardly, unable to stay upright around the curve of the horse's body. He reaches back to undo the strap and lets the gun rest across his lap instead.

"Alright…" he mutters, and digs his heels into the horse's flanks. His ears prick forward and he starts to walk, head low and relaxed as Rick guides him out into the field. Rick takes a moment, while the space is open and they're relatively safe, to tug the reins this way and that and test the animal's responsiveness to his makeshift bridle. It seems to work well enough and the animal must have had a good trainer because it responds well to each of Rick's commands and seems perfectly content with an unskilled rider on its back. Maybe it was, in a previous life, one of the horses that little kids would ride on at fairs, or the owner had children or nieces and nephews that would get to ride.

Satisfied, he walks the horse over to the fence, where there's a gate leading to another field that has an opening where there used to be a metal gate for cars, but it stands open and he can get out that way. He leans down, carefully balancing the rifle, and unlatches the gate leading to that field before he guides the horse outside.

He can feel the animal vibrating with energy, powerful and strong under his body. He hasn't ridden in a long time but when he used to he was fairly decent at it. After another few moments of walking, when he feels more confident, he kicks the horse up to a trot, and then a canter. The gait is easy and smooth, like sitting in a rocking chair. On the side of the road he'd been walking on there's a grass verge and he keeps the horse to that as much as he can so that the animal doesn't make too much noise and the ground isn't so harsh on its legs.

A flash of movement on the road catches his attention and he turns his head. There's a rider next to him, its horse ghostly pale and translucent, the rider's cloak stretching out far behind them both like they're painting the land behind them as the night sky. The rider's head turns and Rick smiles when he sees the grinning skull looking at him.

Death's horse makes no sound as it canters next to Rick's. Rick's mount bucks his head, whinnying softly, one ear cocked towards the other rider as though he, too, can sense their presence. Rick reaches forward to stroke a soothing hand down the animal's neck. His coat is sweaty and matted under Rick's palm.

"It's alright," he murmurs to the animal. "Now is not our time."

Death chuckles, the sound echoing like Rick is standing in a great vault, and then disappears between one tree and the next. Rick shivers, biting his lip as warmth returns to the air and he can hear the beats of his horse's hooves on the grass.

They crest another hill and he tugs on the reins to get the horse to stop. It does with a snort, hooves clattering as they suddenly come across a highway. It's a four-lane road, then a divider, street signs giving directions to the ring road around Atlanta and the various highways that go through.

On the other side of the divider there are rows and rows of cars, as far as the eye can see. Rick sucks in a breath, keeping his eyes open for any signs of movement. "I guess the evacuations started," he says to no one in particular, but the horse gives a quiet snort of agreement. Rick turns his head to look towards the city. He can't hear anything – at all. No birdsong, no wildlife. No people or sirens.

He gives the reins a twitch and digs his heel in to get the horse to turn, heading towards the city. "This isn't right," he says, squinting at the cars as he passes them. In one he sees a walker throw itself against the car door, hissing and clawing at the glass in an attempt to get to him.

The air grows cold on him again and he turns to look at Death, who has returned, the ghostly horse bearing him at Rick's side. "This doesn't make any sense," Rick tells Death, who turns to look at him with empty sockets, darkness like the void between stars staring at Rick. "It's only been a week – not even a week. This is too fast. Where's the Government? Where are the police, the evacuation teams? Where are all the people panicking?"

The skull turns to look back at the buildings, and then up as though watching an airplane move. Rick looks up too, but sees nothing. He can still hear nothing aside from the steady clop of his horse's hooves against the concrete.

This is Pestilence's finest plague, Death says after a while. Rick hears a snarling hiss from behind him and turns around to see a walker crawling over the divider, its white eyes on him. He swallows and digs his heels into the horse's flanks to get it to walk a little faster. What he really needs, he thinks, is a sword or something. Something longer and silent. That would be useful.

"If the Government fell so fast, there's nothing," Rick says. "Everyone will die."

Not everyone.

Rick rolls his eyes and looks at Death. "Okay, fine, not everyone," he says, then reaches up to scratch the back of his neck. Another walker comes into view from the trees, its leg akimbo from being broken, shuffling forward. Rick guides his horse away from it and they walk past it. Then, he swallows. "I hope not everyone," he murmurs, running his hand through his sweaty hair. "You can see the future, right?" he asks.

Death nods, once, and gives a shallow humming sound like wind through a tomb. I can see all that is, that was, and that will be. Things that can change and things that will not. Yes.

Rick is silent, pressing his lips together, and nods as well.

You want to ask.

"But I don't want to know."

Then I won't tell you. Death's horse suddenly stops and Rick pulls his to a halt as well, turning it so that he can see the walkers approaching behind them. He can't afford to lose time. The sun is already at its height. Until next time, Rick.

"Goodbye, Death," Rick says with a respectful nod of his head, and then Death and his horse disappear from sight. The walkers are getting uncomfortably close and so Rick turns his horse again, towards the city, and prompts it onwards. He has his gun across his lap, and pulls out his pistol as well so that it's also ready. He's sure whatever he's about to ride into will be something akin to Hell.

"Here goes nothin'," he mutters, just as the silhouettes of the skyscrapers start to block out the sun.

Chapter Text

Rick lets the horse go once he's on the borders of the city, where the highway starts to merge into streets with stoplights and becomes so filled with cars that there's no real way to expect the animal to navigate it with any ease. There are car doors right up against car doors, some hoods smashed into others' bumpers. Like everyone was trying to get away at once.

Rick sighs, watching the horse trot away, back towards the green fields beyond the highway, and hoists his backpack higher up on his shoulder, his rifle slung on his side once more. He keeps his pistol and his knife out and ready, just in case.

He can hear walkers everywhere. They're quiet, dormant he supposes until they see fresh meat. He walks low to the ground and tries to make sure he has a clear line of sight as he moves, and that nothing is standing around corners or waiting to trip him up between the cars.

He makes it to what looks like a hotel, or what used to be one. There's a little green awning above the door but he can't make out the words that it used to be. The doors are gold-colored and closed. He wraps his hand around one of the handles and tugs experimentally.

It gives with a groan and he curses, slipping inside before any of the walkers on the street can spot him or find him. He tugs the door closed and turns around to look at the inside. With the sun so high the windows light the area well enough, but the electricity still works here and it illuminates a small, comfortable-looking reception area. The chairs are plush and look velveteen, the carpet rich and red. There's a desk on the left-hand wall and a staircase riding the wall up to a half-floor above him.

Rick licks his lips and drags his hand across one of the soft chair arms and lets out a sharp, long whistle, and then sits down in another chair with his back to the corner and waits. If there are any walkers within distance or hearing of him, they'll have been drawn by the sound.

He sighs, resting his elbows on his knees, and folds his hands over the top of his gun so that he can rest his chin on his knuckles. He can't hear any walkers but is determined to wait until he's sure he's in a safe area. Then, he'll go the roof and get a feel for the city and see where it seems like he should go.

He knows…he knows Death told him to go to Atlanta. So, he's here for a reason, he has to be. But he would have thought that being in the city of War would have been more…of a spectacle. That maybe he might have seen the figure wrapped in blood and cold, or heard his dogs braying for flesh, or felt his presence like liquid lightning along his skin.

If he doesn't find a clue today, he has to stay. There's no way he can return to his family until he's sure what needs to be done – no one will follow a crazy person if they don't have a plan, after all. And Rick has no plan. So far blind faith has led him, and he trusts that Death will show him the way, but it's difficult having to wait for that time to come.

"Humans are impatient," he says, letting his eyes close for a moment. He tries to think back on the book of Revelations, tries to remember the appearance of the horsemen and think of any clues that might help him.

He can recall the passage where they appear with ease – how many nights had he spent pacing the floor of his living room, before killing those men, muttering it to himself over and over? How many times had he written it down, or read the words over and over in the Bible when Lori would drag him and Carl to church? How many times had he dreamed them, or heard voices reciting them to him?

He sucks in a sharp breath, rocking back in the chair, and closes his fist and presses it against the side of his head. It hurts, suddenly, like someone has tried to stab him through the skull. There's no one around him, though – nothing but him and his thoughts.

"Fuck," he hisses, and shoves himself to his feet. Enough time should have passed to deem the area clear, and if not he still has his weapons. He pushes the backpack to a more comfortable position from the one it had taken when he'd sat down, and checks the fastenings on the rifle to make sure it's secure, before he heads up the stairs.

He walks up the stairs slowly, unsure what he expects to find. There might be food in this building, there might be squatters trying to wait out the plague. There might be monsters locked in their rooms, scratching at the doors and struggling with the handles.

He walks up the first flight of stairs, and then the second. The air is warm and stagnant on his skin and he pauses for a moment at the second floor, looking down the long hallway with a considering expression. All of the doors are closed, of course.

He walks over to the nearest one and raps his knuckles on it, waiting to hear any telltale groan or hiss, or movement from one of the living. There is nothing, and he looks down the hallway again to make sure that nothing else was drawn towards him by the sound.

He stands back, lifts his foot and kicks just shy of the handle. The door doesn't give, but pain lances up his foot and to his knee nicely. He hisses, steadying himself with a grunt, and winces at the pressure when he puts weight on his foot. He tries again. The door gives a little with a small, splintering crack. He backs up, breathing hard and checking the hallway again.

Then, he turns around, and kicks backwards, slamming his heel against the same spot. The frame of the door splinters with a hollow sound and he grins in triumph when the door swings away from it loosely on its hinges. The edge of the frame is frayed where it used to be next to the handle. He walks into the hotel room and closes it behind him, closing the bracket lock and fixing the chain for good measure.

The hotel room is empty, the bed made and covered in a fine layer of dust, the welcome notepad and remote placed just so. When he flicks on the light, it comes on with a hum. The curtains are drawn back, the window framed in a deep red fabric, and the opaque blackout curtains are drawn back as well. He walks over and can look out of the window to see the back alley behind the hotel, complete with dumpsters and the shuffling shadows of a couple of walkers feasting on what he can only assume is a stray racoon or dog.

He hums and turns his gaze upwards to the small amount of light shafting down the alley. It's already turning red, the sun well on its way to setting. His mouth twists as he backs away and closes both the blackout and the red curtains. It's already much later than he'd anticipated and there is definitely no way, even if he left now, that he'd make it back to the trailer park by nightfall.

"This was the plan," he murmurs to himself, shucking off his rucksack onto the bed with a sigh. There's an air conditioning unit under the curtains and he watches it for a second. It's set to 'Off', and he bends down and flicks it onto low air, sighing again in relief when the unit clatters to life and starts pumping cool, fresh air into the room.

"This was the plan," he says again as he starts to shed his clothes, laying them out over the little desk and chair in the corner of the room. He had brought a change of clothes with him but he can wash these out and hopefully recover them enough that he can wear them again. It's not practical to change into something clean every time when water and fresh clothing will soon go scarce.

There's a phone on the desk, too. The little voicemail light is blinking red, and he wonders who might have been the occupant of this room to warrant a voicemail. Maybe it was a wake-up call, come too late, when the resident had already left. Maybe it was the person's mother, or their spouse, wishing them well on their weekend in Atlanta and hoping they come home safely. He wonders if they ever did.

He bites his lip and cocks his head to one side, considering the inoffensive white phone. He could call Shane, or Lori. Let them know he's still alive, that he's staying, that they should go on without him. This was the plan – it had to be the plan. Rick could never bring them into War's city. And Daryl…Daryl would have followed him, if it weren't for Merle. Shane can't defend all of them on his own. Daryl would have stayed. He had to have stayed behind.

He'll be pissed. Rick swallows back the little guilty knot of barbed wire coiled in his throat. If nothing else, he should call to apologize, to explain himself. He hadn't exactly said that he wouldn't leave without Daryl – he had merely whistled. I love you. Isn't that the same as goodbye anyway? Better?

But he remembers how young Daryl had sounded, how lost and afraid he must be. He'd been keeping strong for Rick, for appearance's sake, but he must be terrified to his core. And he doesn't like and doesn't trust Shane and Lori. Rick himself had said Shane might be War, in which case he left his beloved friend and follower in the hands of his enemy.

His fists clench in his shirt, knuckles pressed against the back of the chair. He should call them.

He reaches out for the phone and freezes just as it starts to ring. The noise is shrill, deafening in the room. He clenches his fists again, sure it has to be some kind of trick. His mind playing jokes on him again.

He sucks in a breath and reaches out, grabbing the phone. "Hello?" he asks hoarsely.

"Holy shit," comes the reply. He doesn’t know what he expected to hear, but the voice of a young adult, breathless and almost giddy, hadn't been it. Maybe War's booming voice, Famine's cackle, Pestilence's hiss. Maybe screaming. "I knew I saw someone coming into the hotel." There's a pause on the other side, shuffling like someone is shifting their positions. "Hey, guys, I found the guy!" comes a yell, away from the phone like he's calling for others. "The fuck you doin' here, man? Downtown's, like, the worst place to be right now."

"You're here," Rick replies. "I assume."

The voice laughs. "Touché, cowboy."

"Who are you?" Rick asks. "How did you call this number?"

"Google still exists, man, and it ain't hard to just keep dialing room numbers," the voice says in reply, and Rick can hear the man rolling his eyes. "But you didn't answer my question. Why are you here?"

"I'm lookin' for someone," Rick says.

"Aren't we all."

"What's your name?"

There's a pause on the other end of the line. "I, uh, what's yours?"

"Rick. Grimes."

"Mine's Glenn," comes the voice. "I got a group, Rick. People need to stick together nowadays – at least the living ones. We know where you are. We can come to you."

"No," Rick says quickly, shaking his head even though he knows the man can't see. "I'm better off on my own. Thank you, Glenn. Please don't come looking for me." He hangs up before Glenn can reply, rubbing his hands over his face and blowing out a harsh breath. He shakes his head again. "This was part of the plan," he says. He can't afford to make more connections now, and he definitely can't allow people to come to him that he's never met. The horsemen are sneaky like that – they'll try to get close to him, try and worm their way to his side until he doesn't feel the knife slipping between his ribs. He can't afford to bring more people to him. They could find out about Shane and Lori and Carl, or Daryl. They could hurt his people.

"You pick your people," Rick mutters, pacing to the window, then back. He shakes his head and scratches at the back of his neck. It still stings where he dug into it before. "You pick your people. They're my people."

He checks the locks on the door, just in case. Then he goes back to the phone. There's a helpful little post-it note, handwritten and faded, telling him to dial '9' to call outside of the hotel. He types in Shane's number and waits.

Shane picks up on the fifth ring. "That you, brother?" There's a hum in the background that sounds like he's driving. Rick can't help but smile, sadly, looking down at his socked feet. He should have known Shane wouldn't have waited until nightfall to move on.

"Shane," he says warmly. "I'm in a hotel in Atlanta. I'm…probably going to be here for a while."

"Yeah, I figured," Shane says. "I know you, Rick. Same as always." There's a pause on the other end of the line. Lori and Carl must be sleeping; he can't hear their voices. "We're gonna keep headin' South. See if we can find something a little more remote and permanent. If you call me again when you're headed out, I'll let you know where we are."

"Thank you," Rick replies. He licks his lips and scratches the back of his neck again. "Daryl and Merle comin' with ya?"

Shane hums. "Man…that boy was pissed as Hell when he realized you went on without him," he says. Rick huffs a small, guilty laugh. He can imagine. "Okay, man, look, I gotta ask…just because'a everythin' that's been goin' on and…are you guys, like…?"

He lets the sentence hang there, hoping Rick will pick up the loose end. Rick lets the silence grow on, and on, staring at the red curtains and listening to the sound of Shane's breathing.

"Goodbye, Shane," he says after a moment. "Please tell Daryl I'm sorry. I'll call you in the morning."

"Rick! C'mon, brother, I didn't mean it like -." But Rick hangs up, cutting him off. Then he yanks out the cord from the back of the phone, ensuring that it won't ring again. He can't afford to have his psyche playing tricks on him. This way he knows, if it rings again, it's fake.

He isn't offended by Shane's question. This is the South, after all, and Shane and Rick have known each other their entire lives. Rick knows he never gave any indication that he's attracted to men. He isn't sure Shane would treat him differently, but that's beside the point.

Truthfully, he's not sure what he would call his love for Daryl. It burns just as brightly as his love for Lori used to. Thinking of them curled up together for warmth, or fighting side by side against the legions of walkers around them, or sitting quietly together at a dinner table eating cold soup – all of these things fill him with the same warm feeling, like his very soul is content with Daryl's proximity. Right now, he aches, and there are shards of glass under his skin, and hooks in his mouth telling him to go back, but he must be strong. He must be able to survive on his own – for months he has been fed, walked, and sheltered like a farm animal. Now he must be wild, no more a pet but a predator like Daryl is.

He has to be strong, and then his reward will be that man, if Daryl will have him back after what he's done.

Morose now, melancholy down to his bones, Rick finishes stripping off his clothes and fills the sink in the en-suite bathroom. He squirts a little of the complimentary body wash in the water and swishes it around until it lathers up and dumps his clothes inside. Then, he turns the shower on and steps under. Running water is a sudden and sweet feeling, warm and beating down on his sore shoulders and neck. He sighs, slicking shampoo through his hair until it finally feels clean again, and he sheds the makeshift bandage from his hand and throws it in the trash. His hand, at least, has stopped bleeding and no longer aches when he curls his fingers.

He showers quickly and keeps the water running to rinse out his clothes before he hangs them over the shower rail and lets the sink drain. He towels off briskly, delighting in the way the scratchy towels pink up his skin and leave him feeling overly warm in the steamy room.

The hotel room is cold in comparison when he steps back out, and he shivers and bites his lip, checking the locks one more time. For good measure, he takes the desk chair and wedges it up under the off-kilter doorknob as well, just to be safe. Then, he slides under the dusty covers. The mattress is hard and the pillows are too squishy, but it feels almost luxurious against his skin.

He rolls onto his side, abruptly aware of just how much space is in his bed. In the facility, the cots had enough room for him and maybe a child if they were to sleep squished together on the thing. Before then he had his hospital bed with its little grey pieces of plastic keeping him penned in, and then before that he had slept with Lori by his side.

He looks out across the vast expanse of that empty space, and shifts to tuck one arm under his pillow, blowing out a harsh sigh through his nose. Even with the noise of the walkers outside, the whole place is oppressively quiet, like a tomb. He misses the sound of Daryl's breathing when he's asleep. He misses the creaks and groans of his house. He even misses Eddie's moaning at night.

It's so damn quiet.

His skin starts to crawl after a moment, jittery. The air is cold but that's just because there's an air conditioner running. There's nowhere for Death to sit, and Rick can see in the reflection of the mirror that lets him see the door that Death isn't there either. So, he's standing behind Rick, if he's here at all. Rick doesn't want to roll over to see.

He closes his eyes and bites his lip, reaching out to feel the cool sheets where they lay, flat and barren, on the other side of the bed. He remembers the warmth of Daryl against him when they'd sat on the back of the truck. The temperature had been about the same. He imagines that warmth now, under his hand – that maybe if he opened his eyes he would see Daryl there, his eyes closed and his face relaxed, hair splayed out around his head.

Your obsession with your disciple is concerning.

Rick licks his lips and opens his eyes. The bed is just as empty as when he'd last looked. "I'm allowed," he replies. "You said I was allowed him."

I promised not to take him away from you, Death says, but you're not with him now. Why?

"It's too dangerous out here," Rick whispers. "What if I lose him?"

What if you lose him anyway?

"Why are you here?" Rick demands, and finally turns onto his back. Death isn't there, the familiar grin of the skull is nowhere in the darkness. Rick shoves himself upright and looks around desperately, but there's no light to see by. He feels as blind and helpless as a newborn. "Unless you're here to help me, I'd rather be alone."

A cool wind blows through the room. It's probably the air conditioning. Is it the kind that moves? Rick didn't check. Suddenly the humming dies as the unit reaches the temperature it must default to when it's turned on and Rick shivers, biting his lower lip and fighting the urge to turn on the light. He's safe. He's safe. What he wouldn't give to see the yellow nightlights of the facility or hear something familiar, like Eddie's shrieks or Daryl's quiet, huffed laughter. Or Shane's off-key singing or Carl's voice or Lori's quiet hum.

You will find War, Death says, the prophetic words landing heavy on Rick's shoulders, settling behind his eyes like a backwards mask. He feels like he loses the ability to look into his own head. Sleep, Rick. Bony fingers brush against his jaw and Rick sucks in a breath, closing his eyes. Everything will be clearer tomorrow.

"Do you promise?" Rick asks. He looks up and thinks he might be able to make out the ghostly imprint of Death's face, grinning down at him from where Death is standing by the bed. "I…I didn't want to know before. But I want to know now. Will I see my family alive again?"

Death chuckles, and brushes Rick's cheek again, then his nose, before sweeping over his forehead. Sleep, Rick, Death says, and at once Rick feels a corpse-like lethargy overtake him, like he's been chilled to the core. He lays back down without protest, his breathing slow and even, eyelids heavy and unable to stay open.

His last thought before sleep claims him is that, like he did with Daryl, Death leaves him without actually answering his question. His dreams that night are wracked with visions of his family getting torn apart in front of his eyes – Carl being shot, Shane with a gaping wound in his chest, Lori consumed and ripped to shreds.

Still, Death forces him to sleep, and he doesn't wake until the morning.

Chapter Text

The microwave in the hotel room still works, and so does the coffee maker. Rick drinks the bitter brew quickly and tells himself to be grateful because it's probably the last time he'll ever have coffee again. His clothes have almost completely dried and he dons them, glad that they don't smell. He eats a plastic cup of noodles for breakfast and then gathers the rest of his things up, ready to move.

The door and chair are undisturbed and he carefully moves them, unlocking the locks and knocking on the inside of the door six times before he cautiously opens it. Part of him is half expecting the man and his group to be waiting for him at the end of the hallway, but he sees no one, living or dead, when he exits the room.

He climbs the stairs up to the roof and shoves his shoulder against it, pushing out into the open air. There's a breeze up here, carrying the stench of sewers and decay to his nose and he breathes it in deeply.

He looks around, hands on his hips as he gazes around for a clue or some other building that might look like the kind of place War would hole up in. Of course, by his nature, War is a brash and bold individual. He has flashy armor and braying dogs. He wouldn't settle for something muted and non-descript. His banner would fly high and draw attention, daring Rick to come closer, luring in the warriors to his cause.

He doesn't see anything that stands out, and huffs a disappointed breath. Death had told him he'd find War. Death has no reason to lie – of course he has no reason to lie. Death is the ultimate, the end and the beginning, the inescapable fate. Man might live free of Disease, or Famine, or War, but Death is omnipresent, omnipotent. If Rick keeps hunting, keeps searching, he's sure he will find the others. Or they will find him.

His attention is drawn by a muted snarling sound. He turns and spies a walker, reaching for him blindly. It looks like it was literally cut in half, its legs lying about three feet from the rest of its body. Rick's mouth twists and he steps over to it, driving his knife into its skull to make it go silent. Next to its torso is a sniper rifle and he cocks his head to one side, picking it up.

"Hello, gorgeous," he says, pulling the lever back to check the chamber. It's loaded. The scope is cracked but when Rick pulls the gun up to his shoulder and squints through it, he can still see clearly enough. "And what were you doing up here with this, hmm?" he asks of the walker, which predictably doesn't reply.

He stands, holding the sniper rifle at his side. It won't do much for close combat and damn sure isn't useful for anything other than sitting on a roof and firing shots, but it's a weapon. A club if nothing else.

He clicks his tongue absently, walking over to the other corner of the roof. There are some empty birdcages here and a litter of feathers and Rick nudges them with a grimace, before looking up and around again. He doesn't see anything of note, and isn't that the damnedest thing? What kind of horseman doesn't want to put on a Goddamn show?

Huffing a tired breath, he squares his shoulders and turns back around towards the door leading to the stairwell. Maybe a few blocks into the city he'll get a new angle and be able to see something else. It's not like he doesn't have time now.

He skids to a halt and lets out a low curse when a walker shambles through the open doorway, moaning and hissing at him. The walker is closely followed by three more, moving towards him more quickly than he can react to. He can't get around them fast enough to separate them and take care of them quietly.

He throws the sniper to his other hand and grabs his Python, squaring up and aiming for the walkers. One, two, three, four. Loud cracks, gunfire, the familiar recoil of his weapon as it sings in his hand. Rick smiles and imagines the color of it as the blade on a scythe.

The sound will draw more. With a curse, Rick searches the bodies quickly for anything of use and finds nothing except a knife one of the walkers had embedded in its back. He yanks that out and pockets it quickly, then holsters his pistol and rushes towards the stairwell.

He can hear more of the walkers below, groaning and growling. Cursing again he darts down the first hallway he gets to. There's a walker on the other side of the hallway and he sheaths his knife in its forehead before continuing on to the next flight of stairs.

"Where the Hell did y'all come from?" he mutters, knifing another walker and pulling his gun back out to shoot at a third as it lunges for him. Another walker throws itself against Rick and he grabs it by the tattered shirt and swings his body around, launching it over the banister. He winces at the splat, and then turns tail and runs down the rest of the stairs.

He thinks he can hear the barking of dogs, the clink of their leashes as they pull and snap. He wants to laugh but doesn't waste the breath. War. Of course, War would send a horde in to be rid of him. "Coward."

He throws himself through a side-door leading to the alleyway where his room overlooked. There are a couple of walkers in the alley and they turn to him as though surprised he made it out. He jams his extra knife into one of their heads and as it falls the blade gets yanked out of his hand. He slams the butt of the sniper against another and bashes its head in when it falls. He has just enough time to yank out the knife from the first walker and slam it into the third one's head before it's on him. Its nails leave little red lines on his arms but don't break skin.

"Fuck," he whispers, curling up and ducking behind one of the dumpsters when he hears more shuffling around beyond the alley. They won't be drawn in if he keeps quiet and still. He closes his eyes and sucks in a deep, steady breath, willing his heart to slow down as he rests the back of his head against the cool, damp bricks that make up the hotel side.

The whole place stinks of garbage and death and it's hard to breathe in the air but Rick forces himself to. It'll be a smell he has to get used to, now.

He can hear a lot of them moving around. If they weren't on the street before, they'll have likely been drawn by the sound of gunshots. That, and maybe the living will flock towards him now. Maybe Glenn and his group, whoever the Hell they are.

He clenches his jaw and carefully pushes up against the wall, looking over the dumpster to see if there are any walkers within his immediate line of sight. One shuffles just past the entryway and out of sight, not looking towards him, and Rick straightens to his full height and starts edging carefully towards the entrance of the alleyway.

The hotel was on a street corner, a crossroads, and he's behind the building now. A few feet to the right is where the crossroads are, the option in front dipping down and heading into the city proper, another headed back to the highway, a third going towards what he assumes is the rest of this city cluster on the edge of Atlanta. He should have brought a Goddamn map or something.

He closes his eyes and tries to think. He feels like he can remember seeing a gas station a little way back. It might have maps, but that's too far on foot and there's no guarantee that when he comes back he'll be able to make it through. The only option is forward.

The only option is forward.

Rick takes in a deep breath and steps out onto the street. There are a couple of walkers dotted around, moving away from him or not looking his way, and he steps out into the sunlight. It's pleasantly warm on his face and shoulders and he sighs, walking out into the middle of the crossroads so that he can get a better look at what direction he should be headed in.

He climbs up onto the hood and then the roof of a car that's sitting in the middle of the street. One of the front wheels has been smashed and sits completely off kilter, the vehicle's nose diving into the street. The car creaks as he steps onto it and a walker near him groans, turning towards him with a snarl. He ignores it for now, standing in a way that it can't grab for him.

He lifts his hand to shield his eyes and looks East. There Atlanta lays, sprawled out in front of him like a massive, slumbering beast. The skyscrapers cast shadows towards him but don't touch him, and he can see the gleam of the sun through the windows that aren't tinted.

The street dips downward and Rick looks that way. It's shadowy in comparison, the sun not yet high enough to reach over the building roofs. His eyes narrow as he sees something moving between the buildings at the end of the road. It's not a walker, but moves on four legs, swift and silent as a shadow. It's too small to be a horse, and jet black. It pauses in the middle of the road and looks at him, tail swishing from side to side.

Rick would call it a dog, but he's sure no breed of dog looks like that. The thing's jaw is square and too large, its eyes a dark, shiny red. Its paws are too large like a puppy still growing into its body but already the animal would stand at Rick's hip.

It's one of Wars dogs. He's sure of it.

He licks his lips and jumps down from the car, careful to avoid any walkers that come at him, and hurries towards the animal. This thing will lead him to War, he's sure.

Just as he steps away from the light of the crossroads the dog barks, snarling loudly at him. Rick can hear it howling in his ears and he stops, hissing, flattening his hands over his ears to silence the sound. He's not completely convinced that it's not in his head. The dog paces back and forth, dancing between the lines on the street, barking and braying like a coyote in a sheep pen.

"Shut up," Rick hisses, looking around him. The walkers are coming at him now, they must hear the barking too. But that doesn't mean it's not in Rick's head anyway. "Fuck." He pulls his gun out and fires at the dog and it whines, slinking away. He's not sure he hit it. It probably doesn't matter. The gun shot has definitely drawn walkers now. He darts down the road towards where the dog was standing and swings left, one hand reaching out to catch a telephone pole to help him get to his feet faster.

He skids to a halt when he sees what can only be described as a herd of walkers. It looks like there was a car crash here, there's a truck slammed into the side of the building and leaking gasoline. There are at least four cars that he can see in various stages of wreckage around it. One of them slid through the mess and crashed into an ATM on the side of the street. There's a body between the car and the building wall, the woman there hissing and clawing in his direction like she can fight herself free.

The walkers behind him emerge into the light and Rick flinches back, trapped on two sides. War's dog led him right into it. "Fuck," he hisses, and starts heading back, to the right instead. He moves slowly, tired already and feeling lightheaded from the lack of sleep and food. He has to stay focused.

The situation feels so eerily similar. They're everywhere, they're fucking everywhere. He remembers his dream, a strange deja vu coming over him as he looks around at the buildings for any way to escape. There must be a fire escape, or somewhere for him to go. They're gaining speed behind him and, cursing under his breath, he starts to run.

There's another crossroads up ahead, the lights blinking red to indicate people stop and look before driving onwards. Rick darts around the corner, the sniper ready to use as a club, his pistol in his other hand even though he knows there's only one bullet left.

He keeps moving, trying not to draw attention to himself even as the pack of walkers gains speed and grows louder. The stink of gasoline where they're soaked through follows him, the wind driving their scent towards him.

There! A fire escape. He holsters his gun and takes a running jump at the little black gated area around the base of the steps. With the sniper in his hand it's difficult but he manages to hook his arm over the top of the fence, boots scraping against the slick metal in an attempt to climb over. He manages to get one leg up and over, then the other, and drops to the ground just in time to be slammed back as the dead reach him. Their hands jut through the bars of the little gate, clawing at his clothes and his bag and anything else they can reach.

There's a hand grabbing his arm and he shoves at it, before he turns to the ladder and starts to haul himself up it. It's slow going with the things clawing at his ankles and one of his arms practically useless, holding the gun, but he forces himself up.

He keeps climbing until he reaches the second floor, pulling himself up onto the little walkway. Through the grating that makes up the floor he can see them still clawing at the gate, throwing themselves over each other in an attempt to reach him. They haven't figured out how to climb yet. He hopes they don't.

"This is…" He licks his lips, scratching at the back of his neck. "This is really fucking familiar."

His heart is hammering in his chest and the air is harsh with sunlight, and slides across his skin like a physical thing. He lifts his hand to his forehead and squints upwards to see how high up the thing will go. If he can make it to the roof he'll have a chance at recovering, or maybe making it back down through the building itself. He climbs up the rest of the way, remembering in his dream that there was a walker on this roof as well and that it might have been drawn by the sound of its brethren.

There isn't one. The breeze that touches him once he's on the roof is cool and refreshing. He's on an office building now, he would guess. Or maybe a revamped stack of apartments. It's not someone's home. And this isn't the roof from his dream – he doesn't see the greenhouse, or the pipes. It's a flat piece of concrete, not even any walls.

He knows he's not any closer to the center of the city but the skyscrapers seem closer, now, looming up above him like giant judgmental monuments to man's former glory. They're shining brilliantly in the light and the concrete beneath him is starting to radiate that heat.

He almost expects Death to come to him, but this isn't like the vision he had before. He inches up to the edge of the building and looks over. The walkers are still thickly congregated around the base of the fire escape, and aside from going down through the building there doesn't seem to be any other way down. Mouth twisting in displeasure, Rick moves away until he's sitting safely in the middle of the roof, with as much distance and open space as he can put between him and everything else.

He sits down with a sigh, heels against the ground, knees up so he can rest his elbows against them, and runs his hands through his hair. "Damn," he whispers, shaking his head. He wishes someone was here with him, but that just wasn't a possibility when he left. There's no way he and someone else could have gotten to the fire escape and up to the roof safely. He'd have lost someone, or gotten bitten himself.

He closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath, setting the sniper rifle next to him on the ground. Then he removes the backpack from his shoulders and lays it down on his other side. Inside there's a pudding cup and he opens it, grinning when he sees that Shane gave him butterscotch. He tugs the lid off and licks it clean before throwing it to one side and raising the cup to his mouth, using his tongue to lick out what he can before he has to use his fingers.

He imagines Daryl joining him, his shadow falling across Rick in a brief reprieve from the heat of the sun, before he sits down with his legs bent so that his knee is underneath Rick's, the top of his thigh pressed against the bottom of Rick's, their shoulders brushing, fingers intertwined. Daryl would probably be able to spot shapes in the clouds or listen for birds and be able to name each and every one. He seems like that kind of guy.

He sighs, digging into the pudding cup with his finger when his tongue is no longer able to reach, his stomach hollow and aching with longing. It's been so long since he had to face the idea of losing someone – at least on the level where he was allowed to miss them. Daryl had been his near-constant companion for months, and before that Rick had never truly been alone.

He should have brought a phone. That way, at least, he could call his family and hear their voices. He could explain to Daryl why he'd left. He could do something to calm this aching emptiness in his chest that is calling for his family, for his mate, for his best friend at the end of the world.

Rick sighs, tossing the pudding cup away once it's empty, and wipes the back of his wrist across his eyes when he realizes that they had started to water. "Get it together, Grimes," he mutters, doing his best 'Shane' voice and immediately feeling worse for it when that pang of longing and sadness only sharpens. Not even forty-eight hours and he's ready to come home running, tail tucked and begging for his family. He's grown soft.

He shoves himself to his feet, determined to keep moving even though he still has no idea where or for what. He walks over to the edge of the roof and sees that the walkers have mostly started to disperse without the promise of his warm flesh to sate their hunger.

Still, fire escapes are loud and creaky. He'll probably draw more attention to himself than he wants if he tries to climb down all the way. Nodding to himself, Rick goes back and gathers all his things together before he starts climbing down the fire escape as quickly and quietly as he can manage, until he reaches the second floor.

He taps on the window six times – quiet knocks that grow to a crescendo – and waits. After a minute, he jumps back with a curse when a young girl slams herself against the window, hands pressed flat, half of her jaw missing as she snarls and shoves at the glass, trying to break through to reach him.

Grimacing, Rick reaches into his backpack and takes out his spare shirt. He wraps it around his knuckles until it forms a tight ring of padding, and then slams his fist against the window. The glass breaks almost too easily and the girl falls out, clawing for him in slow, aborted movements like she's attached to a live wire and is still twitching, electrocuted. There's a rope around her neck.

He grabs her by the hair and hauls her upright before he swings her over the rail of the fire escape. She falls and lands on the spikes of the gate, but they don't go through her head, so she's still moving and groaning, reaching up for him to match the rest of the gathered walkers.

With the window broken Rick can climb in with relative ease, wincing when the glass crinkles under his boots as he steps into the room. It's the room of a teenage girl – probably the one he just threw out of the window.

He sighs, rubbing a hand through his hair and then over his face, and shakes out his shirt so that it's reasonably free of glass and he can shove it back into his bag. He can't hear any more movement but he doesn't doubt that the girl's parents are likely still hanging around. He tests the handle of the door and finds it locked, and when he twists the little piece in the center of the doorknob he can open it. Locked from the inside. Maybe mid-tantrum. Maybe terrified when her parents turned and trying to save herself.

He lifts his head and sees the other half of the rope she'd fashioned from what looks like her bedsheets, hanging limply from the ceiling fan. Maybe her window had been painted shut. Maybe she would have starved.

He thinks about Carl suffering like that and his stomach turns.

He goes out of her bedroom, knife ready to attack, and finds the father in what used to be the kitchen. He ends it quickly and lets it slump to the floor. Judging by the smell, there's nothing worth salvaging in this kitchen, but he searches anyway, halfheartedly. There's a bottle of water in the fridge, still almost cool, and cans of beans in the cabinet. There's a bag of chips too and he takes it down, pleased to find it unopened. He rips the bag open and starts to eat.

The sound of the bag must rouse the mother, because he suddenly hears her. She's faint, like even dead she can't get up the energy or power to come to him. He munches absently on the chips and wanders around, searching for her.

She's in the bathroom next to the master bedroom. There's a red stain on the floor. Rick doesn't look – he just quietly closes the door and kicks at the handle until it breaks off.

He walks into the living room and plops down on one of the thick, comfortably padded chairs. The apartment itself is fairly sparse, the life of two people working to make ends meet, but the chair is comfortable and soft to the touch, wrapped in thick red corduroy. Rick hums, digging deeper into the bag of chips and letting the food fill him.

His wristband catches on the bag and he pauses, looking at it. It's a plain, light blue. Rick knows they used to color-code residents depending on their various psychoses, but that practice had always seemed very pompous to Rick. To pigeonhole something as complex as the human mind, let alone the multitude of ways it can cease to function within society's constructs, is quite literally insane.

The psychopaths were brown, he remembers. The borderline personality disorders were a bright yellow. The depressed wore green. Schizophrenics got purple. He sighs, tilting his wrist until he can see the little piece of white paper stating his last name, first initial. Blood type. A series of letters and numbers that he assumes relates to his crimes, or his diagnoses. Or maybe his medicine doses. He had never thought to ask Daryl.

"Daryl," he whispers, suddenly looking up. There might be a phone in here. He can't see any one attached to a landline, but everyone had cell phones, right? He gets up, leaving the bag of chips on the chair, and goes hunting. The father doesn't have anything in his pockets, and he can't find one in the girl's room.

He goes back into the master bedroom. He can hear the mother hissing weakly, water sloshing in the full bathtub. He does his best to ignore it, looking instead for any kind of phone. He looks in the bedside cabinet and finds magazines and a pistol, which he takes. But there's nothing else useful. Huffing, he leaves the master bedroom and goes back out into the living room.

"Really?" he demands of the empty space. "No phones at all, people?"

There has to be one somewhere. One of the residents has to have one. Rick slides the new pistol he finds into his backpack and heads out of the door, sniper tied like the rifle to his bag, half-empty bag of potato chips rolled up and tucked into one of the water bottle pockets on the side.

The hallway is painted a dark green, the doors are ringed with gold around the peepholes and embedded with little golden numbers. The door opposite him is missing the number 3 from it, the silhouette of dust marking where it was next to its neighbor 2. Rick cocks his head to one side. He remembers that movie – The Number 23. A man driven insane by something he knew to be true. Prophecy. Destiny.

He smiles.

There's another door open at the end of the hallway and it leads to the stairwell. The stairs are dark, and despite him flipping the switch and waving his hand into the dark space, nothing comes on. He hums and draws back, unwilling to brave the darkness too soon, and turns down the second part of the L-shaped hallway. A couple of the apartments looks like they've already been raided here, and he goes into the first one on his left.

There's a landline here. He can see the phone cable stapled to the wall, running to the left and then around the corner. He follows it and grins when he sees a phone sitting on a little table next to the couch.

The apartment is in disarray, like someone left very quickly and didn't put too much thought into what they tried to bring. Looters might have come in after, deeming the place clear, and pilfered what they could. All of the doors to the main room in which he's standing are open, and Rick quickly goes back to the front door and closes it so that no stray walker might wander by and see him inside.

He closes the other doors and then goes back to the phone. It won't be long before landlines become completely unusable – Doctor Woodmore's office had proven that. He picks up the phone and breathes a sigh of relief when he hears the dial tone.

He puts in Shane's number.

"The number you have dialed has not been recognized. Please check the number and try again."

Frowning, he puts the phone down, then picks it up again. He dials Shane's number, carefully making sure he presses the right ones. Same message. He calls Lori's. The same. After the fourth attempt, he slams the phone down with a huff, running his other hand through his hair.

The phone starts ringing.

He picks it up.

"Rick, is that you?"

It's Lori's voice. Rick sighs, shaking his head. "Scared me for a second," he says, flopping down on the couch. "Are you guys safe? Are you good?"

"Yeah, we're good," Lori says. She sounds sleepy and warm. Rick can imagine her, curled up in an overly-large sweater, a mug of tea in her hand, soft and purring like a kitten. Only that's far from the probable truth. "We found a group, Rick. They're settled a few miles away from the trailer park."

Rick hums. "That's good," he replies quietly.

There's silence for a moment on the other end of the line, then Lori's voice comes again. "Shane will keep us safe," she says. "I trust him."

Rick closes his eyes and sighs. She doesn't need to say it for him to know what she really means. "I don't blame you," he replies. And he hopes she can understand and hear his unspoken 'For now'. She trusts Shane more than she trusts Rick. It's an amazing thing, how quickly the human mind can latch onto a new truth and disregard all of the status quo from the years before.

Then, Lori's voice gets oddly bright, like she's describing an event she's been looking forward to all summer. "I don't think you should come back."

Rick straightens. "What?"

"I don't think you should come back," Lori says again. "You're going to get us all killed."

"No, I won't," Rick hisses into the phone, gripping it tight enough to hurt. His other hand is clenched and his fingers dig into the wound left behind by the broken toilet seat. "I promised – I promised to keep you safe. I will." Better than Shane will. He'll kill you all.

"You should stay away," Lori says again. "I don't want you here, around Carl, around Shane."

"Lori, please." His voice has lost all of its strength, it feels like his lungs are wrapped in wires and losing their size, like he can't get enough air in. He runs his free hand through his hair and fists it at the back of his neck until his palm starts to sting. He's shaking. "Please. I'll come back, I'll be better."

"Rick -."

"You promised!" Rick says, his voice weak. He shoves himself to his feet even though she's not there for him to loom over. He grabs the body of the phone so that he can pace in front of the couch, his knuckles white. "You promised you wouldn't take Carl away from me."

"You made promises too," Lori replies sharply. "You promised you wouldn't go in on your own. You promised Daryl."

Abruptly Rick stops in his pacing, frozen to the spot mid-stride. "What did you just say?"

"You promised Daryl you wouldn't leave without him," Lori says with the same tone. "How did that turn out?"

Rick closes his eyes, and breathes in deeply, the wire around his lungs suddenly melting away. He chokes on a laugh. "You're not real," he whispers, and looks around the apartment as though he expects to see cameras watching him. "This isn't a real phone call. The phones aren't working."

There's silence on the other side.

"You're not real!" Rick says again, almost giddy with relief. He laughs, the sound quiet but full of joy.

"Rick, you're insane," Lori's voice says.

"Tell me something I don't know," Rick says, hissing the words. "Go on. Do it. Tell me…tell me when you and Shane started fucking behind my back. Tell me how much the medical bills were from my surgery – just the surgery, you never told me that. Tell me the last grade report Carl got in school. Tell me who won the last Falcons game, and by how much. Tell me how much money you left under Carl's pillow when the Tooth Fairy came -."

"A dollar."

"Hah! I knew that one." Rick shakes his head, laughing again. "Your tricks are weak, War, and they won't work on me."

He hangs up the phone abruptly and rips the cable out of it so that he can't ring again. He must be close – if War is scared enough to play tricks on him like this, then that means he's close. He gives a quiet whoop of victory, his cheeks hurting from smiling so wide.

The sense of victory doesn't last long. Sobering up, he realizes that if the phones are down, then there's no way he'll be able to call Daryl, Lori or Shane now. He won't hear their voices until he finds them again. Hell, he doesn't even know where they are.

He believes that his conversation with Shane had been real. There was no reason to think otherwise. So, they definitely have moved on already. Of course, they would have – there was no reason to stay behind. They weren't going to wait around for Rick and he made it clear that his journey would take more than a day.

He goes to the window and looks outside, tutting when he sees that the direction of the shadows has already started to change. Time flies in War's city, it seems. Or maybe his perception of it is just too skewed. Maybe he's walking through molasses.

Maybe he's starting to hear and see things that aren't there.

Chapter Text

Despite knowing it was a trick, and knowing he hasn't broken much ground, Rick feels tired to the bone by the time night falls on Atlanta again. He stays in the apartment he'd made the phone call from and manages to find enough blankets and pillows to create a comfortable pallet on the couch. It's not the hotel's bed and it's definitely not his bed at home, but it's still one of the more comfortable places he's chosen to sleep.

He places extra furniture around the bed and ties as many door handles as he can to other pieces of furniture to stop them opening, and checks the locks on the windows, just in case. When he closes his eyes, a vision comes to him of that same open field with the fire pit, around which the three horsemen and their mounts are standing. The fire is dead and cold, not even embers glowing when Rick approaches.

He eyes War carefully, catches the man's hand on his sword, ready to draw it. When Rick raises his eyes, he knows he should be seeing the face of a man – someone he might recognize, or know when he sees. But there's nothing but a void. It's like staring into Death's eyes. "Nice trick you played," he says.

War laughs, the sound like braying animals. "That wasn't me," he replies.

Pestilence lets out a little hiss. "Don't speak out of turn," he orders. His fly-like eyes fix themselves on Rick and he lets out another hiccupping laugh. "Death is so arrogant, so cocky. To pick a mortal to hunt us down!"

"You're taking too much space," Famine says, his claws twitching in agitation. "Always taking too much. You're taking too much."

"Don't speak out of turn!"

"Now, gentlemen," War says, stepping forward and holding his hand out for quiet. At once the other two instantly go still, turning towards him. "There's no real need to stay in order once we're here, is there?"

Famine nods in frantic agreement. "He only cares so that he goes first."

"What do you think?" War asks, turning to look at Rick. Rick flinches back from him like War moved to strike him, his eyes on the glint of red gems in the sword's pommel. War laughs. "Come on, now, don't be shy."

"Not shy," Pestilence murmurs. "Smart."

Famine cackles, talon-like fingers reaching and curling around Rick's arm. He slithers closer like a serpent, his chasm-like maw still making that blowing sound like wind through a cave. When Rick looks down he sees the grass around Famine's feet start to wither and turn yellow, then black.

Abruptly, hunger settles in the pit of his stomach. It's not a normal hunger, he knows enough to know that, but it claws at the inside of his belly all the same. It stirs up his heart, throwing the beat of it off. It clings to his lungs and he aches for things he's never had before – he's thirsty for anything liquid, his lungs ache for cigarette smoke even though he's never smoked a day in his life. Famine's talons dig in and Rick falls to one knee, unable to completely collapse because Famine doesn't let go of him. He gasps for air, feeling like he's suffocating. His skin at once burns and he feels chilled to the core. He wants, he wants to devour, to consume, in all the ways a body can.

"Can't be too smart," Famine hisses, "if he keeps coming here."

Gasping, Rick wrenches his arm away from Famine's grip. The thing's claws rake down his arm, leaving deep welts in the muscle of his bicep and shoulder. Famine cackles and lifts his bloody hand to his mouth, sliding his fingers into the gaping hole in his jaw. He swallows the talons whole.

"You don't know what kind of forces you're playing with," Pestilence says quietly. Not threatening, not quite. It's the amber eyes of a wolf in the shadows, judging the lunging distance, judging the speed of its prey before it leaps.

Rick steps back, his hands shaking with fear, his head fuzzy with pain. The pain feels so real. He presses his hand to the welts on his arm and hisses when they sting. Famine cackles as the vision starts to fade. Rick jerks awake with a groan and clutches at his arm. He's lying on his side and he sits up, hissing when he grabs the arm that Famine had held and his fingers come back sticky and wet with blood.

"What the Hell…?" He gets up and switches on the lights in the main room. It's still night outside and the apartment is shrouded in darkness even around the yellowy halo of the cheap overhead light. Still, Rick flinches from the light and resists the urge to wipe at his eyes.

He lifts the sleeve of his shirt and holds his arm out to try and look at his wounds. There are four long, deep gouges in his flesh and blood is soaking the sleeve and shoulder of his shirt. He grimaces and goes to the bathroom and pulls off his shirt to try and get a better look.

"Goddamn," he mutters, pressing his fingers into one of them. New blood wells up but it's thin and there isn't much of it – he's already starting to heal up. There's skin under his fingernails. "Did I…?"

Did he?

He jumps again as the phone starts to ring. It's loud and shrill and he runs back into the main room with a curse. He doesn't trust the phones but he can't let it keep ringing in case it draws more walkers to him. He picks it up and slowly raises it to his ear.

"Rick?"

Rick blows out a shaky breath, his blood-slick fingers clenching the phone tightly as he raises the back of his hand to his mouth. He sucks the air back in, his lungs burning. "No," he whispers. "No, not you too. You're not -."

"Rick, it's okay. It's okay, I'm not mad."

Another shaky breath slides its way down Rick's throat, it feels like he's choking on his air. It's not, it's not -. It doesn't sound right. Rick knows it's not him, he knows it's not. "Please," he whispers, falling back down onto the couch. It feels like his bones weigh a thousand pounds. He runs his hand through his hair and doesn't care about the blood he smears across his forehead. "Not – not him. Anyone but him."

"Just come back to me, Rick. Please."

Rick knows what this is – if War can't threaten him or make him weak with despair, he can tug on Rick's longing to go back to the man that his soul so obviously aches for. That is the power of the horsemen – they can see, can feel what makes a human soul tick. War knows what will make Rick mad, what will urge him to fight or force him to cower. Famine knows what he hungers for. Maybe Pestilence caused his sickness in the first place, and every monster he sees now will lunge for Rick because they know what their master has commanded of them.

The phone isn't even plugged in anymore. Rick is sure he disconnected it.

"Rick?"

His voice – God, he sounds so much like him – is timid and young. Rick feels his heart trying to throw itself out of his chest. He opens his eyes.

"I'm sorry," he says, and slams the phone down. He gets up and gathers his things and leaves the apartment before War can call again. There's a walker in the hallway, lured by the sound of the phone, and Rick slams a knife into its skull before it can even turn and reach for him.

He walks towards the stairwell that had been so dark before. He has no flashlight and no phone to use as a light, and the lights still don't work in the stairwell. He has to rely on his senses to get through safely. He throws his backpack over his shoulders until it settles, hissing at the straps as they dig into his injured shoulder.

He can't hear any hissing or growling, and he reaches out to put one hand on the wall as he moves. He keeps his steps slow and quiet, reaching out with each foot to make sure he doesn't step on a slumbering walker or trip over anything else in the stairwell. There's a drip coming from above him, he can hear it hitting something metallic. Possibly the railing, or a grate, down below.

Drip. Drip.

Rick breathes as slowly and quietly as he can manage. The wall turns, becomes a corner, arcs in front of him and to his right. He slides his hand along it and flinches when he hits a pipe. It's not a walker but the fear and shock momentarily paralyzes him. He feels like he's being hunted, that wolf in the shadows prowling closer.

"It's not real," he whispers as quietly as he can, but it feels like his voice echoes and crescendos until it's deafening in the silence. Drip, drip, drip. "He's not here. It wasn't them. It's not real." He wishes Death would come to him, to assure him of what is real and what's in his head. Then again, Death is in his head, too, and he's biased. Maybe Daryl's a figment of his imagination too. Maybe he never woke up from his coma.

The thought stops him dead in his tracks. He's about to step down another flight of stairs, his toes on the edge of the first one. He can feel the change in height, stretching out below him, darker than black. He feels like a dormouse in springtime, curled up in her burrow, too fragile to face the chilly air just yet. With everything that he has, he doesn't want to go forward.

"It's not real," Rick says, and tilts his head up, eyes raised. As though by spying some light from above he might be able to cling to the reality, whatever reality happens to be. But there's no light. Just dusty, cold air and that drip, dripping.

Start high, end low. Rick whistles, his shaky breath unable to hold the note for as long as Daryl could, but it does the trick. Where are you? That's what it had meant, that's what Daryl told him. He thinks. The whistle sharpens and deforms itself as it slides up the stairwell, growing extra limbs and echoes until he's sure it's no longer discernible, where the high note ended and the long one began.

Then, he hears a snarl, and it sounds more like a dog than a walker.

He bolts down the stairs, taking two at a time when he can. He flies blindly, grabbing onto the handrail on his other side when his foot steps too far or he's at risk of falling. His shoulder burns whenever he has to use that hand but it does the trick – one more rounded corner and Rick can see the silhouette of light beyond a closed exit door.

He slams the door open and runs out into the light. He hears another snarl behind him but then the door closes, shutting off whatever beast had been lurking within. Immediately Rick feels warmer. It's not exactly hot yet, since it's still nighttime and the only illumination is from the nearby street lights, but it's a damn sight warmer than it was in the stairwell.

He doesn't have time to stop. There are walkers in the streets and Rick bolts to the right, towards the center of the city. He runs past a few strays but none of them are quick enough to catch him. After a few blocks his heart has stopped hammering out of fear, his sweat turns cold on his forehead, and he feels lightheaded and weak from lack of sleep and food, and blood loss.

He turns so that his back is against one of the buildings, resting his head against the side of it, and sucks in a few slow, deep breaths, trying to get his breathing and heartbeat back down to normal. He can hear the few walkers he drew the attention of following, trying to find him. They'll turn the corner soon enough and he'll have to keep moving, but for now he can afford a brief respite.

It's a monumentally stupid idea to be out on the streets of a city in the middle of the night at the end of the world, and Rick understands that. He lifts his head when he sees three walkers turning the corner and shuffling towards him, and sighs, straightening from the building and carrying on his way. He leaves a red stain behind, where his arm was resting.

It feels like he's been in War's city for a thousand years. This must have been how Moses felt wandering the desert for years. Faith is strong and can carry a man forever if he lets it, but the journey is never easy. Rick sighs, forcing himself to keep just ahead of the walkers.

It would be easy, he thinks. To just let them catch him. To fall prey to the hunger or let himself linger a little too long, or succumb to another thing his stubborn body demands. But he can't. Because even if Lori does hate him, even if she doesn't want him back, even if Daryl is so mad at him that his love for Rick turns cold and ancient and no more useful than a monument, Rick has to get back to them. He has to protect his family.

He turns a corner and spies a church. It's a small, nondescript stone building, but the walls haven't fallen, the windows remain intact, the garden looks fairly clean and pure. There might be people inside. He walks up to the gate and sees the strings of cans tied up between the walkways, and smiles.

He flicks his finger against one and walks up to the door, knocking six times. The jingle of the can resonates around him, something like stones or dried food inside to make the noise.  The door is made of wood, strong and embedded with black metal to make a pattern of a four-pointed star.

After a moment, a small slide at eye-level moves one way, revealing a pair of brown eyes. The skin around them is wrinkled from smile lines, but the eyes themselves are narrowed suspiciously. They widen when they see him and then the slide goes back and Rick hears the door open.

"Get inside, get inside!" It's a woman, around Rick's age, her hair going grey at the roots but the rest tied up in a tight black bun. She waves him in and slams the door shut behind him, sealing it with a heavy iron bolt. "The Hell you doin' wandering' around at this hour, huh? Gonna get yourself k-."

She stops, freezing when she sees the blood on Rick's shoulder. "You're not…infected, are ya?" she asks quietly, gathering her thick shawl closer to her like a shield.

Rick shakes his head. "No, this is…something else," he says. "No bite." The woman nods. "Thank you for letting me in. I had a few of them on my tail."

The woman raises an eyebrow, before she sweeps past Rick and into the church proper. It's a gorgeous building, especially for its size, with a deep purple carpet and white walls, the pews a dark, shining brown and an effigy of the Virgin Mary standing behind the altar, her hands outspread and her smile kind. It's the first statue Rick can remember seeing of her smiling. Rick follows her.

"You hungry?" she asks. Rick licks his lips and shakes his head. He won't take this woman's food.

She fixes him with a bemused expression, her other eyebrow rising up. "Well, hon, you're cute but you're a crappy liar. Siddown and don't insult my hospitality by denying me the chance to feed you."

Rick smiles, bowing his head in a gesture of acceptance, and takes a seat in the front pew. It's been a long time since he's been in a church, but the atmosphere is peaceful in here, warm and heavy like a blanket or cloak. The woman disappears into an antechamber and comes back with a bowl of oatmeal. Rick blinks in surprise when he takes the bowl and finds it hot.

"Kettle still works," she offers in explanation, sitting down on the other side of the aisle in the first pew with a bowl of her own. "For now, at least."

"Thank you," Rick says, taking a bite. It's maple and brown sugar flavor and very sweet, but it's the first warm food he's had in almost a week and he eats it gratefully, savoring each bite. "You're very kind." She just shrugs. "Why are you here?"

She sighs through her nose, dipping the spoon around the oatmeal in thought. "I was here when it started," she says. "I live in Pennsylvania, so it didn't seem smart to try and get back home. Even if I did beat the evacuations, I'd never be able to get past D.C. and get home. And what's the difference, anyway? No family up there." She takes a deep breath, then sighs, and raises her eyes to Rick's. "You got a family?"

Rick nods. "Yes."

She waits for him to elaborate, then huffs a smile when he falls silent again. "Alright, mystery man. Don't tell me."

"It's not that," Rick says, scratching the back of his neck sheepishly. "It's…hard to explain."

"Well, the day's young, unless you have somewhere to be."

Rick chuckles, conceding that with a nod. She reminds him a lot of Shane when they both were younger, there's something comfortable about being around her. Like they're both without worries even when so much evidence is pointing to otherwise.

"My ex-wife and my best friend have my son, a little ways from here," he tells her. "They're waiting for me to come back to them. I came here because I gotta…do something."

She nods solemnly, as though this is exactly the answer she was expecting. "Well, I guess I can think of worse ways to spend the apocalypse," she says, taking a bite of oatmeal. "You know the story of the apocalypse? Revelations?"

Rick nods, a little more eagerly than he'd meant to. "Yes. Yes, I've read it several times."

"This isn't how I expected it to go."

"This is exactly how it was meant to go," Rick says. Her eyes widen and she cocks her head to one side. Rick bites his lip and shifts his weight back, ducking his head in an attempt to make himself smaller. He doesn't want to frighten her. "Sorry. Forget I said anything."

"No, I want to hear," she says. She sets her bowl of oatmeal down, half-eaten, and reaches out to touch his knee. He lifts his head. "Tell me."

Rick licks his lips, and looks to one side at the statue of the Virgin. The way her head is turned makes it look like she's smiling right at him and he swallows, his throat feeling suddenly tight. The air feels cold and when he looks back at her, he abruptly knows just why she wants to hear his story. He shakes his head and she nods, sighing and sitting back quietly.

"I should go," he murmurs, finishing off the oatmeal. "Thank you, again, for the food."

"Here, take these too," she says, and leaves the main room again for a moment. She comes back with two kitchen knives and a small revolver. Rick takes the knives and slides them into his backpack. She holds out the gun for him again and he thinks about taking it, but he pushes it back to her chest with a shake of his head.

"It'll be faster," he says.

"I don't want to make a mess."

Rick nods. "Then do it outside."

She cocks her head to one side, trembling lips pursed in thought, before she nods. "There's more food in the other room, too. Take what you need. I'll wait here. Will you…walk out with me?" Rick smiles and nods, and goes into the second room where he sees a small collection of packaged goods and canned fruit and vegetables. He takes everything he feels that he can reasonably carry, the backpack now heavy and tugging uncomfortably on his shoulder. He heads back out into the main room.

She's still standing there, clutching the gun like a lifeline. Her face is pale and her hands are shaking, and Rick reaches out to rest a hand on her shoulder. She's almost a full foot shorter than him, her eyes wide and scared as he looks at her.

"You have nothing to be afraid of," he tells her quietly, as they begin to walk towards the door. It feels more solemn than a funeral, packed with more anticipation than a wedding day. He smiles at her and opens the door for her, leading her outside. There are no walkers around the church. They’ve either lost interest or been drawn by someone else making noise elsewhere in the city.

The dawn has just started to break, the sky turning a happy mix of pink and blue. Rick smiles, reminded of the gender colors people tend to use at a new birth or a baby shower. They're pretty, soft colors. A beautiful start to the day. He turns back to the woman.

Her hands are shaking and she manages a watery smile when she looks up at him. "I'm glad I met you," she says. "You seem like…you're going to be okay. Thank you."

Rick nods, looking down at the gun in her hands, then back at her face. "I won't judge you for this," he says, "but if you're afraid of a God who does, I can do it for you."

Her thin smile breaks out into a full grin, a sob leaving her as she raises her hand to her mouth and starts to cry, handing him the gun. It's a small thing, wouldn't do much damage at long range, but it'll do the trick for now. He flips out the chamber and counts the rounds. It's fully loaded. He flicks it back into place and cocks it.

Cold spreads down his arm, his right, holding the gun. When he closes his eyes and sucks in a breath, he feels empty and hollow like the innards of a skeleton's ribcage. He opens his eyes and wonders if she can see the same comforting black that he does when he looks upon Death. Her eyes are wide and shiny with tears.

He reaches out to her and cups the back of her head, bringing her in for a hug. She lets out another frightened sob, her head fitting neatly under his chin, and Rick is reminded suddenly of when Carl used to have nightmares and would climb into bed with him and Lori at night and cling to them until he fell asleep again. She feels like a child in his arms, seeking comfort and peace in his embrace, for him to reassure her that the monsters aren't real and that there's nothing to be afraid of.

He pulls back just far enough to kiss the top of her head like he did with James, and then he takes a step away from her and lifts the gun. He sits it against her forehead and fires it and she falls to the ground in a heavy slump. Her eyes are still closed, the smiles lines around them shiny with her tears.

Feeling strangely unsettled, Rick slides the revolver into the back of his jeans and turns away from the church. The sound will have drawn walkers, the gunshot loud in the otherwise silent street. It occurs to him as he walks away that he never asked her for her name.

 

 

 

Rick thinks of Daryl that night.

He's in another apartment building, one he made sure had no phones and nothing else that could come alive and mess with him. The lights don't even work, so he definitely knows that anything he might see or hear is inside his own head, and that he can therefore ignore it.

He secures one of the bedrooms and curls up in the bed there, having taken a cold shower and wrapped a bandage around his shoulder and bicep to try and make sure he doesn't keep bleeding everywhere. He'd stopped bleeding sometime around midday, but knowing him he wouldn't put it past himself to turn or scratch in such a way that reopened the wounds.

He closes his eyes and sighs. Daryl wouldn't have let him kill that woman. Daryl would have…shit, probably tried to take her in. She'd have gotten a green wristband for the depressed, because depressed and suicidal used to go hand in hand at the facility. They're not the same, Rick knows that, but they didn't have enough colors in the rainbow to be picky.

He'd have taken her in, made sure she felt safe, asked her for her fucking name. It's times like these when Rick thinks he belonged in the facility. He doesn't think like other people do – not anymore, at least. Maybe he never did. Maybe it was one of the things that made him such a good cop in the before times. Maybe it's what attracted Lori to him, maybe that's the thing that made Shane his best friend. Some weird little switch in his head that didn't try to sympathize.

You pick your people. He could have picked her, and had her stay with him, but the truth of the matter is that Rick knew as soon as he spoke with her that she wasn't long for this Earth. She'd have starved, or wandered out and gotten killed, or taken her own life some other way whether he'd come there or not. Such is the way of the world.

Death isn't vicious, Death doesn't have favorites or pick sides. Death is inevitable and when it comes, it comes. There's no maliciousness in it. Rick sighs again and rolls onto his back, staring through the blackness towards the ceiling.

Daryl would have stopped him.

He wishes he could hear the man's voice, or his breathing, or just feel the warmth of him plastered to Rick's side. He doesn't feel content anymore, but aimless and wandering like a soul looking for its body. There's nothing tying him anywhere except his son and his mission. There's no reason to be here beyond Death's order, there's no reason to set off elsewhere except that everything in every fiber of his being is crying out to be by Daryl's side.

Rick doesn't sleep well that night, and his dreams are full of fire and the undead.

Chapter Text

There's a herd of walkers on the road. It arcs above Rick's head. They fall over the edge and break their skulls on the concrete when they see him, no longer a threat. He hears it so often now he doesn't react anymore.

He sits on the far side of the road onto which they are falling, his back to a highway divider, resting comfortably as he gingerly fishes out individual slices of peaches from the can, and then tips it back to drink down the juice. He rubs his mouth clean with the back of his hand and tosses the can, squinting and lifting his hand to shield his eyes from the sunlight as he continues to watch them.

"Ninety-nine walking dead on the wall, ninety-nine walking dead…." He whistles the rest of the tune and fishes out another can of peaches. It has the same opening on the lid as a can of beer or soda and he pops it, peeling the lid back and slurping the thick syrup before digging around for the fruit. He thinks of how disgusted Lori would be with his eating habits, and laughs.

Another one, who used to be a heavy-set man – tumbles over and lands on its legs instead, snapping the bone and faceplanting on the tarmac. It's still moving, liftings its head, covered in black goo, and crawling towards Rick. Rick sighs and gets to his feet.

"Fine, I'll move," he mutters, finishing the peaches and throwing the can at the walker, before he gathers his stuff and moves on. The sight of the things still unnerves him, but he doesn't feel fear when he looks at them. Death will protect him until it is his time – just as it is his destiny. He need not fear the walking dead. They are born of a lesser being.

He stops when he hears a soft sound, cocking his head to one side. Over the hiss and growl of the walkers it's hard to make out, but he swears he heard -.

There is it again. High. Shrill. A whistle?

He stops, his heart hammering as he strains to listen again. He tries to remember what each of Daryl's whistles means, but all he can remember is the Where are you and the one that he had deemed only theirs. This one sounds like neither of them.

It's definitely one of the ones he was taught. He remembers hearing it. He's heard it before. But it's – he can't make it out, just clearly enough. But it's…it has to be Daryl, doesn't it? Daryl would whistle for him, to find him.

He licks his lips and sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles. High to low, as long as he can make it. Where are you?

There's a pause, and Rick hurries away from the walkers so that he can hear better. He whistles again through his fingers, the shrill sound carrying and echoing between the buildings, vibrating through the air. Where are you?

He wants to yell Daryl's name, but he dares not. He keeps moving, towards where he thinks the whistle might have come from. It's so hard to tell around the buildings, and with the wind and the hisses and groans of walkers. He waits and listens again, desperate to hear the sweet sound of Daryl's whistle calling him to the man.

Then, he stops, at the corner of the Doubletree hotel. A walker lunges for him and he quickly turns, slamming his knife into its skull with a grunt. The thing collapses, staring up at him with big, white eyes and a gaping maw. Reminded of Famine, Rick shivers and turns away. He whistles one more time.

Where are you?

"Daryl, please answer," he whispers. "Please, please answer."

He keeps walking, around the corner where the road curves across the entrance of the hotel. There are cars packed in the road, already covered in a fine layer of dust and dirt. The doors to the hotel have been broken in, glass shattered on the ground. Rick freezes when he hears gunshots, and then three loud, high-pitched whistles.

Even if had entirely forgotten, he would know what that sound meant. Danger. The whistle sounds like it's close by and it doesn't stop. Rick turns, looking towards the back doors of another hotel – the Westin. The doors are dark, tinted, revealing nothing of the inside. He flinches when he hears another gunshot, and this time there's a yell.

He bolts for the hotel doors.

Once inside, the noises surround him. He has run in on the very bottom floor and he can hear a woman screaming coming from one of the upper levels, as well as a man's rough shout. Then another gunshot and he steps back as the body of a walker tumbles down and lands with a crack on the floor in front of him.

He hears the whistle again. It's not coming from the people on the upper level. Cursing, Rick pauses just long enough to draw the little revolver from his back and make sure his grip is good on his knife, before he's hurrying up the little flight of stairs between the lobby and the lounge. There's a circular staircase leading up before he gets to the elevators, and then escalators on the other side, frozen still. He goes for the stairs and hurries up it. There's a walker at the top of the first flight and he stabs it through the chin, bodily hauling it over his shoulder and sending it falling to the ground below. Then he keeps going, breathing heavily by the time he reaches the third floor. There's a single walkway spanning between the circular building's sides, a conference room on either and rooms along the edge. He hears gunshots from his left, and the whistle to his right.

He grits his teeth. He wants to go to Daryl, to make sure that he's alright, but Daryl is strong and if he's in a position to whistle then he's probably not in that much danger, compared to the people openly waging war to his left. Daryl would want him to go left. Daryl would go left.

The decision is made for him when the conference room on his left goes abruptly silent. Rick doesn't hear any screeching or groaning coming from that direction, and when he steps out into the walkway several people come stumbling out from that way. They're spattered with blood and ooze, wide-eyed and breathless, and they freeze when they see Rick.

There are four of them. There's a young Asian man who has the worst of the splatter, painted across his clothes, a pistol hanging limply at his side. There's a large black man, his face sweaty under his knitted cap, behind him. There's a thin blonde woman with suspicious eyes, holding a knife. She's the one who moves from surprised to wary first. Then there's another woman, dark-skinned and pretty, her face worn with sadness and not holding a weapon that Rick can see.

Then, the whistle comes again, and Rick turns to look that way and bolts off in the other direction. After a moment, he can hear the four other people hurrying along behind him, and wonders if they know what the whistle means too, or if they just decided that five of them is better than four of them.

After the walkway there's a door, which opens into a corridor with a dead end and four doors leading to what Rick assumes are either storage or conference rooms. Three of the doors are open and one is slammed shut. There's a walker outside of it, clawing at the door. Rick feels the four people behind him slow to a stop.

"I got it," the Asian man says, lifting his gun. Rick holds up his hand.

"Don't waste the bullets," he says, advancing on the walker. "And shooting is a good way to draw more."

The walker snarls, alerted by the sound of his voice, and turns towards him. It's a woman, or was, her long hair running down to her waist, her eyes blank and white, her jaw gnawing already. There's blood on her face and down her arms from her kills. It looks like she snapped her neck, her head cocked oddly as she lurches towards him.

Rick grabs her hair and yanks her head back, slamming his knife into her eye, before he lets her fall. Gravity separates her from the knife and he wipes the blade absently on his shirt before slipping it back through the loop on the other side of his gunbelt.

He knocks on the closed door six times and whistles lowly, long, then a high, short note. "All clear," he says.

"Holy shit," one of the women whispers. "He knows the whistles."

"Who are you?" the Asian man asks, walking towards him as Rick steps back from the door. He can hear shuffling around inside – Daryl must have barred the door. Seems strange – Daryl can and has handled a sole walker on his own. Perhaps he's injured. Anxiety twists up his spine.

Rick looks over at him. "Name's Rick," he says, holding a hand out to shake.

The Asian man's expression melts into a surprised smile as he reaches forward and shakes Rick's hand. "No shit," he says. "I'm Glenn. We spoke on the phone." Rick blinks at him, too caught off guard to say anything. "Thought you might'a died or somethin', man. Cool you didn't."

"It's nice to meet you," Rick says. The door opens abruptly, revealing a well-lit room inside. Rick takes a step back even though every part of him is leaping in eagerness to see Daryl again.

"Told you you shouldn't have split from us," the blonde says acidly, one eyebrow raised in a haughty expression.

"You just missed my sweet charm," comes the reply, and Rick almost flinches from shock. It's not Daryl's voice, not even close. He blinks and turns in time to see Merle slide out of the conference room, his grin wide and lopsided, eyes slanted and lazy. They widen abruptly when he sees Rick, crowing in delight. "Oh, ain't it Officer Friendly! Aren't you a sight for sore eyes."

"Merle," Rick says flatly, trying to hide the disappointment in his voice.  This is still good, because Merle was with Daryl and if he still is, then maybe Daryl is nearby. He nods at the man and receives a smug-looking smirk in return. "You're looking well."

"Fit as a fiddle, I feel reborn, Blue-eyes." Rick's mouth twists and he sucks in a breath through his nose.

"You guys…know each other?" Glenn hazards, looking between the two of them.

"Of course, Chinaman, how many Rick Grimeses do you think there are in this place?"

Glenn's jaw clenches and he rolls his eyes. "I told you I'm Korean."

Merle huffs, grinning at the reaction. "Anywho, this boy here -." He slams his meaty arm down on Rick's shoulders, making his shoulder jolt in pain, "was ridin' with our group for a while, decided to go into the big city on his own like a damn fool." He claps his hand heavily on Rick's injured shoulder, to the point where Rick can't shake the thought that he's doing it on purpose. Merle gives him a lopsided grin but his eyes are sharp and grey like gunmetal. "Can't say I blame ya, can't think my brother's a good enough lay to stick around for -."

"Not that it's any of your business," Rick bites out, grabbing Merle's hand and forcibly removing it from his shoulder, "but that's not why I left, and Daryl knows it."

"Did you ever plan on coming back?" Merle challenges. "Didn't even try ta call him, but you called your cop buddy and your ex-pussy. Makes a man feel unwanted. Not that you'd care about Dixon-folk."

Rick hesitates, his eyes flashing to the other four who are still staring at Rick and Merle like they're street actors in the most surreal show they've ever seen. "I have to go," Rick says. "I have to…Daryl knows what I have to do. Then I'll come back. If you tell me where you are, I'll come back."

Merle is already shaking his head. "Not on your life," he says, folding his arms across his chest and lifting his chin. His stance is wide, his eyes hard, jaw slightly crooked like he's ready to take a fist to the face. He's gearing up for a fight, and Rick doesn't want to fight him, not least because he's far from at his physical best and it would be a short event. "I'm not letting you outta my sight, Grimes, and I'll either see ya die or bring yer sorry ass back so Daryl can kill ya himself."

Rick huffs a breath and shakes his head. "I can't leave. I have to – I have to do something here. I don't know how long it's gonna take."

"Well…" That's Glenn, who seems to have broken out of his stupor of watching Rick and Merle argue. He shifts his weight when the two men look at him. "I mean, maybe we could help you? On the phone, you said you were looking for someone. Maybe we can help you find them."

"It ain't that simple," Rick tells him with a small shake of his head, then a meaningful look to Merle. He doesn't know how much Merle remembers from when they first met, or how much Daryl has told him about Rick's condition, but he can see in the set of the man's jaw that he's not going to take whatever Rick has to say lightly. "And the reason I went in alone is 'cause I don't want anyone getting' hurt cause'a me. So, thank you, but no. I should leave."

He nods at Glenn and the others and walks past them, out into the hallway. There's a walker dangling from the walkway above him, hissing and reaching for him. Its arm and neck is trapped by torn clothing. Neck probably snapped. He doesn't pay it any mind.

"Hey!" It's Merle's voice, Rick can hear the man's heavy steps behind him, catching up. He stops at the top of the winding staircase, leading down. Merle grabs him by his injured shoulder and swings him around. "I ain't lettin' ya outta my sight, you crazy son of a bitch. I wasn't kiddin'."

Rick clenches his jaw hard enough that his teeth squeak. "Your brother doesn't think I'm crazy," he says quietly.

"My brother's thinkin' with his dick more'n his head these days. I'd be proud of him if he didn't have such shitty taste in ass," Merle says distastefully. "You should come back with us. We were headin' out of the city anyway. Your crazy crusade can wait another day."

Rick closes his eyes. So this is how War gets him – with a pushy brother and a group of innocent, wide-eyed people trailing behind. Too honest, too well-meaning. He sighs. "I want to go back," he says, stepping closer to Merle and leaning in so that he can keep his voice lowered. "I can't go back. Not yet. Daryl will understand."

Merle shakes his head, huffing a breath through his teeth. He smells like cheap beer and there are hints of cigarette smoke on him that makes Rick's nose burn, his heart leaping as he thinks of Daryl when he'd be out on smoke breaks, relaxed and fine in the sunlight. The longing that feels like it's sitting permanently in his soul stretches and spreads out like a lax cat, tail twitching, one eye slitted open.

"I'm not goin' back 'til you do," Merle says, just as quietly. A gun with a silencer. The growl of a tiger. "Far as I'm concerned, you broke his Goddamn heart, and I'll be damned if I go back and tell 'im I saw ya and didn't bring ya home."

Rick searches Merle's face. Out of the corner of his eye he can see the other four gathered, hovering in his periphery. Merle is valued enough by this group that they're willing to stay in a dangerous place to let him argue with a stranger. They trust him enough to offer help with Rick just because they say they knew each other, and care for him enough that they come running at the sound of him being in danger. If they trust and handle Merle, there's no way Daryl isn't with them, back at their camp. And Shane, and Lori, and Carl. His whole family is safe and protected and so close.

"I want to go," Rick confesses. Then, "Why were you here?"

"Supply run," Merle says.

"No, I get why they might be here," Rick replies, jerking his head towards the other four. "But why are you here? It's only been a few days, last I saw you you weren't even fit to walk, let alone run around fightin' walkers."

Merle's jaw flexes and he folds his arms over his chest. "Well, yer motherin' is mighty nice, but I don't swing that way, cowboy. You comin' with us or not?"

Before Rick can reply there's the sound of glass shattering, a chorus of moans and growls floating up from below.

"Boys, can we take this reunion elsewhere?" the blonde asks, her shoulders tense, the tendons in her neck flexing as she swallows. Rick cocks his head to one side and listens. The walkers will probably figure out stairs and the stalled escalators pretty quickly.

"We should head up," Rick says, jerking his head towards the ceiling. "There's probably fire escapes in a building like this. Get out in the open where we can move around and then down."

Glenn nods, pressing his face together. "T-Dog, you and I'll cover. Andrea, take point with Rick. Jacqui, you and Merle stay close." The blonde – Andrea, Rick guesses, from the way she immediately moves to the front of the pack – sends him a warning look and walks back towards the hallway. Rick follows and takes his place on her left. Merle struts his way to the middle and pulls out a hunting knife to have at the ready. Rick chooses not to comment on the way Merle eyes his rifle and sniper.

"Here," Rick says, handing the sniper to Jacqui who appears to be without a weapon. "If nothing else you can bash someone's head in with that."

She looks at him with wide eyes and takes the weapon slowly. "…Thank you," she says.

"Jeez, man, a little more tact, maybe?" T-Dog mutters, and Rick just grins at him over his shoulder. Glenn and T-Dog fan out, weapons aimed for the stairs as they pass them and make their way towards the escalators. Andrea takes the one on the right, Rick on the left as they head up them, Glenn and T-Dog climbing backwards so they don't get taken by surprise.

There are only two more floors but when Rick and Andrea circle from the escalators, they stop when they see a huge crowd of walkers in the hallway stuck between the escalators. A couple of the ceiling tiles have dropped down, one of the potted plants framing the walkway lies in a heap of shattered pottery and mud.

"Shit," Andrea whispers. Rick nods in agreement. With the way the escalators are angled they'll have to walk right past the herd of walkers to try and keep going up. "Any ideas?"

Rick creeps out to a ledge out of sight and looks down. The walkers have started to make their way up the stairs, slowly blocking off the way back down. He clenches his jaw and straightens just as Jacqui, Merle, T-Dog and Glenn join them at the top of the previous flight of escalators.

Rick holds out a hand before they can barrel forward, catching Glenn at chest height. He raises his finger to his lips and nods towards the herd of walkers. Glenn and T-Dog crane their necks to look.

These people aren't cops, but there are certain signals that are pretty easy to understand. Rick looks around – there's a pathway leading left that circles around to the other side of the hall where the walkers are. Rick holds up his hand for them to stay and walks quickly around it. None of them follow. When he gets to the other side he can just see Merle and T-Dog's heads through the crowd of undead, mostly hidden behind the escalators.

Then, he cups his hands to his mouth and lets out a wordless shout. It draws the attention of the closest walkers, and like most pack animals once a few notice he's there, their growls rise up in volume and they start to advance on him. "Go up when it's clear!" Rick yells. "I'll come around!"

They don't answer. The closest walker – a night manager from the look of it, complete with security stick and badge still clinging to his bloody grey shirt – lunges for him and Rick slams his knife up against the thing's jaw, through the soft skin of its neck. It slumps over and falls to the ground just in time for a woman to grab him, hissing loudly in his ear. He jerks away, reminded too closely of Famine, and stabs her in the eye.

He starts to back up around the circle walkway, and turns and runs back when he's sure that the others are clear. Glenn is still at the bottom, gun raised to cover the space between the elevators, waving him frantically up.

"Come on, come on!" Glenn says, backing up as Rick swings around the front of the escalators.

"Go," Rick urges, pushing at Glenn's chest until the younger man lowers his gun and starts up the escalators. When they reach the top Rick spots the others at the emergency exit door. There's a small plaque he can see as he approaches declaring that the door has roof access. "Through here, come on!"

Andrea yanks the door open and shrieks, jumping back when a walker falls forward into their midst. Rick immediately swings his knife down and forward, planting it in the back of the thing's skull. When he straightens, the others are looking at him with wide, shocked eyes, and he wipes the back of his wrist across his forehead and licks his lips.

"Come on," Glenn says after a moment, nudging T-Dog and Jacqui up the stairs. There's a second door up a small flight of stairs and they burst out into the daylight. Rick closes the door behind them at the bottom of the stairs and then again at the top.

"Jesus Christ, man, you're insane," T-Dog says, shaking his head and looking in Rick's direction. He has his hands braced against his thighs, crouched over as he catches his breath. "Runnin' straight at those things."

"Is everyone alright?" Rick asks over his shoulder. He hasn't moved away from the door, and is listening. The door had opened outwards when they came, which means if the walkers can hear or smell them, they'll come this way. He thinks he can hear them hissing, or maybe it's the growl of a dog.

"We're all here," Andrea says crisply, taking in a deep breath. "Now what?"

Rick straightens and turns around, and freezes. The rooftop has a wall around it at knee height, and he can see a little step ladder on the other side of it where there's a fire escape. There's a red pipe running across it, thick and bright. He swallows hard enough that his throat clicks and feels a chill sweep through his spine.

Something is about to happen.

"Alright, come on, to the fire escape," Glenn says after a moment of silence, walking that way. The other three follow, but Merle stays, his arms folded across his chest, watching Rick expectantly.

Rick raises an eyebrow and looks at him. "Aren't you going with them?" he asks. He'd meant to ask it quietly but apparently it's loud enough, or his voice carries enough, that the others stop and turn. Maybe they can feel the energy in the breeze as well, the lightning crackling between Merle's teeth, ready to spit.

"Love ta," Merle says, grinning lopsidedly, "but yer goin' first."

"No," Rick says. "I can't go with you guys. You should go back."

"Why not?" It's Andrea who speaks. In the sunlight her eyes are the same color as old sea glass, her hair shining. She's too pale like the color has been sucked out of her. "Look, clearly you have family waiting with us, and we're not that far from here. You can come with us and then come back to the city – we can help you."

"I don't…" Rick sighs, shaking his head. "It's not that I don't want help, or I don't need help. I just can’t…endanger anyone. That's not fair."

"I don't know if you've noticed," Jacqui says, quiet and solemn and gripping the sniper hard enough her knuckles are whited out, "but the dead are walking the Earth. Fair doesn't exactly factor in anymore."

"Look, Officer Friendly, I didn't wanna have to do this but…" Merle reaches into his back pocket and grins, pulling out a pair of handcuffs that flash sharply in the light. Rick cocks his head to one side and narrows his eyes. "If I have to hogtie you and carry you back over my shoulder, you're comin'."

"Where did you get those?" Rick asks, nodding at the cuffs.

"Swiped 'em from your buddy's stash, o'course," Merle replies. Rick lifts his chin, something defiant and hot running down his spine. He will not be shackled by the manacles of War. Merle's face darkens when Rick makes no move towards the fire escape and advances on him – one looming, careful step. He does, after all, only have the hunting knife to hand, and Rick is packing a lot more heat than he is.

"Merle," Rick says lowly. His fingers flex next to his holstered pistol. "Just let me go."

Merle's reply is lost when the door leading to the roof lets out a heavy clanging sound, as though a great weight has been thrown against it. Rick and Merle flinch away from it, weapons raised and ready. Rick feels the chill on the back of his neck spread down his hand to where he's holding his gun, and he thinks he can see the brief white flash of a skull before the door buckles and starts to open. A single hand reaches out, decaying and bloody, and Rick curses.

"Help me close this!" he yells, leaping for the door. Glenn slams into the door next to him as they push the door closed, grunting with effort as the undead pile up in greater numbers on the other side. Rick digs his foot into the cement ground, looking around for some way to secure the door. The door has an arcing handle and there's a pipe running down the outside just a few inches from it.

"Jacqui!" he yells. "Get me the sniper!"

He feels her tap it against his shoulder and reaches back, grabbing it and threading it through the door. He and Glenn move back at once, breathing hard as the door clangs and snaps against the rifle, but the gun seems to do the trick. At least, they won't be getting through it any time soon.

He runs a hand through his sweaty hair and breathes out in relief. Jacqui is watching with wide eyes and, grinning, he pulls the rifle from his bag and hands it to her instead. "Here you go," he says. She takes it with shaking hands.

"I guess the only way is the fire escape," Glenn says quietly.

"No choice but to come with us, then," Merle crows in delight, jangling the handcuffs. Rick briefly considers cuffing Merle to the damn pipe. He's dreamed about this rooftop before. He knows what's supposed to happen here. What might have happened in another life.

But he won't. Daryl would never forgive him, after what he's done, if he'd taken Merle's life as well. He presses his lips together and lifts his eyes to the towering skyscrapers and gives a small nod to War. "Well played," he says to the air, and then heaves another sigh. "I'll come back with you," he says. "But we have to come back. Soon."

"We will," Glenn says with a weak, small smile. He nods when Rick looks at him. "We'll come back."

The door gives an unearthly groan and Rick winces when the sniper starts to crack under the pressure. "We should go," Andrea says in a clipped tone, reaching out and grabbing T-Dog's hand and hauling him towards the fire escape. Glenn leads Jacqui that way and Rick follows behind, Merle bringing up the rear.

Rick halts a little way back, one eye on the door as the rest start to climb down. Merle raises an eyebrow and waits with him, arms folded across his chest. Rick cocks his head to one side, licks his lips, and looks away. He doesn't say anything.

 

 

 

Glenn says they brought vehicles in and hid the supplies inside. They had been on one last run for things like shampoo and bedding in the hotel before Rick heard them getting overrun. The cars are parked in one of the many plots designated as public parking in the city center. There are a number of cars in various stages of abandonment – some that have clearly been there since well before the end of the world, and others that are still fresh, complete with fogged-up windows and the vague black shapes of walkers trapped inside.

In the corner of one, parked a little ways away from the rest of the occupants, is a silver Jeep. As Rick approaches he sees a red Dodge Challenger with a black stripe sitting happily next to the Jeep. He freezes.

A red car. They came in a red car.

War is trying to lure him back. Of course he is. Rick's hands start to shake and he can't seem to make his feet move, as though they're cemented to the ground.

Merle, who was walking behind him, stops and claps his hand down hard on Rick's injured shoulder. "Everything okay, nutterbutter?" he asks, his voice strangely kind, or at least gentle to Rick's ears. Rick can feel a cold sweat spreading down the back of his neck. It feels like someone is holding his head, so he can't turn it. His eyes are riveted on the car.

"I…" He swallows hard enough that his throat clicks. His eyes are wide and starting to ache. Merle squeezes his shoulder but Rick can't tell if he's meant to be comforting or trying to force Rick onward. "That car."

"Everything okay?" Glenn calls from over the hood of the Jeep. "We should get movin'."

"You heard the Chinaman," Merle says, tightening his grip on Rick's shoulder until Rick hisses, abruptly broken from his trance as pain slices through the cold and makes his knees buckle. He stumbles forward and Merle doesn't let go, but continues to steer him towards the Jeep. Rick is still shaking when he climbs inside next to Andrea. Jacqui is sitting in the driver's seat, Merle in shotgun, and T-Dog and Glenn are in the Challenger.

"A Challenger, a red Challenger," Rick mutters, tapping his palms against his thighs in patterns of six. His fingers curl and he wants to claw at his arms so badly, shed the weight of his skin and his muscle until he's nothing but bone, and take up his scythe and lay waste to his enemies. "Charger. Challenger? He came in a red car."

A red war horse. When Glenn fires up the engine it roars and rumbles and Rick imagines a rearing stallion, brilliant and red, gold in its mane to match the crown on its master's head. Rick's ride, silvery and pale, could never compare in sheer strength or size.

"Are you alright?"

It's Andrea's voice, and when Rick lifts his head she's looking at him the same way Lori did when he first woke up, before he got committed. So wide-eyed and afraid, so unsure. Rick tries not to think about how pale she already is, how much blood she has in her to lose.

He puts his head in his hands and links his fingers behind his neck. "No," he says. "I shouldn't be leaving."

"We'll come back," Andrea replies.

Rick doesn't answer. The Challenger leads the way with a low snarl and the Jeep rattles to life and trundles along after. Rick doesn't watch Atlanta fade away from him and sink into the distance.

Chapter Text

They drive for almost an hour, as best as Rick can tell. He knows there's a clock on the dashboard but the food, weapons and clothing and bedding they've managed to find make the four of them plus everything else a tight fit, and Rick can barely see over his own pack settled in his lap, or the long rifle he'd given Jacqui sticking up in the foot well, and the mountain of pillows sitting between him and Andrea.

He feels exhausted to the bone, defeated in a way he can't quite explain. It feels like a failure, letting these people drive him away. So much so that War had even chosen to mock him with the choice of vehicle.

They crest a small rise and Rick looks out of the window as he spies a quarry. The road leads right into the heart of it and there are large piles of dug-up Earth on all sides, creating a barrier for weather and from the undead. Rick smiles, pleased at the location and the intelligence of those that had chosen to inhabit it. The day is still young and so Rick can see the small nest of trees a little farther away, the pond-like pool of water below the highest rise of rock. There's a collection of tents, an RV, and next to that he sees the red Honda and Merle's truck.

He sits up a little straighter, trying to spy his family amongst the tents and vehicles, but there's no movement. No people.

The Challenger pulls up next to Merle's truck. Daryl's motorcycle isn't on it anymore, but parked behind, dusty and whited out from the quarry rock. Jacqui parks the Jeep beside Glenn's car.

They all pile out of the car as one. Rick breathes in like it's his first breath, shuddering and unsteady. Merle gets out of the Jeep and comes to stand next to him, grinning.

"Not gonna bolt on me, are ya, nutterbutter?"

"Please stop calling me that," Rick mutters, wincing when Merle squeezes his shoulder again. "I think the bloodloss might be getting to me."

"And here you were actin' like you were gonna survive on your own," Merle says, rolling his eyes. Then, he raises his fingers to his lips and let outs a short, sharp whistle. It's loud enough that Rick winces. It's not a signal he recognizes from Daryl's lesson but it seems to do the trick. The door to the RV opens, revealing a short, older man and another blonde woman that Andrea immediately runs to and hugs.

One of the tents rustles and Rick smiles when he sees Carl clambering out. The boy freezes when he sees Rick, his eyes wide. Then, "…Dad?" he asks, like he can't believe it.

"Hey, Carl," Rick breathes, and then Carl runs for him and leaps into a hug. Rick crouches down so that he can pull the boy close to him, Carl's arms wrapping tight around his shoulders. Rick threads one hand through Carl's mess of hair, sucking in a deep breath of the boy's scent. He smells like dust and water. His eyes burn and he realizes he's choking on relief as he hugs his son. Death hadn't told him Carl was dead, but there's knowing he's not, and then feeling the warmth of him and listening to his own whimpering little sobs of happiness.

Rick pulls back and cups Carl's face, brushing his hair and tears from his cheeks and forehead. "How you been?" he asks, voice rough. "How's your mom? Shane?"

"They're here," Carl replies. Right on cue, Shane and Lori emerge from another tent. They both freeze when they see Rick and then Shane lets out a whoop of delight, coming forward and catching Rick's forearm in his hand, hauling him to his feet and then into a hug.

"S'good to see you, brother," Shane murmurs, and Rick wants to weep all over again when he pulls back and sees no trace of War on Shane's face. Lori fades into focus at Shane's side, her smile watery. "We thought you might be dead. I tried calling you back but -."

"The phones died," Rick says.

Lori's eyes trail to Rick's bloody shoulder and widen. "You're hurt," she whispers. She reaches out as though to touch it, her fingers curling just shy of his clothes as though afraid. "Did you get…?"

"No," Rick replies, scratching the back of his neck. "No, I – it wasn't a walker. Promise."

"You look like you've been through a mess, son." The older man steps forward. There's a rifle in his hand and a cap on his head like old men wear to go duck hunting. Rick smiles and takes his hand when the man holds his out to shake. "Name's Dale."

"Rick," Rick replies. "Nice to meet you."

They smile at each other and exchange nods, before Dale heads off to help unload the cars. Rick watches him go, before his eyes fall to Daryl's motorcycle again. He frowns.

"Where's…?" He stops, afraid to say the name. Unbidden, a flash of fear lights up in his heart. He hasn't seen Daryl. If he can't see Daryl, and Daryl doesn't have a bike with him, or a car, he's on foot. And if he's on foot he could get injured and not be able to run. And he could be out of ammo, or stuck somewhere, penned in by those things.

But no. Death would have told him. Wouldn't he?

"Where's Daryl?" he says, whispering the words because to say them any louder would break him.

"He's around," Shane replies, too cavalier for the turmoil in Rick's heart and the everyday threat facing them as well. They can't afford to not know where their people are. "Probably sulking somewhere."

"So you don't know where he is?" Rick asks, a little louder now, his voice hard. "Does anyone know where Daryl is?" he asks of the group, turning to address Merle and Andrea who are walking by with weapons and blankets.

The younger blonde woman shrugs. "Hasn't been here long but I know a loner when I see one," she says, and Rick bites his tongue to stop himself telling her how wrong she is. Daryl craves closeness, just like Rick does. "He usually goes out hunting this time of day. You should check behind the trees."

Rick looks that way, narrowing his eyes at the dense little cluster. It must go farther back than he originally assumed.

He presses his lips together and nods, stepping past Shane and Lori and heading towards the trees. None of them try to stop him, but Shane reaches out and lets his fingers brush across Rick's arm and it feels like a 'Good luck'. Rick braces himself for Daryl's anger, worried down to his bones that what he'll find is much worse. Anger he can take – Daryl's anger is righteous and strong and the fire in him warms Rick up from the inside. He would die if that emotion turned cold towards him. More than anything else, he fears Daryl turning his back and shutting off his love.

He's about ten feet from the tree-line when a bolt, brightly fletched with green and white arrows, shoots out of the trees and plants itself just in front of his foot. Rick halts, looking down at it, and smiles. He bends down and carefully twists it out of the softer ground surrounding the trees.

"I guess I deserve that," he says.

"You deserve one between yer fuckin' eyes."

He looks up just in time for Daryl to emerge from the trees. There's a sling of bloody rabbits over one shoulder, a long knife at his belt and the crossbow still held loosely in one hand. His face is dirty, hair a mess of grease, his eyes narrowed with anger. He looks ready for a fight.

Rick hands him the arrow and Daryl yanks it from his hand with a huff. "Nice a'ya to show yer fuckin' face 'round here," he says, his accent thick because of how angry he is. His hand is clenched tightly around the arrow, to the point where Rick feels like it might snap. "I could kill ya, ya son of a bitch."

"You would have died," Rick replies. He sees Daryl's eyes raking over him, appraising him like he's a machine on sale. His hand twitches when he sees Rick's bloody shoulder and the marks on his wrists. "If you'd'a been there, I'd've gotten you killed."

"You could have gotten yourself killed!" Daryl hisses, closing the distance between the two of them abruptly and digging the tip of his arrow into Rick's chest. The point isn't sharp enough to slice into him but it aches sharply, especially when Daryl keeps digging it against his sternum like he intends to skewer Rick with it. His eyes are blisteringly cold, the same dark blue-black as the void of space, and Rick shivers. "You promised -."

Abruptly the anger cracks, fracturing under the weight of whatever he's feeling. He pulls the arrow away and his eyes turn bright before he ducks his head, hiding his face behind his hair. "You promised you wouldn't leave," he whispers, harshly.

Rick bites his lip and doesn't argue that, technically, he didn't. "I missed you," he says instead. Daryl lifts his head, surprised and sad. "I felt like…like every part of me was aching. Death mocked me 'cause of it. I almost turned back so many times."

"Why didn't you then?" Daryl challenges.

"They'd'a left Merle behind," Rick says, "or you'd've followed me in. I couldn't risk you, Daryl." Daryl scoffs, his eyes stormy and his jaw clenched. Rick wants to reach for him so badly, pet through his hair and feel the roughness of his clothes and the calluses on his hands, wants to drink in the salt water clinging to his neck.

He wants to touch Daryl so badly. His hand clenches so tightly that it shoots pain up his injured arm and burns in his shoulder. Daryl's eyes are drawn to it again. "Did you do that?" he asks. Not Were you bitten or What got you, because Daryl knows Rick hurts himself more than he hurts others, or lets others hurt him.

Rick nods, something pained catching in his throat. "I…was dreaming, and I woke up with it," he admits, and Daryl presses his lips together and nods as well. "I felt like I was losing my fucking mind. It was so quiet, Daryl."

The weight of Atlanta sits heavily on his shoulders. Rick feels like he might crumble to dust under the shadows of the skyscrapers. He lifts his knuckles to his mouth to stifle the sob, and drops his eyes to Daryl's feet.

His eyes are burning and his vision is blurring.

"It was so fucking quiet."

He hears Daryl sigh, and then there's a warm hand on his arm. "Come on," Daryl murmurs. "Let's get you fixed up and fed." Rick hesitates before following, but allows Daryl to lead the way back to camp. He reaches out and curls his fingers in the hem of Daryl's vest and Daryl doesn't protest.

"Dale!" Daryl calls, cupping his hands to make his voice louder and catch the man's attention. "Where you keep the gauze and shit?"

"In the RV, above the sink," comes the reply, and Daryl nods and leads Rick into the RV. The innards of it are nice, if a little worn. The cabinets are a deep, warm reddish-brown, the ceiling a soothing cream color. Daryl makes him sit on one side of the little booth and goes to the kitchenette area.

"You're a damn fool, goin' into a city by yerself," Daryl mutters after a moment of silence. Then, "Take off your shirt. Gotta look at that arm."

Rick smiles, sitting up a little straighter. He pulls the shirt off over his head, hissing when the dried blood and sweat clings to the wounds and peeling the shirt off breaks the scabs and makes him start bleeding anew. The bandages, crude as they were, barely hang onto his skin by a few stubborn patches of blood and dirt.

"Jesus," Daryl mutters, shaking his head and bringing the overly-stuffed first aid kit over to the table. He sits on the opposite side and holds out his hand for Rick to place his arm in. "You're a Goddamn mess, Grimes."

Rick merely hums in answer, fingers curling as Daryl grips his forearm and tears open an antiseptic wipe with his teeth before he starts to rub Rick down, peeling off the old bandage as he does so. The motions are calculated and not overly-gentle, but Rick grits his teeth and bears it. He is, after all, nothing is not deserving of a little of Daryl's anger.

They sit in silence, but it's not the oppressive silence that Altanta had given him. It doesn't weigh on his shoulders and he can't see or hear dogs snarling near him and he doesn't feel like he's suffocating under the weight of it. Daryl wipes his arm down until there's no more blood clinging to the hair or skin there, and then he pulls Rick's arm into a more streamlined position, palm down so that he can see the deep furrows Rick carved into his flesh.

Daryl lets out another huff, the same look on his face as when he found Rick writing on the walls. "How did this happen?" he asks, trailing his fingertips gently along the end of one jagged mark. The touch stings and tingles a little from the antiseptic wipes and Rick forces himself not to flinch. He will never make Daryl think that his touch is unwelcome. Daryl lifts his eyes to Rick's face. "The truth. Not what you're tellin' everyone else."

Rick smiles, rubbing his free hand against the back of his neck as he curls forward and braces his elbow on the table as well. "I…was dreaming," he says, his eyes on the first aid kit. "And in my dream, Famine grabbed me. He has…very sharp fingers, they're like claws. And I dreamed he grabbed me and when I tried to get away, he hurt me. Then I woke up and saw the damage."

Daryl raises an eyebrow. "So, you did it to yourself," he murmurs. His hand flattens, fingers cupping the underside of Rick's bicep so that he can see the wounds more clearly. His other hand is still wrapped around Rick's forearm, thumb at his pulse, and Rick bites his lip.

He nods, feeling oddly ashamed. He feels like he should apologize, but he remains silent as Daryl pulls his touch away with another sigh and sifts through the first aid kid until he finds thin bandages and a safety pin. "We'll wrap it just to make sure nothin' gets in it," he says, starting at Rick's elbow. Rick lets go of his neck with his free hand and holds it there so that Daryl can wrap it. The scratches go to his shoulder so Daryl has to stand eventually, circling carefully around the small table until he's standing by Rick's shoulder and wrapping the bandage carefully around.

Rick closes his eyes, soaking in the warmth and the silence. The RV smells like old kitchen dinners and moisture, and Daryl himself stinks of the woods. They're earthy, living scents that serve to ground and focus him away from the pain in his shoulder and the turmoil in his chest. He tucks the end of the bandage under the part where it's wrapped around his bicep and Daryl fastens the top with the safety pin.

"I'll get you another shirt," Daryl says, taking his bloody one away.

Rick reaches out and catches him by the wrist. "Don't leave me," he whispers.

Daryl looks at him like he can't decide whether he would rather punch Rick or comfort him. "Are you fucking serious?" he mutters without much heat. "Why should I stay when you won't?"

"I had to go," Rick says, raising his eyes. He hopes Daryl can see how sad and sorry he is for that. "You know I had to. You know what I gotta do and – and I can't do it if I lose you, or if I put you in danger, or -." He swallows and squeezes his hand around Daryl's wrist. "You gotta believe me. War was…there. His dogs were…"

Rick stops, the words caught in his throat, and Daryl sighs and turns back just long enough to gently touch Rick's uninjured shoulder. "I'll be right back," he says. "I'll get you some food and clothes. I promise. I'll be right back."

Daryl waits until Rick loosens his hold on his wrist, and then he leaves the RV with Rick's bloodied shirt. Rick closes his eyes and tries to listen. There's the sounds of footprints in gravel outside, a soft laugh that he thinks might be Glenn from somewhere behind the RV. He hears Andrea talking to another woman, their muffled voices higher than the other sounds. It's not quiet out here, not in the way War's oppressive city had been.

He jumps when the door opens again and Daryl comes back inside with the backpack Rick took. He plops it on Rick's lap and fishes the rolled-up bag of chips from the side pocket. "Payment," he says with a smirk, and Rick grins back at him as Daryl unrolls the bag and starts to eat, and Rick roots around inside for his clean shirt and pulls it on over his head.

"How long have you guys been here?" he asks when they sit in silence for another moment.

Daryl shrugs one shoulder. "Day you left, Shane kept driving and we met up with these guys sometime in the afternoon," he mutters. "Merle was awake by then, they'd'a probably told us to hit the road if Shane hadn't been there. Guy's a real smooth talker."

"He was always better at making friends than I was," Rick says with an agreeing nod. "I doubt they'd have taken half as well to me."

"I like you better'n I like Shane," Daryl says, shrugging again. "How'd they find you? How'd they convince you to come back?"

Rick licks his lips, remembering how earnestly his soul had ached for Daryl while he'd been away. "The first night I was in Atlanta, the phone rang," he says, and Daryl raises an eyebrow. "At first I thought it was just…in my head. It was Glenn, and he said he'd seen me coming into the hotel and was trying all the rooms, and wanted me to join him and his group. I told him no, because I still had to find War. Then…" He drums his fingers in an anxious pattern on the table, thumb tapping twice to make a riff of six beats. "I kept hunting. I…I thought I kept seeing things, and feeling things. I felt like War was watching me, and I kept seeing his dogs, or hearing them."

"Sounds intense," Daryl murmurs, like he can't think of anything else to say.

Rick nods. "I tried calling again but the phones were out by the time I tried," he says. He doesn't talk about the tricks War played on him, the way the horseman twisted his emotions and his thoughts to bring him to his knees. He doesn't tell Daryl how quickly he felt his mind was leaving him. "And I was sitting and thinking about where to go next, when I heard gunshots." Daryl blinks at him, head tilted to one side. "I ran to help, and once I got inside I heard whistles. Your whistles. I thought…I thought it was you. I ran as fast as I could and I found Glenn, and Andrea and Jacqui and T-Dog. They were fighting a pack of walkers and I helped and I kept hearing the whistle and I thought you were trapped somewhere, or in danger, so I ran and I found Merle instead."

"Sorry to disappoint," Daryl says, his voice gaining an edge to it now. "Damn fool went off to Atlanta and wouldn't hear otherwise. Forced me to stay to look after your sorry-ass family."

Rick frowns. "Neither of you should have come to Atlanta," he says.

"What are you so afraid of, Rick?" Daryl asks. "You're…if what you're saying is true, you're literally Death. You can't die."

"I'm not afraid of dying."

"Then what?"

Rick's fingers curl and he looks down at them. There's still blood under his nails. He wonders how hard he'll have to scrub and pick to get rid of it all. "I'm not afraid of dying," he says quietly. "But I'm not the only one who could die, Daryl." Daryl huffs, and Rick sighs. "You don't understand."

"Not really, no," Daryl replies, finishing the sentence with a loud crunch as he eats another chip. He pulls the sides of the mostly-empty bag apart so that the front splits in a clean line. Rick shivers and tries not to think about swords. "But I'm trying to."

Rick licks his lips. "Lori…when we were in the house, before you and I left, Lori talked to me about…how I was. Between the coma and the asylum." Daryl looks at him, eyebrows raised. "And I know she was right. Sometimes I don't…see people." He looks up, meeting Daryl's eyes. His hair has been pushed to one side, sticky and stiff with mud and sweat, and Rick can see his face clearly. He can see the tension in Daryl's jaw and the slight squint when he looks at Rick, assessing and tense. "And I can't risk having people around me when I can't see them. If I can't see you, I can't protect you. I…" He looks down at his hands again and clenches his jaw. "I won't have your blood on my hands. Or theirs. I won't."

Daryl is silent for a moment, his eyes on Rick's face. Rick can feel his gaze there but can't force himself to lift his eyes. Daryl's silence feels like the weight of a mountain settled on his shoulders and Rick is no stronger than a mouse under it, silently crushed. He bites his lower lip and curls his fingers again and resists the urge to scratch at his wrists.

Finally, Daryl says quietly; "I always feel like you see me." Rick looks up, startled. Of all the things he expected Daryl to say, that wasn't one of them. Daryl's expression hasn't changed. It sounds like the words are being forced out of him, as though he's not sure what he means to say but is determined to say it and hope that Rick will understand.

Rick licks his lips and scratches the back of his neck. It stings when he does that. Daryl sighs through his nose and eats another chip, before he folds the halves of the bag back together and rolls it back up. He hands it to Rick, who takes it and shoves it back into the side pocket of his bag.

"Don't ever pull something like that again," Daryl says as he stands. Rick nods. "No." Daryl reaches out and grabs Rick's chin, forcing his head up, forcing Rick to meet Daryl's eyes. As they are, with Daryl's head so high above him, Rick feels small and unworthy. "Promise me," Daryl demands, his fingers digging hard into Rick's cheeks, into his jaw. "Say the words. You won't leave me again. No half-lies, no fancy words. Promise."

Rick reaches up and catches Daryl's hand, pulling it away from his face. Daryl doesn't resist, and lets Rick stand so that they're at the same height. Rick licks his lips and raises Daryl's hand, cupping it in both of his own, and nods.

"I promise," he says. Truthfully, he doesn't know if he has the strength to leave Daryl again. Next to him, in this quiet room and stagnant air, his soul feels content, a fox holed up in its burrow with its mate. "Where you go, I'll follow."

Daryl smiles, the expression warm. "Good," he says, gruffly, pulling his hand away from Rick's. "Now let's go back outside 'fore my brother makes an ass of himself or anything else interesting happens. It's about time for dinner, anyway."

Rick nods, grabbing his bag while Daryl grabs his crossbow, and they head outside.

 

 

 

The quarry extends farther than Rick originally thought. At some point it flooded, creating a large pool of crystal-clear water in the base of it, and it's huge. The wide-open spaces irritate him in a way he can't quite explain. He feels too exposed. There are trees all along the ridge of the lake and the walls that run up to where the RV and cars are parked. It helps a little, but not as much as he would like. He can't shake the vision of those bodies, wading into the water until it reached their eyes, and then consumed by the walkers emerging from the trees.

He's startled out of his thoughts when Daryl approaches. He knows it's Daryl coming and knows Daryl meant for him to hear. He turns his head and lifts a palm to squint against the fading sunlight, and smiles when Daryl walks forward so that he blocks out the sun and Rick can see him more clearly.

"Brought food," Daryl says, offering a bowl to him. It's a bright red and made of thick plastic, and steams gently as Rick takes it and cradles it above his knees. He gives a soft hum of thanks and smiles when the gravel shifts and Daryl sits down next to him. He's cross-legged and Rick lets his leg fall out so that it rests over one of Daryl's knees.

Rick takes a bite. It's a thick stew, with rice and meat he would guess is either rabbit or squirrel. "This is good," he says. "Who made it?"

"Lori," Daryl replies. "I'll say this about her; she can cook."

Rick nods. "That she can," he agrees, taking another bite. It's salty and delicious and feels warm right down to his stomach when he swallows. He hadn't realized how much he missed warm food until now. He wonders how long this will last, until the pool dries up or the walls fall or the trees stop providing protection and hiding. How long until they will have to move on. "What have they told the rest?" he asks around another mouthful. He turns the spoon so that the bowl of it matches the shape of his tongue, hand hanging on the end. Daryl looks at him and makes a questioning noise and Rick pulls the spoon out of his mouth. "About me. About my…problems."

Daryl huffs. "Hasn't really come up," he says, toying absently with the stew still left in his bowl. He lifts it up to lick a trickle of grease from the outside before letting it sit on his lap again. "They know Carl's your son, they know Shane and Lori are married, and they told 'em you went off on your own to Atlanta. That was a fun one."

"How so?"

"Well, trying to reason why we let you go, is all. Judgy people, these folk. Wouldn't dream of lettin' someone off on their own. Glenn and them went off the next morning and Merle went with 'em, jittery as he still was. Can't reckon why."

Rick hums. "I think I do," he says. After all, Merle had told him as much. "I think he was afraid that if he didn't go, you would. But if he went, you'd stay behind where it's safer, I guess. That's what I think, anyway."

Daryl snorts – it's an ugly, bitter sound. "Asshole," he says, but Rick thinks he might hear a small shred of affection in the word.

Rick huffs a laugh. "Well, if it weren't for him, I might have never found you again," he says. "So I have him to thank for that."

Daryl nods, once. "You didn't have to leave," he says quietly, with an edge too sharp to feel cutting in. Rick curls his fingers tightly around his bowl and forces himself not to look anywhere else but the bites of food remaining. The bowl is burning hot against his hands and is starting to hurt. "I know you say you had to, but you didn't have to. We could have gone with you."

Rick bites his lip. "But what if I stopped seeing you?" he asks. "What if I had a nightmare, and ran outside right into a pack of them, and one of you got killed 'cause of it? What if War had come for us?"

"What if, what if," Daryl growls, turning to glare at Rick, and jabs him forcefully in the side. Rick yelps and flinches away from Daryl, sending him a glare in return. "Fuck your what if's."

"It ain't that simple, Daryl."

"The Hell it ain't." Rick opens his mouth to protest again, but goes silent when Daryl fixes him with another glare. Daryl's anger feels cold, this time, like an ice hook under his ribs, piercing his heart. He's scared to breathe.

After a moment, Daryl subsides with another small sigh and takes a bite of his food. He tucks his knee under Rick's thigh and Rick relaxes slowly, like a skittish animal. "I'm sorry," Daryl says after a moment. "I hate…being mad at you. I don't want to be."

"When you're angry, I feel it," Rick replies. He doesn't want to sound like he's guilting Daryl into anything. Emotions are valid, no matter what they are. "It's like…pressure, on my lungs. I can't ignore it when you're angry." He snorts, shaking his head. "Lori hated that. My compulsion to fix things."

Daryl smirks. "You're startin' to sound like Miriam."

Rick hums in agreement, thinking back to the group therapist. He wonders if she made it to the undead point, or if she was eaten alive. "I never liked her," he says lightly. Daryl makes a curious sound, encouraging him on; "She always made me feel like I was dangerous. She was too afraid."

"Well, I mean, can ya blame her? She was like ninety pounds soaking wet and you killed three people."

"If she didn't feel comfortable around us, she shouldn't have applied there. Least of all for group therapy." Rick sighs, finishing off his stew and setting the bowl to one side. Daryl moves so that he silhouettes it around his own and holding both and takes another bite. Rick folds his hands together to avoid the urge to scratch at his wrist. "I met a woman, in Atlanta," he says. "She made me think of you."

"Oh?"

"She didn't remind me of you, or anything," Rick says. He sighs, looking down at his folded hands. "I killed her."

Daryl turns to look at him again, a mixture of what looks like disappointment and anger warring on his face. "You killed someone else?" he says, the words harsh and quiet. He even leans in, as though fearing being overheard. "Why?"

"She asked me to," Rick replies calmly, turning his head so that he can meet Daryl's eyes. With the way that Daryl is leaning in, they're so close. Rick can see the way Daryl's pupils change as they stare at each other, growing outward. "She was afraid, and was going to commit suicide, and I offered to do it for her. She was religious."

Daryl blinks at him, sitting up straight again and deflating with another huff. "And why did that make you think of me?"

"Because you wouldn't have let me," Rick says. "You'd have tried to get her to come with us, or something. Convinced her there was something worth living for."

Daryl hums, lifting a hand to his mouth to bite at a cuticle. "Maybe," he says. "But dead weight's dead weight. Ain't gonna drag some fool around if all they wanna do is die." Rick laughs, and Daryl turns back to look at him. "What's so funny?"

Rick shakes his head, unable to quite explain the elation running through him at Daryl's words. "I just…missed you, is all," he settles on after a moment. Daryl's cheeks turn pink and he goes back to chewing on his cuticles. "So," Rick adds, sensing Daryl's need to change the subject before it gets too intimate for either of them, "what do you make of this group? That Shane latched onto?"

Daryl looks over his shoulder, briefly, squinting against the sunset as he looks back towards the cars and RV. "Dale's cool," he says finally, turning back to join Rick in looking out to the water. "Older guy, obviously, but he knows his shit. Used to be some kinda doctor, so that's useful. Haven't talked to the blondes much but the older one's kind of a bitch. Jacqui and her husband and kids keep to themselves. T-Dog and Glenn are…good. I trust 'em."

"And everyone gets along well enough?" Rick asks.

Daryl nods, sending a look Rick's way out of the corner of his eye. "Why?"

"When I leave again, I need to make sure my family's safe. If you're not there to take care of them I need to know I can trust these people. And I trust your instincts. So, I needed to know."

Daryl nods again, chewing on his nail until it breaks off. He lowers his hand and spits the nail onto the grass to the other side of him, before pushing himself to his feet with a sigh. Rick follows suit, dusting his hands off on his jeans as he follows Daryl back towards the main part of the camp. There's a vague seating arrangement packed between three of the cars so that they flank the edges, the fourth section left open for a quick retreat. On the other side of the cars and the RV are the tents. From there, the hill slopes downwards towards the lake, and then into the trees. Rick can see strings of cans put up between the cars and around the tents and he smiles.

Almost the entire group is gathered in the circle, around a small campfire. Rick takes the bowls from Daryl and sets them to one side to wash when there's more daylight, and takes a seat next to Carl, who is sitting next to Lori. Daryl takes Rick's other side, their legs don't touch but Daryl presses his ankle against Rick's and it feels like an embrace. Rick smiles.

They sit in silence, hungrily eating the stew Lori made. Rick cocks his head to one side and listens to them chewing. Merle is across the fire, bent over his bowl in the way many prisoners adapt to, to guard their food and themselves. Merle lifts his head long enough for Rick to nod at him, before he snorts and goes back to eating.

After a moment, Lori clears her throat. "Rick," she says, and reaches across the corner of the campsite to lay a hand on his arm. When Rick looks at her, her eyes are so big and dark that for a moment he finds himself thinking of Death. "Did you manage to…do what you needed to?"

She's trying to be supportive, and worried, and trying desperately to make sure no one knows how crazy he really is. Rick lifts his arm so that she has to stop touching him, curling his arm and scratching the back of his neck. It still stings whenever he touches there. He thinks of the red cars and tries not to let himself panic.

"No," he replies. "I'll need to go back. Soon."

"…We have enough supplies to last us a while." It's the younger blonde woman. Rick doesn't remember getting her name. She's clutching a necklace tightly in her small fist. Behind her, the shadows move, and a cloaked figure brushes its bony fingers across her neck. Rick swallows. "Why do you need to go back there?"

"I need to find someone," Rick says. His eyes aren't on her face anymore, but behind her at head-height. He can't make out Death's face amongst the fire smoke but goosebumps have broken out all along his arms and he is fighting himself, telling himself not to shiver.

"Right," Glenn says, nodding. He's sitting next to Jacqui and her family, cross-legged on the floor where the rest of them are on repurposed bench seats, folding chairs, logs and large stones. He looks natural there, one with the Earth. Rick tries not to think about how long he might last before he sinks into it and never comes back up. "Who is it you're looking for, exactly?"

Rick feels Lori's and Shane's eyes on his face. Daryl doesn't look at him because Daryl doesn't fear the truth. Rick shivers and pulls his hands together, tucks them between his thighs, bites his lower lip. "My…" The shadow behind the young blonde moves, slides over to him. Can anyone else feel it? No one seems to be reacting. He hears a soft chuckle. "My…brother."

"Brother," Glenn repeats, eyebrow raised.

Rick nods. "Yeah. He's…he's in there. I know he is."

Shane and Lori deflate like popped balloons. Carl looks at him, frowning in confusion because he knows his father doesn't have a brother in Atlanta, but remains quiet. If there is anyone with suspicions, none of them voice it.

Then, T-Dog huffs a laugh. "Well, shit, man, if he's half as crazy as you are he's either dead or ruling the place."

Rick fights back a smile, and tries not to think about just how close to the truth T-Dog's words are.

"We'll help you," Glenn offers, nodding in agreement with T-Dog's words. "I mean…I couldn't imagine having a brother in there, not knowing what happened to him. I'll come with you when you go again."

Rick nods and offers a small smile in thanks. He tries not to think about how he'll have to explain murdering his 'brother' in cold blood once he finds the man. He digs his nails tightly into his wrists and scratches up until he hits the bandage on his arm. Daryl shoots him a warning, concerned look, and that's all they say until the group split off into their respective tents and Dale takes watch on the top of the RV.

T-Dog has his own tent, and Merle seems to have taken residence in the bed of his truck with a re-purposed collection of sheets and blankets strung up to protect him from the elements. Jacqui and her family sleep in the RV and the two blondes – sisters, Rick finally finds out, Andrea and Amy – go inside with them, although Rick doubts there's enough room in it to sleep all of them. Glenn takes watch with Dale but sits on the hood of his car instead, rifle loaded and sitting lax on his lap.

Shane, Lori and Carl go into the tent they had first crawled from, and for lack of anything else better Rick tucks his fingers into Daryl's shirt and follows as Daryl leads him towards what Daryl has managed to salvage for his own bedding, just behind Shane and Lori's tent. There are blankets and the laundry bags on the floor, it's not so much a tent as it is a slanted piece of tarp that extends from one wall of the quarry to the floor in a triangle shape.

They both stop outside the flap-like opening that an old shirt serves the purpose of, and Daryl shifts his weight and bites his lower lip.

Rick sighs and lets go of his shirt. "I'll stay up," he says.

Daryl looks at him, shifts his weight again. He seems jittery, like he's the one who has been coming down from a high and not his brother. "There's enough room inside for two," he replies, biting his lower lip again. He looks at Rick from under his hair. "Designed it that way."

"Oh?" Rick asks, and hopes that Daryl hears the tone of his voice and understands it to be relieved and not teasing.

Daryl nods. "I promised I wouldn't make you sleep away from me," he says, and Rick suddenly can't breathe with how hot and tight his lungs have become. He wants to pull Daryl into his space and keep him there until they melt together. "But if you wanna stay up, I get it."

"No," Rick says, and reaches out. His fingers catch in Daryl's shirt again and he feels like a wounded animal when he speaks; "No. I never want to be away from you again."

In the low light, Rick can just make out the way Daryl's cheeks bulge when he smiles, before he tilts his head to try and hide it. "In ya get, then," he huffs, gesturing for Rick to crawl inside. Rick goes to his hands and knees and pushes the shirt aside and crawls in. The inside is surprisingly spacious and he can see the weapons and clothes he left behind piled in a corner. He smiles when he sees it, knowing now that Daryl never truly intended to reject him, to keep him away. He moves to one side and ducks down so he doesn't disturb the tarp, flattening himself under the lower part of the triangle as Daryl slides in next to him. There's enough padding on the ground that the gravel doesn't dig and Rick gives a happy hum, rolling onto his side so that he's facing Daryl, with his head away from the entrance.

In Daryl's tent, it is completely dark and still. The only sounds coming from within is their breathing as it slowly starts to even out. It's a comfortable kind of silence, warm and damp like a tomb. Rick loves it. He sighs and closes his eyes.

"This is nice."

Daryl snorts. "If you say so."

"I mean…" Rick sighs again, curling his fingers into the laundry bag he's lying on. He moves his other arm to pillow his head. "Being…still. It's the good kind of quiet right now. I feel calm."

Daryl hums quietly in answer. He sounds tired. Rick smiles and curls up a little more tightly, happy in the warmth of the makeshift tent, when suddenly he hears a ragged-sounding breath. It's close, way too close for comfort if it's something dangerous, and he goes tense.

Daryl lets out a soft laugh. "Relax," he says. Rick hears the sound again, followed by a quiet, higher moan. "It's Shane and Lori."

Rick cocks his head to one side to listen. He's shared enough dorms with Shane to know what the man sounds like during his most intimate moments, and of course he knows what Lori sounds like during sex as well. Now that he's listening, and that he understands, he recognizes the sounds perfectly.

"Oh," he mutters.

"Does that bother you?" Daryl asks, his voice thick with amusement. "They go at it every fuckin' night, too. We can move the tent away in the mornin' if it bothers you."

"I don't care," Rick says, "but I hope Carl doesn't hear or see that."

Daryl huffs another laugh, and Rick hears him rolling onto his side so that they're facing each other. Rick resists the urge to reach out and map his face in the darkness, trace the bridge of his nose and the line of his lips. His fingers curl into his palms so that he doesn't try to test the give of his arms, or his legs, or feel the way his chest rises when they're pressed tightly together.

"You got fucked up priorities," Daryl says. Another soft groan breaks the next silence and he laughs again. "But they usually wait 'til Carl's asleep, I think. Gotta have some basic human decency, that's what Lori says anyway."

"You're in a good mood," Rick notes quietly, smiling. He feels Daryl's joy like water, coating his skin, slicking down his spine like a stream running down a mountainside.

"Maybe misery loves company," Daryl shoots back, rolling onto his back again. This time it's Rick's turn to laugh, and he follows suit and rolls onto his back, one hand pillowed behind his head. He thinks back to the hotel room he stayed in that one night in Atlanta, how vast and empty and cold the space next to him was. Despite the comfort, the warmth, the running water, he knows he would happily trade a thousand nights like that for one night such as this.

"Goodnight, Daryl," Rick murmurs.

"'Night, Rick."

Chapter Text

The next morning, the sound of another car wakes Rick up. He rolls over and finds that Daryl is no longer in the tent with him. Frowning, he checks the bandages around his arm and makes sure his wounds didn't break and bleed, and that he didn't do any additional damage to himself in the night. He finds nothing – even his neck and wrists feel better. His whole body is more relaxed than it's felt in a while, even sleeping on such unforgiving ground. He's sure he can blame his rest on Daryl's proximity, and the thought makes him smile as he shucks out of his dirty clothes and pulls new ones on, securing his jeans with his holster and gun belt. He leaves the dirty clothes in the corner where his feet were while he slept, and then crawls outside.

He spies Shane first and pushes himself to his feet, dusting off his thighs as he goes to join Shane in looking out. Down by the lake he can see Lori, Andrea and Amy, and Glenn sitting. They're looking out towards the entry to the quarry, aware of the noise.

On the RV, Dale is ready with his rifle. T-Dog is posted behind one of the cars. Only Shane stands out in the open, immediately visible.

"They trust you," Rick says quietly, with a nod of greeting. Shane jumps as though he'd been snuck up on. Rick smiles at him and tries to appear relaxed.

Shane bites his tongue and nods, squinting as he rubs a hand through his hair and walks out beyond the cars so that he'll be the first in line should the car keep driving, or someone start shooting. Rick walks on his right, shoulder to shoulder. He doesn't follow.

"Figure I look mean enough to warn off any bad blood," Shane says with a grin. He looks tired, like he didn't sleep well. Rick remembers staying awake for a little while, but he's pretty sure that Shane and Lori were still having sex when he fell asleep. Shane slings an arm around Rick's shoulders and pulls him in, gentle against Rick's injured shoulder. "And with two of us, no sonuvabitch will want trouble, huh brother?"

Rick laughs, letting his hand rest casually at his hip next to his gun as they come to a stop at the back of Glenn's red Challenger. Rick tries not to think about the last time an unidentified car was coming at him, how they'd blown the tires and the car had rolled into the grass verge. How one conscious survivor had crawled out and shot him straight through the torso.

He bites his lip and tries not to feel uneasy. The sun is rising and puts the car in a silhouette, blinding them. Rick and Shane raise their hands to shield their eyes as the car rolls to a stop a few yards away. The engine doesn't stop running but a door opens, revealing a hulking figure of a man.

The man cups his hands and shouts; "You guys friendly?"

Shane grins. "We are if you are," he says back.

The man nods, and then ducks down to kill the engine. From the other side two doors open, the passenger and the back door, and reveal a feminine shadow and a shorter one coming close to her side. The trio walk forward and, once the sun is high enough and doesn't sit directly behind them, Rick can make out their faces.

The short shadow is a little girl, younger than Carl, he would guess, with wispy blonde hair and big, glass-green eyes. The woman he guesses is her mother guides her with an arm around her shoulders. She's a woman with grey, short-cropped hair, deep smile lines and a furrow in her brow that looks permanent. The man is bald, thick with muscle and fat around the middle, and greets them with a grin. He's wearing a baseball cap that he takes off, wiping the sweat off his head with the back of his hand. Rick is reminded of Merle, suddenly – there's something very…addict-like about the way he moves. Something pent-up and angry. Rick's hand tightens on his hip until his knuckles turn white to resist the urge to reach for his gun.

"Glad to have found you guys," the man says, stepping forward and holding his hand out to shake. Shane shakes it but Rick can't bring himself to. The man, to his credit, doesn't seem to mind. "Name's Ed. This is my wife, Carol, our girl Sophia."

"I'm Shane," Shane says, then jerks his head towards Rick. "My friend Rick, we got a lot of others. It only you three? You come from a group?"

Ed shakes his head. "Nah, been flyin' solo since it started. Came from the North of ATL. Fuckin' insane."

"I bet," Shane says with a nod. "You got weapons? Food?"

"We have some," Carol says quietly, her smile small and pained. "Really we just need a place to rest for a while."

"Maybe a long while, if you and your group are amiable," Ed says with another small smile. He looks too friendly, Rick thinks. Too good at saying what he's saying. Rick bites his lip and shifts his weight and hopes his distrust doesn't show on his face.

"C'mon, put your car with ours, we'll get you squared away," Shane says with another nod, and Ed nods back at him and heads back to the car. Carol and Sophia stay behind. Rick looks up when he hears gravel crunching and spies Lori with Carl, and smiles.

He steps to one side as Lori and Carl approach and he sees Carol and Sophia relax a little. He moves away and allows the women and children to find comfort in each other. He finds Daryl sitting behind the RV, working on the fletching of his arrows, and comes to a stop next to him with a sigh.

"New guys?" Daryl asks, his words garbled as he bites at the end of an arrow, yanking it back to separate the iron tip from the wooden shaft. He takes the point and sets it in a pile by his thigh.

Rick wipes a hand over his face, leaning his shoulder against the RV, one foot cocked so his toe is against the ground. "Family," he says. "Father, mother, little girl 'bout Carl's age."

Daryl grunts. "What'd'ya make of 'em?"

Rick sighs again. "I don't know," he says quietly. "I don't know if I can trust my judgement anymore."

Daryl huffs a laugh. "That means you don't like 'em," he says.

"I don't like the father," Rick replies. "He seems like trouble. He's too…polite."

He sees Daryl stop and look up at him out of the corner of his eye. When Rick turns his head, Daryl's eyebrows are raised, his hair pushed back from his face. He's wearing a sleeveless blue shirt and dark denim, and his eyes almost glow in the shadow of the RV.

"You don't like a guy 'cause he's too polite?" he asks, voice thick with humor.

Rick snorts, grinning down at the ground. "It's the same kinda polite snitches are when they know they're caught," he says, crossing his arms over his chest. He sighs again and tilts his head back, staring up at the sky. "He's trouble. Or he's gonna be."

Daryl clears his throat, toying idly with the pile of arrowheads by his thigh. "You, ah, feelin' alright?" he asks. Rick looks down at him and Daryl tilts his head until it cracks before he relaxes with a sigh. He doesn't seem embarrassed, just uncomfortable. "You were talkin' in your sleep, is all."

Rick frowns. "I don't remember dreaming," he says, "but I can't imagine I said anything I wouldn't mind being heard."

Daryl shakes his head. "Nah, wasn't anything embarrassing. You just…seemed really scared. Was worried you were gonna bolt from the tent or something."

Rick frowns. "I've been having dreams about the horsemen, recently," he says. "I walk and I'm in a field, and they're all gathered around a fire and talking. Those are the ones that frighten me the most, I think."

Daryl hums. "I wish I could help."

"I don't know if I can be helped," Rick murmurs, kicking at a loose stone. "If I'm crazy, then it might never be satisfied. If I'm not crazy, then…then I just have to kill the horsemen." He laughs. "Should be simple enough, right?"

Daryl sighs, nodding. "When did you want to head out, by the way? Back to Atlanta?"

Rick looks down at the lake, huffing out another breath. "Dawn," he says with a nod. "We'll leave at dawn."

"Takin' anyone with us?" Daryl asks, and Rick smiles when he hears Daryl use the 'us', glad that he's no longer questioning if he's going with Rick.

Rick shrugs one shoulder. "Anyone who wants to come, I guess," he replies. "Glenn, probably. Not…Not Shane, though." He sucks in a deep breath and shakes his head. "I need to know that what I'm seeing is real and he…I can't stop thinking that he's War. I can't risk taking him into the city if War decides to play one of his tricks."

"Okay." Daryl pushes himself to his feet, arrowheads carefully gathered in a red handkerchief, the shafts of his arrows gripped loosely in his other hand. He reaches out and pushes his fist against Rick's chest and looks him in the eye. "Trust your gut. I'll be right with ya," he says, before he lets his hand drop. "I'm gonna go check the snares. Keep outta trouble, y'hear?"

Rick nods and smiles, before he watches Daryl go and disappear into the trees. He leaves the RV and grabs his dirty clothes from the tent before he goes down to the lake, figuring he can make himself useful and help with the laundry and dishes until Daryl comes back or he finds something else to occupy his time.

 

 

 

Night falls as night often does when followed by a long day: harshly, not so much seeping into darkness as plummeting across the sky to the horizon. The temperature drops dramatically and soon the group is huddled around their little campfire, eating another round of soup – this time a mass amalgamation of chicken noodle pilfered from the facility's kitchens. Rick can't help grinning whenever he catches Daryl's eye.

They talk more than they did the night before. Ed is a chatty character, his smiles saccharine and his questions and conversation interesting. Rick dislikes him intensely, although he has yet to figure out why. He can't help feeling like he's a wolf that's seen a coyote in his pack, trying to pass itself off as one of his own. He fights the urge to growl whenever he looks at the man.

When the conversation lulls and his bowl is empty, he sets it down by his foot and stretches his arms, wincing when his torn one stings and tugs at the bandages.

Ed notices, and nods to it. "One of them things get ya?" he asks, sympathetic, as though he doesn't know that any scratch or bite from a walker is a death sentence. Maybe he doesn't know. Maybe he's never had to find out.

Rick shakes his head and curls up on himself as the group turns their gazes on him. "Not a walker," he says. He folds his fingers together tightly to resist the urge to scratch at his wrists or the back of his neck. "I wouldn't stay if a walker got me."

"Why not?" It's Amy who asks, her eyes wide and reflecting the firelight brilliantly.

Rick bites his lip. "Any scratch, any bite from a walker will infect you," he says, looking down at the ground between his boots, then at the heart of the fire, then finding Daryl's face a few seats down from him, then back to the ground. "You'll…get a fever, if you don't die outright. Then you'll go. Then you'll come back, and be one'a them. Only way to put 'em down for good is a head wound."

"Jesus," Lori breathes, shooting Rick a meaningful look. "Let's talk about something a little more lighthearted, alright?"

Rick sighs, and sends her a small, tired smile. "Sorry," he says. Then, "Daryl and I are going to Atlanta tomorrow, for anyone who still wanted to help me look for my…brother. We'll be leaving at dawn."

"Cool," Glenn says around a mouthful of soup. He sees Merle shoot Daryl a look, but Daryl doesn't meet his gaze. Merle looks to Rick instead, something dark on his face before he ducks down and keeps eating.

"You're going…into the city?" Carol asks, toying with her spoon in a worried, jittery way. "Why on Earth -?"

"I'm looking for my brother," Rick says quietly. "I know he's in there. I have to find him."

"Alone?"

"I'm goin' with," Daryl says, licking a line of broth from his fingers, and Glenn, sitting next to him, nods as well. "We'll keep the group small, use the phones while they still work. We'll be alright."

"But surely -."

"Carol." Ed's voice is sharp, scolding. His face goes dark and Carol goes rigid for a brief moment. Then, Ed smiles. "I'm sure these guys know what they're doing. Don't go worryin' about that."

It's a moment so brief Rick might have thought he imagined it, but he's been inside of his own head enough to know what is real and what isn't, and he knows without a doubt that Ed is not someone that can be trusted. He's mean, and dark, and cold – and not the comforting cold of Death. This cold bites, whips around them like winter wind. Rick bares his teeth and then rubs his hand over his face to hide the expression.

"We should get some shut-eye," he says after a moment, pushing himself to his feet. "I can take a watch."

"No, you sleep," Shane says, standing also and dusting off his knees. "I'll watch with Dale and we'll swap out. You, and whoever's going to Atlanta need to sleep."

Rick nods, clambering over the group to get out of the one way from the campfire and heading towards his and Daryl's tent. He can hear Daryl following behind, and then heavier footsteps hurrying to catch up.

"Hey, lil bro! Wait up a second!"

Rick doesn't stop, although he desperately wants to look back and wait for Daryl. But he's sure that whatever Merle is about to say to him, Daryl would rather Rick not hear it. So he continues on and climbs into the tent and makes himself comfortable and waits.

He can hear Merle and Daryl talking, their voices murmured but fast. Agitated. Daryl's anger crawls along his skin like fire ants. He can feel it, and picks absently at his bandages to fight the urge to crawl back out and put himself between Daryl and his brother. He knows Daryl can handle himself, and he's had a lifetime of handling Merle, but something protective and hot sharpens its point and stings the insides of Rick's lungs so harshly, repeatedly like a scorpion barb.

Finally the shirt closing the tent is ripped to one side and Daryl slides in, anger and agitation sitting on his shoulders like heavy weights. Even in the darkness, in the silence, Rick can feel his emotions like physical things he can reach out and touch. He wants to pet them, soothe Daryl until his hackles lower and his growling stops.

"Good conversation?" he asks when Daryl lays down and his breathing starts to get even.

Daryl huffs, and Rick hears rustling as he lifts his hand and bites at his cuticles. "Could say that," he says. Then, he sighs. "Merle doesn't want me going with you, not without him, at least."

"He cares for you very deeply," Rick whispers. This conversation feels like one that should be whispered. "He's very protective of you."

"He's a damn nuisance is what he is," Daryl says. "I can take care of my damn self, thanks. Didn't seem to give a shit when he was shootin' up and landin' himself in the slammer. Don't give a fuck what he thinks. Or what he does."

Rick turns onto his side so that he can look in Daryl's direction, even though he can't see the man in the darkness. "Is he going to come with us, then?" he asks.

Daryl sighs. "Probably."

Rick frowns. "You sound agitated, still," he says.

Daryl makes a soft, embarrassed sound. "S'nothin'," he murmurs. Then there's another rustle as he turns onto his side. He sighs again and Rick can tell from the sound that he's turned to face away from Rick, hiding his face even though they can't see each other. "'Night, Rick."

Rick smiles, and reaches out to gently hook his fingers in the back of Daryl's shirt, before he lets go. "You too, Daryl. Sleep well."

 

 

 

Rick had been sure that sleeping next to Daryl would keep his dreams calm. Daryl's comments that he had, in fact, been having nightmares had proven that to be untrue. Still, Rick feels well-rested when he wakes up again. Daryl is still in the tent with him, the sun sliding in between the shirt and just visible through the tarps and blankets. It makes the whole tent look hazy, like Rick has just stepped into a movie theatre and his eyes are getting used to the graininess of the darkness.

Daryl is staring at the ceiling, his eyes half-lidded, body relaxed. Rick stretches and yawns so that Daryl knows he's awake and it garners the man's attention, and Daryl turns to look at him with a lopsided smile, blinking slowly.

"Mornin'," he says.

Rick smiles and stifles another yawn behind his hand. "Morning," he says. "How long you been awake?"

"About an hour," Daryl replies. "Been watching the sun come up."

"From inside the tent."

Daryl huffs a laugh, blowing some of his hair from his face, and then pushes himself upright. "It's past dawn," he informs Rick, grabbing a backpack from the corner of the tent near his feet. Rick grabs his own pack and checks that the food and pistols he'd pilfered before are still inside. He puts a different set of clothes in and fastens it closed as Daryl does the same. "We're runnin' behind."

"Wasn't planning on just a day trip anyway," Rick replies. "I don't intend to come back until War is dead."

"That sounds almost deep," Daryl mutters, shouldering his backpack and grabbing his crossbow. Rick can see, tucked into the side pocket, arrows wrapped in a tight bundle. Maybe he stayed up when Rick was asleep, making his arrows. Maybe that's what he was doing for the hour before. Or maybe he's lying, and he hasn't slept at all.

Rick follows Daryl as they crawl out of the tent. Rick can smell hot soup – more chicken noodle, probably – and he smiles when Carl scurries over to him and throws himself into a hug.

"Be safe," Carl says, with too much seriousness for a ten-year-old. Rick sighs and hugs him back just as tightly. He leans down to press a kiss to the top of Carl's head before letting him go.

"Don't worry, kid. I'll watch our for yer old man," Daryl says with a grin, before he heads off towards the campfire to grab some food. Rick, not hungry, goes towards the row of cars. Glenn and T-Dog are sitting on the trunk of Glenn's Challenger and they perk up when they see him.

"Been waitin' long?" Rick asks, putting his bag in the trunk when Glenn and T-Dog move off and open it.

Glenn shakes his head. "Just ate, been here like ten minutes maybe," he replies. "Daryl comin'?"

"Yeah," Rick says, and smiles. He gets to walk into the city of War with his friend, his disciple. He wonders if War will be watching, if he'll sense the iron in Rick's spine and the strength in his step with Daryl by his side. "He's grabbing food, I think, then we'll be good to go."

"We should take two cars," Glenn notes. "Not a lot of room in the back."

Rick eyes the Challenger critically. It's a two-door, and although he's sure the back seat is roomy enough, it's not practical to have a car where access to all of the seats isn't easy. It's the kind of car that would need the driver and passenger seat pulled forward to allow someone to climb in the back. Not good for a quick getaway at all.

Rick nods and licks his lips. "We can see if Merle will let us borrow his truck, or Shane his car."

"You can take the Jeep," comes a voice, and Rick turns around to see Jacqui rounding the back of the Jeep. She offers him a small smile. "It's got almost a full tank and lots of room for anything useful you might find while you're galivanting around there."

"Thank you," Rick says, nodding to her. She gives him a nod back and moves away. Daryl passes her and she hands him the keys to the Jeep, and he comes to a halt between Rick, Glenn and T-Dog. "We ready to go?"

"Yeah," Daryl says. "What're we takin'?"

"We packed the Challenger and Jacqui is giving us her Jeep," Glenn says, pushing himself off of his perch on the back of the car. "Says it's got the most gas and the most room, so we have plenty of space for Rick's brother and any supplies he might have."

Rick nods, pressing his lips together. "We'll follow you out?" he asks, and Glenn nods, and he and T-Dog pile into the Challenger. After a moment of hesitation, Rick goes to the passenger side of the Jeep and climbs in. Soon enough Daryl is in the driver's seat and they're following Glenn out of the quarry by the gravel road.

They sit in silence. The radio is off and the only sound is the rumble of the vehicles as they navigate the unsteady ground until they hit highway and pick up speed. Then, Rick sighs. "Did I have any more dreams last night?" he asks.

Daryl shakes his head, but his grip on the steering wheel is tight. "Not that I heard."

"Why are you lying to me?"

"If you don't remember, there's a reason," Daryl replies. Then he heaves a breath through his nose. "You were saying Shane's name a lot. You sounded…sad. Didn't take much to figure out what was happening. I think you were going to kill him, or just had. I don't know."

"Oh." Rick looks down at his hands, curling his fingers tightly to stop the urge to scratch at his forearms. He had never thought of something like skin and flesh with such intensity before, but he can't help but feeling that his skin feels too thick, too tight on his bones. He wants it gone. "Do you think Shane might'a heard me?"

Daryl shakes his head. "You were quiet," he says. Then he presses his lips together and makes another tired sound. "Could barely hear you."

"Okay." Rick lifts his head. "When I came back, I didn't sense War on Shane. But that doesn't mean anything. The city…messed me up. I -."

He swallows, the words stalling in his throat. Truthfully he's scared, so terrified by what War might make him say, or do, or trick him into seeing. He couldn't live with himself if Daryl got hurt – or if those two well-meaning, sweet men in front of them were caught in the crossfire of his own destiny.

"Rick, tell me," Daryl says after another moment. The city rises up like a mountain in front of them even though Rick knows they're still over an hour away. It feels like getting closer and closer to an unbearable heat, the more they drive.

"I had visions, in my coma," Rick says, looking back down at his hands. "I saw…certain things. Things that started to get stronger after I woke up and started meeting people. I've had visions…about a woman I've never met, but she dies and it hurts all of us very badly. I saw – I saw a vision of your brother, trapped on a rooftop. I had left him there, and I promised I would come back, but in all honesty I can't be sure if I really meant to or not. And there was a moment when they found me and Merle had Shane's cuffs and I thought 'I could do it', I could just tie him up and leave him there."

He can feel Daryl's eyes on him. He wants them back on the road – when Daryl looks at him Rick finds it hard to think. What had once grounded him so much is becoming shaky. Atlanta lumbers towards them like a charging beast.

"I didn't, of course," Rick says. "Not really. But I could have. And I feel like…I feel like I'm changing what should be happening. Sometimes I don't know what's going to happen but then I get to certain places and I feel like something is going to happen. I'm changing the future and it scares the shit outta me because if I don't see what's coming how can I protect you from it?"

"Look, Rick…" Daryl sighs, letting go of his white-knuckled grip on the wheel to run a hand through his hair. "This may come as a shock to ya, but us mortals don't get to see the future all the time anyway." Rick huffs a laugh and can't help but smile. "Just trust your gut. Trust mine. That's…what you said before, anyway, right? That's what you should do."

"My gut is telling me I might have to kill my best friend," Rick murmurs, sitting back with a sigh and closing his eyes. "Not on speaking terms right now."

Daryl is quiet for a moment. "Did you say goodbye to your family before we left?"

Rick shakes his head. "No."

"Why?"

"Did you say goodbye to Merle?"

"Yeah, I did," Daryl huffs, shifting his weight. "Fat lotta good that was worth. Stupid jackass still wanted me to stay behind, or him to come with." He snorts. "Kinda glad I didn't let him come now, anyway. If yer gonna be handcuffin' him to roofs and shit."

"Daryl, that's not funny," Rick says. "The things I see are scaring me."

"I know." Daryl reaches over and sighs, letting his hand rest on Rick's forearm. Rick does nothing to shrug the touch off. Daryl's hand is warm, the calluses scraping roughly over the sensitive skin of his arm. It's a soothing touch and Rick takes a deep breath to try and get himself to relax. "Get some sleep, Rick. I'll wake you when we're there."

"I don't want to sleep," Rick says.

"Then don't sleep," Daryl replies, and Rick can hear him rolling his eyes.

Rick smiles. "I missed you."

"Yeah, me too."

 

 

 

Despite not wanting to sleep or feeling tired in the slightest, Rick does manage a light doze before the Jeep rolls to a halt, and the lack of motion is enough to jar him to wakefulness. They're in a parking lot much like the one Glenn first led him to, and he climbs out of the car and walks over to the back of the Challenger as Glenn and T-Dog start pulling out their packs.

Rick shoulders his bag and sighs when the motion tugs on his injured arm. He needs to change the bandages and can't remember if they packed any spares, but he supposes that that can wait until they hole up for the night. The sun seems higher in the sky than it should.

"We get any crowd when we drove in?" he asks.

Glenn shakes his head. "Way was clear," he says, and grabs a pistol from the back of the car and tucks it into the back of his jeans.

Rick frowns. It's not like walkers to just ignore sound, especially one as loud as their particular vehicles. "They'll be coming," he says, and looks over to Daryl. "They'll know I'm here."

Daryl nods, pressing his lips together.

"Got any idea where to start?" Glenn asks. "Where your brother might be?"

Rick thinks for a moment, trying to remember what he can of his last trip into the city. In truth he hadn't discovered anything of note or anything that might him think he's going in the right direction. The only thing he can assume is that War will be in the heart of it, where the danger is.

"Where are we in relation to the Double Tree?" he asks.

"Couple blocks north," T-Dog supplies. "Road was blocked off, looked like some sorry sucker tried to make a sprint for it when it was quiet. Big wreck."

Rick makes a soft, sad sound. He wishes he could have been there to wish those souls onto their next life. The pistol on his thigh is almost empty but he still has the guns he took from the woman in the church and pilfered from the second apartment in his bag, and he has the knives and letter opener. He'd left the rifle and sniper with the group, figuring the long-range weapons will work better for a defense in their spot.

"I need a vantage point," Rick says after a moment. "I don't know the city that well."

"How about there?" Glenn asks, nodding towards the nearest tall building. It looks like it used to be an office building and from the half-way point up the walls are made entirely of windows. Some of them are cracked badly but still intact.

"Works for me," he says, and Daryl nods and falls into step behind him, just a step back, on his right. Glenn and T-Dog follow as Rick leads them towards the entrance of the building. There's a woman trapped in the revolving door and she hisses and reaches for them as they push through the doors meant for disabled people on the left-hand side.

Inside, the place looks like it was ransacked and then wrecked. The walls are spattered with blood and paper and pieces of flesh. The floor, which had once been white as best as Rick can tell, is a bright pink now.

He takes a step inside and freezes.

The air is cold.

"Rick, you okay?" Glenn asks, but his voice is as though through a thick piece of glass. Rick looks around, a chill running down his spine as he tries to find the source of the cold. He reaches out and touches Daryl's arm, grabbing his attention.

"Do you feel that?" he whispers urgently, and looks down to where his skin is covered in goosebumps. Daryl doesn't look cold in the slightest, and his eyes are wide and fixed on Rick's face as he shakes his head. "Death's here."

Daryl blinks, and then his eyes widen. Rick straightens when he hears the sound of horse hooves on concrete and whirls around, before he barges back outside, past the woman stuck in the revolving doors. He looks to his right, hearing the sound coming from that way, and runs after it.

"Rick!" Glenn hisses, loud enough to carry, and he can hear the three of them running after him.

He rounds a corner and skids to a stop when he sees a horse. He hears Daryl, Glenn and T-Dog running up and stopping behind him, but he can't make himself look away. The horse isn't red, isn't clad in armor with a rider on its back like he expected.

"Daryl," he says weakly, reaching out.

Daryl comes up until Rick can see him in his periphery, and he turns to look at the man. Daryl is staring ahead, he's seeing something. He just needs to know; "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

Daryl nods, and then licks his lips and lets out a short, sharp whistle. The horse's ears perk up and it lets out a soft whicker, raising its head from where it was nosing at a bag of trash over spilled from the dumpster. Rick feels like he could collapse, glad that he's not hallucinating – that whatever he's seeing, Daryl is as well.

The horse's tail flicks to one side and it walks towards them and Rick steps forward, smiling with relieved joy when the animals puts its muzzle into his hand and snorts. "Hey, troublemaker," he says. It's the same horse he rode into Atlanta, the one Death had rode with. It's the same horse – white and muddy, with the ugly makeshift harness attached to its head.

The horse rolls one eye and gives an unimpressed-sounding huff. "I know, I'm sorry," Rick murmurs, petting the animal's soft cheek. "I promised I'd take all this off you, didn't I?"

"What the fuck -?" It's T-Dog, and when Rick turns around to look at the man, he sees him and Glenn standing there with wide, disbelieving eyes.

"When I first left my family," he says, nodding at Daryl, "I found a horse abandoned in a field, and I rode him in because it was faster than going on foot."

"This crazy S.O.B.'s a real-life cowboy," T-Dog mutters, shaking his head.

Rick huffs a laugh and looks at Daryl. Daryl's eyes are on the animal, like he's seeing something that doesn't look quite right. "Daryl," Rick says, drawing his gaze, "will you help me with this?" Daryl nods and steps forward, unhooking the girth strap while Rick unfastens the harness around the animal's head until they can haul it all off. The horse shakes his mane out and swishes his tail back and forth before giving another snort. "Thank you."

The air doesn't feel as cold outside, standing in the sun as they are, and Rick can't help but smile when he realizes Death made him stop so that he could hear the horse and keep his promise to the animal. Death is keeping him honest, at the very least.

Rick pets down the horse's neck one more time and it snorts at him, butting its muzzle against his chest in something like a farewell, before it turns and trots off back down the street. Rick resists the urge to follow it – he doesn't want to lead War's dogs to it, or the walkers. If it was smart enough to keep itself alive this long, Rick has no doubt it will continue to do so.

"That was…weird," Glenn finally says, breaking the silence.

Daryl huffs a laugh, the corner of his mouth twitching up in one of his rare, amused smiles. "Gonna have to get used to weird, man," he says, and then walks past Glenn back towards the tall office building. "Come on. No rest for the wicked."

Rick smiles, and follows.

Chapter Text

It's so dark, and he's not alone. There are people here with him – his people. He can feel their energy brushing up against him like touch-starved dogs. Rick. Lead us to water. Get us out of here. Rick! He grits his teeth and hauls at the bars blocking the door one more time. His shoulder burns, his back aches. He feels like he's been beaten to within an inch of his life. There's blood in his mouth when he turns and spits it out onto the metal floor.

Metal floor.

"Where are we?" Rick growls. He doesn't remember getting here. He remembers panic, anger, blistering hot like summer sunshine and echoing through his bones. He remembers fear, and it lingers and stinks more than the blood and the scent of death that surrounds him.

Rick. Get us out of here.

"I'm trying."

He steps back and kicks at the door and it gives, suddenly. The sunlight streaks straight into his eyes, temporarily blinding him and leaving purple spots in his vision when he blinks and lifts his hand to shield his eyes. He staggers out and turns around but can't make out the shape of the container he was in, or what it was.

"Come out!" he yells.

He hears something. It's not horses, it's not dogs. It feels heavy on his ears, like the sound itself carries weight. A great, giant serpent slithering around him, ready to launch itself at his neck and coil tight around him until he suffocates. He reaches for his weapon but doesn’t feel it. There's sweat clinging to his neck and making his shirt stick to his spine. He feels like it he peels it off his skin will come with it.

He scratches at his wrist and looks around again. His people aren't coming out – maybe they know something he doesn't. Maybe they're smarter than he is. "Come out!" he yells again. The shadow in the open mouth of the container shifts, and Rick steps back as he realizes where he's heard the slithering, roaring sound before.

Famine.

"Get away from there!" he screams, and searches around desperately for a weapon. Famine is going to come for them and devour them all. Where is his family? Where is Daryl? "Daryl! Where are you? Get out!" Because he's sure Daryl was in the container with him. He must be. "Daryl!"

"Rick!"

It's Daryl's voice. Rick knows it's Daryl's voice. It's not coming from the container, though, and the roar is getting louder. Rick takes another step back and his shoulders hit a brick wall when he sees something slither in the darkness of the container. Then, a head emerges from the darkness. It's a horse's head, black as the shadows that birthed it, eyes yellow and face sunken. It could almost be a skeleton, and it's huge, easily towering over Rick as it takes one step out of the container.

He hears a whistle. It's high-pitched and long and doesn't stop. Rick turns and runs.

"Rick! Come back!"

Rick. Get us out of here.

He runs through a courtyard made of concrete, a building vaguely reminiscent of a factory rising up around him. The whistle doesn't stop, but seems to grow louder along with the roar. When Rick turns and looks back he sees that Famine's horse has completely surfaced from the darkness of the container. The horse's tail swishes back and forth but its shadow moves separately from it, as though there are two of them and Rick is standing in such a way that he can see both sides of the glass.

The horse is not bearing its rider.

Rick flinches to one side just as the silhouette of the factory wall reaches for him, clawed hands catching his arm and shredding through his shirt and bandages and bringing up new blood. It's the same arm he'd injured before and he hisses at the pain, clutching it in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding. He runs out into the sunlight, hoping that it will shield him from Famine's slithering, sneaking attacks.

He has no weapon but his bones feel cold and he knows Death is with him. This doesn't make sense, though – they must not be in Atlanta anymore. Atlanta is War's city, so why would Famine be here?

If only he could remember how he got here!

"Rick!"

Daryl's voice cuts into his head and he growls, putting his hands on either side of his face and shaking himself roughly. "It's not real," he says to himself. After all, even with all the imbalances in his brain, he has never had such a significant gap in his memory, and at a time where vigilance means survival, he knows he would have had to sustain some grave injury to forget being trapped in a container with Famine.

Famine reaches for him again and this time Rick can see his body, his wide dark eyes and gaping maw. He yells and flinches back and hits another wall, before he turns and runs.

"Rick!"

"Get away from me!"

He has no weapon, nothing to defend himself with. This is his destiny, maybe it's to die at the hands of Famine. Maybe he was never truly destined to win.

Rick turns a corner and slides to a halt, narrowly missing the shadow cast by another wall. He must stay in the sunlight. He can feel the heat of it on his face and his hands even through the chill in his bones. There's a glint of metal across another clearing. There are trees, and a high chain-linked fence. If he could climb it, he could get away.

He hears a frantic, high-pitched whinny and knows Famine has found his mount and intends to chase him down. He has to act quickly.

He is just about to bolt when he hears it – a whistle. Not the high-pitched, loud whistle. Although that's still there, piercing his brain like a well-placed knife, this whistle cuts through it. It's soft, and gentle, and Rick realizes abruptly that even though he's not holding his head anymore, he still feels pressure there as though someone is embracing him. The touch is warm, soothing, and gentle. He feels it on his cheeks, on his neck, and he hears the soft whistle again. Low, high, low.

"Daryl," he whispers. "Where are you?"

"Rick." The touch goes to his chest, up to his cheek again. Daryl sounds terrified. Rick has to find him. The shriek of the other whistle is right between his eyes and Rick feels like he's about to get hit by a train.

The train.

"Rick!"

Rick jerks awake, but doesn't yell and doesn't thrash. He feels cold to the core, drenched in sweat and shivering. He's in a hallway. There's a red carpet on the walls and he remembers making note of that because it was hiding the bloodstains terribly. Blood isn't the same red, and it's noticeable. He remembers seeing this hotel and thinking yes, this way when he, Daryl, Glenn and T-Dog had made it up to the roof. It had taken all day to get to this hotel and they'd decided to hole up for the night.

"Daryl," Rick whispers, and his voice is cracked and dry like he's been in a desert. He's thirsty, and hungry, and craves something so deeply that he thinks he might never be satisfied. It's Famine's touch, of that he has no doubt, playing tricks on his body.

He's kneeling in the middle of the hallway and when he opens his eyes he sees Daryl kneeling in front of him. There's blood on Daryl's shoulder and his arm and Rick's eyes widen when he sees the nail-marks there. He reaches out and runs his fingers through the shine there.

"I hurt you," he whispers, and lifts his eyes to meet Daryl's. Daryl's eyes are wide and the same gorgeous dark blue he has when he's scared shitless. There's blood under his nails. How did he do that?

He draws his hands away and shies back, until his back hits the wall and Daryl is a safe distance away from him. He runs his hands through his hair and feels like he's shaking apart atom by atom. Daryl sits back on his heels, pressing his lips together.

"Daryl -."

"What were you dreaming about, Rick?" Daryl asks, nothing in his voice to betray his pain or his fear. Rick can feel it, though, and it aches something inside of him that cuts deeper than his hunger or thirst. He licks his lips and thinks he might taste sawdust.

Rick shakes his head. "I hurt you," he says.

"No, you didn't," Daryl replies, and reaches out again and Rick has nowhere to run. And he still can't make himself resist Daryl's touch. Starved for it, desperate like a she-cat, Rick takes a deep breath and sighs when Daryl touches his injured arm gently. Rick looks down, surprised when he sees blood on his arm, too. He frowns and looks at Daryl, not understanding. "You…did it to yourself," Daryl says. "You were yelling, and running and I couldn't get to you and then you just hurt yourself and…"

He looks down at his arm and Rick's eyes widen when he realizes that the marks are the same. Three lines, from half-way up his forearm and curving around to just below the meat of his shoulder. "I…it happened to you too?" he asks, and Daryl licks his lips and nods. "I didn't hurt you?"

Daryl, at that, manages a small laugh. "Like I'd let ya," he says.

"Are you thirsty?" Rick asks. "Hungry?"

Daryl nods. "Starving."

"It's Famine," Rick says. "Famine's getting to us. He's here."

Daryl blinks and cocks his head to one side. "Like…here, here?" Rick shakes his head. "In the city then."

"We need to find Glenn and T-Dog," Rick says, pushing himself quickly to his feet. The abrupt action makes him lightheaded and he grabs onto Daryl's uninjured shoulder for balance, sucking a deep breath. His lungs feel like they've collapsed and his brain feels fuzzy. He hungers, and he's not sure what for, specifically. He's so thirsty. "We need to see if Famine's affecting them, too."

Daryl helps Rick back to the room and Rick sees that the door has been kicked down from the inside. "Is that…did I do that?" Rick asks quietly, and Daryl nods.

"Rick! Daryl! Holy shit, what happened to you guys?"

Glenn greets them at the door, his eyes wide. Rick doesn't see any blood on him or T-Dog either when the man comes into his view, and for that he is immensely relieved. This is his burden, and Daryl had known what he was signing up for when he volunteered to follow Rick's path. Glenn and T-Dog, however, did not, and don't need to suffer for it.

He opens his mouth, but can't think of anything to say. "He needs water," Daryl says, depositing Rick on one of the beds and then going to their supplies. Rick licks his lips and shudders, and closes his eyes. But as soon as he does he sees the black horse, moving around in the darkness, so he opens them again.

"I know where he is," Rick says, taking the bottle of water Daryl hands him. He unscrews it and takes three long pulls, and it isn't enough to sate his thirst but it will do for now. He closes the bottle and hands it back to Daryl, who takes three just as he did and sets the bottle to one side. When Rick lifts his head, he sees Glenn and T-Dog watching him with wary, scared expressions. "I know where we need to go."

"Uh…good," Glenn says, his eyes flashing to T-Dog, and then Daryl, as though hoping they'll volunteer more information. T-Dog, of course, looks just as confused and scared as Glenn does, and Daryl has a poker face that would put a statue to shame. "Where?"

Rick shakes his head. "It's too dangerous," he says. If Famine is coming for him, then he can't – he won't – have these men get caught in the crossfire. "You guys should…head back. To the quarry. It's too dangerous, I can't let you guys follow me in."

"The fuck, man?" T-Dog asks. "Look, I'm about as thrilled to be here as the next guy, but we promised you we'd help you get your brother out and I'm not backing outta that."

"He's right," Glenn says solemnly, his eyes dark and his expression set. Rick is reminded of the cops that spent a little too long undercover, until the filth clings to them like a second skin and there are some things, no matter how necessary, that will never wash out. He knows what that feels like intimately. "We signed up to help you and we're gonna see it through, but…" He bites his lip and looks towards the caved in door. "I think we need to talk about what the Hell's goin' on first."

Rick nods and licks his lips and tries not to think about how thirsty he still is. "We need to move," he says. "It's not safe here anymore."

Daryl nods and grabs the bags, handing his to Rick. None of them say anything about their injuries, or offer to clean up first. His pack must sense the energy on Rick's skin, buzzing behind his eyes. They will follow him, for now, and he focuses on getting them somewhere safe and not on how much different this would have all gone had they not met him first. If his family had reached them a little sooner and Rick had stayed in Atlanta a little longer. Would they have told Dale, Glenn and the others the truth? Would they know Rick is insane?

Should he tell them?

They break into a diner where the windows are tinted and unbroken and the inside, though dirty, looked relatively undisturbed. They find food that's long-since gone bad, no longer safely stored in the freezer (although one sniff in that direction had shown they'd find similarly rotten food). There is, however, an entire cabinet that's filled with boxes of peanuts. Next to it is a dead cooler of bottled sodas and water. The beverages are no longer cold but it hardly matters. Glenn grins, whispering "Jackpot" as they open and hand out a bottle of water to everyone and begin snacking down on the peanuts. Daryl finds another box of pretzels and small packets of chips. It's a feast fit for kings, or at least people who are hungry as they are.

As Rick eats, he gives a huff of satisfaction. His belly feels full, finally, for the first time in what must be days. On his own and in the facility, when Death was with him, he hadn't needed things like food or sleep to feel alive. Now he's ravenous, as though his body is forcing him to catch up on all the things he missed in a few short moments. He's sleep and lethargic and thirsty, and that's when Daryl shifts in place where he is, sitting close to Rick with one knee tucked under Rick's. He looks at Daryl and another long-unsatisfied need makes itself known to him.

Rick shifts his weight and clears his throat, his fingers crinkling the brightly-colored plastic wrappers in his hands. "Glenn, T-Dog," he says quietly, gaining their attention. Even between the two of them they haven't eaten as much as either Rick or Daryl have alone. "I believe I owe you some explanations. Before we go on. And I want you to know that if you decide to turn back, I won't blame ya."

"Probably gonna," Daryl huffs, and pulls his knee up for balance so that he can reach for another bag of pretzels that they'd collected into a big pile between the four of them. He rips the bag open and eats a pretzel, licking the salt up off his fingers and it takes all of Rick's willpower to tear his eyes away from the sight.

"Like I said, 's your choice," Rick repeats, and waits until Glenn and T-Dog nod before he continues. "Okay…so."

He bites his lip, thinking about where to even begin that will make him sound the least amount of crazy. He looks down at his hands and his wristband catches his eye. It's red now, from his own blood. He doesn't remember seeing red wristbands in the facility, and can't think what they might have been labelled as. Maybe no one got red. Maybe red meant dead.

Glenn must see him looking, because he makes a noise and nods at it. "You were in hospital?" he asks weakly.

Rick cocks his head to one side and nods. "I guess you would call it that," he says, before he runs a hand through his hair and sighs. "About eight months before…all this happened, I got shot in the line of duty. I was a cop, Shane's partner, don't know if he mentioned that. Anyway…" He sighs again. "I was in a coma for a couple months. And when I was in there I had these dreams. Really fucked-up shit, I'm telling ya now. And…this is what I dreamed about."

Glenn blinks, sitting up a little straighter. "You dreamed the apocalypse?" he asks lowly, his eyes wide. "The walkers?"

Rick nods. "When I woke up, I couldn't stop thinking that it was gonna happen. So Lori admitted me into this mental care facility in our county. That's where I was when the first resident turned. Wiped the place out in seconds."

He sees something ugly pass over Daryl's face, and thinks of James. Sweet James, with his brain no more useful than melted sugar on the floor. Rick smiles and it's a sad thing.

"Well, I mean." T-Dog laughs, and it sounds uncomfortable. "You were right."

Rick lifts his eyes and nods. "That's not everything," he says. "In my dreams…how much Revelations do you guys know?"

T-Dog hums. "Well, you know, the basics. Four horsemen, kingdom of Heaven comin' down, dead rising and Jesus everywhere or whatever."

Rick grins lopsidedly. T-Dog's cavalier description makes it sound almost manageable and not horrifying at all. "Well, when I was in my coma, Death came to me," he says, his words all a rush. He knows he only has a limited amount of time before the intrigue of the story is outweighed by how completely fucking crazy it is. Next to him, Daryl is silently still eating, the only sound the smack of his lips and the slurps as he drinks from his water bottle. He seems determined not to say anything until Rick's story is told. "He told me that if the four horsemen were killed, the apocalypse wouldn't happen. Or it would stop, I guess."

"Kill the four horsemen?" T-Dog asks, brow furrowing. Rick nods.

"Pestilence. Or Conquest, as he's sometimes known. And War, and Famine, and finally Death," Rick says with another nod. Daryl crunches up a plastic bag into his fist and throws it over his shoulder before grabbing another bag of pretzels. "If they all die, then the walkers will just…go. The world will be saved. Everything will go back to normal."

"Man," T-Dog mutters, looking at Daryl. "How can you be so chill about this?"

"Ain't the first time I've heard that story," Daryl replies, not lifting his eyes. He wipes the back of his hand across his mouth and huffs, sniffing loudly.

"And you believe him?" Glenn murmurs.

Daryl nods. "Not…not at first, I didn't," he says, and finally raises his head so that he can look Rick in the eye. His gaze ducks, like he can't hold Rick's attention for too long. Rick wonders if he feels the same needs Rick is – if the hunger, and the pain, and the thirst between them are to be shared, maybe the other things are as well. Rick licks his lips and resists the urge to pet through Daryl's hair. "But I saw the place turn. And it happened when Rick said it would happen. There's some shit I don't quite get, but I trust him, and I believe him."

"Were you a resident, too?" Glenn asks, his voice carefully neutral. Rick understands. If Daryl was marked as crazy, too, there's no reason for them to believe his story at all.

Daryl shakes his head. "Was one'a the staff," he says, and then digs into another bag of pretzels, effectively shutting himself off from the rest of the conversation. Rick gives a soft hum of thanks and then turns to look at Glenn and T-Dog on the other side of their haul.

T-Dog snorts and shakes his head. "Man, you some bona-fide crazy sonuvabitch cowboy and now I gotta add psychic in there too," he mutters, and takes his hat off for long enough to wipe the sweat from his head.

"These visions," Glenn says. "Have any more of them come true?"

Rick swallows. "Some have," he admits, and Daryl lifts his head to look at Rick. "But I've changed some, too. I get the feeling I started too early, but it's done now and I gotta deal with it."

"And you think finding your brother is gonna help?"

"I…"

And this is the moment that will cement Glenn and T-Dog's impressions of him. He lied, he knows he did – of course he did. His brother is in Barcelona, or Spain, or somewhere in Europe and most likely dead. He hasn't seen the man in almost a decade anyway, not since Carl was born.

"I don't have a brother in Atlanta," he says. "I know one of the horsemen is here, and I have to find and kill him before he finds me."

It's funny, he thinks, how synchronized people's shocked reactions are. Glenn and T-Dog both blink, and sit up a little straighter, and lean back as though Rick's confessions have physically pushed them. Glenn's hands flatten out on his knees and he sucks in a breath through his teeth, and holds it there, his head bobbing like he's nodding to himself. T-Dog shakes his head, folding his arms across his chest, and blows out a breath at the same time as Glenn does.

"So you're expecting a fight. Or something to happen."

"It's very dangerous," Rick says. "If he's as aware as I am, he will know what I'm there to do. It won't be a fight where we can call a truce or retreat. Like I said, I understand if you guys wanna leave."

Daryl clears his throat abruptly, drawing the other three's attention. "You know which it is?" he asks, sucking another piece of salt off his thumb. Rick swallows hard and tries not to think about how dry his mouth suddenly is. Then, lower, Daryl says, "Is it War?"

Rick shakes his head. "I think Famine's here," he replies, and then looks to Glenn and T-Dog, carefully gauging their reactions. "Famine's in Atlanta, and I think I know where we can find him."

 

 

 

It makes sense, Rick thinks to himself when he finally figures it out. Famine likes dark, and likes places where people don't go unless they have to. Famine thrives off of desperation and lust, the bullet-rip of desire, the fast-paced lack of thought behind man's primal needs and urges.

"You've gotta be kidding me," T-Dog says.

Rick nods, his hands resting on his hips as he looks up and out across the vast expanse of the city around them. The sun is just about to set again and the darkness is bringing a chill with it. His breath is misting in the orange air.

He turns around and smiles. Behind him two sets of train tracks stretch into the large dark holes of the underground metro system. Daryl, Glenn, and T-Dog stand a little way away. Daryl's expression is impassive, ready to dive in wherever Rick may lead, but T-Dog and Glenn look scared shitless.

"We'll draw out any walkers first," Rick says. Then, he takes his Python and fires a single shot into the hole on the right. The gunshot echoes repeatedly as he holsters the weapon again and the four of them wait in tense silence for the sound of hissing or growling from the undead.

"Daryl and I will go in alone," Rick says after a while, turning around to face Glenn and T-Dog. "Silent weapons only. Here." He hands Glenn and T-Dog his other pistols. "Fully loaded. You guys should go hole up in the building itself, or one of the train cars, and wait for us."

"Rick…" Glen shifts his weight and lifts his shoulders in a helpless gesture. "C'mon, man, you gotta take a gun."

"Loud, dark and narrow don't make good environments for gunshots," Rick replies with a smile.

"At least you probably won't miss!"

"Glenn." Rick reaches out and rests a hand on Glenn's shoulder, pushing until Glenn lowers them. "Your concern is appreciated, but unnecessary. I'm not afraid." After all, Death is on his right hand and Daryl is on his left. How could he possibly fail?

"At least take this," Glenn says, pulling his phone out from his pocket and handing it to Rick. "It has a flashlight and the battery life is decent. Try not to be in there too long."

"Thank you," Rick says, smiling, before he steps back and turns to face Daryl. Daryl manages a weak smile. "You ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Daryl replies, before he nods at Glenn and T-Dog and starts towards the darkness of the underground train tracks. Rick follows, jogging for a couple steps so that he can catch up. They fall into stride together naturally, like soldiers or long-time friends. As they get closer, Rick pulls out the long knives he had kept with him. Daryl has a longer blade, almost like a machete that Rick is sure he got from Dale, and his crossbow hangs loosely in his other hand, ready to be lifted and fired at a moment's notice.

"Daryl," Rick says quietly, as the darkness creeps down over the sky and the open, yawning mouth of the underground stretches up high above them. Daryl hums. "I'm really glad you're with me."

Daryl stops, mere feet from where the darkness of the outside melts into the darkness of the tunnel. Rick can just see the shine of his eyes from the yellowy lights illuminating the tracks and the sides of the tunnel, but he can't tell what color of blue they are.

Then, Daryl smiles. It's one of his secret, rare smiles – the ones he saves just for Rick. "Can't think of someone I'd rather die with more," he says in answer, and Rick grins and tries not to think about how close they're standing and how easy it would be to hold Daryl by the hair and kiss him. He can't tell if it's Famine's influence or his own, at this point – and would it really matter? The desire is there, he's sure of that much. Just because he resists acting on it or thinking about it too much doesn't mean it isn't there.

Rick turns back and takes out Glenn's phone, turning on the flashlight. It illuminates almost two feet in front of them and Rick presses his lips together as the two of them step inside. The tracks are wet, with rain or blood he can't be sure. He can't see any walkers or trace of them but figures there might not be much to draw them into a place such as this. Famine would have no effect on something already rabid with hunger.

They follow the tracks for about a half a mile, as best Rick can guess. That's when he hears it, and freezes. "Daryl," he whispers, and hates how even that quiet sound echoes and bounces off the walls as it travels down the tunnel. Daryl swims into view next to him, his silhouette black in the halo of white light from Glenn's phone. "Do you hear that?"

Can you hear it? Or is it in my head?

Daryl cocks his head to one side and listens. Rick can hear it, like it's growing louder now. It can't just be him. Just as he decides that, he sees Daryl slide into a ready stance and lift his crossbow. He raises the phone and hopes that the snarling and growling means it's walkers and nothing with ranged weapons.

The first shadow to lope into view gets an arrow in the eye, and then the horde is on them. Rick grits his teeth and does his best to keep the phone up so that Daryl can see and, more importantly, see what is a target and what isn't. He hears another arrow go flying but then all he can concentrate on is shoving his knife into as many skulls as he can before the walkers get a hold of either of them.

There are almost ten in total and, with a final sickening crack as Rick pushes the tenth to the crowd and smashes its head against the iron tracks, they are once again enveloped in darkness and silence. Rick moves the light until he can see Daryl and finds the man braced against the side of the tunnel, his face twisted in pain.

"Daryl!" Rick hisses urgently, climbing carefully over the tracks and bodies until he's by Daryl's side. He can't see any new blood or bites. "Daryl, are you hurt? What happened? You ain't bit, are ya?"

Daryl lifts his eyes, squinting against the light of the phone. "Ain't bit," he mutters, pushing himself upright. "Just winded is all. I'm fine." He shoves against Rick's chest to give himself some space and wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. "You good?"

Rick nods and Daryl nods back, before he looks down the tunnel. "What you think they were all doin' down here?" he asks.

"Famine knows I'm coming for him," Rick says. "I wouldn't put it past the sick bastard to try and get the walkers to take me out first."

Daryl laughs. "S'gonna take more'n ten," he says, sounding almost smug.

Rick smirks. "Don't give him any ideas," he replies, and then they both continue down the tunnel. There isn't any sound aside from their breathing but as Rick takes step after step, he feels like something is following behind. He turns and shines the phone behind him but sees nothing. Daryl stops, and even without looking at his face Rick can tell he's feeling uneasy. The opening to the tunnel has long disappeared and if Rick didn't know all they had to do was keep going forward, he would have thought they might be lost.

"I'm -."

"Don't say it," Rick says, and puts the light in front of them again. "Don't say anything. Don't think anything. Don't give him anything to play on you." He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, before he shuts off the flashlight on Glenn's phone and shoves it in his pocket.

"The fuck you doin'?" Daryl hisses. "Can't see shit without that."

"I know." Rick reaches out and gently brushes his fingers down Daryl's arm. He feels Daryl flinch instinctively before he realizes it's Rick and lets himself relax. Rick's fingers feel cold and the back of his neck has a grip on it like someone is holding him, guiding him forward like a dog held by the scruff. It must be Death, because that chill is unmistakable. He just has to trust.

"Hold onto me, Daryl," Rick says, and sidesteps so that when Daryl reaches out his fingers find the hem of Rick's shirt. He feels Daryl's fingers gripping tight and smiles, thinking of the facility, how their positions could have gotten so reversed. "Good. Keep a hold on me."

"Rick…" Daryl's voice has taken on that young, scared quality that Rick has only heard a few times before. It tugs at something in him and he wonders, briefly, if Famine has learned to fake voices as well.

He reaches out and wraps a hand around Daryl's fingers and grips the knot of fabric and flesh tightly. This he can trust. They can fool his sense of sight, his hearing. The horsemen can pierce his heart and turn his bones to dust and play on every fear, hidden or otherwise, he has kept a hold of. But they can't fake Daryl, and they can't fake the contented thrum of Rick's soul whenever he feels the other man near.

"No matter what you hear, or think you're hearin'," Rick says, "if we both hear it, it's real." He sucks in a sharp breath when he feels Daryl step closer to him, and the man leans his head over so that his forehead rests on Rick's shoulder. Rick feels him nod and he squeezes Daryl's fingers in reply.

"C'mon," Daryl whispers. "Let's fry this son of a bitch and get the Hell outta here."

Rick smiles, and starts walking. "That sounds like a damn good plan."

Chapter Text

They walk for what feels like hours. Step by careful step, Rick leads Daryl through the dark train tunnel until it abruptly curves. Rick only realizes they're turning because he follows the train tracks, his foot hits the metal edge instead of landing on the slats below. He stops and hums, before he lets go of Daryl's hand and reaches for Glenn's phone.

The light from it illuminates a junction. "Left or right," he murmurs, looking down each corridor. This is what he had feared – if they make a wrong turn they could really start to get lost. Granted, it's still a metro in a city, and there will be maps and exits to the street somewhere, but there's no telling how long they've been in here, and no telling where they might emerge or what dangers they might find if they wander too deep.

Daryl lets go of Rick's shirt and steps forward so that Rick can see his silhouette on his right. His eyes are narrowed, peering between the two tunnels like something in the darkness might give the correct direction away.

He takes a deep breath and lets it out in a sigh. "Well, fuck," he mutters. Then he turns to Rick. "Any ideas?"

Rick bites his lower lip and lowers the phone, turning off the light as he tries to think. He feels Daryl's hand reach out and gently curl around his wrist, the both of them reassuring each other that the darkness hasn't swallowed them whole.

The air is unreasonably cold and Rick still feels the heavy weight on the back of his neck that he knows is Death's touch. He wants to ask for help, but isn't sure Death would answer him if he did. Besides, he's not sure Daryl is ready to witness Death in all his glory quite yet.

There must be something, though. Some clue in the Biblical lore or something in his head that will tell him what to do. He shifts his weight and scratches at his wrist, hissing when the movement jars his twice-injured arm.

"You alright?" Daryl asks, his voice young and soft.

Rick freezes, looking down at his hands. He's still holding Glenn's phone and is using the edge of it to rub against the inside of his arm. There's blood on his hand and he feels the tackiness of it against the surface of the device.

"My arm was injured," he says.

Daryl makes an uneasy noise. "Yeah," he replies.

"My left arm."

Rick remembers Famine always standing on his left. Around the fire, that's where Famine had stood. Famine on his left, War on his right, Pestilence straight again. He nods to himself and presses his lips together. He thinks the cold grip on his neck squeezes in something like a reward.

"This way," he says, and then pockets Glenn's phone and heads down the left tunnel. Daryl follows without protest, although Rick is sure he's burning to know why Rick had decided that way. But he follows silently as they both carefully pick their way down the track.

Rick counts his steps and just before he reaches three hundred he stops again. "Daryl," he whispers, and takes a deep breath. "Do you smell that?"

"Piss and mold? Yeah," Daryl replies gruffly.

"Not that," Rick says. "It smells like…meat."

He can feel Daryl's eyes on him, before he hears the other man take a deep breath. By the time he's exhaling, Rick is sure that's what he's smelling. His stomach clenches up and rumbles and he's struck suddenly by how hungry he is. With how much he ate he's sure it must be Famine affecting him again – or maybe they've been in here all night. Time moves however it wishes to in the darkness.

"Fuck," Daryl murmurs. "Yeah. I do smell it."

"We're going in the right direction," Rick says with a triumphant grin. He starts walking again and hears Daryl hurry to keep pace. "We'll find him down here. I'm sure."

"Or we'll just find people," Daryl replies.

"Either way, it's a win," Rick says. He knows he will know Famine when he sees him. There's no way he wouldn't be able to tell. He'll see Famine's gaping maw, or feel his hunger, or look him in the eyes and recognize them over the light of the fire. He'll know. He's walking faster now, tripping over the train tracks. The tunnel twists and turns and then finally he sees light. "There!"

Daryl's fist tightens and tugs on his shirt and pulls Rick up short, forcing him to a halt. "Rick," he says tightly, urgently. "We can't just go barrelin' in, alright? You got a plan?"

Rick pauses, biting his lower lip as he thinks. Somehow he doesn't think "Go in and waste the son of a bitch" is going to be a satisfying answer for Daryl. He makes an impatient, irritated noise and shakes his head. "No," he mutters. "I don't have a plan. Do you?"

"Got an idea," Daryl mutters. "You gotta follow my lead, okay?"

Rick nods and takes a step back, placing Daryl in the forefront on the tracks. He loops a finger in one of Daryl's jeans belt loop and squeezes it tightly. "I trust you," he says.

Daryl nods. "Good," he says, and shoulders his crossbow so that it sits non-threateningly across his back. "We need a codeword. Something that means we need to get the fuck out. Or start shootin'."

Rick smiles. "You'n'Merle were the one with all those signals and shit," he says. "You didn't have a word for a bar brawl situation?"

Daryl snorts. "Yeah, we did. Merle's idea," he says. He clears his throat and mutters it; "Lola."

"Lola?" Rick repeats, eyebrows raising.

"Yeah, like Amicalola Falls," Daryl says with a nod. "We went camping up there one time and the whole trip was a pile'a shit. Idiot got poison oak, almost lost his hand in a bear trap, our daddy was piss drunk the whole time. He said women and waterfalls named Lola were bitches to be avoided at all cost."

Rick lets out a soft laugh. "Well, I guess it'll work," he says. "It's short, at least."

Daryl smirks. "Alright, let's go kill ourselves a horseman," he says, and then turns and starts to walk towards the light. It's a soft, amber glow that reminds Rick of the facility at night when the emergency lights would go on. He supposes that makes sense, given that they're walking through little more than a glorified service tunnel. It's not supposed to be a scenic route.

As they approach the tunnel opens and reveals the beginning of the platform. The walls are reddish and dirty. There's a single walker on the tracks, clawing futilely at the edge of the platform, intent on hunting down whatever food it was seeing over the lip.

Daryl and Rick walk up quickly and Rick ends it with a knife to the back of its skull. The walker gives one final gurgling hiss, its white eyes rolling up in its head, before he slumps to the ground and they're enveloped in silence again. Looking over the lip onto the platform, Rick can't immediately see any signs of life.

His mouth twists. "I feel like I'm about to change the future," he says.

"Hello?"

It's not Daryl that speaks, and immediately he and Rick duck down to peer over the edge of the platform. Daryl nudges Rick and jerks his head so that they creep towards one of the brick columns, putting themselves at a greater place to hide. The platform extends two ways, there's light coming from the hallway to the right and darkness to the left. As they watch the light flickers and moves closer as though someone is carrying a lantern or fire.

"Gareth? Is that you?"

The light becomes shaped, a yellowy glimmer against the darkness that's a little brighter than the emergency lights, and Rick sees a young man and woman shuffle out of the hallway. They're dirt-streaked and shiny with sweat, and are wearing multiple layers of clothes in various stages of dishevelment, like when sleeping in a bed and too lazy to recover all of the sheets and blankets, but just cold enough to grab what you can.

Daryl makes a low humming noise and Rick turns his head to look at him. Daryl jerks his head up towards the couple and Rick moves away from the pillar just a little to get a better look at them. He would guess they were brother and sister – they have the same sharp features and dark hair, but he honestly can't be sure. One thing he is sure of, however, is that neither of them is Famine. Which means he must venture farther in.

They walk over to the edge of the platform and the woman lifts her lantern, her eyes widening when she sees the fallen walker. "Someone was here," she says, urgently tapping on the man's arm.

The man nods, eyes narrowed as he looks down the tracks in the direction Rick and Daryl had come. Rick knows as soon as he turns they'll be spotted, so he makes a gut decision and hopes that neither of them are shoot-first kinds of people.

He lifts his arms above his head and steps out into the light. "Sorry, sorry!" he says, wincing when the woman gives a shriek that echoes all down the walls. The man has a knife that he grabs and brandishes towards Rick but neither of them seem to have guns. "Didn't mean to drop in on ya like this." He puts on his best charming cop voice, the voice he'd use to console the widows and victims while Shane did all the heavy lifting in terms of getting the criminals in the cars. He lowers his hands and tries to look as non-threatening as possible.

"You killed it?" the woman asks, nodding at the walker.

Rick nods. "Came at me and my friend here," he says, gesturing back to Daryl, who slinks from the pillar like an antsy housecat when greeted with strangers at the door. "There were a few more in the tunnel we took care of. Figured it would be safer in a spot like this, underground."

"It is," the woman says quietly, lowering her lantern. "Just the two of you?" she asks. The way she's looking them up and down is appraising and pointed, and Rick immediately knows better than to underestimate her.

Rick nods. "We had more," he says. "Lost 'em. S'just me and Daryl now. Name's Rick." He's by the platform lip now and offers his hand to shake.

The woman smiles at him and offers him a nod in return, but doesn't take his hand. Rick lets it drop and puts it on his hip instead and returns her smile. "Mary," she says, putting her free hand against her chest. "This is my son, Alex."

"Who's Gareth?" Daryl asks, finally stepping out into the light.

Mary's eyes flash. "My other son," she says. "He went out a while ago and hasn't been back. You didn't…see him, on your way in, did you?"

Rick shakes his head. "I'm sorry, no," he replies. He heaves a sigh and runs a hand through his hair. "Look, we don't wanna bother you. This place looks pretty safe, if Daryl and I could just sleep on the platform, we don't make any trouble."

Mary shakes her head. "No," she says sternly. "You shouldn't stay here."

"Mom," Alex says quietly, and gives her a meaningful look. "Come on. Gareth wouldn't turn them away." He gives them another look and sighs. "They're injured."

Mary presses her lips together, her fingers clenching up around the handle of the lantern, before she turns back to face Rick and Daryl. "You will stay on the platform," she says. "Until Gareth gets back, at least."

"Yes ma'am," Rick replies with a grateful smile. "Thank you."

Mary huffs and turns away, gesturing for Alex to follow, and they both go back down the hallway. Rick has no doubt that there are weapons and food stores down there, and the smell of cooking meat is enticing enough for him to want to try sneaking behind them, but he resists the urge. He turns to Daryl and smiles. "That went well."

"Dunno what that was meant to accomplish," Daryl mutters, unshouldering his crossbow and setting it on the platform before he takes a small running start and leaps for the edge. His shoulders and arms bulge with the effort and Rick winces at the pained grunt he lets out when his injured arm takes his weight, but he manages to get a knee up on the side and haul himself to his hands and knees onto the platform. He turns around and sits, legs slung over the side, and smirks down at Rick. "Whatcha doin' down there, Officer Friendly?"

His voice is teasing and playful, and happier than he's sounded in a while. Rick shrugs his shoulders and smiles up at him. "Maybe I like it down here," he says. He and Daryl both know he doesn't have the muscle mass or the strength to haul himself up like Daryl did. Not yet, at least.

"Yeah, bet sloppy Joe over there talks about as much as I do," Daryl says with a nod towards the fallen walker, and the joke startles a laugh out of Rick. Despite Daryl's grumpy comment from before he does seem to be in a genuinely good mood. Daryl when he's happy is wonderful. Rick feels like he's just stepped out into the warmth of the sun.

Rick bites his lower lip and sighs. "C'mon, help me up," he says, and holds out his uninjured arm. Daryl clamps his hand around Rick's forearm and pushes himself up into a crouch, and together they manage to lift Rick high enough that he can swing a leg up onto the platform and roll up onto it. They move away from the edge and sit down with their backs to the wall between the two tunnels.

Daryl is looking down the lit hallway. There's a door at the end where they can see Mary's lantern light that glows just a little more harshly and strongly than the rest of it. "They've got heat," Daryl murmurs, before he turns back to look at Rick. "Probably electricity, or at least some way to cook shit that ain't a fire. They have meat, which means they have a place to store it."

"It's Famine," Rick says.

"They don't seem to be starvin'," Daryl replies. "Not like we are. Food's gonna run out at the quarry. Only so much huntin' I can do 'fore the animals catch wise. Or winter hits, whichever comes first."

"I'll think of something."

"That's not what I'm trying to say." Rick looks at him and Daryl makes an impatient noise, pulling one leg up so that he can rest his elbow on his knee and scratch at the side of his face. It looks like Daryl is trying to get the courage up to say something – a fight that he apparently loses, as he sighs heavily and shakes his head. "Forget about it."

"Daryl." Rick reaches out and rests a hand on Daryl's thigh, squeezing gently. "I want to know what you're thinking."

"No you don't," Daryl replies, but he doesn't move away from Rick's touch. Before Rick can reply they hear footsteps coming and abruptly pull apart, scrambling to their feet as Mary and Alex come back down the hallway. The scent of meat is overwhelming and Rick feels his mouth watering and hunger punching him square in the gut as they approach.

Alex is carrying a woolen blanket and hands it to them with a smile. "Here," he says. "You guys look in pretty shit shape, thought you could use it 'til Gareth gets here."

"Thank you," Rick says, taking it with a smile.

"We brought you some food," Mary offers, holding out a small tray with two small servings of what looks like pork. Rick swallows hard so that he doesn't start drooling, and wonders how something as simple as pork could have ever smelled so damn good. Daryl takes the tray with a nod and a grunt of thanks. "Go ahead and eat up. We have plenty. Gareth will be back soon, I'm sure."

"You're welcome to stay out here with us," Rick says. "That way you'll know straight away when your son comes back and he won't see us as the first thing. Might spook him a little."

Mary smiles and it feels like she's giving Rick some kind of reward. "That's a good idea. Alex, why don't you keep our guests company and I'll go get some more blankets for us to sit on. This floor is filthy."

Daryl raises an eyebrow, but if he has any opinions on Mary's limits in regards to cleanliness, he doesn't voice them. He turns and sits back down with his back against the wall, balancing the meat on his knees. Rick takes the blanket and sits down next to Daryl, throwing it over both of their laps. It's threadbare and smells vaguely of dust and old carrots but it traps the heat and he feels himself start to get warm under it.

Alex sits down across from them, cross-legged and resting his elbows on his thighs, hands folded together, leaning forward like an eager child awaiting their bedtime story. He's smiling and seems friendly enough, but there's something just a little off about him.

Rick sighs and shakes his head. Paranoid.

"So, were you guys in Atlanta when it started?" Alex asks. If Rick were to guess he'd put Alex right between his and Daryl's age, maybe twenty-six or twenty-seven. His hair is curly and dark, his eyes an olive green-brown, his skin tan. Clearly he's used to being outside. Living in this place must be killing him.

Rick shakes his head. "We came from King County," he replies.

Alex gives a low whistle. "Damn, you were that far out and you came into the city? What for?"

"My brother lives here," Daryl says, jumping in before Rick can reply. "I came in lookin' for him, met Rick on the road."

"Did you manage to find your brother?" Alex asks, sounding intrigued.

Daryl snorts. "Dead," he mutters, and Rick blinks as it clicks in his head what Daryl is doing. No one is coming for them. No one is going to look if they go missing. That's the angle they're playing here. "Walker chow long 'fore I got to him, if his remains were any sign."

"I'm so sorry," Alex says, and his pity and sorrow sound genuine. "I couldn't imagine what I'd do if something happened to my mom or my brother. They're my everything." His gaze shifts to Rick, and then he sighs when Rick volunteers no information about his family. Alex pulls his knees up and lets them fall back down, before he nods at the tray in Daryl's lap. "Eat! I'll go check on mom."

Rick and Daryl watch him go, before Daryl looks down at the tray. "We shouldn't eat this," he says quietly.

Rick frowns. "Why not?"

"What meat do you think this is, Rick?"

Rick shrugs. "Pork? Kinda looks like beef. Smells like pork though."

Daryl snorts, smirking, and then he shakes his head. "I've hunted, skinned and cooked just about everything you can eat on this planet," he says, pushing himself to his feet and carrying the tray over to the edge of the platform. Rick watches with wide eyes as he tips it over and he watches as the meat falls into the darkness.

"Daryl," he breathes, as Daryl comes back with the empty tray. He runs his fingers through the grease and smears it down his hand and across his mouth before gesturing for Rick to do the same so it looks like they ate it. Rick follows suit, rubbing the juice across his mouth and jaw so it looks like he ate it quickly and sloppily, and tries not to think about how fucking delicious it smells and how strong the temptation is to lick his fingers clean.

"It was probably drugged, anyway," Daryl whispers as Mary and Alex reappear down the hallway. Mary's lantern puts the pair in a silhouette until they get close enough and Rick winces, looking up when Mary doesn't lower the light and comes to a stop a few feet away from them.

"Gareth's here," she says. "He wants you to come in."

Rick blinks, and pushes himself to his feet with Daryl. He starts forward, his shoulders tensing when Mary lifts a hand to stop Daryl from following.

"Just Rick," Mary says with a smile. "You have to wait here. We'll be right back."

She puts the same hand on Rick's shoulder. It's meant to be a motherly touch to direct a child the right way when out in the street, but to Rick it feels like meat hooks slicing into his skin. He feels cold to the core and isn't sure if it's because Death is with him, or if it's purely fear and anxiety that's making him shiver.

Daryl is looking at him, waiting for his signal, waiting for him to tell Daryl to start shooting. Rick bites his lip and nods to himself. This might be the only way to get to Famine. He has to get to the inside of the group, figure out who lives here, figure out where the horseman is hiding. And if that means going in alone, then so be it.

"We'll be right back," he tells Daryl with another meaningful nod, and Daryl lifts his chin, shifts his weight, and nods back.

"Don't be too long," Daryl mutters. "S'creepy as Hell down here."

"Oh, I'm sure Alex wouldn't mind keeping you company," Mary says with a kind smile, nodding to her son. Alex pushes himself away from between Mary and the wall and goes to stand by Daryl. Rick remembers the knife he was holding and prays that all of Daryl's instincts, reflexes, and his strength doesn't fail him now.

He resists the urge to whistle in case they think it's a signal for something more aggressive than I love you, and he turns to smile at Mary.

"Shall we?" he asks, and she nods and drops her hand from his shoulder. Rick starts down the corridor and lets Mary shadow him like a wraith, one step behind and on his left. Where Famine might lurk. The sound of her boots along the floor are like hooves on concrete.

The hallway turns and opens into a second large room. There are escalators heading up in a set of two, but Rick doesn't see any light from above. It looks like the wall itself was caved in, either by design or by a happy coincidence. However it was sealed, Rick is sure that the train station is a fortress.

Mary gestures for him to turn away from the escalators and down towards the back wall where there's another hallway that extends in the opposite direction. Rick can see more lights down that way and he walks down the hallway and comes to a third room. This one is smaller and looks like a half-finished lounge area, or a place where it might have been a direct connection to the airport. The emergency lights here are a different color – a neon-ish blue instead of the yellowy light. Rick is reminded of hospitals.

There's a table in the room and a man sitting at it, facing away from them. Rick can see a large grill in the corner, still smoking with what Daryl had claimed was not any meat that had come from an animal. Now that he knows, the scent is almost sickening, and he does his best to ignore it.

"Gareth," Mary calls, and the man lifts his head. "We have a guest."

The man – Gareth, Rick now realizes – gets to his feet and turns around so that Rick can see his face. Or rather, he should be seeing his face. His eyes are human, the same olive-brown as his brother. His hair is lank and a dark brown, hanging across his forehead. But his mouth, his jaw.

Rick blinks and the illusion fades, revealing human skin, a human face. Rick shudders and presses his lips together, fingers clenching tightly, and tries to make himself appear friendly and as non-threatening as possible. He needs to get Gareth close to him so that he can make it swift. Mary walks around to stand by her son and Rick can't shake the sound of her boots hitting the floor. He knows what a horse sounds like and the sound matches exactly.

Gareth grins at him and Rick thinks he can hear that low roar, the vacuum of Famine's insatiable hunger aching to consume everything it touches. "Hey there!" he greets amiably, walking around his chair and holding a hand out for Rick to shake. "Name's Gareth. My mom says you and your friend came up on us by the tracks, right?"

Rick nods and shakes Gareth's hand. The man digs his nails into Rick's wrist when they let their hold fall apart.

"Yeah, we should really seal that tunnel," Gareth mutters. "Lets all sorts of pests in."

Rick manages a weak smile. "I wanted to thank you for your hospitality," he says slowly. "Your mom and brother were very kind to give us food and blankets."

"Hey! It's the way of the world now, right? We gotta stick together now, eat or be eaten." Gareth's eyes flash up and down, taking in Rick's holstered pistol, his bloodied arm. He frowns. "You get attacked by one of those things?"

Rick wants to bare his teeth and hiss that Gareth knows exactly what his wounds or from, but he holds his tongue and shakes his head. Gareth might not know he's a horseman, but Rick does. He can feel it thrumming in his bones and his arm itches to reach for his weapon and fire, but he used the last of the bullets in his pistol to weed out the walkers from the tunnel and gave the rest of his firearms to Glenn and T-Dog.

Instead, he shakes his head. "Nah, got myself stuck when I was running from a pack of them. If Daryl hadn't found me I probably wouldn't've made it."

Gareth smiles. His teeth look too sharp and pointed like those of a shark. "Right," he says. "Your…friend."

He steps forward, closer to Rick's space again, and Rick takes a step back. Admitting weakness, losing the ground, but that's okay for now. Until he gauges how much Gareth is aware, and until he can figure out the best way to kill him without it ending in a fight where he's outnumbered and likely outgunned, he should play ignorant. Play it safe.

"Where you from? Rick, was it?" Gareth asks. He walks like a predator, and watching him, Rick can't help but think that he wants to put the guy down anyway. Even if he wasn't Famine, he feels evil, like oil slicking along Rick's skin. Rick looks at him and something righteous and angry burns in his chest. He wishes Daryl had given him his machete.

"King County," Rick replies. Gareth has him almost backed to the wall. The hallway extends to his right but it'll be a risk to head for it. The hallway is narrow and long and there's nowhere to dodge if Gareth is a faster runner or has a gun.

Gareth smiles. "Got a family?"

Rick shakes his head. Mary is coming up behind her son, a dark shadow at his shoulder. Rick blinks and sees Famine's gaping maw again, and his shadowy horse looming in the darkness behind him, and then when he blinks again the illusion is gone.

He swallows hard and sucks in a breath. He thinks he sees a shadow at the end of the hallway but he can't risk turning his head and drawing Gareth's and Mary's attention that way too. Maybe it's Daryl. Maybe it's Alex and Daryl is dead.

But no – Death would tell him. Even if Rick was about to die too, Death would tell him if Daryl had died. And he hasn't. Rick feels cold but he doesn't feel frozen, and he can see the shadow moving closer, slinking like a feral cat. It's not Alex. He's sure of that.

"I…have a son," Rick says, licking his lips and curling his fingers more closely to his sides. Gareth hums, nodding slowly. "And a wife."

Gareth smiles. "What's your wife's name, Rick?" he asks, stepping closer.

The shadow is almost in the room now, and Rick knows he has to risk it. "Lola," he says.

As soon as he says the name, an arrow appears in Mary's head and she makes a choked, shocked sound. Gareth whirls around, howling with pained rage when he sees her fall to the ground. "No!" he screams, and then grabs Rick and pulls him around to act as a human shield as Daryl steps into the light, crossbow raised and ready.

"Drop your weapon," Gareth hisses. Rick goes still and tense. He doesn't feel a weapon against his back or his throat, but he's sure Gareth has one on him. Somewhere. But that's not the biggest problem he's facing. Famine is touching him.

He feels the thirst, first. It scrapes down his throat like he swallowed iron wool. Hunger is clawing from the pit of his stomach to join the iron filings in his chest and combines to something white-hot and blistering. After being so cold Rick feels like he's melting from the inside. His knees are unable to lock and his breathing is erratic and heavy.

"Let 'im go," Daryl growls, not lowering the weapon. He advances slowly, carefully sidestepping Mary's body, and Gareth yanks Rick back, one arm around his neck and the other gripping his hair tightly to keep him still.

Rick grimaces, reaching down and grabbing one of his knives, and jabs it back as hard as he can, letting out a pleased sound when he hears Gareth screech in pain. Gareth lets him go and Rick stumbles. It feels like he's too weak to stand and he reaches for Daryl like a frightened child. Daryl's hand finds his and hauls him upright. Through Daryl's touch Rick finds strength to stand and face Gareth. One of Rick's knives is lodged in his stomach and he's coughing up blood, glaring at the two of them with rabid hate.

Rick takes a deep breath. Now that Famine isn't touching him, the cold of Death is settling into his body again and feels familiar and cool, like an ice pack on a forehead hot with fever. He holds a hand out. "Give me your machete," he says. There's something right about the weapon. This might not be how it was meant to go, but when Daryl hands it to him he can't deny that he feels good, holding the long blade. It feels almost like a scythe.

"This the guy?" Daryl asks, his arrow never moving from its aim on Gareth's forehead.

Rick nods and licks his lips. "Yeah.

"You sure?"

"Never been so sure in my life," he says, and steps forward, his grip tight on the handle. Gareth has fallen to his knees and is looking up at him with pure hatred, and bares his bloody teeth.

"Fuck you," he spits, blood spraying onto Rick's jeans and his boots. "You'll get eaten alive, you son of a bitch. They'll devour you."

Rick grits his teeth and raises the machete, bringing it down in a swift motion across Gareth's neck. It's not a clean decapitation but it definitely kills the man. Still, Rick can't stop himself yanking the machete back and swinging again. The body falls to the side, blood spurting out as Rick swings again and again.

"Rick," Daryl says, stepping forward, but Rick doesn't stop. "Rick!"

Daryl catches his arm as he's about to swing again and Rick turns and growls at him. Daryl presses his lips together and yanks Rick's arm until he's forced to get to his feet and move away from Gareth. There's blood soaking his clothes now and sprayed across his face. Daryl carefully moves his hand down so that the machete is hanging loosely by his side, and lowers his crossbow.

He lifts his hand and wipes at the blood on Rick's face. "It's done now," he whispers, and Rick takes a deep breath, his eyes breaking from Daryl's sea-blue gaze and over to the grill.

"They were eating people," he says. "Weren't they?"

Daryl nods.

Rick closes his eyes and nods to himself. "What happened with Alex?"

Daryl shrugs. "Came at me with a knife, I sank it into his neck," he mutters, before he shifts his weight and looks down at the ground, an uncomfortable noise stuck in his throat. "Now I really have killed a guy."

"Slaying monsters doesn't count," Rick replies. He puts a hand on Daryl's cheek and forces him to lift his head. "You saved my life, Daryl. Thank you."

Daryl nods, his eyes dropping to Rick's mouth for a moment, before he clears his throat and pulls away. "Glenn and T-Dog are probably worried sick," he says. "And I'm officially creeped out as fuck. Let's get the Hell outta here."

"Daryl, wait," Rick says, reaching out and catching Daryl by the hem of his shirt. Daryl halts and looks back at him, something unreadable and urgent in his eyes. Rick wonders if he felt Famine's influence too, if he's as hungry and thirsty as Rick is, if he's shaking with as much need as Rick is. Rick wants to say all of this, wants to open his chest and expose his heart and his innermost thoughts and desires to Daryl, but he can't. Not right now, with the blood of another man on his hands and the darkness of the train station all around them.

But Daryl must understand. Of course he does, because Daryl is perfect and his soul must know its mate, know the needs and thoughts Rick is having but cannot give voice or action to, yet. He smiles and runs a hand through his hair, before he reaches out and brushes his hand gently across Rick's chest. "Me, too."

Chapter Text

"Daryl, I want to talk to you about something."

Rick uses the light from Glenn's phone sparingly, even though there's more than forty percent left on the battery. It seems like the kind of thing they should ration, just in case. There's no telling when they might be trapped in darkness again, and electricity seems to be becoming one of those resources that are fast running out.

Daryl stops on the tracks and turns to face Rick, his silhouette just visible as Rick lowers the phone before he turns off the light. Rick has never been afraid of or uncomfortable in the dark, but as it descends of them again he can't deny the fact that he wants to move closer to Daryl, reassure himself that he's there and find solace in the presence of another living thing suffering the same circumstances. Of course, there's no telling if that longing is coming from that instinctual need, or something deeper.

"What is it, Rick?" Daryl's voice floats across the gap between them. He sounds so far away, and antsy. Maybe he's feeling the same need too.

Rick shifts his weight. The discomfort is crawling along his skin and sitting heavily on the base of his neck. "Did you…feel anything?" he asks. He wishes he could see Daryl's face, but that wouldn't be fair to shine the light on him and leave Rick in darkness. There's something powerful and secret in the dark. "When we saw Famine."

Daryl makes an uncomfortable noise. "What do you mean?"

"He didn't recognize me," Rick says, looking down at the ground. He drags his boot along the edge of one of the tracks. "But I felt…I felt something when I saw him. Shouldn't he have felt it too? I don't…"

Daryl makes another sound, this time aggravated, like a huff from a tired animal. "You're sayin' he might notta been Famine?" Rick can imagine him, shifting his weight, running a hand through his hair. "Damn it, Rick, you said you were sure! When I asked, you said you were sure."

"I was," Rick replies vehemently. "But I just…"

"What? Just mighta killed another man in cold blood? And I…" Daryl growls low, and he sounds like he's closer now. Rick can feel his energy, his heat in the emptiness of the tunnel. He wants to reach out so desperately and digs his nails into his palms to stop himself doing so. "I killed two people, because I thought -. And I let you -."

He falls silent, the words hanging in the air between them, suspended like flies in a web. "I killed him," Rick says and Daryl lets out a choked sound break the silence. "But did you feel anything? Did you feel anything?"

"I don't know what you're asking," Daryl says. He sounds cornered, like Rick has him up against a wall and is staring him down. If only there was light.

"Daryl, please," Rick whispers, and he doesn't know what he's begging for.

Daryl heaves another breath, and Rick feels the discomfort tighten on his neck like a vice grip. "I felt Death, leading me to him. When I looked at him, I was…angry, like he was a sworn enemy of mine. I didn't know him, but I hated him, and I wanted to kill him." Sometimes I feel this way around Shane, and I need to know I'm not crazy.

Daryl sighs, and Rick hears him start walking again, away from Rick and down the tracks again. Rick follows blindly, unwilling to reach for the phone and light their way. He doesn't think he could bear to see the look on Daryl's face right now.

He catches up until he feels the swing of Daryl's arm connect with his and sighs, the vice grip on his neck abruptly loosening and falling away. Nothing is wrong when Daryl is near him. "Rick," Daryl says, but doesn't stop walking, "here's what I know. I've gone days without food before. After a while, the hunger goes away, it fades out because bodies are good at survivin' when food is scarce. But I'm starvin' right now. Even since I smelled that meat cookin' I felt like I was gonna die if I didn't eat anythin'. There's nothing in these tunnels. There should be rats, or birds, or somethin', but there ain't. They were eating people. Don't matter if he was who you say he was. They weren't good people."

"That doesn't answer my question," Rick replies. He reaches out and catches Daryl's wrist, forcing him to a halt, and feels the man turn around before he lets Daryl go. He can't see Daryl's face but imagines it's guarded, closed off in the darkness. "You promised -. And we said if we both feel it, it's real. I know these…visions, this shit is in my head. You don't feel Death when he's near. So I gotta know – did you feel anything?"

"Like what?"

"Like hunger," Rick snaps, gritting his teeth. "Thirst. I'm starving, and when you offered me water in the hotel I thought I might be able to drink it all dry, fill the fucking tub and drain it all. I wanted, I hungered for so many things and I need to know you felt it too otherwise it's all in my head and I'm gonna keep killin' innocent people for nothing."

"Fine! Yes, are you happy?" Daryl hisses, his voice low in the tunnel but echoing like they've stepped into a pit of snakes. Maybe this is Hell. Or Purgatory. "I wanted, Rick. I knew somethin' was off from the second we saw those guys, and when that guy held his knife out to us all I could think of was slittin' his throat and drainin' him so that we'd have somethin' to eat, and drink. And that scares the ever lovin' fuck outta me. I want things."

"What did you want?" Rick presses, taking a step closer towards the direction of Daryl's voice. He can hear the man's breathing, heavy and agitated. He wants to reach out and soothe him, pet through his hair and calm his shaking. Daryl sounds like he's shaking, his breaths are uneven and hard. It feels like they both know exactly what they're trying to say but neither of them will give the ground.

"I wanted…"

Rick holds his breath and it feels like his feet are on hot coals instead of chilled train tracks. He lifts his hand and his fingers brush against Daryl's shirt. He grabs onto the clothing there, because it feels natural and safe to fist his hand in Daryl's clothes. This is how it's always been with them, since what feels like the beginning of time. Before their souls inhabited mortal shells they must have been entwined like this, closer even, merged together into one being before some cruel God separated them by years and circumstance.

Daryl's hand touches his wrist. It's a light touch, feather-soft, but it feels electric. "This is…" Daryl's voice is shaky, weak, his presence feels like a frightened fawn instead of the proud predator it normally is. Rick wants to touch him.

He pulls on Daryl's shirt until he feels the man give, moving closer. Daryl's chest touches Rick's shoulder and he can feel Daryl's breath on his face. There's blood on his skin, caking and dry now, but there's blood on Daryl, too. Blood Famine put there. They're both marked. Are they still feeling it just because of the residue? If they were to get clean, wash the mark of the horseman off of both of them, would it still feel this powerful? Would it feel like the most natural thing in the world to turn his head, to find Daryl's mouth with his, to fist his other hand in Daryl's hair and wring the sweetest sounds of nature from him?

"This ain't right, Rick," Daryl breathes, and his voice sends shivers all through Rick's body. He doesn't think he's ever been this thirsty in his entire life. He hungers. Daryl tries to pull away but it's a half-hearted attempt. Rick's hand doesn't budge.

"Tell me it doesn't feel right," Rick replies. After all, he won't force anything on Daryl. That isn't fair, no matter how much they're both burning with the desire for whatever this is. "You told me what you know, now I'm gonna tell you what I know: Famine can't exploit, can't make worse, what ain't there."

Daryl licks his lips. His lips are dry, so chapped from dehydration. Rick can hear every little movement, every drag of his tongue across them. Maybe there's enough water in him to give some to Daryl, maybe he can feed the man what strength he has until he's nothing more than a husk, and then Daryl can give right back.

"If we both feel it, it's real," Rick whispers. "That's the truth, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Daryl says, and he moves a little closer again. His heat feels like it burns Rick's injured flesh.

"When I dream, he'll be missing," Rick continues, just as quietly. "I'm sure."

"You're sure?"

"About everything." After all, for as hot as Rick ran for Lori, it pales in comparison to the fire in his chest now. He turns his head and his nose knocks against Daryl's and it startles them both, because even as close as they were standing, he's sure neither of them thought they were that close. Rick's other hand is trembling when he lifts it and finds Daryl's shoulder, and slides it up to cup the side of his neck. Daryl's pulse is racing, heavy under his skin.

One of Daryl's hands flies up, touches Rick's bloody jaw with amazing tenderness. The fire in Rick's chest spreads outwards and he ducks his head, desperate for more of Daryl's touch, starved for his warmth. They're both shivering.

"Do you think it matters?" Daryl asks, whisper-quiet. "If he wasn't Famine?"

"I'll prove it," Rick says. "Whatever it takes. I'll prove it to you, one way or another. I can't do this without you, Daryl."

"You don't need me."

"I do." Rick remembers saying these words, in a church, surrounded by his friends and family. Shane had been standing right next to them, a thousand-watt smile on his face. Carl was nothing more than a distant promise at that point but Rick knew there was a future then, just as he knows there's a future now. "Daryl, I do need you. And I know that -."

He can't say anything more, because Daryl's fingers have travelled to his cheek and he feels the other man's lips pressed gently to his bowed forehead. The touch silences Rick's words, brings them to a stuttering halt in his throat. He whimpers, his hand tightening in Daryl's shirt and tugging until he feels the man's chest pressed more firmly against his.

Daryl pulls away and licks his lips again. His hand moves from Rick's cheek to his chest and presses, not hard enough to force him away, but just firmly enough that he feels the desire in it. It's a touch as intimate and urgent as if they were both unclothed, grooms on their wedding night. Rick feels like he might explode.

Daryl sighs and Rick closes his eyes as he feels Daryl's forehead rest against his. "You're gonna ruin me," he breathes, and Rick isn't sure he means that as a promise or if it's said in resignation. All he knows is he might die if Daryl stops touching him now.

"Daryl -."

"It was real, Rick," Daryl says. "It was real."

Something broken-sounding tears itself out of Rick's chest, and his hands find the strength to loosen on Daryl and let him go. He aches for more of his touch immediately but knows that if he tries to reach for Daryl again he might never have the strength to release him. Already his devotion to Daryl runs so deep and so thick that the single touch of Daryl's lips on his forehead burns him, consumes him. He might not last long enough for anything else.

There are tears in his eyes that he doesn't remember feeling well up until they start to spill out, and he's glad Daryl can't see them in the darkness. Maybe he can hear them, though – or smell the wetness on Rick's face. He pulls away and wipes the back of his hand across his face.

Daryl whistles – their whistle. Low, high, low, and Rick manages a smile. "Thank you," he says, and reaches out one more time to touch Daryl's face, because he's weak. Daryl is his weakness. With this admission, he's put a target on Daryl's back. "Daryl, I -."

Daryl shushes him. His hand is still on Rick's chest and he lets it fall away. "Me, too."

 

 

When they emerge from the tunnel it's still night time, but Rick can see the teases of lighter clouds on the horizon signaling dawn. In the floodlights he can finally see Daryl and it feels like being born again. He's breathless, trembling and weak. Daryl looks about the same, heaving in deeply to get as much of the fresher air as he can.

He looks down at his hands and winces when he sees the blood covering them, caked into his fingernails and etched into the hair and lines on his arms. He's soaked in blood, his clothes almost unrecognizable for their original color. In comparison, Daryl almost looks clean.

They stare at each other and something passes between them, an understanding. Daryl nods his head. "Let's find some running water and make ourselves presentable," he mutters, and Rick nods. He knows large stations like this usually have some form of shower or facilities where commuters can wash the travel off of them. As one, perfectly in sync again, they step away from the tunnel and walk towards the main building structure. While they walk, Rick takes out Glenn's phone and opens it, scrolling through his contacts in the hope of finding a familiar name.

He spots Shane's number and his mouth twists, remembering the last time he tried to call his friend. When he gets to the 'T's, he sees T-Dog's name too and tries it, putting it on speaker as they walk.

"Rick, that you?" T-Dog asks on the fifth ring. His voice sounds muffled and quiet like he's hiding and trying to remain unnoticed.

Rick breathes a sigh of relief he hadn't realized he was holding on to. "Yeah, man," he says. "Good to hear your voice. Where are you guys?"

"We found a hotel near the station, holed up there for a while."

"It got running water?" Rick asks.

"Nah, sorry man. We're shit outta luck with that one."

"It's okay. Daryl and I are gonna try and find a place to wash up. We'll come meet you."

"Alright man, sounds good." T-Dog tells them the name of the hotel and the room number they're in and Rick hangs up, conscious of the battery life as he pockets the phone. He and Daryl duck into the main building and look around. In comparison to the other places, and in a definite change from the dirty train station platform, the main station itself looks almost clean. The floors are dirty and he can see footprints where people tracked in mud, but there's a distinct lack of blood in the area and it's strange how that more than anything strikes him as weird. He'd have thought with all the people trying to flee that this place would be a veritable buffet for the undead. Maybe it struck too quickly.

"Over here," Daryl says, nodding towards the public restrooms, and Rick follows him past the ticketing station towards the door. When they reach the door to the men's room Rick knocks on it six times and stands back to wait. Daryl huffs a laugh.

"What?" Rick asks, smiling. Daryl's humor is infectious.

"Six knocks," Daryl replies. "Woodmore always did that."

"Did he?" Rick asks nonchalantly. He waits another moment and deems the area clear, and pushes the door in, Daryl following along behind. "I never noticed."

"Liar," Daryl says affectionately.

The bathrooms are a soft grey color, the lighting unflattering but there as the automatic lights flicker to life above them. The stalls are all closed and Rick checks those first while Daryl goes to the back, where the showers are. Rick can hear his pushing back the curtains to check all of those as well. The place is empty and so Rick goes to the showers and plops his rucksack on one of the benches. Daryl set his crossbow down and Rick places the machete next to it.

He freezes, taking a good look at the weapon for the first time. "I've dreamed about this thing," he says quietly, reaching out to it. He remembers having it in his hands. Rick. Lead us to water. His people drowning in a river, or eaten alive by pursuing walkers.

Daryl bites his lower lip, looking at Rick from under the fringe of his greasy hair. "Yeah?" he asks, sounding stiff and uncomfortable.

"Yeah," Rick replies, and then straightens with a sigh. He has never been shy about showering around people, or being naked – from locker rooms to the police station to the facility, it was never really an option – so without preamble he pulls his shirt over his head and plops it down next to their things, pushing his boots off of his feet in the meantime.

"Steady, soldier," Daryl mutters, his cheeks turning pink as he looks away. "Haven't even checked the water yet."

He goes into one of the shower stalls and flicks at one of the handles experimentally, jumping back with a low curse as freezing water shoots out from the showerhead at the lightest touch. Gingerly, wincing, he grits his teeth and reaches past to shut the water back off.

"Well," Rick says happily, "guess that answers that."

"Yeah, like you knew," Daryl says with a roll of his eyes. He continues to stand awkwardly while Rick continues to shed his clothes, his eyes fixed stubbornly on some spot just over Rick's shoulder. "You, ah, you can go first."

Rick nods, figuring that Daryl might feel awkward undressing in front of him. That's okay. The darkness is a much safer place for confession and touches. Rick doesn't mind going first – and it does make more sense from a survival standpoint, that one of them keeps watch. He sheds the rest of his clothes and kicks them to a pile on the floor, before he steps into the shower cubicle that Daryl had tested and closes the curtain behind him.

He presses himself to one wall of the stall, gritting his teeth when his ass and shoulders rub against the cold tile, and reaches out to turn on the water only to hesitate when he sees the bandaging still clinging to his arm. It's shredded again and soaked in blood and when he tugs at it, it unwinds easily. He scoffs and kicks it out from under the curtain before he turns the water on and shoves it towards hot, hoping that it warms up quickly.

"Ain't the facility shower, I'll say that much," he hears Daryl say, his voice almost inaudible over the thrum of the running water and the splash of the shower. Rick sighs, tilting his head into the spray as it starts to heat up. It doesn't quite reach comfortably hot but it gets to bearably warm and he's definitely had worse. The pressure, too, is less than desirable, but it's not like beggars can be choosers.

He scrubs his nails through his hair, watching the water turn black as it washes away the mud, dirt, grime and blood clinging to his body. It feels like a while before the water stops being pure black and turns to a lighter brown, then pink, and Rick wonders when the last time was when he showered and wasn't covered in blood. It feels like so long ago since his time before it happened, and yet at the same time it feels like he's lived this way for a thousand years.

Once he feels decently clean he turns the water off and steps outside, blinking in surprise when he sees that Daryl's hasn't moved. Daryl's eyes snap to his face and then rake down and the pink in his cheeks darkens, before he clears his throat and looks away.

"My turn, I guess," he mutters, and then ducks into the stall still fully clothed. Rick hums and goes to his rucksack, pulling out a clean pair of clothes as Daryl flings his clothes over the curtain rail to hang while he showers. Rick takes them and sets them on the bench, since Daryl's clothes are still perfectly salvageable and he may prefer to dress back into them.

There isn't anything he can use to dry himself off so he stands for a moment, dripping onto the tile floor while the air dries him off. The water from his hair runs down his back in cold little rivulets and it feels like Death's touch, almost, and he feels comforted and calmed by it. When he's decently dry he pulls on his fresh change of clothes, just as he hears the water turn off.

There's a moment of awkward silence, before Rick clears his throat and grabs the machete. "I'm gonna clean this off," he says, knowing Daryl can't see what he's holding but also knowing Daryl doesn't care. If it's privacy Daryl needs then Rick will grant him that. He waits until he hears Daryl's grunt of acknowledgement before he walks back into the restroom part of the bathrooms and turns on one of the sinks, angling the blade beneath the stream of water so that he starts to turn the basin pink with blood as well.

He comes back when the blade is decently clean and finds Daryl shrugging on his leather vest. There's still a hum that he assumes is the water tank compensating, until he sees Daryl frown down at his jeans and realizes it's Glenn's phone, vibrating away.

He takes the phone out and sees Shane's name flashing across the screen. Frowning, he swipes to answer and puts it on speaker. "Hey," he greets.

"Hey, brother," Shane says, and he sounds agitated and restless. Rick knows this Shane – this is the Shane that has sat too long on a stake out and is starting to get antsy. This is the Shane that gets frustrated when the witnesses and snitches won't talk. "How you holdin' up? Everyone okay?"

Rick looks over in Daryl's direction and bites his lower lip. "Yeah, we're all good. About to meet up with Glenn and T-Dog. We'll probably start headin' back today."

"Good, good, that's good. Hey, I wanted to ask you – you good to talk right now?"

Rick looks over at Daryl again, who gives a half-hearted shrug. He changed into new clothes and starts to pack his old ones away before shouldering his crossbow. Rick grabs his rucksack and puts it on before putting his machete in his other hand and leading the way out of the bathrooms.

"Yeah, I can talk. What's up?"

"I wanted to ask what kinda vibes you got from that Ed guy."

Rick halts, looking down at the phone as though it will magically show Shane's face. He can imagine his friend now, running a hand through his hair, biting on his tongue. He looks at Daryl who is wearing an expression caught somewhere between confusion and impatience. He's looking right back at Rick and makes a vague 'Go on' gesture.

"How do you mean?" Rick asks slowly.

"I just, I mean. I know you got good instincts, despite everything else." Daryl's mouth twists into something ugly and he stifles a derisive sound. Rick reaches out and touches him lightly, marveling at how tense he gets whenever he hears someone speaking badly of Rick. It makes Rick's heart swell with affection. "And that guy just sets somethin' off in me. I wanted to ask if you got the same vibe or if I'm just paranoid."

Rick hums. "You remember Archie?" he asks, as he and Daryl start to walk out of the train station and towards the front entrance. They can see walkers ambling around the street through the doors, but it doesn't look like there are many of them. Definitely no more than they can handle.

Shane makes a noncommittal noise and Rick rolls his eyes. "He was a runner from Atlanta to DC, we busted him for possession. Real beady-eyed bastard but nice as fuck. You remember?"

"Oh yeah! Squirrelly kid. What about him?"

"That's the kinda vibe I get from Ed. He's too…polite, you know?"

"Yeah, I get ya. That's kind of what I was thinkin' too." He hears Shane sigh on the other line and imagines his friend running his hand through his hair again. "I think he's abusin' his girls."

Rick stops, staring down at the phone again. Beside him, Daryl freezes in a similar way, and Rick thinks he might hear the man make a low growling nose. When Rick looks at him, Daryl's face is dark with anger.

"Are you sure?" Rick asks, and it's such a weighted question now. Are you sure. Because they have to be sure in this day and age. They don't have the luxury of being picky with their people. If nothing else, more men means more cannon fodder against the legions of undead.

Shane makes a frustrated sound. "I'll just feel better when you're back, brother, so you can help me keep an eye on him. I gotta go now. Be safe."

"You too," Rick says just as the line goes dead. He sighs and pockets the phone and Daryl raises an eyebrow at him. "What?"

"If that guy is doin' what Shane thinks he's doin', I'll put a bolt in his eye myself," is all he says, the words dark and heavy with promise, and in that moment Rick doesn't doubt him for a second. Daryl is a protective man, fiercely so, and he definitely doesn't hold as the kind of guy who would stand by and allow innocent people to suffer if he could do something about it.

They break out of the train station and Rick swings the machete through the closet walker, felling it in one blow, before they start heading in the opposite direction towards the motel T-Dog had said he and Glenn were holed up in.

"You know, the people in the facility did a lot of bad shit," Rick says after a moment when they round the corner and see the yellowy façade of the hotel. It looks like a clear shot and they hurry towards it, ears pricked and eyes peeled for any sudden walker. "Murder, abuse, all sorts."

"Kinda different when they're crazy," Daryl mutters.

"They weren't all crazy," Rick says quietly, and it comes out more challenging than he'd meant it. He is, after all, not a good person by any stretch of the imagination. He's killed – how many is it now? How many before his conscience can rest with the fact that he doesn't remember his body count? – six people already, four of them in cold blood. He will have to kill at least two more, not counting those who might stand in his way. He knows his views on Death aren't the same as everyone else's.

He remembers feeling scorn for the murderers. He can remember a time when he would know someone had killed someone else and hate them, and be disgusted by them. Not all of them were crazy. Some of them liked it. Some of them felt like the victim got what was coming to them. Sometimes it was an accident. He wonders if the guy who shot him feels any guilt.

Daryl turns to look at him, stance defensive like he's gearing up for a fight, so Rick tries to make himself appear non-threatening, shoulders tucked in and eyes lowered. "Not all of them were crazy," Rick repeats flicking his eyes up to gauge Daryl's expression, then away again. "Some of them were just bad people. But you took care of them."

"We've all done things," Daryl says, but he's not excusing the residents or the criminals. It sounds like he's trying to justify it to himself. His shoulders roll like he's shrugging off a heavy weight. "I don't want to talk about this, Rick."

"Okay," Rick says with a nod. "I understand."

"No, you don't." But Daryl doesn't wait for Rick's response. He squares his shoulders and keeps walking to the hotel, leaving Rick to trail along behind like a dog on a lead. They clear the first room and head up the stairwell which is thankfully well-lit. Rick remembers the last time he was in War's city and trapped in a dark stairwell like this and it had been a far from pleasant experience. He follows Daryl to the seventh floor, breathing heavily by the end, and the both of them go down the hallway and knock on room 707.

"Glenn, T-Dog, it's us," Rick calls quietly, and he hears bolts and chains unlocking and sliding out of place before Glenn opens the door and lets them in.

"Man, am I glad to see you guys," Glenn breathes, smiling widely. There's blood on the side of his face and Rick blinks, eyes widening when he sees it. T-Dog is sitting on one of the beds, flicking between one static TV station and the next, and sits up as they go in and Glenn secures the doors behind them. "How'd it go? Did you…find anything?"

Did you feel anything?

"What happened to you?" Daryl asks, nodding at Glenn's wound. The man winces, touching it gingerly, and sucks in a breath through his teeth.

"Walker threw me into a wall," he says with a roll of his eyes. "Bastard almost got me. Good thing T-Dog was there or I'da been walker chow."

Rick nods, swallowing back the guilty feeling that Glenn and T-Dog were in danger because of him. "You could have left," he says quietly. "But I'm glad you guys stayed." Glenn and T-Dog smile at him, and he heaves a breath. "It's done," he says, setting his bag on the spare bed. "We found Famine, and killed him."

"Assholes were eating people," Daryl adds with a grimace, and Glenn and T-Dog's eyes widen.

"Shit," T-Dog breathes.

"It's done now," Rick says, flexing his fingers around the strap of his bag. "We can leave, go back to camp. I don't think there's anything left for me here."

Daryl frowns. "What about War?"

Rick bites his lower lip and shakes his head. Without Famine in the city, the presence and sense of danger he'd felt walking in before has all but disappeared. Perhaps War was never here, and it was Famine he was sensing instead. It would make sense, he supposes. After all, what else had he felt in the city except incredible longing? What is longing but hunger disguised? Every moment he has been here he's been hungry and weak, thirsting for Daryl's presence and his touch. Now, without Famine here, the desperation has disappeared. The feelings are still there, but Rick is starting to think that maybe they simply always will be there.

Still, one thing is undeniable: "There are no horsemen in the city anymore," he says with a final nod, looking back at Daryl so that Daryl understands that he's not lying. Wherever the horsemen are, they aren't in Atlanta. "We can go back to the group. I'm sure…I'm sure something will come to me then. But for now, we all need to rest where we're relatively safe."

"I called Shane," T-Dog says. "Battery on my phone's out now."

"Shane called us," Daryl says with a nod. Rick waits for him to mention Ed, but Daryl remains silent. He shifts his weight instead and heaves another sigh. "I don't know about y'all, but I'm exhausted. We can sleep, and then head back."

"Sounds like a good plan," Glenn nods. "I'll stay up, watch the windows and doors. You guys sleep."

"Thank you," Rick says. He feels tired to the bone now that he's in a relatively safe place and the battle of the day has been won. The adrenaline has left his system like the aftereffects of a drug and he feels drained, tired to the bone. He sits down and then lays down on the bed, pushing his bag onto the floor and setting the machete over it.

"I'm good," Daryl says, waving T-Dog off as he makes to get up. He walks around and lays down on the other side of the bed, crossbow on the floor, and Rick smiles against his pillow as he feels Daryl's heat press up against his. He resists the urge to turn over and plaster himself against the other man. His knuckles go white with the willpower it takes.

"Wake us in an hour," he tells Glenn, who nods solemnly as T-Dog turns the TV off, giving up on trying to find a working news station. Rick closes his eyes and lets his breathing go even. Right before he falls asleep he feels an incredible chill sink into his bones, and a hand brushing through his clean, damp hair.

Well done.

Chapter Text

A beep wakes Rick up. Then another. It's rhythmic, like dripping water onto the side of his face. He flinches, his eyes flying open when he realizes he's in a place that smells clean, like freshly laundered sheets, and stinks sharply of lemon-scented cleanser.

He shoves himself upright and hears the beeping get more rapid and more urgent. It's a box by his bed with lines scrolling across, measuring his heartbeat. There's a sheet of paper cataloguing the activity in his brain. It looks wild and unorganized, like a child scrawling across a coloring book.

He's been here before.

"No," he whispers, looking down at his hands. There's a band around his wrist, but it's not one like in the facility. It's plain and see-through, with a white tag labelling him with his name and his date of entry. There's an IV in the back of his hand and it's leading to a white bag hanging by his bed. Another IV, in his arm, leads to a yellowish bag that he remembers being a combination of nutrients to sate his body's needs while he was -.

An orderly walks in and stops in his tracks, wide eyes blinking rapidly. He's a young kid, his skin dark against the light green of his scrubs. Rick remembers seeing him getting eaten alive in his own home. He can't walk right – or maybe he won't walk right soon. He seems to stand tall enough on his own. His name is…

"Noah," Rick whispers, yanking at the IV in his hands. He's seen this kid before. He knows him. The orderly blinks again and takes a step back, towards the door. He looks afraid. "Noah, where's Daryl? Where are -?"

The names freeze and die on his tongue. Who are they? The woman, the blonde one who dies in his arms. Have they died already? Where is everyone? The other one with cold, frightened eyes who Rick had looked at and hated, with every fiber of his being.

"I need a doctor and security in here!" Noah yells, leaning out of the room to call down the hall. "And someone get a sedative!"

"No!" Rick hisses, pushing himself out of his bed and almost collapsing onto the floor. His arm burns where he ripped out the IV and his limbs feel heavy and weak. He remembers feeling like this before, before his physical therapy and before he'd been able to eat more than a cup of solid food at a time. Right after his coma. Is he still in his coma? Has he only now just woken up?

Was it all a dream?

"No," he says again, shaking his head vehemently. This is not real. This can't be real.

"Officer Grimes," comes a voice, and Rick feels his blood go cold because he knows that voice. It hisses, a tongue flickering against his ear as the serpent slides closer. It's the scrape of nails along a chalkboard, the run of a paintbrush when it twists and frays. Rick winces and straightens, turning around and leaning a heavy hand against the side of the bed.

The doctor is an unassuming man. He doesn't have the kind of face that would draw attention in a crowd. He's the generic, older white man that smiles for the cameras when the hospital is trying to raise awareness for flu season, or the one seen shaking hands with the board president when they cure a famous person.

Of course, the sick bastard would rather they all rot and die. Rick bares his teeth. He can see past the too-white smile that's the same shade as his pristine lab coat. His eyes penetrate deeper than the wrinkled smile and pale skin. Around the brown of his eyes, Rick sees the larger fly-like lenses blinking at him. He can hear the click of Pestilence's claws as they tap, tap, tap against each other. The doctor presses his fingers together and laces them.

"What did you do to me?" Rick growls. Fear is curling around the back of his neck, because if Pestilence managed to capture him and get him away from his friends, from Daryl, then he could have done anything. He could have made Rick sick – maybe he had in the first place. A mental sickness. Maybe Rick imagined it all, and wouldn't that be a cruel trick to play? What good is a hero if he can't even tell what his own quest is?

The doctor smiles at Rick, pointed teeth showing like needles, and Rick tries with all his might to stay upright. His knees feel like they're going to buckle. He's weak, and feels frail like an old man. His lungs are paper, his skin little more than webbing holding everything together. His heart is a slowing drum beat.

Noah's face floats into view next to Pestilence and Rick flinches, biting his lower lip. His legs finally give out and he collapses back on the bed. Noah goes to his side and pets the IVs back in and Rick can't fight him off. In his head he's yelling and screaming and thrashing around, but in reality all he can manage is a weak "No, please, Noah" and a weak push at the kid's hands. Pestilence's shadow falls across his other side and Rick turns his head. He's sweaty and shaking, his eyes wide when he sees the horseman's face melt away to reveal his true form, fly-like and evil and grinning so widely.

"I'll see you around the campfire," Pestilence whispers. He leans down and his tongue snakes out, licking into Rick's gasping mouth. Rick groans and turns his head away, trying to get away – to run, to crawl – but he can't move. "If you make it that far."

 

 

Rick wakes with a shriek, his heart pounding wildly in his chest and his hands shaking like his blood sugar is at its absolute lowest, or he's just had the adrenaline surge of his life. He throws himself off of the bed he's in, absently registering that it looks a lot like the hotel he fell asleep in.

Glenn and T-Dog let out startled yells and he hears Daryl stirring, but all he can think about it getting to the bathroom. He slams the door open and falls to his knees in front of the toilet, pushing the seat up so hard that it cracks, and shoves two fingers of his free hand into his mouth.

Hungry and underfed, his body isn't willing to let go of what food it does have easily, but Rick jams his fingers back as far as he can stand it, until he manages to retch up a few rounds of whatever bile and food he still has. It's a dark red like old blood. He hasn't eaten anything red in as long as he can remember. Maybe it is blood.

"Rick."

It's Daryl's voice and Rick can't even look up. He shoves his fingers back in his mouth, trying to get his gag reflex to react again, and this time when he heaves it comes out as a sob. His other hand is still hooked tightly around the edge of the toilet seat and he clenches his grip tighter and thinks about the last time he was in a similar setting. The last time, he'd snapped the toilet seat and run the edges up his wrists and drew on the walls.

He's a fucking nutjob.

Daryl's hand settles warm and light on his shoulder and Rick clenches his eyes tightly shut, gritting his teeth as he swallows and heaves and sobs again. His body feels wrong. Pestilence put something in him, he's sure of it – but maybe it's not sickness in the classical sense of the word. Maybe his mind is wasting away. What good is a disciple, a vessel for Death, if there is no mind to control it? Will he become nothing more than one of the walkers, a slave to hunger and nothing else?

"I -." He lets go of the toilet seat and reaches out to Daryl, finds his thigh and holds on tight enough that the other man lets out a noise like surprise and discomfort combined. Rick knows he's probably gripping too hard but he can't make himself let go. "I, Daryl, oh my God…"

"It was just a dream," Daryl whispers, rubbing his hand back and forth across Rick's shoulders. "It was a dream, Rick. I'm here. We're both seeing it, so it's real, right?"

"I don't know that," Rick says. "What if it's all a trick? What if I never woke up?"

Another sob racks his body and it makes him want to puke again. He lets go of Daryl's thigh and pushes himself up higher on his knees so that he can aim for the bowl more directly. When he's done, he sits back and wipes his forearm across his mouth and flushes the toilet, only realizing too late that there's no running water in the hotel, so while it attempts to rinse the smell and sight away, it doesn't quite do the job.

Daryl reaches out and closes the toilet lid, slowly so that he can make sure Rick's body is out of the way, and then forcibly turns him so that Rick has no choice but to face Daryl. He can barely meet the man's eyes. They're both exhausted to the bone and Rick's sure his nightmare didn't make for restful sleep for either of them. Now that he has time to take stock of himself, he realizes he's sweating and stinks of it, the stress making his hands shake and his legs tremble. Or maybe that's just Daryl's proximity.

Daryl cups his face with both hands and looks Rick in the eye steadily, searching for something. Rick doesn't know what. Then he presses his lips together and rubs his thumbs under Rick's eyes. Rick can feel the tenderness where sleep loss has made them puffy, and crying has made his cheeks sticky with tears. He bites his lower lip and tastes salt.

"What did you dream about?" he asks quietly. Rick bites his lip again and tries to look away from him, towards the door, but Daryl's hands tighten and imperceptibly tug his gaze back. "No. Look at me. What did you dream about?"

Rick feels a whine stuck in his throat – he feels like a beaten dog. He reaches out and touches Daryl's chin just to feel it against his fingers. It's the same hand he used to make himself throw up. If Daryl notices, he doesn't mention it.

"I woke up," he says, and Daryl's eyes flash in frustration before Rick continues; "I woke up and it was like I woke up from my coma. Nothing had happened. But the orderly was a kid I – I've dreamed about him. He dies." Rick sighs and Daryl's thumbs rub under his eyes again, his expression silently encouraging Rick on. "So I didn't know where I was, or when I was. I thought something had happened to you and I'd been sick, or something was wrong. And then…"

Rick's fist clenches and he stifles a soft growl behind his teeth. "Pestilence was there," he says. "He came to me and he poisoned me. He knows I'm after him and he's going to try his damnedest to make sure I never get to him."

Daryl blinks, nodding once, and lets go of Rick's face. "Okay," he says, and grabs Rick's hands. Their fingers lace together without prompting and then Daryl pushes himself to his feet, hauling Rick up with him. There are two small complimentary bottles of water by the sink and Daryl grabs one and hands it to him. "Wash your hands and your mouth out. We overslept. We should get moving."

He grabs the other bottle and heads for the door – that Rick now sees it closed. Rick reaches out and catches Daryl's hand. "That's all you have to say?" Rick demands.

Daryl blinks at him, eyebrows raising. "You expectin' a big show?"

Rick falters, biting his lower lip. "I guess I just…ain't used to what I say just being accepted like that," he says. "It ain't like you."

Daryl manages a small smile. "Rick," he says, and takes a step closer. Rick's eyes widen as Daryl corners him against the counter and places his hands on Rick's chest. His hands clench in Rick's shirt and pull him in and Rick stiffens in surprise when he feels Daryl's mouth against his, soft and warm. It's nothing like he expected, it burns him like he's kissing an open flame.

When Daryl pulls back, his eyes are white and white, lined like those of a fly, and his teeth are pointed. Rick jerks in surprise and shoves him back, wincing when his shirt rips in Pestilence's claws. "What makes you think you know what I'm like?"

"No," Rick whispers, wiping at his mouth. His voice isn't strong through he desperately tries to make it so. He wants to yell, to attack, but he can't. It's not fear making him weak, he's sure of it – but he feels sick, and unsure, and -. "Not him. You can't take him from me."

"You misunderstand," Pestilence says. He's still wearing Daryl's skin. Daryl's arms spread wide and he smiles. "I'm giving him to you. Isn't that what you wanted?"

Daryl reaches for him and Rick tries to push him off but he can't overpower him. Daryl's hands grab his biceps and Rick expects him to slide closer again, slip more poison into his mouth. What he isn't expecting is for Daryl's hands to tighten and shake him. The expression on Pestilence's face doesn't change but when he speaks Daryl sounds frightened and urgent.

"Rick! Wake up, Rick! It's a dream, you're having a dream."

Rick closes his eyes as tightly as he can and grits his teeth. He fights his arms free of Daryl's grip and lashes out, shattering the bathroom mirror. He hears Daryl give a yelp of surprise but doesn't dare open his eyes. His eyes can be tricked.

He grabs a shard of mirror and holds it tightly enough in his hand that his palm gives way and splits open, soaking the piece of glass with blood. He feels the tension in the room shift, feels the weakness leach from his bones, and he knows he's awake then. Really awake.

He doesn't open his eyes. Yet. "Daryl," he whispers, and hears the man move closer. "Daryl, is this real?"

Daryl lets out a heavy breath through his nose. "Yes," he replies, just as lowly.

Rick nods, squeezing the glass more tightly. Pain shoots up his arm like a lightning strike and he breathes in a heavy, shuddering breath. "What else is real?" he asks.

There's a pause and Rick bites his lower lip hard enough to hurt. He bows his head, placing both hands on the side of the counter, and opens his eyes to stare down at the dark countertop. His feet are still in his boots and there's mud and blood on them. They're scuffed up, dirty, just like him. Blood is dripping down onto the floor.

Daryl steps into his space, his shadow crossing Rick's gaze, and Rick closes his eyes again as he feels Daryl's hand run down his arm. He gently cups Rick's wrist, pulling his fingers away from the shard of glass and taking it away from him.

He curls Rick's fingers back around his bloody palm and squeezes it tight. "This is real," Daryl says.

"Pestilence tricked me," Rick says. "He could be doing it again. Right now." He opens his eyes and looks over to Daryl, finally. It does feel different, he thinks. Daryl's eyes are a different blue – the dark, worried storm cloud color. It makes a lot more sense than the happier sea blue he'd seen in his dream. His skin is flushed from sleeping in a hot room and from worry, his hair a mess from sleep. There's a crease indented in his skin from where the sheets pressed against him too hard. He's so perfectly imperfect like that, Rick can't imagine how he confused this Daryl for anything else.

Daryl blinks at him and bites his lower lip, looking down. "Can't prove a negative, Rick," he says. "Can't prove somethin' ain't somethin'."

Rick nods, accepting that. It occurs to him, then, that Pestilence must not be able to get inside of his head. He doesn't know secrets that Rick doesn't tell him himself. What Daryl had said – we both see it, it's real – that's what Rick had said in Famine's tunnel. Pestilence must have heard him. Or maybe they swap campfire stories before trying to kill him.

He huffs a laugh, straightening up, and looks at himself in the mirror. When he wipes his hand over his mouth he smears a trail of blood across his lips, but doesn't move to wipe it off. "How long did we sleep?" he asks.

Daryl frowns, licking his lips. "About an hour," he says. "Plenty of light left to get the fuck outta dodge."

"I think that'd be best," Rick says with a nod. "Where are Glenn and T-Dog?"

"Doin' one last run of the other rooms," Daryl says. "I told them to when I first noticed you weren't sleepin' right. Figured they didn't need to see anything if it…went that way."

"You mean if I went completely insane?"

Daryl smirks, one corner of his mouth quirking up higher than the other, and he turns around and leaves the bathroom. Rick follows him, looking around the room. Everything looks packed and ready to go. They should be able to just pick up and go when Glenn and T-Dog come back.

"Let's not stretch anythin' Rick," Daryl says. "You've already lost it. Let's just keep it our little secret for now, yeah?"

Rick huffs a soft laugh, looking down at his feet. "Yeah," he says sheepishly. "I guess that works for now."

Chapter Text

Glenn and T-Dog return with pilfered bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, detergent, toilet paper, and towels and blankets from a maid's cart they'd raided as well as the other rooms that neighbor the one they'd holed up in while Rick and Daryl went horseman hunting. They use one of the fitted sheets to pile everything into and T-Dog acts as the muscle, hefting their haul onto his back once they have it all secure.

"Don't let me get eaten," he jokes, but Rick can see in his eyes how worried he is. He hasn't had the time to get used to the idea of danger being around every corner, not like Rick has.

Rick smiles and makes a point to make sure T-Dog can see him, Glenn or Daryl at any given time as they make their way out of the hotel and towards the cars. While they move, Rick's mind is whirring away. He's still deeply disturbed by the dreams and visions that had been planted in his brain. He's sure that Atlanta holds nothing for them now, but maybe Pestilence intends to keep him here so that he can't escape and can't move on.

But if not Atlanta, where? Death has yet to reappear to him, but perhaps Rick has been too busy, his mind too clouded, to focus on his companion and any visions Death might be giving him. Still, it might be lazy and arrogant to rely on Death to give him all the answers.

He decides, as they wipe through a small herd of walkers and make it to the cars, that perhaps the next step should be a crowdsourced idea. After all, if he's completely honest with the whole group it will accomplish a number of things. Firstly, he will know exactly who he can trust and exactly what people will be thinking of him. Secondly, he will have to worry less about causing fear and confusion in his pack should he have another violent or disturbing vision. Not only that, but confessing his prophecy and his visions to the group might mean they will be privy to his knowledge and his experience as well and be able to help him find clues in his vision to lead him to the next destination on his mission.

Only one thing holds him back from outright deciding, and that is his family. Shane, in particular. If the man is War, Rick can't afford to bring him into close confidence. As much as it hurts him to think about, he has to entertain the possibility that if Shane is War, then any weakness Rick exposes is something he will be able to take advantage of.

He turns his head to look at Daryl, who is in the driver's seat and waiting for Glenn to lead the way out of the parking lot and out of the city. His phone apparently works well enough to conjure up the Map app, even though it won't let him see any crashes or blockages in the city sprawl. Rick trusts Glenn to lead them out, though.

Daryl's eyes shift in his direction and he bites on his lower lip. "What you starin' at me for?" he demands, shifting his weight uneasily. It's not a negative discomfort, though. Rick gets the impression that Daryl feels immense pleasure at being the sole object of Rick's focus. He just doesn't like not knowing why he's being stared at.

"I'm trying to decide if I should just tell the rest of the group about the horsemen," Rick says plainly, sure that the most direct approach to this conversation will garner the most honest response.

He's not wrong. Daryl's eyes widen and he turns to stare at Rick for a second before the roll of Glenn's red roof catches his attention and he slides into action, starting the Jeep and putting his focus on the road as he follows Glenn's Challenger.

"I see," Daryl says evenly, swallowing hard enough that his throat clicks. Rick can't take his eyes off Daryl, nor does he want to. He sits slack in his seat and props his elbow up against the half-rolled down window, head braced on his hand so that he can continue to look in Daryl's direction. "Why in all of God's green Earth you wanna do somethin' stupid like that?"

Rick smiles. "Glenn and T-Dog reacted well enough to it," he says with a shrug. "If the whole group knows, they might be able to help me."

Daryl makes a small, querying sound, and Rick sighs.

"I don't know who the next horseman is," Rick says quietly. "I think Shane might be War, but until I'm sure I can't act on it. Which means I must find Pestilence next, but I don't even know where to start." Daryl hums. "Death hasn't given me any clues and I'm…afraid to go to sleep. He haunts me there."

He feels Daryl's throat click again and sees Daryl's eyes flash in his direction for a brief moment before he's forced to look back at the road. "You never did tell me what you dreamed about," he says softly.

Rick blinks, and remembers that's true. After all, the Daryl he'd told about the dream hadn't been the real Daryl, and how terrifying is that revelation? "I'm scared," he says instead of describing the dream. He's not sure he wants Daryl to know what Pestilence had him do. It was just a kiss, but when every touch and every action between them is so intimate and so intense, how can he rob Daryl of that? He doesn't want to look at Daryl and see those fly-like eyes. He doesn't want to taste poison on Daryl's tongue. He doesn't want Daryl to think Rick might flinch whenever he reaches for Rick.

Daryl makes another soft, encouraging sound, and reaches out to rest his free hand on Rick's thigh. He gives it a gentle squeeze. "I know," he says instead of some other meaningless platitude designed to lie and trick Rick into thinking everything's alright. That's what Lori would have done. That's what Rick would have done right back. Maybe. He's never been good at sugarcoating his words or his actions. Not unless it was part of the job and someone desperately needed him to do it.

"I don't know if I should ever go back to sleep," Rick whispers, laying his hand over the back of Daryl's, their fingers curling together. "But if I don't sleep, I won't know if Gareth was Famine, and Death might never come to me again. I'll be flying blind. I need help, Daryl. I need to be able to talk these things through with the group. They might have ideas, or see things that I missed in my visions, or might know something that we don't. I have to try."

"They'll burn you alive," Daryl says, his voice hard. "No. You can't tell 'em."

"Daryl -."

"No." Abruptly Daryl yanks his hand away and curls it around the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white when Rick lets out an involuntary whimper at the loss of his touch. "You were damn fuckin' lucky that Glenn and T-Dog accepted your story and you fuckin' know it. People don't just accept prophecies and visions, Rick. They're going to call you crazy. They'll run you out. Merle will -."

He stops, almost physically biting his tongue. Rick sees the pink of it pressing between his teeth. He blinks, straightening up. "Merle will…what, Daryl?"

Daryl looks at him, then back at the road. He takes a short, shallow breath, like someone gearing up to get punched in the gut. "Just keep it to yourself," he says, his voice hard and urgent and begging fiercely. His knuckles are still uncomfortably white and his eyes are bright, the dark, sad blue of a lonely lake at night. "Please."

Rick looks at the side of Daryl's face for another long moment, before he sighs and closes his eyes and turns back so that he's sitting properly in the passenger's seat. "Maybe you're right," he says slowly, and hears Daryl's almost inaudible release of breath. "I mean, the last time I talked to the wrong people about what I saw, they put me in that facility."

"Right," Daryl breathes. "Exactly."

"Maybe that's where I belong."

"Don't start."

"I'm just saying." Rick shrugs, opening his eyes and staring blankly at the blood-spattered white of Glenn's license plate. "You don't think I'm crazy. Glenn and T-Dog might, but they also think I'm onto something. That kinda good luck doesn't just keep goin' forever."

"Rick -."

"Merle will do somethin'," Rick continues, lifting his eyes to the horizon as Atlanta starts to melt away from them, giving way to highway with houses dotted along, and then nothing but grass verges, fields and trees. "Maybe team up with Shane. They'll drive me out, put me in a strait jacket and walk me along behind y'all on a fuckin' leash."

"Rick! Stop it!" Daryl growls, glaring at Rick out of the corner of his eye. "You know they ain't like that."

"Do I?" Rick says darkly. There's no real anger bubbling in his chest. Truthfully he's not sure why he's picking this fight with Daryl at all, or if he's trying to prove a point. His mouth tastes sour like he hasn't brushed his teeth in years, or just drank a pint of apple cider vinegar.

Abruptly they hear a screech of brakes and Glenn's car veers sharply off the highway. Daryl curses, slamming on the brakes and turning off behind him as they pull onto the shoulder. Rick straightens up, reaching for his pistol as he squints against the glare.

There's an obstacle ahead. A blockade would be the wrong word, as blockade implies intent. What Rick sees now can only be described as a disaster. They had just turned the corner on the highway and the sight of it had brought Glenn to a screeching halt. There are two furniture trucks, one of which looks like it jackknifed onto the exit ramp, sending the second one crashing into the median. Cars are in various states of askew and disarray. Some look like they caught fire and burned out, others are smashed beyond repair.

The entire mess is awash with walkers. There's more than Rick has ever seen in one spot before and he feels his heart give a little staccato beat of fear. He reaches for Daryl and squeezes his bicep gently.

"Reverse," he says. "Slowly. Try and keep quiet."

Both Glenn and T-Dog had their phones. Neither Rick nor Daryl did. He hopes that they'll see Daryl and Rick slowly edging back and get the hint. Daryl nods and shifts the Jeep into reverse, wincing when it gives a creak of protest, and starts to back up. After a moment it seems like Glenn gets the hint as well because they see the white reverse lights flash up and the Challenger starts to roll back in front of them.

A couple of walkers hear them and turn, hissing and snarling as they see the moving vehicles and the promise of fresh meat inside. Rick digs his fingers a little more tightly into Daryl's arm but tries not to give away how scared he is by the sight of the herd slowly becoming aware of them.

Then, Glenn, unable to see well because of the Challenger's ridiculously large blind spots, backs up into one of the cars that had not been part of the crash but clearly abandoned and half-smashed. It looks like it was hit in the driver-side door. A walker lunges itself at the door and then falls onto the horn.

The herd seem to freeze. Rick watches with wide eyes as Glenn's car's red brake lights glow. The air seems suddenly so much darker, like night has descended and their headlights are blaring like beacons calling the dead to them.

Rick lets out a low curse and rolls his window down the rest of the way and sticks his head out of the window. "Glenn! Turn around and fucking drive!" he yells, before he hears a hiss behind him and ducks back into the car just in time for a walker to lunge mere inches from where his head just was. He grits his teeth and slams the machete into its skull.

Daryl slams on the horn and abruptly jerks the car into drive, pulling around in a u-turn. He knocks a couple of cars out of the way as he does so but there's no time to give a shit about things like that. The horn of the abandoned car is still blaring and the herd has definitely heard and seen them now.

Daryl slams his foot on the gas and the Jeep lurches forward with a dull roar.

Rick sucks in a breath and blinks rapidly, trying to calm his racing heartbeat. "They followin'?" he asks.

Daryl's eyes flick up and he breathes out a sigh of relief. "Yeah," he says, just as the Challenger's headlights flash across the passenger side mirror. The red car is quick to overtake and then Glenn veers to the right, onto one of the exit ramps, and Daryl follows suit. The sign says it will take them North, around the belt highway of Atlanta, and Rick breathes out heavily as they merge and cross over onto the side of the road where it's practically empty, since no one was trying to flee into the city when the outbreak happened.

"That was a close one," Rick murmurs.

Daryl huffs. "So much for good fucking luck," he bites out. He's still angry, bitter and with his hackles raised. Rick wants to reach out and soothe him, stroke him like an agitated cat. But agitated cats lash out with teeth and claws and they'll hiss something fierce if continuously threatened.

Rick closes his eyes and breathes out. "I'm sorry," he says, and bites his lip when Daryl gives no answer. "I don’t know why I was fighting with you, or trying to pick a fight. I don't know what came over me."

"You're just tired," Daryl says. He sounds tired, too. Exhausted, even. "S'natural."

"You sound experienced," Rick murmurs.

Daryl shrugs one shoulder and lets the wheel go with one hand to bite at his cuticles. "I know you said…what you said," he begins, "but you should try to get some sleep. You'll feel better. Maybe."

Rick manages a tired smile. So Daryl wants to be rid of him for a moment. It probably won't be a peaceful moment, but Rick will give Daryl anything that it is within his power to give. "Okay," he says. "Please, wake me if you need me. For anythin'."

"Course," Daryl replies, and his voice is thin but heavy with sincerity. "Sleep well, Rick."

 

 

Rick thinks he might be lucid dreaming. He is aware of Daryl, sitting next to him in the driver's seat. He is aware of the heat beating down on his face from the sun slanting in through the window against which he's rested his arm and his head. He's aware of the rumble of the Jeep, the slight tilt and lean when it curves around the roads and navigates the hilly center of Atlanta's downtown area. He thinks, every now and again, he can hear Daryl humming to himself in a tune that's familiar and sweet. Rick wants to join him but he can't make his mouth move.

He feels pressure on his lungs like he's lying on his back and someone in sitting on him. His breathing is slow and heavy enough that the only thing giving him comfort is that he knows his body's instinctive reaction to draw in breath will keep him from suffocating. Luckily his brain is reliable in that regard. Even if he feels like he can't open his mouth and take in another breath, his lungs will snap into action, his brain will send just the right signal to make his ribs expand and his body breathe in. It'll be alright.

He can't open his eyes but he isn't sure he wants to. People see terrifying things when they lucid dream. Then again, Rick sees terrifying things whether he's awake, asleep, or caught somewhere in between.

He digs his nails into his thighs and sucks in a breath, his forehead rolling against the half-open window. The glass is warm and thrums against his skull in a bass, rhythmic growl that sends shocks all down his neck. It's almost like a massage. His head is warm but his shoulders are cold and he wishes he could roll over so that his back could be warm and his head can be cold.

His lungs start to burn a little again, and then hitch, and then he feels the car slow to a stop. It takes a massive amount of strength for him to sit upright, to heave in a breath and let his lips part, and then to slowly open his eyes.

They've crested the top of a hill, and Rick feels his stomach get knotted tightly around itself and grow cold as he stares down into a field. There's a single, solitary campfire at the bottom of it, and a splash of black that looks like tents and encampments all around.

"Daryl," Rick says weakly, and reaches out to grab the man's arm. Daryl looks at him and Rick raises his eyes, monumentally grateful in that moment that he sees the man's blue eyes and knows it's Daryl. This isn't a trick. This is real. "Where are we?"

"North of the quarry," Daryl replies roughly. "Roads were totally fucked for the most part. Glenn found us a way out though."

As he speaks, Rick becomes aware of the red Challenger pulling up beside them. The lights dim and Rick looks around, aware that it's darker than he'd expected it to be outside. It's almost dusk, dark enough that the headlights of the car spilling out over the grass are sure to draw attention.

"Daryl," Rick says again. He hasn't let go of the other man's arm. Something uneasy and unpleasant stirs in his heart and he digs his nails into Daryl's forearm, gritting his teeth. He feels like, though he knows it's not the case, something is yanking him down through the floor by his heels, like there's something very heavy on his shoulders. He's not sure he has the strength to get out of the car and stand on his own two feet.

Below them, the campfire flickers warmly, inviting amidst the dark green carpet of the field in front of them. There are tents around, blacker squares amidst the forest green, and Rick can see people milling about. They must have seen them – Daryl still has the Jeep headlights on, after all. He doesn't see any horses, and his gut, though tight with anxiety, isn't tense with fear. He doesn't look down on the campfire and see the horsemen.

Glenn opens the door and Daryl follows suit, and then Glenn is opening his door as well and Rick almost falls out in his desperate scramble to get around the front of the car and be near Daryl again. Just as he makes it to the other man and their silhouettes block out part of the headlights, they hear a voice shouting;

"Hey! Stop right there!"

Glenn and T-Dog raise their hands in a pacifying gesture and Rick and Daryl slowly follow suit. Three dark shapes break off from the main crowd and start trudging up the little hill towards them. One of them has a gun aimed at their knees, kept lax and low so as not to appear overly threatening at first.

"We don't mean any trouble," Glenn says as the trio step into the light. It's two men and a woman. The men are skinny, and all three of them have dark skin and solemn brown eyes that shine in the headlights as they approach. They come to a stop a little way away from the group and stand tall, stances non-aggressive but strong nonetheless. The woman has a thick mane of dreadlocks held back by a scarf. There's a katana slung across her back. The center man is holding a rifle, the third has a large knife reminiscent of forest explorers. It's serrated on one edge and Rick swallows, unable to stop himself imagining it slicing through the man's arm and into his mouth, severing his bottom jaw from the rest of his skull.

He looks back at the woman, recognition flickering in the back of his head. He knows this woman, somehow. Or he will. Or he might have in another life. At this point he's sure he's changed so much of the future that nothing is certain.

"Where you guys from?" the lead guy asks after what feels like an eternity, even though Rick knows it can't have been more than a minute since Glenn spoke. He directs his gaze towards the man and sees his eyes narrowed, his body language shifting so that he stands as more of a blockade between Rick and the woman. Whether he's protective or her, or jealous of Rick's eyes on her, Rick can't say.

Rick licks his lips and takes a small step forward, keeping his hands raised when the three of them step back and reach for their weapons. Rick can't imagine he makes a particularly intimidating picture, but a wolf could pass as a dog if someone wasn't paying attention. He curls his fingers and puts his eyes on the center man.

"We were in Atlanta," he says. The woman's eyes widen for a moment, the whites of them shining in the headlights, before she schools her expression. "We're heading back to our group. They're farther west."

"You got a group?" the lead man asks, his narrow eyes still suspiciously set on Rick's face. He looks to the other man, and then the woman, and straightens up. "How many?"

"Enough to be friends," Rick replies. "Not enough to be a threat."

The man smiles abruptly, his teeth white as bleached bone. "Hah! I like you, man. You're funny," he says, lowering his rifle a little more until the muzzle is pointed at the ground. He reaches out his hand for Rick to shake and Rick does after a moment, relaxing his stance and sliding his palm against the other man's. His grip is firm and they shake once before letting go. "I'm Mike. This is my boy Terry, my girl Michonne. We found this camp a few days ago. Lots of refugees camped out here."

"It's a good spot," Rick says lightly, even though it's a terrible spot. The high hills and the open flame mean they're an easy target and they won't see anything coming until it's too late. Walkers gain speed downhill. He shifts his weight back so that he's standing more in line with Daryl and Glenn and T-Dog, and Daryl's body shifts so that he's closer to Rick like Mike moved closer to Michonne. Rick smiles.

"Are you just passing through then?" Michonne asks, her fingers curled into the two front loops of her jeans, her hip cocked to one side, stance relaxed now that Mike seems to have deemed them harmless enough.

Glenn nods. "We were just heading back, really. We didn't mean to come across you guys. It's just the west highway was blocked off and we came farther North than we meant to."

"You just came from Atlanta," Terry says, and they all nod again. "Did you see many…people? Any survivors?"

Rick exchanges a look with Daryl, before he shakes his head. "Sorry, no," he says. "But if we see more we'll send them your way, with your permission, if they don't wanna stay with us."

Mike smiles and holds out his hand for another shake. "My man," he says and it sounds like an agreement, so Rick nods. "And, hey, if you guys and your group wanna head our way too, you're more than welcome. We gotta stick together at the end of the world."

Rick manages a weak smile, before they all pile back into their cars and back away from the crest of the hill. Rick is silent, his eyes fixed on the leather wrapped around Michonne's katana as they reverse out, before Daryl turns the car and the sight of the three of them is lost.

"That was surreal," Daryl mutters, his fingers absently rooting in a bag of chips they'd pilfered from the convenience store in Atlanta before hitting Famine.

Rick nods, pressing his lips together, and debates how much to say about it. "I know that woman," he says, casting his eyes towards Daryl, before looking back out at the illuminated back of Glenn's car. Daryl gives a questioning huff. "Michonne. I knew her. Or I've seen her before, I guess."

"Seen her, like for real? Or seen her like you seen the horsemen?"

Rick frowns, unsure what Daryl means by that, but decides to let it go. "I mean I've seen her in my visions," he says quietly, his frown deepening. "But not those two men. Something terrible must happen to that camp."

"Maybe we should send Ed there," Daryl says darkly, and it startles a laugh out of Rick.

"Maybe," he agrees with another nod. "I…want you to know, Daryl."

"Know what?"

Rick shakes his head. "I just…want you to know that how I am, how I feel… Never mind. I'm talkin' crazy."

"I don't like it when you say shit like that," Daryl murmured. "Makes me think you're gonna do somethin' stupid."

They crest another small hill, gravel kicking up under the wheels as they move. Rick lifts his eyes and sees the white-ish edges of the quarry walls in the distance, a sign informing them that they're less than five miles away from it. Had that refugee camp really been that close?

"I promised not to leave you again," Rick says, "but that means you have to promise you won't let them take you away from me, either."

"Rick." Daryl's knuckles are whitening on the steering wheel. "You can't tell the group about your…visions."

"You wanted to say delusions."

"You've called 'em that yourself."

Rick nods, frowning. He has. And he's never minded Daryl's jokes about his psychosis. They don't rub him the wrong way like when Shane and Lori or a stranger does it. Why is he so on edge now?

Pestilence.

It must be him. He's poisoning Rick's mind, clouding his thoughts. He's turning Rick's head bitter and sour, coating his tongue with something that tastes like betrayal and madness. He's making Rick want to pick a fight with his closest companion at the end of the world.

He reaches out and lays a hand on Daryl's thigh. "You're right," he says quickly. He feels clarity break across his skull like an ice bath. Perhaps Death is giving him this brief moment of reprieve. Daryl looks at him, hearing the urgency, his eyes narrowed and his shoulders tense. Rick isn't looking at him. "We can't whistle to each other in public anymore. We can't tell each other secrets unless absolutely no one else can hear them. Pestilence will use them to trick me."

"Rick," Daryl sighs, shaking his head.

"Please," Rick says, squeezing his hand on Daryl's thigh. "I don't…feel like myself right now. I'm scared, Daryl, and I'm asking you to help me. Please."

Daryl presses his lips together but doesn't answer. So he intends to be silent – well, technically that is what Rick asked him to do. With a sigh Rick withdraws his hand and curls up in his seat, his head against the window again. Sleep threatens to pull him under like a wave and he fights against it with everything he has as the sun finally disappears below the horizon, and the open edges of the quarry spread like a huge mouth waiting to swallow them whole.

Chapter Text

They split up the pilfered good when they return to the quarry. Carl embraces Rick tightly when he gets out of the Jeep and Rick presses his face into his hair, inhaling deeply. He's sweaty and stinks of the Earth and Rick makes a note to investigate the water at the bottom of the quarry to see if it moves enough that they can bathe in it. Washing clothes is one thing but it's also got to be their drinking water and they can't risk muddying it too much.

It's well into nightfall by the time everyone is settled and everything is put in its proper place. They light a small fire and gather around it, Rick between Daryl and Carl, Lori and Shane and Merle sitting on the boy's other side. Glenn and T-Dog sit on Daryl's other side, and then Andrea and Amy, and Dale and Ed and Carol and Sophia complete the circle. He doesn't see Jacqui and her family and frowns.

"Where are they?" he asks.

"Asleep already," Shane replies, rubbing his hand over his mouth. "They're thinking about movin' on. Can't say I blame 'em, this close to the city."

Glenn's head perks up. "We met another group on our way back," he supplies with a smile. "They have a whole refugee thing going. Maybe we could tell them about it and they could find their way there."

"Maybe," Shane says, while Lori looks up

"You found another group?"

Rick nods. "Met their leaders, or I guess they were. Three of 'em, said they welcome all comers." Shane nods and presses his lips together and he sees Andrea and Amy share a look. "I don't…know if they'll stay there long. The place they were in wasn't safe and walled like the quarry is."

T-Dog frowns and huffs an impatient-sounding noise. "You said it was a good spot," he says, sounding accusing. Like maybe he's afraid of Rick letting people go. Knowing what he knows now, he might think Rick has some ulterior motive for everything that he says or does, which simply isn't true. Grand destinies don't trifle with the details.

He sees a shadow move behind T-Dog and swallows hard. "I didn't want them to think that I was challenging their position," Rick says mildly. Beside him, he feels Daryl's knee press against his and looks to the man, whose eyes are intently on the fire. Daryl reaches out his hands and rubs them, trying to get them warm. "It was an open field, downhill on all sides and no place to hide the fire. I didn't see any cans lined up or cars blocking the way."

"Man, you shoulda said something," T-Dog says.

"Maybe," Rick says, looking down and scratching the back of his neck.

Merle grunts. "No sense tryin' ta help people too dumb to help themselves," he says loudly, pushing his chin into his hand and turning his head until his neck cracks. The shadow moves to behind Merle and Rick sees a pale hand touch his chest, then the side of his head. Rick looks away. "Should've invited them to join us. We need some fresh meat around here."

"Merle," Daryl says, hissing the name as he glares at his brother across the fire pit. "They know where we are," he adds with a huff. "If they wanna join us, they'll come."

After a moment of silence, Lori speaks up; "I'm glad we're finding other groups," she says quietly. She reaches out and grabs Carl's hand, holding it gently in her lap. "If there are other people, other survivors…maybe it means we stand a chance of making it through this."

Rick feels eyes on him but he doesn't want to look up, in case he sees the shadow touch another member of his pack. He knows what it means but it's a reality he can't face yet. He doesn't want to see any of his people die but it's an inevitability if they begin to wish for Death. They aren’t special in his protection like Daryl is.

He sighs and rubs a hand over his eyes. He's exhausted to the bone and wants nothing more than to curl up with Daryl in their tent like wolves in their den. Pestilence is going to try his damnedest to wear him down and Rick can't afford to be at anything less than a hundred percent.

"I'll take first watch," Glenn offers, sensing the change in mood. Dale nods and volunteers to join him and the two go to climb to the top of the RV and camp out. Lori stands and Rick stands with her.

"Lori," he says, reaching out to her and stopping when she turns to regard him. Her eyes are wide and he sees the tense muscles in her neck, the way her jaw clenches and she looks prepared to run. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

Lori's eyes flash to the side and down, in Shane's direction, before she gives him one tight nod and follows him out of the halo of campfire light. Rick brushes a hand across Daryl's shoulder as he leaves. They walk to the small rise overlooking the pool of water that sits like a black beast below them, slumbering and waiting. It's probably freezing cold, the water, but he feels a strange urge to walk into it until it rises up above his head.

He feels her shadow fall on his left and heaves a deep breath, turning to regard her. "Lori -."

"Rick," she cuts in, holding up a hand. "If you're going to tell me something like you fucked Daryl or something, I'd rather not hear it."

Rick frowns, momentarily too surprised to reply. "What? No," he says, shaking his head. "I mean, nothing like that happened. That's not what I wanted to talk about."

"Oh. What then?"

Rick blinks at her, before he licks his lips and gazes back out towards the water. But, no, he can't move past that. "Would it be so bad?" he asks her. "If Daryl and I were together?"

She shifts her weight, making an uncomfortable sound. "Thought that wasn't what you wanted to talk about," she mutters.

"You brought it up," Rick shoots back.

"Well, it's just…" Lori sighs and runs a hand through her hair, twisting it around her hand in a nervous gesture. Rick is sure she's never done that before, though, but without a piece of furniture to fiddle with he supposes she has to make to. "I don't know how I'm supposed to explain it to Carl."

"I'm sure Carl could figure it out," Rick replies, holding back the sarcasm as best he can. After all, there are a lot of things she's had to worry about explaining to Carl. This hardly seems like a big deal but she's making it one. Nothing even happened. "Fine. It doesn't matter. You're right, it's not what I wanted to talk about."

Lori nods, her gaze steady on him when Rick turns to look back at her.

"I found Famine," he says. Her eyes widen. "I killed him."

"I – you. What?" Lori gasps, her knuckles going white amidst the darkness of her hair. Her other hand rests just below her breasts, holding tightly to her shirt. "You killed someone?"

"Yes," Rick replies. "I wanted you to know that."

"Why?"

Rick licks his lips again, sighing heavily. "Daryl doesn't want me to tell the rest of the group about me…about the facility I was in, about the things I think and see. And he's probably right. They'd hang me out to dry at best, just put me down like a sick dog at worst."

"I wouldn't do that," Lori says.

"But would you stop them? If they decided to drive me out?"

Lori's jaw clenches. "Rick, what do you want me to say?"

Of course, she could never say the words outright. That's okay though. Rick knows. She doesn't have to pretend around him even though she loves keeping up appearances. The glint of her new engagement and wedding ring shine in the weak glow of what firelight still touches them.

"I need your help," he finally says. "I know it's a lot to ask, but you know me. Hell, we were married more'n ten years, we had a kid together. You're one of my closest friends and I love you as much as I ever have. Not…not in a way that would should worry Shane. You gotta know that. But I do love you, and I trust you, and I believe that you'll tell me what I should be told instead'a what you think I wanna hear."

Her voice is thick when she speaks again; "Of course," she whispers. She unclenches her hand from her hair and reaches for him, resting her fingertips lightly on his chest before drawing them away. "What do you need my help with?"

Rick closes his eyes and takes another deep breath. "Let's just…assume for a second that I'm right," he begins. "That I'm right about everything. About the horsemen, about having to kill them to stop the apocalypse. Let's just take all that for a given. Can you do that?" She nods, pressing her lips tightly together. "So, Famine's gone. I think Pestilence is next. I've been having dreams of him coming to me, and I think he has the most power to really hurt me without me knowing it."

"Okay," Lori whispers. "Okay, so…" She takes a deep breath. "Let's assume all of that, then. I'm saying I believe you, but I'll play along. Where do I come in?"

"I think I've already met Pestilence," Rick says. "He…knows things. When I was in Atlanta on my own, I saw things and heard things that only I could know, but when confronted with things I didn't know, the horsemen – Famine, I think it was Famine – he couldn't trick me. Because I couldn't trick myself, you know?"

"Rick." Lori is already shaking her head. She takes a step back from him. "What do you mean?"

He didn't want to talk about it with her, but if she is to trust him, perhaps she needs to know. "When I was in Atlanta I got phone calls," he says. "Calls that weren't…possible to get. You called me. And Shane called me, and they said things to me. It wasn't you – I know it wasn't you, really, because the things you were saying couldn't really be you guys, and when I challenged Famine, he couldn't tell me things that you would know but I didn't."

There are tears in Lori's eyes. He can smell them, sharp and sweet like sour candy on his tongue. Or maybe that's poison.

"But Pestilence knows things," he says. "I think he knows things because I've already met him. So I need your help. I need help figuring out who it could have been."

"How do you know he knows things?" Lori demands, her voice thick with tears.

Rick huffs a frustrated breath. "So, before we headed back, after defeating Famine, Daryl, Glenn, T-Dog and I were in a hotel room and Daryl and I were getting some sleep because we hadn't slept all night and Daryl needed to drive. And when we slept I had a dream. I had a dream about someone that I'd only ever seen in a vision. I've never had visions about people that the horsemen were in, but he was there and he was trying to trick me and was using the face of this kid that I'd never met to fool me. So he has to know something about me."

"Well…" Lori swallows hard enough that Rick can hear it, looking down towards the frozen lake. Rick wonders what she's thinking about – if, like him, she is thinking it might just be easier to walk in and never walk out. Rick doesn't see the shadow behind her and wonders when he finally will, when her desire to die will outweigh her desire to keep fighting.

The silence stretches on and Rick can tell she's thinking so he tries not to press her. The group around the campfire is starting to disperse. Rick sees Merle and Daryl break off towards Daryl's tent, and Daryl looks tense and wary like a dog being confronted with a strange piece of meat. Merle isn't talking as loud as he normally does and that immediately makes Rick suspect that he's the subject of their conversation. Will Daryl come to bed angry again? Will he let Rick soothe and comfort him and press close against him as he so desperately wants to?

"I need to think," Lori finally says. Rick closes his eyes and nods and opens them again when he feels her touch his cheek. "I'm going to think about it," she says again with a slow, meaningful nod. "Really, I will. I'm going to try and help you, Rick."

"Really?" Rick asks, and hates how small and childish his voice is. Maybe she's right to treat him like a delicate child. He feels at once as old as time and as fresh as a hatchling. There are eggshells scattered all around him.

"Yes," she says with another nod. "Now get some sleep."

And with that she walks past him and away, towards where Shane and Carl are still waiting by the campfire. She takes Shane's hand and gives him a small smile and Shane wraps his arm around her shoulders as they head to the tent, Carl in tow. Carl turns and gives Rick a small wave that he returns, but he's not sure Carl can really see him. Then they climb into the tent and disappear from sight.

Rick sighs and sits down on the slight rise of the verge. He doesn't want to venture near Daryl and Merle while they're still talking, but soon his attention his caught by a loud clearing of someone's throat. Rick turns around and sees Merle standing a short distance away and when their eyes lock the man gives him a cocky, smirk-like grin.

"Coast is clear, nutterbutter," he says with a half-hearted salute. Rick gets to his feet and Merle doesn't turn or look like he's going to walk away. Rick strides right up to him and Merle meets his gaze steadily, jaw clenched and meaty arms crossed over his chest like he's gearing up to take a punch.

"You're poisoning him," Rick says darkly, not bothering with niceties. Merle's smirk widens. "I know what I am and so does he, and nothing you say to him or do to me is going to change that."

"I know," Merle replies. "I'm loud, not stupid. My lil brother's ass over elbows for you. Can't see why. Yer gonna get him killed."

"I ain't," Rick says, and his voice goes soft and pleading. After all, if Merle keeps going like this, he might change Daryl's mind anyway and Rick cannot afford to lose him. Not after everything. "I made a deal. Daryl won't die. Not if I have anythin' to say about it."

"A deal," Merle repeats, unconvinced and unimpressed. "Unless it was with Death himself, I'm not convinced."

Rick grins. "It was," he replies brightly, and Merle blinks and his eyes rake Rick up and down, like he's not entirely sure Rick isn't just some weird hallucination caused by his own drug-induced delusions. Wouldn't that be a trick, if Rick was just some figment of someone else's imagination? That individual is seriously fucked up if that's the case.

Merle clenches his jaw and grinds it from side to side, before he nods. "You got a hold on 'im," he says, as though he's admitting a dreadful sin. "I even smell one hair outta place on 'im, though, I'll hide your body so deep in the woods even if you come back walkin' you'll never find him. You get me, Officer Friendly?"

Rick nods, bristling at the idea that he would ever hurt Daryl, or that his man would ever be able to take him out on his own. Rick isn't going to die. Rick is going to survive, until his mission is completed. That, he has to believe. That, he has to accept as fact.

Merle nods back at him and then turns and strides away towards the truck, whistling to himself softly. Rick sighs, feeling like a great weight has been set on his shoulders, and makes his way slowly towards Daryl's tent. He hesitates outside and clears his throat.

"Can I come in?" he asks softly.

"Unless you wanna sleep on the road," comes the reply, sounding irritated. Rick smiles to himself and ducks his head as he goes to his hands and knees and crawls inside. Daryl is a warm, welcoming patch of black in the dark heat of the tent, much more enticing than the frigid lake. Rick sighs as he settles himself on his side, facing Daryl, and Daryl rolls over onto his back to stare up at the ceiling of the tent.

"Good talk?" Daryl bites out.

Rick blinks. "With Lori or Merle?"

"You talked to Merle too?"

Rick sighs. "More like he demanded a moment of my time," he replies. His fingers itch out to touch Daryl and it is taking a substantial amount of willpower to keep his hands to himself. The feeling of Daryl's lips on his forehead is forever burned into his memory and his lungs feel empty and weak without the other man there, close to him. Even as tightly pressed as they are, he still feels like he's miles apart from his mate. "Gave me a good ol' classic big brother speech. The 'If you hurt him, I'll kill ya' kind."

Daryl snorts, but it's not a humored sound. "He'll have to wait in line," Daryl says, his voice muffled like he's biting on his cuticles. "Told ya already I'll put a fuckin' bolt in your eye if you ever step outta line."

"I won't," Rick says, urgent and low. "I promised. I won't leave again. I won't…lie to you again. Daryl, I -."

Love you.

Daryl hums. "I know. Me too."

"I feel like the more I say it, the less you believe me."

"You ain't never said it," Daryl says. Rick hears him roll over onto his side. In the darkness he can't see Daryl's eyes or his expression but he can imagine it well enough. He imagines he can see the shine of blue in Daryl's eyes and wishes that he could tell if this was real or not. If he were to reach out and draw Daryl to him and kiss his mouth and taste him, would he taste more of Pestilence's venom? When Daryl blinks, do his eyelids click like an insect's? Rick does his best to hear but can't.

"Do you want me to say it?"

"I want you to mean it," Daryl replies. "Don't gotta say it."

"Maybe I want to say it."

"Maybe I don't wanna hear it."

"I don't want to scare you." Rick reaches out, then, unable to stop himself. His hand finds Daryl's bare arm and feels it tense and trembling under his touch. "But I do. Daryl, I -."

"Don't say it." Daryl's hand touches his cheek, then his mouth, stopping his words. It feels like they get caught somewhere behind his teeth with a pressure that knocks the breath out of him. "Don't. You always say it when you think I'm pissed, or scared. I won't believe it."

Rick licks his lips and he can taste Daryl on them where his fingers touched Rick's mouth. He pulls his hand away from Daryl's arm and takes his hand instead, curling their fingers together and pressing Daryl's knuckles to his lips in a gentle, quiet kiss. He hears Daryl breath out shakily.

"We're going to get through this," Rick promises. "When the horsemen are dead, it'll all be over. The world will heal. We'll be okay."

"I won't believe that, either, not 'til I see it," Daryl says, and Rick remembers the first time Daryl said he couldn't believe what his own eyes were telling him. He smiles.

"You'll see it," he whispers. Then he reaches out in the darkness and slides his fingers gently through the knotted mess of Daryl's hair. Daryl doesn't pull away when he pushes them closer together and he rests his forehead against Daryl's and closes his eyes. They hesitate like that, caught in stasis, and then Daryl closes the distance and their lips meet. It's a gentle, soft thing, but as passionate as any kiss Rick has had with Lori, more intimate than any love scene he's witnessed. Rick knows in that moment that he would set the whole world on fire if Daryl would kiss him like this every day.

When he pulls back, Daryl lets out a quiet, desperate sound, and Rick has no more power in him to resist that than he does anything else when it comes to this man. He kisses Daryl again, for longer this time. It's still relatively chaste but Rick feels like his entire soul lights up at the touch. They break apart a second time and Daryl's hand rests itself on Rick's shoulder, their fingers still intertwined.

They are silent, unreadable in the darkness, until Rick breathes out. "I feel like I've waited a thousand years to do that," he says, completely without irony. His soul feels old and safe like lovers nearing the end of their days together after a lifetime of happiness.

"Yeah," Daryl breathes, sounding awed. "I want to do it again."

Rick smiles and closes his eyes. His hand tightens in Daryl's hair. "Then, please, don't let me stop you," he says, laughter infecting his voice, and hears Daryl give another quiet huff before they're leaning in again. They fall asleep curled up close to each other, Daryl's forehead resting against Rick's beating heart, and Rick feels like he's at peace for the first time since he saw the world end.

 

 

 

In the morning Rick feels well rested and light, like he's walking on air. Daryl is already gone from the tent but Rick isn't worried. He had woken briefly when Daryl left, needing to relieve his bladder in the woods and going to check the snares. They'd kissed one more time, sweet and quick, and Rick's head feels warm and fuzzy with affection and love as he changes into a new set of clothes and makes his way towards the main gathering of the group outside.

Lori intercepts him, her eyes wide. "Rick!" she says, and tugs on his arm. Shane is standing near the RV, talking with Dale, who moves away as they approach. "I told Shane what you said to me last night and we came up with something."

Rick blinks, eyeing Shane and hating how wary he feels when looking towards his friend. Of course, he has no solid reason to suspect Shane, but he chose to share with Lori because of their kinship and because he feels like she has less to gain from his exile from the pack. Shane is the leader now with Rick his only obvious challenger. And he might be War.

He isn't.

But he might be.

"Hey, brother," Shane says, solemn. He claps a hand on Rick's shoulder. "How you feelin'?"

"Fine," Rick says, looking between the two of them. "So?"

"You said that…this man," Lori says, stumbling over the horseman's name. Rick gives her an encouraging nod. "You said that he knew things like the, ah, visions you'd been having. Stuff like that." Rick nods again and she looks over at Shane, urging him to continue.

"Well," Shane says, scratching his nails through his hair and biting on his tongue, before he heaves a breath. "Look, brother, I'm not sayin' I believe this shit, but…" He holds up a hand as though about to pitch Rick the greatest idea of his life. It's the same energy he would have when thinking through a complicated case. There hadn't been anything major in King County for years, but every now and again there might be something like robbery or murder that would stump them for motive or means. Those puzzles had always been particularly satisfying to work out.

"If this guy knows your visions, well, seems pretty obvious, right?"

Rick blinks, and shakes his head.

"It has to be someone who knows what you say," Lori says with a nod. "Someone like…well, like Shane and me. Or someone at the facility. Someone who would have known what you'd seen. In detail."

"Makes sense, right?" Shane adds, smiling in encouragement as Rick blinks, looking down at his feet, considering that. "I mean, you saw all kinds'a shrinks and therapists before that place, but in there you had to get down to the real grit, right? I assume that meant sharin' everything, even the dreams you had."

Rick frowns, biting his lower lip as he considered that. "But the facility was wiped out," he says, looking back up at the two of them. "Daryl and I saw that place go down. Everyone died. Or turned."

"Are you sure?" Lori asks, resting a hand on his arm.

Rick thinks back to that day and night. He can remember it vividly, like it happened mere moments ago. After James had turned the entire place had gone to shit within moments. Far quicker than he'd expected.

Of course, where else might Pestilence sit except the place where it was destined to start? Where else would he be except to keep an eye on the vessel of Death, who upon awakening posed a threat to his very existence?

"Oh my God," Rick breathes. Because in truth, no, he hadn't seen everyone die. In fact, once he and Daryl had hidden in Doctor Woodmore's office, he hadn't seen much of anything. Someone could have escaped, or controlled the horde in such a way that meant they were able to pass through.

But a single walker had made it into their building, even without any reason to wander in and investigate. He and Daryl had been quiet, after all. They hadn't drawn attention to themselves, and the walker had come straight for Doctor Woodmore's office. What other reason could there be?

"We have to go back," Rick says, wide-eyed. "I have to see for myself."

"Rick," Lori says, sounding surprised. "Now, wait…" She looks nervous again, the excitement of her theory lost at Rick's enthusiastic acceptance. "Let's think about this. This is all theory, of course. Besides, if the man you claim is Pestilence was there, he's probably not there anymore, right?"

"I have to look, Lori," Rick insists. "I have to see."

He feels something bubbling in his chest, like excitement and terror combined. He can't see Death or sense him nearby, but the cold pit of certainty in his throat makes him think that Death is pleased with his assessment, and is encouraging him to continue on.

"I'll take Daryl with me," Rick says. "We'll go in and out quickly. Just to see."

"Rick, c'mon man," Shane says, shifting his weight. "We need you here."

"No you don't," Rick replies, shaking his head. "You all want me gone. That's no secret. I'm a murderer, Shane. Lori tell you I killed a guy in Atlanta?"

Shane's eyes widen and he takes a step back as though pushed. "What?"

"I killed a guy," Rick says, baring his teeth. "Hacked him to fuckin' pieces with a machete. I'm gonna do it again if I find Pestilence, and then again with War. I'm going to kill again, and the more desperate they become, the stronger I let them get, the worse it'll be for everyone here. Hell, there might be a herd wanderin' this way any second. I can't waste any time."

"Rick!"

Rick turns away, intent on finding Daryl before Shane and Lori can cause more a scene. Shane catches him though, and whirls him around, slamming him up against the side of the RV. Rick grabs his shoulders and shoves him away with a low snarl.

"Rick, stop it!" Shane demands. The others have started to notice their tussle now. Rick can feel eyes on him that don't belong to Shane or Lori. Shane takes a step forward and Rick doesn't even think about it – he reaches for his Python and pulls it out of its holster, raising it level with Shane's chest.

Shane's eyes widen and he freezes, taking a step back, and holds up his hands. "C'mon, brother," he says lowly, trapping his tongue between his teeth before letting it go. His eyes shift to the side, towards where the other members of the group have gathered. "Just calm down. Ain't no one here gonna hurt ya."

"I'm not a fucking dog, Shane," Rick hisses. He doesn't lower his weapon but tightens his grip. His hand is starting to turn cold and he fights the urge to just gently squeeze the trigger. His gun is the most responsive lover he's ever had and is so quick to fire at his touch. In his hand it feels as powerful as Death's scythe.

You could do it. Kill him. Even if he ain't War, he's as much trouble as.

"Rick."

It's Daryl's voice, cutting through the cold anger like a warm knife. Rick presses his lips together and straightens, lowering the muzzle of the weapon just a little. His hand is shaking now, the tension in him melting away. He looks to his side and sees Daryl there, Carl a small shadow behind him, tucked like a frightened child. Abruptly the cold leaves him altogether and he drops his arm, breathing out heavily.

"You wanna come kill Pestilence with me?" he asks, his gaze steady on Daryl's face.

Daryl presses his lips together. His crossbow is held loosely in his right hand, strung and loaded. In his other he's holding a cluster of dead rabbits and squirrels, the blood caked into their fur old and brown.

He looks at Shane and Lori, and then the rest of the group gathered at Rick's back, before he sets his eyes on Rick's again. "When do we leave?"

"Soon as we can," Rick says, holstering his weapon and sending a look at Shane as though daring him to protest. Shane lowers his hands and shakes his head, a low curse falling from his clenched teeth. Rick nods and the tension dispels slowly, like a lazily receding tide. It's better that Rick leave now, before too many people start asking questions.

"You're insane," Lori whispers, barely audible, and Rick smiles at her.

"Maybe," he says. "Yeah. Maybe."

Chapter Text

Rick goes to his and Daryl's tent to pack his bags again. He's almost out of relatively clean clothes but he notices that like an afterthought. His blood is burning and his head hurts, a pounding just behind his eyes that feels like dehydration but has the heat of anger. "Do not damage the oil and the wine," he mutters, shoving another shirt in with the lump of clothes at the bottom before he closes the zip. What knives he has he tucks into the side pockets, and he has the extra box of ammo for his gun. He'll get the pistols from Glenn and T-Dog that he gave them, and pilfer anything else the group will let him have. He has the feeling that, from here on out, it's going to be a nasty fight. If Pestilence is there, he'll be ready for Rick.

The tent flap opens and Rick turns to see Daryl crouching just outside. He doesn't come in, just eyes Rick like he's an animal Daryl hasn't seen up close before and he's waiting to see if it's friendly or not. Rick licks his lips, his eyes raking Daryl up and down, and gives him a nod. "Hey."

"Hey," Daryl rasps back, going to his knees instead of the balls of his feet. "You feelin' okay?"

Rick hesitates, unsure how to answer that question. "Do I seem okay?"

Daryl pauses a moment, and then shakes his head. "I've seen all sorts, bein' on this Earth, and I can definitely say that you are pretty fuckin' far from okay. What the Hell happened back there?" Then, lower, he whispers, "What did Shane say?"

Rick turns back to his bag and, like an afterthought, unzips it again and stuffs a blanket inside. The thing bulges, inefficiently packed, but Rick can't find it in himself to try and fold the blanket into something a little more economical.

He takes a breath and lets it out, but the headache doesn't ebb. He feels like he can't see, and so he looks back up and tries to focus on Daryl, on the color of his eyes and the sweep of his hair. He wants to touch the man but holds himself back, knuckles going white on his bag.

Last night he never got around to telling Daryl what he spoke to Lori about. Other things got in the way. He was distracted, on edge. Is it Pestilence, turning his brain to little more than bees caught in a rainstorm?

"I talked to Lori last night," he says, and Daryl gives a nod. He knows this already. "I told her about what we did in Atlanta. About Famine. I told her that…that the things I was seeing, that Pestilence was making me see…it only makes sense that he knows things about me. Famine couldn't trick me like he can. So…so I told her. I asked her to help me. And she told Shane and they said that maybe Pestilence might be at the facility."

He looks up. Daryl's expression hasn't changed. He's expectant: he knows better than to share his thoughts halfway through Rick's rambling monologues.

"It makes sense," Rick says, huffing. "The things Pestilence knows, and that he sees – it has to be someone I've met before. Someone who knows about my visions enough to fake them. So I thought…even if he isn't there, the facility's a good place to start."

He makes an ugly sound, shoving at the bulging blanket in his bag, and sighs, shaking his head. "That's apparently as far as they were willing to humor me. They don't want me to leave. Doesn't make sense. If I leave, and you follow, that's half the undesirables gone right there."

Daryl hums in thought. "And you think actin' out like that's gonna help yer cause?" he asks, his accent thick. Rick looks at him, wide-eyed and lost. "Rick, listen to me." Daryl crawls into the tent, then, the shirt acting as a cover falling across his back, and he rests a hand on Rick's shoulder. "I believe ya, alright? Glenn and T-Dog might, too. You got people on your side here but these folks…they don't know you like I do. They haven't seen what I've seen. They didn't feel Famine, they haven't been by ya since before the beginnin'. You gotta tread lightly with shit like this, and pointin' a gun at your best friend isn't gonna help people see things your way."

"Doesn't matter if they see things my way," Rick growls. "I'm right." Then, he breathes out, and lifts his hand to settle it across Daryl's. "I am…right, aren't I?"

Daryl doesn't answer.

"I haven't dreamt about the horsemen again," Rick says. "I haven't…been there. I haven't seen Famine gone. I don't know if I'm on the right track. I keep seeing…" He pauses, looking over Daryl's shoulder as though someone might appear there, listening in on them. He shifts to one side so that Daryl can come further into the tent and the flap falls completely. It's not soundproof by any means, Rick knows that, but it provides a sense of dull light and security that makes him feel more comfortable. "I keep seeing this shadow. At the campfire, at night. It goes to certain people in the group and…touches them." He winces, swallowing hard. "I think I'm seeing 'em die."

Daryl swallows. "Who?"

"First it was Amy," Rick says, and he lets go of Daryl's hand to touch his throat. "Here, then here." He touches the side of his head. "I think she's gonna die. And…I've seen it touch Ed. And Merle."

"Merle?" Daryl repeats hoarsely.

Rick nods. "I don't know if I'm changing the future," he says. "I don't know if I can save these people. But I can save the world and that's…that's gotta mean somethin', right? You believe me. You said you believe me."

"I do," Daryl says, nodding once. His hand tightens on Rick's shoulder. "I believe ya. I trust ya. But the others…you gotta be more…"

"Sane?" Rick bites out, finishing Daryl's sentence for him. Daryl doesn't say anything in reply but makes a soft sound that sounds very final, like the closing of a coffin. "We have to go," Rick continues, lifting his eyes to Daryl's again. "If nothin' else, I know we gotta go back. You with me?"

"Always." And then Daryl's hand shifts to the back of Rick's head, fingers loosely tangling in his hair, and he kneels forward to rest their foreheads together. Rick closes his eyes and breathes out, his hand finding Daryl's shirt and fisting tightly. He hums out their tune, low, high, low, and hears Daryl huff a small breath of laughter.

"I don't know what I'd do if you weren't with me," Rick whispers.

"Don't think you ever gotta find out," Daryl replies, and Rick feels his lips brush Rick's forehead before he pulls away. "I'll get the extra guns from Glenn, grab what food they'll give me. We can hunt for the rest. Then we'll go."

"Thank you," Rick says, and then he hears Daryl leave. He keeps his eyes closed and braces his hands against the cold ground. His fingers itch to scratch at his wrists and his neck, the urge to draw blood strong in his head. Maybe if he offers a sacrifice, Death will come and give him guidance. He misses the horseman's presence and wishes Death would come to him.

After a while he can't delay any longer, and he emerges from the tent. Carl runs up to him, wide-eyed and scared with tears streaked across his face.

"You can't go again," he says, voice high and young. He's trembling, and shifting his weight like an erratic pup, fingers fidgeting nervously. Rick tries to ignore the sight of blood blooming on his side. He knows it's not real. It can't be real. Carl is with him to the end – he'll kill any and everyone who tries to take his son away from him.

Rick falls to his knees and Carl leaps into his arms, clinging to him tightly as new sobs rack his small, thin body. "You can't leave again dad," he begs, thick with tears. "I hear mom and Shane talk sometimes. They'll leave soon as you're gone. You'll never find us."

"Hey, c'mon," Rick says, trying to be soothing, but that sounds exactly like something they would do. He pulls back and wipes at Carl's face gently with his thumbs. The cord around his neck holding Rick's old hat leaves a white line on his neck and he tugs at it, pulling it down somewhere lower on his son's chest. "You can trust your uncle Shane, okay?"

Carl sniffs, wiping at his nose and face with his forearm. He's so dirty. Rick's soul aches at seeing his son like this. How many times had he had to console a loved one of a criminal, or spoken to their children and told them it would be okay, the bad man was gone? Or I'm sorry, your daddy ain't comin' home. How many times, and why was it suddenly so hard to do it now?

One of Carl's eyes gets stuck with tears and he rubs at it. For a second Rick only sees the socket, before Carl blinks both eyes open and Rick sees the same bright blue he inherited from Rick. They're watery and big, his eyes, his cheeks red from crying.

"I won't be gone long," Rick says, still holding Carl's face with gentle hands. He can see the shadow of Lori hovering behind, in the shadow of the RV. She looks like she wants to run forward and wrench Carl away from him and hide him from sight. Rick thinks back to the night when he'd painted their bedroom walls in the same way he'd etched the horsemen's names into his cell at the facility, and before that in the holding cell of the prison when he'd been arrested. Shane had to repaint it, Lori told him that. How many times since his coma has Lori been hovering near them, tense and afraid that he might snap and hurt them at any given moment?

"What if we're gone?" Carl asks quietly.

"I found you once," Rick says, and tries to put all the certainty of Death in his voice when Carl meets his eyes. "I found you once, and I'll find you again if that's what I need to do. You get me?"

At that, Carl manages a watery smile. "Dad…"

"I love you so much, Carl," Rick breathes, knowing that it might be the last time he gets to say it. If he has his way, he won't, but Carl is too young to understand the weight behind whistles, or the gentle brush of a hand through his hair. Maybe when he's an old man he'll look back on the things his father did and know how much Rick loved him, but for now he's just too young and the world is simply too big. "I love you, and I'll find you again if you guys leave."

"I know," Carl breathes, his voice hitching, shoulders trembling when Rick moves his hands there. Rick pulls him into another tight hug and they linger like that, before Rick sees Lori shift her weight near the RV and he sighs, pushing himself to his feet.

He leaves Carl behind and finds Daryl near Merle's truck, his expression tight. "Merle's comin' with us," he mutters, jerking his head towards the front of the car where Merle is sitting. Merle leans out of the driver side window and gives Rick a wide, off-kilted grin, waving one hand in a half-assed salute.

Rick nods, once, slowly. "Good," he says. Daryl blinks at him, like he expected Rick to protest. Rick doesn't like it, of course he doesn't, but; "A third set of eyes will be good for us. Help us…figure out what's real and what ain't."

Daryl blinks again, and nods, straightening up. "Glenn gave me the guns," he says. "They're in the back." His motorcycle, too, is safely roped into the bed of the truck. That's smart, Rick thinks – if one of them needs to make a quick getaway, if Daryl needs to flee and leave the two of them behind, he'll be able to.

"So we ready?"

Daryl nods.

"Rick! Brother, hold up!"

Rick turns as Shane rushes towards him, breathing hard, and he feels Daryl move away to climb into the other side of the truck. Merle starts it, the engine rumbling to life with a load, clackering roar, and Rick winces at the sound and moves away from it to meet Shane a little way from the rest of the cars.

Shane hesitates, reaching for him and then stopping like he's afraid Rick will draw a weapon on him again. "Don't say I shouldn't go," Rick says, almost too quietly to be heard. Merle has started to reverse away from the rest of the cars and Rick turns his head, sees Daryl sitting in the passenger seat. The brothers are having a low conversation of their own. "I know you want me gone. It's better if I'm gone."

"Rick, please," Shane says, rubbing a hand over his face and then up through his hair, his other hand on his hip. Rick sees the glint of his pistol at his side and wonders if Shane feels the same power when he holds it, too, the red-hot of War when he lifts it and fires. He wonders if it feels like a sword in Shane's hand.

"Don't leave, brother," Shane says, reaching for him again. This time he touches Rick's shoulder and Rick fights the urge to flinch from him. "Listen…" Shane pulls him closer until Rick has no choice but to look him in the eye. The action throws him off balance, puts the weight in Shane's control. He ducks his head and tries to stare at Shane's boots. "Lori's pregnant, man. You can't leave."

That makes Rick lift his eyes, and they widen. He thinks to last night, when she'd clutched her shirt, but not her shirt, her stomach. Lori is pregnant. "I…" He shakes his head and stifles a low growl. "No. You can protect her, or teach her how to protect herself."

"Rick -."

"You don't get it, Shane," Rick hisses, pulling away but Shane doesn't let him go so he can't stand more than an arm's length away from him. Or close enough to run him through with War's sword. Rick tries to push his hand off but Shane's hand tightens and it's on his injured shoulder and the pain makes Rick buckle, hissing at the sensation lancing sharply down his arm. "Damn it, man," Rick says, "how can you still not fucking get it?"

"You won't let me understand," Shane replies. "You can't explain yourself without sounding like a Goddamn lunatic, alright? I look at you and I don't even know you sometimes."

The feeling's mutual.

"I have to go," Rick says. "I have to go. With Pestilence gone it's just War, Shane. It's just him, and then it'll all be over." He's fighting back tears, emotion thick in his throat. "It's just War, and then it's over. Why can't you let me end this?"

Because he doesn't want it to end. War is powerful here.

"How many more people have to die, Rick?" Shane asks. "How many more you gonna kill before it's done?"

"How many gonna die if I don't go?"

Shane's expression looks like Rick just broke his heart. It's the same expression Rick has seen before, but not on him. The sorrow and anger mixing together look foreign on his face. His mouth is pinched, his brow furrowed and heavy. He looks like he might put a bullet in Rick's leg just to keep him from leaving. Rick doesn't understand. Shane should want him gone – Rick's crazy, he's a danger. He's a galivanting crusader who will stop at nothing to end his mission. Surely it's safer if Rick isn't here.

"Just trust me," Rick says, finally lifting his eyes to meet Shane's. Shane's eyes are bright with tears he won't let himself shed and Rick's chest feels tight and tense with the urge to soothe. Since the start of their friendship he's seen Shane cry so few times he could count them on one hand. He reaches out and puts his hand on Shane's shoulder. "I'm not askin' you to believe me. Just to trust me. And if you can't, then you take this group and go find that refugee camp and stay safe."

"You said it wasn't safe there."

Rick forces himself to smile. "Maybe with you there, it will be."

That finally causes Shane to break and for the first tears to fall. Rick pulls him into a hug, their foreheads resting together before they find their place on each other's shoulders. Shane has always been physically larger than him, and after the sickness of his coma and the lack of nutrition and exercise in the facility, Rick is much smaller than him and Shane feels enormous, the kind of man that could conquer the world. Rick fists a hand in the back of his shirt and hugs him tightly, closing his eyes when he feels Shane embrace him just as fiercely.

He pulls back just enough to see Shane's eyes, and a small, sad smile crosses his face when he sees them. Shane will leave – he'll pack up and disappear before Daryl, Rick and Merle even make it to the next county. Rick believes that and knows that with every fiber of his being.

"I'll see you in the next life, brother," he says, and Shane squeezes his eyes tightly shut and presses his lips together, nodding. Then, he finally lets Rick go, and Rick turns and climbs into the back of Merle's truck before anything else can be said.

"Goddamn Hallmarkers, the lotta ya," Merle mutters, shifting the truck into drive and kicking up gravel as they start to drive away.

Daryl reaches over and punches Merle in the shoulder. "Shut the fuck up," he grits out, "just 'cause you wouldn't know family if it punched ya in the nose."

"If ya ain't fightin', y'ain't family," Merle replies with a grin, before he looks at Rick in the rear-view mirror. Rick puts his head in his hands and takes in slow, shaky breaths, trying to calm himself down and not let himself fracture apart at the seams. He needs to be strong, and assured. Especially now that he's with a chaperone. "So, roadtrip, nutterbutter? Where we headed?"

"Back to the facility," Daryl supplied. "I'll tell ya where ta go."

Merle is quiet for a moment, before he lets out a soft hum. "Hey, nutterbutter," he says, uncharacteristically quiet and solemn, and Rick lifts his head to meet Merle's gaze in the mirror. "My lil bro told me a lil of what we're doin'. You think…ya really think you can stop this whole undead walkin' business?"

Rick nods, pressing his lips together tightly. "Yeah," he rasps. "Yes. I know I can."

Merle nods. "S'good enough f'r me," he says, and then he starts whistling to himself – it's the rooster's song from Robin Hood and Rick feels his blood go cold.

Something dreadful and certain curls up in the back of Rick's head and nods to himself, humming the tune as they drive. He can't help thinking that he's made a terrible mistake. Beside him, he sees a hooded figure sitting, and he turns his head. The skull of Death grins back at him and for the first time Rick doesn't feel safe or relieved at seeing him.

"Get some sleep, Rick," Daryl suggests. That's always the answer. To sleep means to see, and to see means to know. The visions are the only things keeping them alive.

Rick blinks and looks down at Death's hand as it reaches for him to ease him under. "No," he says, shaking his head, but he's shivering so badly that he can't move away. Death's fingertips touch his forehead and Rick feels his eyelids grow heavy, the heat of anger in his skull finally cooling to something seductive and welcoming like sleep or amnesia.

Sleep, Rick, Death whispers to him, and Rick falls under with another quiet whimper of protest that goes unheard.

 

Chapter Text

In the facility, everything was pre-planned and organized down to the last detail. There were sections of time dedicated to recreation, and exercise, and group therapy, and sleeping. Rick liked order, he liked having to be at certain places at certain times.

The halls are clear and empty, not even a janitor or nurse or ward there to block the monotony. Rick can see, at the end of the hallway, a pair of closed doors. Behind him, he hears the low hisses and growls of walkers. He's running, but no matter how fast he runs, he can't reach the doors and the implied safety that lies beyond them.

His legs are burning from running and his lungs ache with every unsteady inhale. He doesn't dare turn back to look at the horde that he knows is behind him, creeping their way closer. If he does look back, who will he even see? People he knows are dead, people who turned before his very eyes, or strangers? Would they even look like strangers, even if he had known them?

He can't reach the doors. He has no weapon. This must be a dream, but that doesn't mean he won't get eaten alive all the same. He has learned not to trust the separation of reality and dreamland anymore. If he can hurt himself, and if the horsemen can hurt him while he's asleep, then he most certainly can be turned by one of the walkers as well. Of that, he has no doubt.

Finally it feels like the doors are getting closer. If there is anything about himself he can trust, it's dogged determination. Drills and stake-outs have taught him the value of patience and head-down, eyes-forward progress. The snarls of the walkers behind him are getting closer as he nears the door and, with one final shove, he pushes himself through the doors and out into the light beyond.

Only the doors slam shut behind him, and it's nighttime when he flees the facility building. The recreation area separating the man building and Doctor Woodmore's office stretches beyond him like a canvas. The heat, despite it being nighttime, is sweltering.

He starts to sweat and keeps running, hearing the doors creak and groan behind him as the walkers pile against it, rabid for his flesh. His heart pounds in his head worse than drums on the morning after a night of drinking, piercing his skull more acutely than a hangover.

He stops at the door to Doctor Woodmore's building, breathing deeply, his hands on his knees.

"Rick."

It's Daryl's voice, but when Rick raises his eyes he knows that the man he's looking at is not Daryl. Even now, Pestilence can't trick him like he thinks he can. The eyes are too flat, they aren't nearly as beautiful as Daryl's are. The sweep of his hair is wrong. The smile is wrong.

"You're not real," he growls, turning away. Beyond Daryl's shoulder, the gates are wide open and the copse of trees on the other side of the road beckons him. He bolts for it just as the doors to the facility give way and the walkers come pouring out. He thinks, amidst the growls and hisses, he might hear utterances of his name. There's a bounty on his head – maybe the man who kills him gets to live again.

He runs into the trees, not caring for the way his bare feet snap twigs and he trips over rocks and clumps of leaves. He's uncoordinated, his muscles heavy with exhaustion. He has to keep moving. He has to keep moving.

He hears a whistle. It's not a whistle he's familiar with – it's high and sharp and long, and worms its way up his spine and into his head and he grits his teeth, head down against the trees as they move to embrace him and hold him still. Even nature is on Pestilence's side.

There's a clearing ahead and he runs for it, knowing what he's going to come to before he even gets there. He bursts into the open at the bottom of the field where the campfire sits. Rick is alone in the field, the campfire has turned to ashes in front of him. He feels a shadow at his back but his spine is too tight with fear to turn and look to see who is standing behind him. He's freezing cold so he hopes that it's Death, but honestly he can't be sure.

He hears a whistle that sounds like the rooster song and lifts his head, his throat dry and his voice cracking. "Daryl," he whispers. No response comes. By his side, Death's scythe lays abandoned as though it was dropped. He wants to reach for it but knows with dreadful certainly that as soon as he does, something terrible will happen.

He hears the shrill whinny of a horse and raises his head to the little rise of the hill, where the forest sprawls out beyond like a blanket of green, smothering the Earth. He sucks in a breath and takes a halting step back when he sees a white horse crest the hill, looking sickly and frail. It is still larger than Death's horse, though not as large as War's. Pestilence's needle-like staff flints in the ember light and Rick feels his blood go cold.

There's another sound, this horse roaring like an attacking bull, and Rick turns his head and sees War galloping towards him, sword raised up in preparation to strike him down. Rick dives to one side with a yell, scrambling for Death's scythe and lifting it up in preparation to defend himself. War's horse snorts, red eyes glowing as it dances to one side and around him, and runs up to join Pestilence on the hill.

So this is it. A united front. Rick grits his teeth and readies himself for their charge.

Pestilence's horse rears again, kicking wildly at the air, and steps to one side with a heavy snort and shake of its thin, white mane. Its eyes are black, as hollow as the void that was once in Famine's skull.

"Death was a fool to send you here," Pestilence hisses. Next to him War laughs. There's a helmet on his skull now, golden and fringed with red, but Rick can see his smirking jaw underneath the lowered eye piece.

"I'm not afraid of you," Rick says, the words a soft lie. War laughs again, brandishing his sword, and his horse tosses its head and paws the ground, eager for another charge. Rick raises his scythe and feels the weight of the weapon in his hands. Strange, for such a large and unwieldy weapon, it sits in his hands as easily as his pistol. It thrums with power.

Pestilence's horse snorts heavily and Rick feels a warmth touch his shoulder. He takes a step back and looks to the side, trying to keep the other horsemen in his periphery, and sees the soft, pale muzzle of a third horse. It's smaller and translucent, glittering in the ember light. It has only a saddle. No reins. Rick smiles.

"Hello, troublemaker," he says, and lets go of the scythe with one hand to touch the horse's cheek. The horse snorts and pushes its muzzle against Rick's side, ears perked forward and ready. Waiting.

"Now it's a real fight," War says with glee, his horse still nervously prancing, waiting for the order to charge. Rick hears the low growl of dogs although he cannot see their shapeless, demonic shadows rolling around War's feet. He looks back at them and heaves a breath, before he takes another step back until he is at line with his horse's saddle. It's comfortable-looking and light, for Death must be swift and at one with his animal.

Rick mounts it with a grunt, pulling the scythe up until it's in both hands again. His horse raises its head in readiness and War lets out a whoop of victory. Rick looks down at his hands. They're trembling. He hopes the animal beneath him can't feel his nervousness, as he finds the silver stirrups and tightens his thighs around the animal's shoulders.

He looks up and tries to feel Death's power inside of him. It's a heavy, cold thing, like being pulled down into the depths of the ocean with cement tied to your ankles. Certain, chilling, real. A community can exist without war, and without famine, and without disease and conquest, but everyone must die.

Rick raises his eyes. Even horsemen.

"I killed Famine," he says, and Pestilence bares his sharp teeth. His eyes click when they blink and he lets out a little hiss. "And I'll kill both of you, too."

He digs his heels into his horse's flanks and the animal lets out a quiet nicker, head raised proudly as it moves. War's fingers clench tightly on his animal's reins as the horse lets out another shrill cry, front feet pounding against the ground. Pestilence's horse is similarly antsy, though Rick can't tell if it's eager or afraid. Both of them seem reluctant to give the higher ground.

"I'm coming for you," Rick says, and points the scythe towards Pestilence. The horseman hisses at him again and digs his heels in and his horse rears, then bucks, head tossing from side to side. Pestilence's horse looks plain and frail next to War's and compared with the slow, even strides Death's horse is making, it looks panicked. Rick can feel the fear, and taste it in the air. It tastes like poison.

"You're a fool," Pestilence says again, baring his teeth. "Famine was weak, but I have never been stronger. I will end you."

"Awfully confident," Rick replies. He sits back in the saddle and his horse slows to a stop at the bottom of the hill. "I'm right here. Come and get me."

Pestilence grins and War lets out another bellowing laugh.

 

 

 

Rick jerks away with a yelp, sitting bolt upright in the back of the truck. Daryl turns to look at him, that same deep blue telling Rick that he is, definitely, in the land of the living and the land of reality. Merle is still whistling the rooster song and he sighs, closing his eyes and rubbing a hand through his hair.

"You weren't out for long," Daryl notes, his voice cutting quietly through Merle's singing.

"Famine is dead," Rick says without preamble, and when he lifts his head he sees Daryl's lips thin out and the man gives him a single, tight nod. "We're going to be walking right into a fight."

"What did you see?" Daryl asks.

Rick's eyes flash to the back of Merle's head, unsure how much he should be sharing with the man. He is Daryl's brother, and as trustworthy as he can be, Rick supposes, but he's still hesitant to go into too much detail about the things he sees or the things he knows. Merle doesn't know the whistle, the one that is just for him and Daryl, and Rick feels like, just as that whistle must solely belong to them, there are some things that only they must know as well.

"More of the same," he finally answers with a sigh, scratching at the back of his neck. His hands hurt, and when he looks down he sees the tender outlines of new calluses forming. He hadn't held his gun or used his hands for any hard labor in months, and as a result they have grown tender. He hopes they will harden soon, and become just as capable as the horseman who chose him to be his vessel in the new world.

Abruptly, Rick feels the truck slow down. "Motherfucker," Merle mutters. Rick lifts his head and Daryl turns around and lets out a soft curse of his own.

The road is blocked, cars overturned and walkers ambling among them in disorganized lines. A few have already been drawn by the sound of the truck and growl, shuffling in their direction. Rick's hands clench tightly and he grits his teeth.

You're a fool. Maybe he is.

"Is there a clear way?" he asks Merle, who can better see the angles of the cars and the traffic.

Merle grunts. "Maybe on the shoulder but no tellin' when that'll end."

"We gotta keep moving," Rick says, unable to hide the anxiety in his voice.

"Turn back, take the exit we just passed," Daryl says, reaching out to Merle. "I know another road we can take."

"You got it, lil bro," Merle says, altogether too cheerily, and throws the truck into reverse before he speeds backwards. Rick moves to one side so that he can see better and, sure enough, there's a road branching off to the right a few yards back. Merle turns onto it and the truck gives a hearty roar as they start to speed down it. There are walkers lining the roads here as well. A few of them get caught on the truck's bumper and hood, splattering across it and the windshield in varying shades of black and red.

Rick turns around and looks behind the truck. Around Daryl's motorcycle and their packed food and weapons and bedding, he sees the walkers group together and herd after them. He swallows thickly. "We're being corralled," he murmurs.

Daryl hums. "We can handle it," he says, and Rick isn't sure if he's speaking from certainty or just trying to sound confident to assure Rick. Still, it works, and Rick even manages a smile. His body aches as though the running in his dream was real.

Rick looks up when the truck slows again. "What's happening?" he asks, leaning between the brothers to stare out the front.

Merle narrows his eyes and lets out a curious hum. "You guys seein' that?" he asks, and gestures to the road. Rick squints, unable to see much through the shine of the sun through the windshield, but there's a definite black shape, sprawling across the road like tar. "What is that?"

Daryl tenses up and reaches for Merle again, fisting a hand tight in his brother's sleeve. "Merle, drive," he bites out. "Don't slow the car. Drive."

Merle obeys and Rick's eyes widen when he sees what exactly is making up the black mass on the road. When the truck starts juddering and bumping over the mass, he hears the sickening crunch and splat of small bodies being crushed under the weight.

"Rats," he whispers. "Rats. Pestilence sent rats."

"If they get into the car, we're fucked," Daryl says tightly. "They c'n rip out the wiring, stall the engine – Goddamnit Merle drive."

"I'm going as fast as I can," Merle replies with a yell, shoving Daryl's hand off his sleeve. Rick hears the engine revving and the truck lurches forward as best it can, and Rick winces at each squelch and shriek of the dying rats, but it's not enough. There's hundreds of them, maybe thousands, and slowly but surely they're going to overwhelm the truck.

"We need to get ready," Rick says, reaching into his bag and pulling out his extra pistols. Daryl already has his crossbow up and Rick hands the two of them knives and their other bladed weapons. They can't afford to lose ground with the walkers behind them.

He hears a heavy thud and yells. The windshield is cracked and Rick sees Merle flick on the windshield wipers, shoving the bloody, dead carcass of a raven onto the road to be overtaken by the rats. Pestilence's horde will eat well tonight, one way or another.

The truck sputters and hisses, slowing to a final stop, and the rats scatter away, their job finished. With a heavy string of curses, Merle slams his meaty hand against the steering wheel, before the three of them all pile out. Rick throws Daryl his bag and they grab what they can from the back of the truck but they have to move.

"This way!" Daryl yells, and Merle and Rick flee behind him and into the trees. A walker lunges at them from behind a tree and Rick fells it with a single blow from his machete. He yanks the blade out from the thing's skull and hurries to run after the brothers. His muscles are burning and it's hard to breathe in the heat. The sense of déjà vu is blistering on his skin and even though there's nothing he can do about it, it's most definitely a trap.

 

 

They run to the facility, hardly sparing a moment except to fell any walker that roams across their path. Rick doesn't think he's ever been so relieved to see the iron gates. They're splayed wide open like an invitation and the three of them hustle in, out of breath and sweating hard as the sun reaches its peak above them.

Once inside, the air is eerily quiet and Rick doesn't see a single other living thing. It feels…wrong. He keeps his pistol ready, looking around as though expecting a herd of walkers to jump out at them from behind any building. But it's quiet, and still. It's almost peaceful, like an empty church or a silent classroom.

Rick's skin prickles and Daryl looks over at him and gives him a nod. Rick nods back and presses his lips together.

"Well, this is…" Merle huffs, hefting his blade up onto his shoulder, and lets out a low whistle. "This is where you was workin', huh lil bro?"

"Be quiet, Merle," Daryl hisses, giving him a sharp glare.

Rick whirls around when he hears a door opening. It's the door to the main facility and he raises his gun, ready to fire at whatever Hell comes pouring out of it. The area beyond is dark and Rick sees movement, his hand tightening on his gun as he raises it and the shape comes shuffling out.

It's a walker, Rick can see that immediately, but it's not hissing or growling like the rest of them normally do. In fact, it's almost eerily quiet. Rick's eyes widen when the walker moves out into the light and Rick can see his face – or, at least, what's left of it.

"Oh my God," Daryl whispers, and Rick feels him at his shoulder, Merle taking Daryl's other side.

"Oh, boys! Glad you could make it."

Rick turns around, trusting Daryl or Merle to keep an eye on the walker as it shuffles to a stop just outside Doctor Woodmore's building. He's not sure what he expects to see – maybe the white horse, its rider sitting tall and strong, ready to run them down. Maybe the doctor from his dreams.

One thing he's certain of, whoever is standing before him, whatever he's seeing, it is definitely Pestilence. His stomach turns with nausea as soon as he looks at the wretched thing. The walker's disease has taken over the man's face, turning it into a black and wasted-looking thing. There's rabies-like foam at the corners of the man's mouth and blood down his lab coat, mixing with the black goo. The man was once heavy and tall, and Rick's eyes narrow as he smiles at them, his hand twitching and tapping six times against his thigh.

He sucks in a breath when he realizes who, exactly, he's looking at. "Doctor Woodmore," he whispers, and hears Daryl turn around.

The man smiles more widely at him, face splitting in two. "Well, Rick, I'm flattered. I know I don't look my best, but it's nice to see that you still recognize me." He steps forward into the sunlight. The letter opener that Daryl drove into his skull is still sticking out and Rick knows that if he turned, he'd see the caved-in mess that Daryl's shoe left behind.

Of course, he thinks. Only a horseman can kill another horseman.

The walker behind him hisses and Doctor Woodmore snaps his fingers in quick succession, six times, and the hissing stops. "Now, James, behave yourself," he says, and Rick turns to see that the walker is, indeed, James. His heart twists and he feels something very close to sadness bubbling up in his throat. Poor, sweet James. Is he still suffering? Does he know what he's doing? As the first of his kind, is he more aware?

"Rick, Daryl…" Doctor Woodmore blinks, pale eyes landing on Merle. "I'm sorry. I don't know you. You're…unexpected."

"Don't say anything," Daryl whispers before Merle can speak.

Behind Doctor Woodmore, Rick sees the shadow of his white horse cast against the building. It's gone in a flash, as quick as a blink or a heartbeat, but Rick knows he saw it. Doctor Woodmore smiles at him again. Gone is the genteel, benevolent air of the man he had spoken with so often and about so much. Of course, this is how Pestilence knows so much about him, and what he sees, and what he knows. He has always known. He's been watching Rick, guiding him, trying to cure him.

"If you'd succeeded, I wouldn't be here," Rick says, taking a step forward and raising his pistol to point at Pestilence's smiling face. From this far away it's not a guaranteed headshot but Rick will take his chances. "You tried to make me think it was all in my head, you son of a bitch."

Doctor Woodmore chuckles. "You were making such progress, Rick," he says, and spreads his hands out as though he's the kindly father welcoming home his prodigal son. Rick takes another step forward and bares his teeth, fighting the urge to snarl at the man. He feels anger, burning hot in his blood, betrayal at the new knowledge that if he had been a little less sure, if Death had been a little less present, he might not be standing here. He wouldn't have Daryl, his family wouldn't be safe and alive. They might all have died, slaughtered at the hands of Pestilence and right under the damned man's smiling mouth.

"You're outnumbered, Woodmore," Daryl says, and Rick sees the point of his crossbow similarly raised. He hopes Merle is keeping an eye on James at their backs. James has been silent, but Rick can feel him edging closing, can feel the tension mounting like a slowly tightening elastic band. "We're gonna put you down."

Pestilence laughs. "Outnumbered?" he asks, and then raises his hand and snaps his fingers again. Abruptly Rick flinches back as a walker appears before him, a half-hearted lunge and his reflexes the only thing saving his outstretched arm. He pulls his arm back and retreats to Daryl's side.

There are hundreds of walkers, abruptly surrounding them. Rick blinks and shakes his head. It can't be real. It isn't real. They would have heard them, or smelled them, or Death would have told him that they were around. How could they have walked into the middle of a Goddamn horde and not known the Hell that surrounded them?

"It's not real," he whispers to Daryl, who is looking between the walkers surrounding them like a nervous animal. Merle's back hits Rick's and Rick turns his head to catch the man's eyes. He sees in them the same certainty that Rick himself has come to wear like a cloak, and abruptly accepts the same truth.

This is Pestilence's realm now. They can't trust what they see. "It's not real," he says again, but doesn't dare strike at the first walker. They're around them in a tight circle, hundreds of them as far as Rick can tell, but through them all he can see Doctor Woodmore still smiling.

"I hope you brought enough ammo, boys!" Woodmore says with a happy wave. Rick growls and tightens his fist around his gun, readying himself for the fight. "James, take care of this rabble."

James lets out a soft, whimpering snarl, and Rick feels the cold in his head spread out down to his arm. This is it. They have to make it to Pestilence. He has to kill him.

"I told you you were a fool, Rick Grimes," Pestilence says. "You'll never reach me."

And then he turns and walks back into the building, and the walkers let up a snarl of anticipation. Just as the door closes, the first walker lunges for them, and Rick raises his gun and fires.

Chapter Text

The shot fells one walker, its hissing abruptly going silent as it slides to the ground amidst its brothers. Rick lets out a low curse and dodges the lunge of another, bringing his machete down in a wide arc and slicing through its head. He feels like he can't see – all there is to see are black, shapeless masses of the dead and then, among them, Daryl and Merle shining like white lights, their souls illuminating their vessels in Rick's eyes.

He feels incredibly cold despite the high sun and the warm air. His arm hardly feels like a part of him as he slashes through another walker. A bolt flies past his head and lands between the eyes of yet another and then Rick hears Daryl curse, shouldering his crossbow in favor of closer-ranged weapons. In this tight mass, there's no time to reload, even for Daryl.

"We need to get outta here!" Merle yells, and Rick can hear in him the dreadful certainty of what they're facing. He thinks of the shadow at Merle's back, how it had touched him and marked him for death. Perhaps Rick is a harbinger now, not only there to guide people into the next life but to lead them like sheep to slaughter. Daryl would never forgive him if Merle died because of him.

The path clears just for a second and he sees the doors through which Doctor Woodmore had disappeared, and he bares his teeth in an unearthly snarl. "We have to get inside," he says to Daryl, who nods, his lips a tight line. The walkers are grabbing at his arms, tearing his flesh with their nails. Their sickness will get inside of him, he knows this. Soon he will get feverish, soon everything will feel chilled. He won't be able to fight. Then he won't be able to walk. Then stand.

He has to get to Pestilence. If nothing else, he is the strongest horseman right now. Death has been robbed of his power, mocked with every walker Rick sees. War, too, is strong but not nearly at his height. The skirmishes among men are fickle and instinctive right now. There's little premeditation, but soon there will grow armies, and battlefields, and grounds littered with not just dead, but undead as well. Rick believes that the world might survive with War at its helm, but not Pestilence. He has to get to Pestilence.

"On me!" he yells, brandishing his machete and bringing it down into the skull of another walker. Daryl's heat is at his shoulder, and he hears Merle's grunts of effort as he fights on Rick's other side. "This way, come on!"

"Merle, let's go," Daryl growls, and Rick reaches out to grab onto Daryl's leather vest and hauls him behind Rick. The man stumbles and Rick kicks at another walker as it lunges at them, sending it to the floor. These walkers are not like the others. They're smarter, and faster, or at least more organized. Rick can't fight the feeling that, even as they win each hard-fought inch towards the door, they're being taunted and teased.

Merle lets out a hearty roar, pulling out his gun and shooting wildly into the mass of walkers. This close there's no missing, of course, but not every shot is a headshot. It hardly matters. Rick lets go of Daryl and grabs his pistol, firing at the ones directly in front of him. There's too many, and they don't have enough ammo.

The mass breaks and Rick bolts for the door, breathing hard and shoving every walker that lunges at him to one side. He breaches the steps and turns around, his back to the door, to see Merle and Daryl still firmly stung in the throng.

He fires his gun again, killing a walker that was almost at Merle's throat. Daryl reaches the steps mere moments later and Rick keeps firing.

Daryl shoves him towards the door, his crossbow once again ready. "Go!" he yells. "Go, end this! Merle and I will be fine!"

"What?" Rick demands, as Daryl lifts his crossbow and slays a half-made walker crawling towards their feet. The walkers seem much more intent on Merle, with the lower ground and with less of the advantage. Rick can't leave Daryl, if he leaves Daryl, he won't be able to protect him and he might die.

Daryl huffs a breath and shoots another arrow. His arms are bloody and there's black blood on his face and slick in his hair. "Rick, go," he demands, his eyes stormy and dark. He puts his shoulder between Rick and the walkers and leans backwards so that Rick is forced to lean against the door and it starts to creak open. "The sooner you end this…"

"Daryl, I can't leave you -."

"Just fucking go!" Daryl hisses, shoving Rick bodily against the door and Rick stumbles inside. The door slams behind him as though someone yanked it closed and Rick flings himself against it, yanking at the handle and beating his gun against the door.

"Daryl!" he yells, panic setting in harshly behind his eyes. He imagines his is what a rabbit stuck in a snare feels like before it chokes to death. He slams his shoulder against the door but it doesn't give, as if there's a great weight against it. It should at least move, just a little. Even Daryl wouldn't be able to keep the door completely sealed. "Daryl!"

Rick hears a laugh. It sounds like a child, a young one, and the hairs on his nape start to slowly rise. He breathes out, resting his forehead against the cool door. His hands are trembling so badly that his gun rattles against the metal of the door.

Then, he turns. The halls look the same as he always remembered them, except now they're gross with blood and black goo from the massacre that took place. The one he started. He sucks in a breath and looks down at his arms, his shredded clothes. The walkers had tried to rip his very skin off him, but don't they know that to render him down to bare bone means to make him even more powerful?

He hears the laugh again and lifts his eyes as he sees a child run across the hallway, between the corridor leading to the recreation room and the area that leads down to the janitor's ward and the kitchens. The silhouette of the child is unmistakable, even without the askew Sherriff's hat Rick would know who Pestilence is trying to make him see.

"Your tricks won't work on me," he growls, tightening his grip on his gun. He blinks and sucks in another deep breath. Without Daryl and Merle there it will be much harder for him to tell what is real, and what's just in his head. Would it matter?

He walks slowly down the corridor, expecting an ambush at any second. At this point it wouldn't surprise him to suddenly walk into another throng of walkers. Pestilence must not have expected him to separate from his pack – and truthfully, Rick would never do such a thing. Pestilence knows many of his darkest secrets. He knows how Rick thinks, what Rick values, the things that Rick would never do.

He hears another sound. It's moaning, but not that of the dead. His fingers twitch and he cocks his head to one side, turning towards a closed door. There's a bloody handprint smeared across the glass window so he can't look inside, but the lights are one.

The moan comes again, higher-pitched this time, and Rick reaches out and flings the door open, his gun raised. He lowers it when he sees what, exactly, is inside. It's Shane and Lori, tightly intertwined on one of the long tables in the room. Lori's eyes are closed, her head thrown back in a familiar expression of rapture.

Shane looks up and grins at him.

Rick shakes his head and sighs, moving away from the door. "You're a shitty therapist," he says to the empty air. The sound of Shane and Lori's moans fades away and the light in the room abruptly snaps off. Then, Rick hears a scream.

He darts down the hallway and kicks open another door. The room is empty, and Rick hears another cry.

"Dad! Dad, help!"

Rick knows it's not real. It can't be real, because Carl isn't here. Unless…

Unless Shane moved them all. Maybe Carl got kidnapped. Maybe he is here. Rick winces when he hears the voice of his son give another sharp scream, and then comes the sound of walkers closing in on their kill. Rick's blood turns icy and he runs towards the recreation room, where the screams and growls at coming from. He slams his shoulder against the door but it doesn't give, as though something is blocking it. Rick slams his hand against the door and lets out a frustrated sound.

He runs a bloody hand through his hair and turns away from the sound of his son's screams. He has to find Pestilence. He has to…he has to…

"Rick!"

It's Daryl's voice and Rick feels his knees weaken with relief. Daryl rounds the corner, wild-eyed and frantic, and slows when he sees Rick, his back to the door, half-collapsed. "Rick," Daryl says again, coming over to him, and Rick closes his eyes and falls to his knees as Daryl runs to him and skids to his knees as well, catching Rick before he can collapse completely.

"I'm here," Daryl says. He's breathing hard and reeks of death, his face and arms soaked in walker blood. There are no scratches on his arms, no bites that Rick can see. He's safe. Rick's hands land in a shaky touch on Daryl's body and he clings tightly, choking on a sob. Daryl's hand threads through Rick's hair and he holds him tightly. "It's okay. I'm here. I'm here."

His voice is low and soothing and calm and Rick chokes on another breath, lifting his eyes to look at Daryl's face. He swallows hard, looking down, and then back up when Daryl leans their foreheads together. "You alright?" Daryl asks, and Rick nods, swallowing hard again.

Daryl smiles. "We gotta go."

Rick blinks and lets Daryl haul him to his feet. "Where's Merle?" he asks, wiping his face with one dirty forearm. Daryl looks at him, his face carefully impassive, and Rick frowns and asks again; "Daryl, where's Merle?"

"He." Daryl coughs, looking away. "He didn't make it."

Rick licks his lips, his hand still tightly fisted in Daryl's clothes. "Daryl," Rick says, and Daryl turns back to look at him. There are no tears. The tightness of his mouth is off. Rick blinks and shakes his head, cocking it to one side. "Whistle for me."

Daryl takes a step back, scoffing, and Rick lets his hand fall, numbly. It clenches and Rick tightens his grip on his gun. "Whaddya playin' at, Rick?" he asks, shifting his weight anxiously. Rick can hear the groan of walkers behind him, closing in on their position. "We gotta go. Come on!"

"No," Rick says, jerking his hand away when Daryl reaches for him again, and Daryl growls out another frustrated noise. "Whistle. Our whistle. C'mon." Daryl scoffs again, shaking his head, and nervously taps his fingers against his leg. Six times. Rick realizes, abruptly, that Daryl doesn't have his crossbow.

He could have lost it in the fray.

No.

"Whistle," Rick growls, raising his gun and holding it at the level of Daryl's eyes. Everything in him screams against the act but his gut is hard and tense, his arm is freezing cold. Death would never let him kill his beloved friend and disciple wrongly. Death wouldn't let him. Pestilence is tricking him. Again.

Daryl licks his lips, his eyes wide on the gun. "You gonna shoot me?" Daryl whispers, his voice perfectly young, afraid, tender. "Rick…" He reaches forward and touches Rick's wrist and Rick bites his lower lip so hard he can taste blood.

His head hurts. When he looks at Daryl he doesn't see the shine of him. He sees something ugly on his skin, yellowy just below. He can hear the shrill whinny of a horse somewhere in the halls. "Whistle," Rick says, "or I'll put you down."

"You're gonna kill me," Daryl whispers, taking a step back. "Fuck, Rick, you know me!"

Rick closes his eyes and looks away, squeezing the trigger. His gun's shot echoes deafeningly in the quiet space and the growls of the walkers go abruptly silent. Rick sucks in a harsh breath and opens his eyes, looking down at the body he just planted a bullet in.

It still looks like Daryl, blue eyes wide and staring in disbelieve at Rick. Rick drops his gun, the weapon falling to the floor with a clatter, and falls to his knees by Daryl's side. "No," he says, petting Daryl's hair back. There's a single line of blood from the hole in his head and Rick grabs his face with both hands, lifting up the limp body and shaking it. "It's not him!" he yells at the corpse. "Show yourself, you fucking coward!"

It wasn't him.

It can't have -.

No.

Daryl!

Rick feels tears welling up in his eyes, hot and burning as they run down his face and drop onto Daryl's cheeks. He puts his forehead against the man's and sucks in a breath, his shoulders heaving with unsteady sobs as he cries. "It's not real," he says, petting through Daryl's hair.

What happens when I can't see you?

What if Daryl had been whistling the whole time?

"Oh, God…" Rick lets him go, falling back against the wall, and shudders through another broken sob. His soul feels like it's been torn apart. His chest has been ripped open and it feels like thousands of walkers are ripping his chest and lungs apart atom by careless atom. He can't breathe, he can't see. His hands are shaking and Daryl's blue eyes pierce him, accusing and so wide open. "No, no, no!"

"Rick!"

Rick jerks to one side, flinching when he hears Daryl's voice. He covers his ears and shuts his eyes tightly. "No, no," he screams. "I can't. I can't -. Just kill me!"

"Rick!"

There's a hand on his face that isn't his own and it's gentle and warm. Rick closes his eyes even more tightly shut and shakes like a newborn lamb under the touch. His breathing is unsteady and if his eyes were open, his vision would be clouded around the edges from lack of air. He feels dizzy and insane.

"Just kill me," he begs, shaking his head again.

The touch fades away and Rick sucks in a breath, opening his eyes. The corpse is still staring at him, but the eyes aren't that familiar, gorgeous blue anymore. They're whited out with a thin ghost of blue still left behind. The hair is black and greasy, not with blood or goo but naturally that way. The mouth is slack, brown with dried blood. It's James.

Rick shoves himself away from the body and whines. A shadow falls across James' body and Rick looks up into the familiar void of Death's eye sockets. He feels weak, but now it's with relief. His broken chest is slowly mending itself back together, his mind has ceased its frantic gallop and has slowed, sides heaving, steaming with sweat.

"Am I dead?" he asks, as Death holds out his hand and Rick touches his bony fingers.

Death chuckles. No, he replies. But you wish you were.

"I did," Rick says, and looks at James' body as he gets pulled to his feet. He bends down and picks up his gun. "I thought…"

I know what you thought.

"It wasn't real." Relief washes through Rick like a warm current, like electricity. Rick closes his eyes and heaves in a shuddering, heavy breath. The weight of loss hangs over him and he knows he will never be able to erase the image of Daryl's lifeless body in his arms away from his mind, but it's being replaced with knowledge and hate.

How dare Pestilence try and use Death's gift to him against him.

There is still work to be done here, Death says.

"Wait," Rick says as Death starts to fade away. The skull cocks to one side and Rick rolls his shoulders and tilts his head far enough that it cracks, before he straightens up. He holds out a hand. "Give me your scythe."

Death doesn't move, as though Rick is merely looking at a statue of him. Rick presses his lips together and forces his hand not to shake. Death looks down at the corpse of James, then back up at Rick. It is not time for that, yet, Death finally says.

"Yet?" Rick asks.

Soon, Death replies with a nod. He steps forward and takes Rick's head in his bony, chilled hands, and Rick closes his eyes when he feels the cold bone of the skull's teeth rest briefly against his forehead. For others, Rick uses it as a reassuring blessing to guide them into the next life, and this feels like much of the same.

Then Death is gone, and Rick stifles a low growl and grabs a tight hold of his weapon. Without Death's scythe, this is the next best thing. He turns to find the door he had been trying to open before standing wide open, a dark void lying just beyond. Rick narrows his eyes and, with one last look to James, steps into it.

He has never been afraid of the dark. The doors close behind him and Rick feels utterly blind, but he is not afraid.

"You're a coward," he hisses. He knows the layout of the recreation room by heart and navigates even the askew tables and fallen stools and benches easily. He hears a horse snorting somewhere to his left and lifts his gun, ready to fire. There's a single bullet left before he has to reload, so he has to make it count.

"You're a fool," comes Pestilence's hissing voice. There's no trace of human left to it – it speaks like a swarm of flies, and Rick winces at the sound. His toes hit the edge of a table and he stops, sure that he's in the center of the room. "Do you think you can kill me?"

"You're a dirty, fucking rotten, piece of shit and I will kill you," Rick snarls. "I'll hunt you like a fucking dog."

Pestilence laughs, and Rick has to close his eyes, shielding them with his free hand when the room is abruptly swarmed with bright light. The windows have been shattered and Rick blinks rapidly, trying to get his eyes to adjust. He sees a shape by one of the windows and aims his gun there. It's fuzzy and he won't dare shoot until he knows just who, exactly, he's shooting at.

The shadow turns and Pestilence laughs again. "You're just as arrogant as Death is," he says, and Rick finally starts to see detail to the shape. The round, bulbous eyes of a fly blink at him and Rick can see his sharp, needle-like teeth in his jaw.

Rick lifts his gun, prepared to fire, but Pestilence holds up a hand and Rick stops. "You may not have killed him, but Daryl and your friend are dead," he says, and Rick takes a step back. The words feel like he's been shot all over again. "If you'd like, you can come to the window and see."

"You'll trick me again," Rick says, but he finds himself walking to the window anyway, his gun still on the shape of Doctor Woodmore. He casts his gaze outside and sees a mess of slaughtered walkers, but no sign of Merle or Daryl. They would have likely been eaten alive. Rick sees Daryl's crossbow laying on the steps and swallows harshly, trying to shake the image of planting a bullet in his skull away from his mind.

"You know, Rick, I admire you," Pestilence says. "You're determined, I'll give you that. I can make all your dreams come true if you'd let me."

Rick shakes his head harshly. It feels like there's a fly buzzing around inside of his skull. It's making it difficult to listen to what Pestilence is saying. His vision is starting to blur and vibrate and Rick lifts his free hand, stifling a cough behind the back of his hand. The cough doesn't go away though, but worsens, until he's doubling over and fighting for breath. There's blood on his hand, fresh and red, and he spits a wad out of his mouth as he hears Pestilence laugh.

"I can give you a nice room here, Rick," he says, "to enjoy your final hours. Unbothered, no worries. I can give you whatever you want. I could give you your family, your friends, even that pretty archer you're so enamored with."

"F-fuck you," Rick says, hardly able to speak or breathe from coughing. He grabs at the glass-strewn windowsill and feels his legs collapse, bones in his ankles snapping, and cries out harshly.

Pestilence laughs, letting out a little tutting sound. He rests a hand on Rick's shoulder and Rick hisses when his skin aches and burns where Pestilence touches him. He looks to one side and sees his skin break out in a burning red rash, the veins in his arms turning black.

"What – what are you doing -?" His question is cut off by another harsh coughing fit. He heaves, spitting up another wad of blood and hisses, baring his bloody teeth. He rolls over onto his back and cries out when his shattered ankles and brittle bones crack and snap from the movement. He feels like his fingers might break under the weight of his own gun.

"Rick…" Pestilence sighs, crouching in front of him. "I am…your master." He cocks his head to one side and smiles. "You agree to stop this foolish crusade and I can make you whole again. I can give you everything you want. All you have to do…" He smiles, baring his sharp teeth, his giant eyes blinking, the clicking sound almost hypnotic. Rick's vision is starting to blur and he heaves in another gasp. It feels like his lungs are full of blood and he can't get the air. "Is agree. That's the first step."

Rick bares his teeth, grimacing, and closes his eyes. The rash is spreading across his chest and his heartbeat feels off-kilter, his body screaming at him from the pulverizing of his bones and the abrasions on his chest. It feels like fire, like plague, spreading through his body, and he knows that Pestilence is the cause – that being around him is making Rick sick, not just in mind, but in body as well.

"Just agree to stop," Pestilence says again, coaxing and gentle like the final sleep before death. "And so will I."

Rick opens his eyes again, although it takes all of his might to do so, and heaves in a slow, uneven breath. "I…" He can't speak, he can't spare the strength. All of his might is going to forcing his broken, inactive joints and muscles to move.

"I…"

"Yes?" Pestilence asks, leaning in.

Rick coughs again, his eyes closing as he feels unconsciousness start to seep into him. This is how it felt when he was bleeding out on the tarmac after being shot. This is how it felt when he first woke up from his coma, so unsteady and unsure but he remembers Shane leaning over him, begging him to hang out, to stay just a little longer.

Just a little longer.

He forces his eyes open all the way so that he can see Pestilence's face in sharp clarity. "No," he whispers, and aims the gun in his lap and squeezes the trigger with all his might. The ricochet is enough to snap his wrist and he collapses with a hiss of pain, as the bullet flies into the underside of Pestilence's skull and the insect's face explodes right in front of Rick. Blood and pus land on his skin and Rick's arm falls, limp, as the blackness takes over and he closes his eyes.

He doesn't know how long he's there for. When Pestilence falls, whatever sicknesses he'd inflicted upon Rick fade away, but their effects remain. His wrist and ankles are shattered, his skin is still burning even as the rash begins to dull and cool, fading away. His lungs feel free, abruptly, and the rush of air spark another harsh coughing fit that he can't find the strength to stifle.

That is how Daryl and Merle find him, barely clinging to consciousness. "Holy fuck," Daryl whispers, running in and sliding to a halt by Rick's side. Rick turns his head and blinks up at him, too tired to speak, and Daryl kneels down and takes Rick's head in his hands. "Rick, I'm here."

Rick manages a weak smile, lifting his broken wrist and wincing at the pain. His hand lands limply on Daryl's face. "Whistle," he rasps, no volume to his voice, and Daryl blinks and does, immediately – low, high, low.

Rick's smile cracks and he feels his eyes filling with tears, and then Daryl is holding him as he sobs, but they're dry, heavy sobs that wrack his entire body. Each cry sends electric throbs of pain down his whole core, down to his injured arms and legs. He feels like he can't breathe even though his lungs are clear. Daryl's scent is sharp and dirty, his skin slick with blood, but his breathing is steady and he's warm under Rick's hands.

"Daryl, I…" Rick has to tell him what he saw, what he did, but not now. Now, he can barely get the energy to move, much less speak. "It's done," he finally manages. "He's dead. It's done."

"Yeah, c'n see that," Merle says, nudging the Doctor's corpse, and he sucks in a breath. "Well, nutterbutter, I'll admit I think y'all ten shades of crazy glue, but…but there's some things a man just can't unsee, I guess."

"Can you move?" Daryl asks.

Rick shakes his head. "Not on my own," he replies. "Maybe they'll heal. I don't know."

Daryl nods, and then shifts his weight so that he's sitting by Rick's side instead, carefully adjusting them so that a lot of Rick's weight is supported by his chest and his arms. "Heard your gun go off, then they all just…dropped," Daryl says, knowing Rick is thinking that they should move. The danger is still here, after all.

Rick nods and Daryl presses his face against Rick's sweaty hair and closes his eyes.

"We can take one of the other cruisers," Rick says, remembering that there are two cars still outside that he and Daryl hadn't pilfered that would still work. They can go back to the truck and get their supplies and Daryl's motorcycle and keep moving once Rick is able to move. He feels Daryl nod and sighs, closing his eyes when Daryl's hand tightens in his hair.

"Don't think about that," Daryl says. "We'll handle it. Just rest."

He presses a kiss to Rick's hair and Rick smiles. Just before he closes his eyes he sees Death join in watch by Merle's side, and lifts his head to look at the horseman as the skull grins down at him.

Well done, Rick. Very well done.

Chapter Text

After the adrenaline dies down, the three of them are tired to the core. Merle barricades the door and the windows, though shattered, are still barred and relatively safe. Rick still can't find the energy to move or try moving. His body feels weak and as thin as spun glass.

Daryl checks him over and tells him that other than his wrist, nothing is actually broken. "It's all in yer head," he says, but Rick can't convince himself of that. Of course, there's no swelling around his ankles. His skin, though still red from the rash, isn't burning and blistered anymore. His lungs can expand and take in air as easily as they ever have.

His wrist is shattered, however, and Daryl wraps Rick's spare shirt tightly around a piece of a broken chair leg and fixes his wrist against it in a makeshift brace. It's an ugly purple color and throbs dully in time to his heartbeat. He can't feel anything in his fingertips and he can't move his hand at all, even before they put the brace on it.

He hopes it will heal in time, but has to think about the fact that he might not ever be able to use his right hand as he did before. He'll have to start practicing shooting with his left in the immediate future anyway, and using his left hand to use his other weapons.

He sighs and closes his eyes, tilting his head back so that it rests against the windowsill. Daryl is by his side, curled up as comfortably as a fox in his burrow, and Merle is sitting across from them, chewing absently on what Rick can only assume is a stale piece of candy he swiped from the bowl on the reception desk.

Rick thinks about the one time Old Ken tried to get a piece of the candy, said it was the sweetest candy in the world and reminded him of his younger days. He'd tried to bribe Carl once to swipe him a piece. Old Ken was one of those dangerous ones, the ones where everything has an ulterior motive. If Rick were to meet him on the street now, he'd put Old Ken down whether he was a walker or not.

He shifts his weight and stifles a hissing growl when his entire body shrieks in pain. Daryl tells him that his ankles and legs are fine, that the only thing really hurt is his wrist, but Rick can't make himself believe it. It hurts, and he wonders how long it'll take before it doesn't hurt anymore. The effects of Famine had been gone as soon as the man had died – but, really, who could say for sure? Were they not all still hungry, still thirsty, still desperately longing for something?

Daryl lifts his head and, after a moment, gently rests it on the windowsill next to Rick's, his eyes on the ceiling. "You think the group's still back at the quarry?"

Merle scoffs. "Probably ditched us 'fore our dust settled."

Rick can't help letting out a hum of agreement. "Shane was bound to leave," he says. "I did pull a gun on him, after all." His throat feels tight and his voice is hoarse from screaming, and running, and breathing in what felt like blood and tar. He clears his throat and winces, giving another grateful nod when Daryl passes a bottle of water into his good hand and he takes a sip from the open container. He downs half of it and his throat feels a little better.

He tilts the water bottle back to right and hands it back, before his eyes meet Merle's. "So Daryl told you…about all this," he says, gesturing vaguely and wincing when his broken hand gives a dull throb of protest at the action.

Merle nods, letting out a soft, low whistle. "'Course, I thought it was crazy," he says with a single nod. He squares his jaw and looks away, lips pressed together for a moment. "Still do." He rubs his hand against the scruff on his face and then looks back to Rick and Daryl. Rick can see his eyes flashing between them. "But just cause it's crazy don't mean it ain't right, right?"

"Right," Rick says with a smile, before he rolls his head around to look at the side of Daryl's face. Daryl's eyes catch his out of the corner and he sees the other man's mouth twitch in a smirk. "So it's cool for you to tell people about my shit, but I'm not allowed to?"

Daryl huffs. "Kinda different when Merle's insistent on accompanyin' our sorry asses on these things," Daryl says with an unapologetic shrug. Rick isn't angry, of course he's not, he could never be angry at Daryl, but he can't help but think that Daryl is treating him the same way Lori and Shane do – like he's too fragile to handle himself, or to handle anyone else.

Rick hums and straightens himself up again, wincing in pain. Merle stands, abruptly, clapping his hands on his thighs. "I'm gonna go scout for some food," he announces, grabbing one of the extra pistols and Rick's machete. "You kids don't have too much fun while I'm gone."

"One of us should go with you," Daryl says, but it's a half-hearted protest and he doesn't make to stand.

"Okay, either the gimp comes with me or we leave him on his own," Merle replies over his shoulder, grinning at Daryl and gesturing towards him with the machete. "Your choice, lil bro. I'll be fine. Don't get into any good fights without me!"

He moves the chairs and tables away from the door that they'd used to barricade it shut and squeezes through. Daryl gets up just long enough to put most of it back into place – it won't stop a determined Merle getting back in but it's enough to deter an ambling walker. Not that there should be any, anymore – Daryl had said they'd all dropped when Pestilence died. Rick can't think of a single reason why any of them would stick around here.

Daryl comes back and sits against the wall like Rick is, as close to him as they can manage with Rick's limbs screaming in pain and unable to rest naturally. He has one leg splayed out to his side, straightened, and the other is bent but resting in the opposite direction so he looks like a lazy schoolchild sprawled behind his desk. His broken wrist is resting in his lap, his good arm settled against his bent leg and twitching with the urge to rub at his injured arms. The wounds dealt from the walkers faded too, as though they were never there. He was never scratched, never infected. He won't get a fever. He won't die.

None of them will die today.

He looks over at Daryl again. The other man has his eyes fixed on the open water bottle and he's holding it with both hands, thumbs idly toying with the little plastic ring around the opening. The cap is long-gone, flung somewhere once Daryl deemed the water here undrinkable. They wouldn't be refilling here. Something about goo in the faucets.

Rick reaches out to him and rests a hand on his wrist. Daryl's hands stop their fidgeting and he looks up, his hair falling across his face. Rick raises a hand and pushes his hair away so that he can see Daryl's eyes. Daryl looks worried, his eyes darting down to Rick's hurt arm, then his chest, then back up again and then down, like he can't hold Rick's gaze for too long. His shoulders are hunched in and he keeps licking his lips like his mouth is dry.

Rick frowns. "What's wrong?" he asks.

Daryl swallows hard enough Rick can hear his throat click. "I wanna touch you," he says, and Rick blinks and cock his head to one side in question. "Merle and I were bangin' on that door for…fuck, felt like hours. We fought our way through and I kept hearin' you screamin'. Merle didn't hear it, so I knew it was just in my head, but I just kept…hearin' it…"

Daryl shakes his head and looks away, stifling a growl of frustration. He sets the water bottle down and runs his hands through his hair and glares at the corpse of Pestilence still sitting mere feet from them. The body reeks of death and decay, the blood long-dry and black now. Soon they will need to move just to get away from the smell, but for now Rick can ignore it.

"And you were screamin' and I knew he was hurting you, he was killin' you and I couldn't do a Goddamn thing and then the door finally opened and you were just…sittin' there, and I thought – for a good long minute, I thought you were dead."

Rick can hear the tears in his voice, and when Daryl turns his head he can see the shine of them there. He reaches out and Daryl takes his hand in both of his and holds it tightly.

"And then you were breathin' and all I could think was thank God. God, how fucked up is that? It ain't God that's puttin' you through all this, and it ain't God that's lettin' you do what ya do. It ain't Death, or any other cosmic force bullshit. And I just…I just need to -."

He doesn't say anything else, and Rick, for perhaps the first time, finds himself at a loss to fill in the blank spaces. But what he does know is that Daryl is hurting and desperately needs him, and Rick is incapable of moving.

It's all in your head.

Rick sits up, the sharp pain of his injured limbs protesting the action vehemently, and leans his forehead against Daryl's shoulder. Daryl is still holding his hand tightly, their fingers interlaced, and Rick can feel the gentle tremble in his shoulders that means he's holding back sobs. He thinks back to mere hours before, when he had been little more than a wreck in the hallway for a similar reason.

He sighs and closes his eyes.

"Daryl, I need to tell you something," he says.

Daryl's breathing hitches and Rick straightens up so that he can look into Daryl's eyes. Rick sighs and looks down, biting his lower lip hard enough to hurt, steeling himself for what he's about to say. He doesn't think Daryl would leave him, but this story might test Daryl's trust in him and to lose that would break Rick in a way he's not sure he would ever be prepared for.

"I killed you," Rick says.

Daryl's fingers tighten between his and Rick lifts his eyes.

"I…was outside a door, and you called for me, and I was scared because I was hearing Carl yelling for me and I knew it wasn't real – just like you did. But you were there and you felt so real. And I thought it was you but then I didn't think it was you and I shot you and -."

He breaks off, taking a deep breath.

"Death saved me," Rick says. "I thought – for one stupid, crazy minute, I thought I had actually killed you. That I'd been wrong, and Pestilence had double-played me. And I wanted, God, I wanted so badly to die. I was begging for it."

"Rick -."

"Please, let me finish," Rick says, pulling his hand away from Daryl's and resting it lightly on his arm instead. "I saw you die. I was the one to do it. And if it hadn't been for Death, I probably would'a gotten eaten or killed out there too. So…I guess I'm just sayin' that…you shouldn't put that much faith in me."

Daryl frowns.

"I wish I could be that," Rick whispers. "I wish I was as strong and I need to be, but I ain't."

"What made you think that?" Daryl asks. "That it wasn't really me?"

Rick blinks, shaking his head. "You wouldn't whistle for me," he replies.

Daryl huffs a laugh and when Rick looks at him, he's smiling – it's one of his small smiles from the time before, the ones that only Rick earned and saved and squirreled away like food for the winter. It feels like walking into sunlight, seeing that smile.

"You're a mess, Grimes," Daryl says, warm and heavy with affection, and Rick smiles back.

"Yeah, and you're the one stuck with me."

They both straighten and look towards the door as Merle grunts and shoves his way through. Daryl gets up to help him – eventually, still waiting a comically long amount of time as they enjoy the red-faced man squeeze and shuffle his way into the room – but then all three of them are back by the windows. Merle has a pillowcase of non-perishables that Rick and Daryl hadn't had time or room to take with them in the first round.

"Soup's on me, boys," Merle says with a grin, handing Daryl a can of tomato soup with a pull-tab opening, and then he hands Rick one, which Rick, after a brief struggle, sets on the ground by his thigh and opens with one hand. Drinking tomato soup cold straight out of the can isn't the worst thing he's ever done – in fact, it reminds him of the one and only time Shane convinced him to try Bloody Marys one memorable Sunday morning after a blackout Saturday night. Worst mistake he's ever made.

"Thanks," Daryl grunts, drinking his own soup and finishing the can in three long gulps. Rick nurses his a little more – going too long without breathing but still using his chest makes his throat ache and his lungs twinge. It feels like if he breathes too deep or doesn't breathe often enough he might suffocate.

Merle grins at them both. "So, nutterbutter, guess the next point'a business is getting you on your feet."

Rick grimaces. "I know they ain't broken," he says, nodding to his legs, "but everything hurts. I feel like I can't fuckin' move 'em, let alone stand on 'em."

"We can't just stay here," Daryl says, his expression stern but his voice sympathetic. Rick hardly has a reason to fake it, after all, and Daryl knows better than anyone that the horsemen have ways of affecting men past their deaths, and in such close proximity.

Rick presses his lips together and nods. "I know," he says. Then, he runs his good hand through his hair and sighs. "I know we gotta move, I just…can't."

Merle nods and looks around the room, humming to himself, before he stands. He goes over to the corner of the room where the emergency exit is. The door is still closed and next to the exit is a little cubby hole where visitors could put their cell phones and wallets if they wanted. No one ever did.

There's an upturned table and several stools scattered around that section and Merle absently kicks at them, whistling the rooster's song under his breath. They must play the same movies in prison as they do in asylums. The thought makes Rick smile to himself.

Finally, Merle lets out a crow of delight and reaches into the mess of rubble, grabbing something and giving it a hearty yank. The tables and chairs braced over and around it crumble to the ground with a loud crash and Daryl winces, hissing Merle's name in warning.

Rick's eyes widen when he sees what Merle is holding, unfolding the thing carefully and setting it on the floor. It's a wheelchair – one of the foot pedals is snapped in half and the wheels look horribly misshapen, but when Merle gives it a testing push, it rolls.

"Problem solved," he says with a wide grin. He rolls the wheelchair over to Rick and pats the seat in welcome. "We get you hauled into this, sittin' nice and pretty, then we can getcha to one of the cars and ride off into the sunset. Whattdya say?"

Chapter Text

"Where should we head next?"

Rick shakes his head, rubbing the fingers of his good hand through his hair. He keeps forgetting about his injured wrist, though it is always quick to remind him of how dumb he is to do that. As they drive away from the facility in another cruiser, he can't deny that he does feel better, though. His legs don't hurt as much and he thinks maybe, if they put enough distance between them and Pestilence's body, the hold on his mind will disappear and he'll be able to walk freely again.

He needs to be able to start moving as soon as possible. Like this they're slow and cumbersome and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that anyone in a wheelchair isn't long for the world they live in now. Every now and again he gives his legs a cautious nudge, trying to stretch out in the backseat. It's an uncomfortable fit since the wheelchair is on the other side of the backseat, caging him in and folded clumsily, shoved into place beside him.

Daryl turns in the passenger seat, eyeing him as he flexes his toes and gives another sharp hiss of pain. "Rick?" he hazards, and Rick lifts his eyes. Since Daryl confessed to him what he'd seen, how he'd thought Rick was dead, Rick can't shake the feeling that Daryl is finally feeling that pain and longing Rick always feels when they're too far apart from each other. Daryl looks like he would rather be curled up in the backseat with Rick, but the wheelchair wouldn't fit in the passenger seat with Merle and they need as many eyes forward as they can get.

Rick manages a weak smile and shakes his head, closing his eyes. "I don't know," he replies.

Daryl presses his lips together and nods, eyes skating away for a moment before they land on Rick's face again, like he can't make himself look away for more than a second at a time. "War's all that's left," he says quietly.

Rick nods, pressing his lips together. War, then Death himself. Or at least Death's physical vessel, which means him. He doesn't know if Daryl simply forgot what Rick told him, or if he's deliberately not bringing it up in the hopes that with a different target Rick might lose track. Like he could. Since he first started having his dreams, Rick knows exactly what his destiny has been. He must die, the final nail in the coffin of the world, before there can be any peace.

"They probably went to join up with that other group y'all were talkin' about," Merle chimes in, chewing on a piece of jerky loudly in the driver's seat. He's heading back to where the truck was taken apart so that they can grab Daryl's motorcycle and the rest of their supplies. Hopefully it won't have been taken or scavenged by opportunists. There are walkers lining the roads and they lunge and snarl at the trio as they rumble past in the cruiser, but it's almost like they're too afraid to really chase them. Maybe they lose interest too quickly, or maybe they're well-fed, but Rick likes to think that they know exactly who's in the car, who it is that's slaying their masters.

Rick knows he should have some power over them, but try as he might he can't sink into that mindset that comes to him so easily at times. When he raises his weapon and shoots to kill, when he's ready to welcome a new soul through Death's door, he feels cold and sure. He has certainty, but right now he feels as weak as a newborn lamb and just about as dangerous.

"We should go," Daryl says after another moment, turning back around in his seat. "Try and find 'em."

"They won't believe us," Rick replies. "And I'm injured. Even if I can walk again soon, I can't shoot with my right hand. My aim's shit with my left, if I can even figure out how to shoot. I'm a liability."

"They're our friends," Daryl says sharply. He's looking out the front, through the windshield, but he reaches back and gently brushes his fingers against Rick's shin. The touch feels warm even through his jeans and Rick sighs, closing his eyes.

Are they his friends? Or were they ever just destined to be cannon fodder?

"Heads up," Merle says quietly as the car begins to slow. "We got company."

Rick raises his head as they turn the corner and he can see the shape of the truck in the distance. There's another car driving past and even as they approach he can see its brake lights go on as it slows to a stop just past the vehicle. Whether the people inside are stopping at the sight of the potential loot in the truck bed, or because they're seeing the cruiser pull up behind them, Rick can't be sure. Merle guns the engine just a little so that they make it to the truck just as the lights on the car die and the doors open.

Two women step out and Rick's eyes widen. "No," he whispers, reaching forward to grab desperately at Daryl's shirt. "No. We have to leave."

"They could be friendly," Daryl says quietly. Rick hears Merle give a lecherous hum, his grin wide. The two women are young, thin and pretty. There's a taller one, older, with short-cropped brown hair and a holster wrapped tight to her thigh, a small pistol tucked in there. The second one has long, wavy blonde hair pulled into a tight ponytail, wisps of strays haloing her head, and wide blue eyes that are fixed on their approaching vehicle. As Rick watches the taller one reaches out and barks a sharp command and the blonde comes to her side.

Merle stops the car and kills the engine and Daryl gets out of the car despite Rick's protests. When he does, the brunette grabs for her gun but doesn't pull it and Daryl lifts his hands in a gesture of peace.

"Don't shoot me," he says, his voice quiet like he's trying to coax a deer closer to him. "Not gonna hurt ya. Name's Daryl, this is my truck."

"Technically it's my truck," Merle mutters as the brunette's eyes narrow. They're clear and green like bottle glass when it's been sharpened and washed up in the ocean. Rick sees a shadow move behind them but can't honestly tell if it's just the jut of the trees as they cast shade alone the road or if it's the same shadow he usually sees. It doesn't look like it touches the women but Rick feels dread in his stomach piling up like vomit. He thinks he might be sick.

"This ain't your truck," the brunette says, her accent thick just like Daryl's when he's upset. She jerks her head towards the truck. "Just found it."

"You can check the registration if ya like," Daryl says with one of his sweet, sheepish smiles. "Look, all I care about's gettin' my bike. My friends and I got food, and the beddin' we need. Ain't gonna fightcha for it."

"Your friends should come out," the brunette says tightly, glaring at the car. From where they are Rick knows she can't see past the glare of the windshield.

Merle grins and throws a wink over his shoulder. "That's my cue," he says with a grin in Rick's direction and moves to get out of the car.

"No," Rick says, trying to grab for Merle but he doesn't make it in time. Merle isn't an unintimidating man and he hopes that Merle has enough common sense not to make himself look too mean and threatening. The women tense up noticeably when he steps out of the car but at least he seems to understand that, between the two of them, Daryl is the less threatening-looking one.

"We got a third, but he's injured," Daryl explains when they look expectantly at the car. "Can't walk. Busted up his legs real bad."

"How?" the brunette asks, eyes narrowed in suspicion. She has a hand on the other woman's arm as though holding her back. The blonde's arms are crossed tightly across her thin chest. She can't be older than sixteen.

"In a fight," Merle explains with a dismissive gesture. Rick huffs. He supposes that's one way to explain it.

They stay like that for a moment, silent and unmoving, and then Rick sees the blonde step closer to the taller woman and say something quietly to her. It is, apparently, something that the brunette doesn't like, because she shakes her head in a vehement 'No'.

"The truck doesn't work," Daryl offers after another moment of silence. "Got all the wires ripped out and shit. We just want the bike, that's all, then we'll leave ya be." He gestures to himself. "Ain't got no gun on me. You can keep yours ready if ya want."

"I want to see your friend," the brunette says, but draws her weapon anyway. She hands it to her companion. "Beth, shoot 'im if he does anythin' stupid. And you." She fixes her piercing gaze on Merle. "Stay right where you are."

"You got it, sweetheart," Merle drawls, and Daryl huffs a breath and gets fully out of the car, closing the door. He keeps his hands raised and open as he makes a wide circle towards the women. The brunette only relents when she's sure that the blonde has a tight and sure grip on the gun, and then she walks towards the cruiser. Merle jerks his head, telling her which door to go to.

Rick flinches when the door flies open, hissing and holding his injured wrist to his chest. The skin is still a swollen mess of purple and black under his makeshift bandaging and throbs with the motion, as do his legs.

The brunette regards him coolly, but Rick can see in her eyes that she's shocked by what she sees. He bites his lip and looks back at her before her eyes roam down his body, taking in the blood splattered across him, the wheelchair by his side.

"You been bit?" she asks guardedly.

Rick shakes his head. "Not bit," he assures her. "Just dumb."

"Dumb'll get you killed out here."

"Don't I know it."

Her eyes flash to Merle, then back to Rick. "You been out here long like that?"

Rick shakes his head. "Just happened," he says, which is the truth. In the shade her features are striking, angular and strong like a statue. In comparison the blonde has a much softer, younger face. This woman looks like she's been in the apocalypse for a lot longer than a few weeks.

Rick hears the creak of metal and looks in time to see Daryl gingerly easing his bike off of the back of the truck. The blonde woman has come forward to help him and it's stupid – he sees the brunette tense but he knows Daryl won't hurt her, but she doesn't know that.

"Daryl won't do anythin'," Rick says, although he knows that if she decides he's dangerous, nothing he can say will stop her doing something. As soon as the back wheel touches the road the blonde steps back and Daryl finishes pulling the bike off the truck. He stands on the other side of it and Rick can see them talking.

Daryl is charming when he wants to be. He wouldn't be surprised if he's trying to make friends with the blonde. Sometimes sharp and jealous shakes itself around his eyes, visions he can't help but see of a future that will never happen flashing in front of him. He knows these women – of course he does, that's why he had tried to keep the brothers away from them.

"Enough talk!" the brunette snaps after a minute, stepping away from the car but leaving the door open. The blonde jumps back, wide-eyed and startled. She's like a baby rabbit, Rick thinks, too fresh and sweet to know when there's a fox nearby.

"Maggie," the blonde whispers, rushing towards her companion. "C'mon, we can help -."

"That's enough," Maggie says with a sharp look, raising her hand.

"Daddy's a doctor, he can help."

"There ain't no helpin' these folk," Maggie says, glaring at Daryl as he ambles by with his bike, head lowered and looking for all the world like he's ignoring them. He isn't, Rick knows that. Daryl can sense eyes on him from across the room, his hearing is sharp and focused and he listens to everything.

"Well, hey now," Merle finally says, leaning against the door heavy enough that it creaks. "Ain't no need to be so hostile, sweetheart. We're givin' ya all our food, ain't we?"

The blonde blinks, wide-eyed. "That's…that's all you have?" she says, her high voice thick with sympathy and concern. Rick ducks his head to hide his smile – his Daryl is so good at appealing to the bleeding hearts. In less than a minute he's wormed his way into this precious child's affection and he does it so effortlessly. Pride and envy are closely linked and Rick feels like he might choke on it.

Daryl walks the bike to the front of the cruiser and lets it stand, kicking the kickstand down so that it can rest without the use of his hands keeping it upright. "We had a group," he says, pushing his hair back from his face and keeping his eyes down. "Got separated, then Rick got injured. But we'll do fine, really. We'll leave ya be, I promised we would."

"Lil bro -."

"Shut up, Merle," Daryl hisses, glaring at his brother. Then he nods to the women. "Thanks again." Then he grabs the bike and pushes the kickstand back up, walking it towards the two open doors on the passenger side.

Rick feels a strange mix of hope and dread, because he knows they could go their separate ways now, and whatever terrible fate might befall these women would be out of his hands – but he also knows, because Daryl is so sweet and charming when he needs to be, that they're not going to separate now. The blonde has attached to him, imprinted like a baby chick. Daryl inspires that kind of protectiveness in people.

"Maggie," the blonde protests again, and then, louder, "Wait!"

"Beth, shut it," Maggie hisses, and Rick is reminded strongly of Daryl and Merle and for a moment he finds himself smiling.

Beth rushes forward and touches Daryl's arm lightly. "Our daddy's a doctor," she says, sweet and high. Daryl raises an eyebrow at her. "If your friend's injured, I'm sure there's something he could do. For all of you."

"No," Maggie says, reaching forward and yanking the gun from Beth's hand. "We'll be on our way now. Goodbye."

"Maggie, we can't turn away people in need," Beth protests sharply, forcing the other woman to stop, her shoulders tense. Merle is silent, chewing on the same piece of jerky, but Daryl keeps moving like he's going to bring the bike back around. He doesn't start it, and Rick catches his eye through the gap in the open door.

Daryl winks at him and Rick shakes his head.

Finally Maggie sighs and turns around, using her gun to gesture between Merle and Daryl. "Follow us. We got a farm a few miles away. Daddy'll take a look at you and then once that dumbass o'yours is fixed up you're out."

Merle lets out a crow of victory. "That's more like it!"

"And we're keepin' the food," Maggie finishes with a nod. Merle lifts his hands in surrender and Daryl, after a moment, gives a slow nod. "Make yourselves useful then and help us haul it up. We'll leave then."

Daryl smirks to himself, pushing down the kickstand as Merle goes over to help unload the truck. He doesn't join his brother, whether because he doesn't want to outnumber the women or because he feels like letting Merle do some of the heavy lifting. He braces himself against the flank of the car past Rick's door and crosses his arms over his chest.

"Charmer," Rick says after a moment and Daryl grunts, turning his head to regard Rick.

"You didn't want us to talk to 'em," he says. "Why?"

Rick swallows, that sour feeling sitting in the back of his throat as he turns to look at Maggie, Beth and Merle unloading the truck. He thinks about Beth and Maggie, how in another life they might have become killers all their own. He thinks of Maggie, bowed over herself in grief, screaming as Daryl carried the body of her sister out of a hospital. He thinks about how silent Daryl had been, how he had touched Beth's hair with something like longing – it's a jealous, possessive feeling that he's feeling right now and he knows it's not right. Daryl is his in all ways that matter and yet -.

"I've seen them die," Rick says.

"You've seen everyone die," Daryl replies, but he lifts his eyes to watch them as well.

"You loved her," Rick says, nodding to Beth. "Maybe not in that way, but you did. You were the one who carried her body out."

Daryl is silent for a moment. "Do you think I'll love her now?" After everything?

Rick shakes his head. "You wouldn't understand."

"And I never will if you don't talk to me."

His accent is getting thicker, angrier. He's on the defensive and Rick knows it isn't fair, to accuse Daryl of things he's only seen in his dreams. He lifts his hand to run it through his hair and curses when it gives a sharp throb in protest.

"If they can help us, if that doctor can fix ya, that's all I need to know."

"I know I ain't broken," Rick says. "Not for real. But I don't know how we're gonna explain it to 'im if there's no reason I can't walk. They'll think we tricked 'em, for whatever reason. It won't end well."

"We'll burn that bridge when we get to it."

"Daryl…" Rick shakes his head, the venomous cocktail of anger and fear and jealousy coating the inside of his throat. He fights the urge to spit the words he wants to say. "I'm so sorry."

"Stop apologizin' for shit when I don't even know what yer apologizin' for," Daryl snaps. "Might'a worked with your wife but it ain't gonna work for me."

"You won't let me say anything else," Rick replies.

"Rick." Abruptly Daryl straightens and turns, bending down so that he can brace his forearm against the top of the car. Rick is reminded abruptly of when he used to do the same thing, leaning in when he'd pulled over a car, shining the light in the driver's face and asking for his license and registration. In another life he might have arrested Merle for drug possession, or Daryl for speeding. Would he have known, then, just as he knows now whenever he looks at Daryl, how much he adores him? Would he have seen the shine of blue in Daryl's eyes and looked at the grease and sweat in his hair and felt the same choking emotions he's feeling now.

Daryl is leaning over him and Rick wants to kiss him but he can't move. He's caught in blue amber, a fly destined to live in stasis for a thousand years. He doesn't feel like he can breathe.

Daryl doesn't speak and for a long time Rick doesn't think he will. He licks his lips and sucks in a breath. "I'm sorry," he says, rushing forward before Daryl can say anything in response; "I feel like I'm living in two worlds. And there's a world where you ain't mine and I can't…"

He breathes out and clenches his jaw hard enough that it aches. "I won't accept that."

Daryl regards him for another long moment, before his attention is caught as he hears a trunk door slam and sees Merle walking back towards the cruiser. Beth and Maggie are watching them and Rick sees the gears in Daryl's head turning, before they abruptly go still, as though he's made a decision.

He turns back to Rick and leans in, gently cupping the back of his neck, and presses their mouths together. Rick gasps, tightly grabbing onto Daryl's clothes with his good hand, a shiver running through him when he feels Daryl's tongue slip between the opening his lips made. Daryl pulls away soon after and squeezes Rick's nape. He pushes their foreheads together and smirks.

"You're in this world, Rick," he says quietly, but with enough force that it could make a mountain bow to him and split itself in two. "Better get used to it."

Then he pulls back and closes Rick's door, and then his, and climbs onto his bike, kickstarting it with a low roar. Merle is smirking when he climbs in the driver's seat and Rick catches Beth and Maggie looking at Daryl with wide eyes before Maggie seems to snap out of it and hustles Beth into the car.

"Can't leave you lovebirds alone for two seconds, can I?" Merle asks as he turns the cruiser on, pulling up and circling the truck so that he's behind the women as they start to drive away. Rick hears the rumble of the bike behind them and turns as best he can so that he can see Daryl through the back windshield. Daryl smiles and waves his fingers at him from where they're curled around the bike's throttle.

Rick smiles and rests his head against the back of the seat and closes his eyes.

 

 

He wakes as the car comes to a stop and turns. He sees a wooden sign marking the entrance to the Greene farm and swallows, sitting upright as best he can. He sees the big red shape of a barn looming up ahead of them next to a quaint little farmhouse.

His visions of the Greenes were blurry most of the time, but he remembers the voice of the man who would prove to be Beth and Maggie's father, even though his name is escaping him. The timelines of his visions versus reality are disjointed and turning ragged, but he feels himself getting more and more tense as they approach.

He stifles a yawn behind his hand and clears his throat. "Stay away from the barn," he says. He doesn't know if the Greenes have started to collect neighbors yet, but his injured hand is burning and freezing all at once and he wishes he could grab his weapon and investigate it himself.

They pass a fenced-in field and Rick spies a pair of horses, grazing lazily in the field. One of them is a pretty, light chestnut, its white socks and dark mane a nice contrast to the lush green of the field. The other is far dirtier, a mix of brown splotches that, in places, Rick can neither identify as mud or hair.

The second horse lifts its head as they drive by and shakes its mane out and Rick's eyes widen as it trots over to the fence and puts its nose out far as the women drive ahead.

"Stop the car," Rick whispers.

Merle grunts, but obeys, and Rick leans his elbow against the control of the window so that it rolls down and he can look in the horse's eyes. They're mismatched and blink lazily at him, the pretty pink around the horse's muzzle damp and stained green with grass.

Rick smiles as Daryl pulls the bike up beside him and the horse whinnies as though in greeting, pushing its nose against Daryl's arm. Daryl smiles and shifts his weight, trying to keep the bike upright.

"He recognizes us," Rick says quietly, and Daryl look at him. "It's the horse, Daryl. From Atlanta."

Daryl blinks at him, before he looks back at the horse. "Ain't like there's only one skewbald in all of Georgia," he says, but his voice is low with uncertainty. After all, any horse that could survive Atlanta isn't one to adhere to something as simple as probability. But Rick knows those eyes, he knows that little head bob as the horse regards them coolly.

"Hey, troublemaker," Rick greets softly, and the horse's tail thrashes and it gives another whicker of 'Hello'. Rick grins.

"It's him," he says, and then sits back. He's not sure what to make of that – on the one hand, the horse being here is a good sign. This farm, for all Rick knows and fears about it, had been the sight of many a disaster. This is where…

Rick shakes his head harshly as though a fly is buzzing around it. "This world," he mutters to himself, rubbing his thumb up the chair leg Daryl had attached to his arm. He needs to stay in the reality, in what matters now. And what matters now is Daryl, and War, and making sure he can ever walk again.

They pull up next to Maggie under the shade of a copse of trees and Beth and Maggie get out of the car. Daryl kills the engine of the motorcycle and braces it carefully on the root-knotted ground.

"Go get daddy," Maggie tells Beth. "And tell Otis that we'll need help gettin' stuff to the stores."

Beth nods and runs towards the house, calling for their father. Merle gets out of the car and Daryl takes his place by Rick's door again.

Maggie's eyes move sharply between the two of them. If anything is on her mind, she keeps stubbornly silent.

Daryl jerks his head towards the field with the horses. The painted horse that had greeted them before has trotted over to be by the fence near them again and Rick sees Maggie's eyes follow. "They yours?" he asks.

"No, Noah's," Maggie replies sarcastically, before she rolls her eyes and shifts her weight, sighing. "Bailey's Beth's horse. Quarter mix. The other one just showed up one day and we figured he'd be safer here than out there." She looks back at the horse, who gives a soft whinny when Rick meets his eye again, pawing at the fence line. "Stranger seems to like you."

"We go way back," Rick says with a smile.

"Well, feel free to take him once you're back on your feet," Maggie says, and then she lifts her head when she hears Beth calling for her. Three people follow the blonde teenager as she walks back over to them. One of them is obviously their father, noticeably older than the other two, with a thick white beard and deep smile lines. The second is a man, about Rick's age, thick with muscle from working on a farm and bald under his cap. The third is a woman, presumably an older relative of the girls but younger than the first man. She has a thick woolen shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders and what looks to be a permanent furrow in her brow.

"Daddy, this is Daryl," Beth says, coming to a breathless halt by Maggie, "and his brother Merle, and then Rick is still in the car. He's injured. Daryl, this is my daddy, Herschel, and our neighbors, Mister Otis and Miss Patricia."

"Good to meet ya," Daryl says with a respectful nod. "Really appreciate anythin' you can do for Rick."

"Yes, well, who would I be to ignore a soul in need?" Herschel says, his voice just as high and gentle as Rick remembers hearing it. He smiles and closes his eyes, soaking into the sound of it. "Do you have a way to bring him inside? It'll be dark soon."

"We got a wheelchair," Merle says. "Hold on."

"Otis, come help me with this," Maggie says, and Otis nods and Patricia and he go to help Maggie unload the truck. Beth hovers awkwardly at Herschel's side as Merle yanks the wheelchair out of the side of the car and brings it around to Rick's side.

"Upsy-daisy, nutterbutter," Merle grunts, as Daryl holds the wheelchair steady and Merle helps Rick as he gingerly opens the door and shoves himself out. He would like to say that he made it to the chair with some form of dignity and grace, but truthfully he all but collapsed into it, relying on Merle to keep the weight off his injured wrist as he tried to right himself in the seat. The movements jarred his sore and aching body and he had to clench his teeth tightly to stop himself cursing at the motion.

Herschel and Beth walk with them as Daryl and Merle try and navigate the thick grass and bumpy terrain on the way to the house. Every jut and judder hurts and Rick does his best to remain quiet throughout. He has, after all, taken much worse damage and that at least had been real. The porch is up two small steps and Daryl hauls the wheelchair onto its big wheels, angling the smaller front ones onto the next step, and Merle bends down to carry the load up until they reach the porch. They make their way inside and Daryl pushes Rick into the dining room at Herschel's command.

"You boys look a little worse for wear," Herschel says lightly.

Merle scoffs. "Could say that again," he replies. "Feelin' like we been fightin' the Goddamn apocalypse."

Herschel regards him for a moment, before he shakes his head. "Well, I suppose you're not wrong," he says. "Beth, dear, could you bring me my bag?" Beth nods and disappears around the corner. "I'll admit when I read about the dead inheriting the Earth, this isn't what I had in mind."

At that, Rick perks up. "You know Revelations?" he asks.

Herschel nods, looking at Rick in faint surprise. "You?"

Rick nods back emphatically. "Do you believe in it?"

Herschel sighs, sitting heavily at the head of the table. Merle makes himself at home on the opposite end of the table and Daryl remains standing, a shadow at Rick's left shoulder. "I suppose I must. I didn't think I'd see the end of days."

"The end, maybe," Rick says. "If -."

"Rick, no," Daryl says, resting a hand against Rick's shoulder and squeezing tight. He digs his nails into the furrows left by Famine's claws and Rick winces, pressing his lips together tightly.

Herschel looks between them, and then his dark eyes look over Rick, Daryl and Merle as though seeing them for the first time all over again. Underneath the bandage, Rick's psychiatric bracelet is hidden, but as soon as he pulls the shirt away he'll see it. He'll think Rick is crazy and send them all away. Rick curses his enthusiasm.

"Boys," Herschel says quietly, "is there something you'd like to tell me? I did, after all, let you into my home. The least you could do is be honest about how you came here."

"We came here 'cause yer gals were tryin' to hijack our shit," Merle says with a shrug. "And they said you's a doctor. Well, we need a doctor."

"Evidently," Herschel says. His eyes turn to Rick and Rick feels like he's pierced by the man's gaze. Perhaps he is a believer too, blessed and cursed with vision. Rick feels like Herschel looks at him and knows exactly who he is, like he can see the skull grinning from underneath Rick's flesh.

Rick swallows. "I won't lie to you," he says. "Anything you ask me, I'll answer."

Herschel hums. "Very well," he says, just as Beth reappears with his bag. She sets it on the table in front of him and he opens it and begins to fish around inside, and Beth takes a seat on the other side of the table, opposite Rick. "Are there any more of you? Or just you three?"

"We had a group," Rick says. "We left 'em. Don't know where they are now."

"And why did you leave?"

"To -." Daryl's hand tightens on his shoulder and Rick hesitates, before he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, in, and then out. "Daryl, he's gotta know."

"No, he don't."

"He knows Revelations," Rick protests. "He'll believe me."

"Let nutterbutter talk," Merle says.

Daryl lets out a soft growl, but releases Rick's shoulder and Rick feels a burn where his hand just was. Daryl's anger washes over him like scalding water and Rick immediately wants to take it all back, but he swore honesty to this man and he won't deny him the truth.

Rick takes a deep breath and meets Herschel's eyes. "My name is Rick Grimes," he says. "A few months ago I was shot in the line of duty. Went into a coma."

Herschel's eyes flicker in recognition. "I know that name," he says. "We prayed for you." Then, a shadow passes over his face, dark and angry. "And then you went on to kill three people." He straightens up, closing his doctor's bag. "Why should I help you?"

"I did," Rick says with a nod. He hears Beth let out a little squeak of fear and sees her hands go to her mouth. He takes another deep breath. "In my dream, I had visions. Visions of the apocalypse. The four horsemen, specifically, and I know that if I find them all, and kill them all, the walkers will go away. The apocalypse will end. The world will…recover."

"So you intend to kill again," Herschel says. Then he pushes himself to his feet. "I'm sorry, Rick, but I can't have you stay here. I would like you and your friends to leave."

"Doc, c'mon," Daryl says, taking a step forward and stopping when Herschel fixes his icy gaze on the younger man. "Please. I know it sounds crazy – Hell, for a long time I didn't believe it, but I've seen this shit with my own eyes now and…" He looks to Beth, and then to Rick, and shakes his head. "Please. You don't gotta do anythin' but fix him. Please."

"I'm sorry – Daryl, was it?" Herschel asks, and Daryl nods. "I will not provide aid to a murderer who intends to kill again." He looks at Rick. "Repentance is important, especially now. Do you repent what you've done?"

Rick licks his lips. "No."

"You have killed many. You intend to keep doing so."

"Yes."

"Then I cannot help you."

"Herschel, please," Rick says, leaning forward and reaching for the man. Herschel takes a step back as though his touch might infect him, as though Rick is rife with disease. "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God'. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."

Herschel's eyes narrow; "And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet." He looks between Merle and Daryl and Rick in turn, and shakes his head. "There are many tricks and false things the Devil might say to a man, Rick. I cannot help you."

Rick presses his lips together, breathing out, and he looks at Beth for a moment, before turning his gaze back to Herschel. "I know what's in the barn," he says. Beth straightens up and Herschel's eyes widen. "I know. If you heal me, I can leave, and I can heal them. I can bring them back."

"What's in the barn?" Daryl asks quietly.

Rick sighs, his eyes still on Herschel. "Walkers," he says, and Merle lets out a low curse. "Their family. Their friends. Herschel…" He leans forward again and this time Herschel doesn't take a step back, either too stunned to move or caught in Rick's prophecy. "There's only War left. Pestilence and Famine are dead. I promised to talk honestly and I am. I just need to find War. But I can't…I can't even walk. Please."

Herschel's eyes narrow and Rick can see him thinking. "I will not help you," he says, and Rick deflates with another sigh. "I will need to pray and think over what you have said. You and your friends can sleep in your car, or in the lean-to with the horses tonight. You are not welcome in my home." He takes a deep breath. "In the morning, I will decide."

Rick smiles, weak and grateful. "Thank you," he says.

"I would like you to leave now," Herschel says, and then turns and leaves the room. Daryl mutters an ugly word under his breath and grabs Rick's wheelchair, guiding him back out.

Beth stands and comes around to take Rick's hand in both of hers. "Is it true?" she asks. "Can you really save them?"

Rick looks down at her hands, and her arms. They're clean right now, unmarred. He turns his hand to brush his fingers over the inside of her wrists and then lifts his head. "Yes," he says, and Beth's eyes fill with tears. Merle comes forward and Beth flinches out of the way as they haul Rick through the door and back down the porch steps. Maggie and Otis and Patricia are gone as they make a steady pace back to the cruiser.

"Fat lot of good that did us," Daryl mutters. "You shouldn't've said anythin', Rick."

Rick smiles to himself and nods. "Maybe," he replies. On the other side of the fence his horse greets him with another high whinny and he lifts his head. "He's going to help us."

"Yeah," Daryl scoffs. "In your world, maybe."

Rick turns his head to look at Daryl over his shoulder. "In this world," he says. "The only one that matters, right?"

Daryl shakes his head and rolls his eyes, but leans down and presses a kiss to Rick's messy hair. "Yeah. Right."

 

Chapter Text

The day crawls towards nighttime and no one comes from the house to tell them that they can come inside, or that Herschel has changed his mind and will let them in. Rick, Daryl and Merle manage to get to the lean-to at one corner of the field and the splotchy horse trots over to them, whickering lowly in greeting. He lips at Rick's pockets, ears forward, and shakes his mane out when Rick gently pets his cheek.

"Go on, get," Merle says, slapping the horse lightly on the rump until he snorts and trots away, but he doesn't go far. The night is mild and Rick is sure the horses won't mind forgoing their normal bedding for one night.

Daryl helps Rick out of his wheelchair and onto the ground and Rick hisses, leaning against a strong wooden post in the middle of the lean-to. There are two doors on either side leading to small  fenced-in areas where horses could rest, and along the opposite side there are hooks at eye level to tie horses to so that they can be groomed, tacked up, and whatever else. The rest of the lean-to is sparse, littered lightly with hay and dry grass. Still, it's warm and out of the wind.

"Why'd you have to go all Apocalypse Preacher on them, huh?" Merle mutters. "And you's a murderer too? Damn, lil bro, you really know how to pick 'em."

"Shut up, Merle," Daryl hisses. "You're the one who said he should say what he gotta say. Now we're out on our ass, nowhere to go and no way to get there."

Rick closes his eyes, resting his forehead against his uninjured hand, and closes his eyes. "They'll help us," he says after a moment. Daryl goes quiet and still and when Rick lifts his head he can see Daryl leaning against the wall of the lean-to, the gleam of the metal rings matching the grey in his eyes. "Herschel will help us. I just gotta…"

He grits his teeth and shoves his forehead against his hand. His head hurts, suddenly, as though someone has laid him against a cement block and put a great weight on his forehead and it just keeps building and building until it feels like his skull will either shatter or the concrete will melt around his head.

He can't see what happens, he doesn't remember how he and Herschel and the Greenes had become friends. Or maybe he had never seen it. Or maybe he'd seen it too many times. His head hurts.

After a moment, Daryl sighs, and Rick hears him rooting around in one of their backpacks. "Here," he says, and Rick lifts his head to see Daryl holding out a granola bar to him, half-unwrapped. Rick takes it with a small smile and bites half of it off, handing the rest back to Daryl to finish. Daryl does, crumpling up the plastic and stuffing it back into the bag.

"So what the fuck do we do now?" Merle asks, throwing his arms out to either side. "I don't know bout'chy'all, but I don't plan on makin' this lil hovel my home sweet home, you get me? You got us here, nutterbutter, figure out how to get us outta here."

"Where we gonna go, huh?" Daryl snaps. He slides down the wall until his feet are out, legs stretched along the concrete and dirt floor. One of his legs presses against the outside of Rick's and although his ankles twinge, they don't hurt as much as he expected. Maybe he is getting better. Maybe it was the proximity to Pestilence that had caused him so much pain, and he's actually going to heal without Herschel's help. Then they can be on their way and Rick can make do with his left hand for a while.

Merle scoffs, shaking his head. "Look, I ain't as comfortable with the 'see what happens' la-di-da way of life you are, lil bro. I need's me a plan, and I ain't lookin' at one right now, I'll tell ya that."

"Merle, I don't know what yer expectin' me to say," Daryl snaps with a roll of his eyes.

"I get it," Rick sighs, tiredly. He raises his head to look in Merle's direction, although with the way the light is arcing he can't see more of the man than a silhouette, haloed by the light coming from the Green house. "You followed us out here expectin' me to be crazy, or expectin' me to be right. And now I'm right, I need to keep bein' right. I should have a plan. I don't have a plan, though – never have." Rick shakes his head and closes his eyes, letting his head rest back against the post. "War will come to us, or we will find him. One way or another, this is gonna end."

"You can't even walk, Rick," Daryl whispers, and Rick remembers the quiet conversation they'd shared what feels like so long ago, sitting on the tailgate of Merle's truck. I'll never leave you willingly. "How you gonna do anythin' if you can't even walk?"

Rick sighs again. "I'm tired," he says, turning his head away. He pulls his injured wrist close to his chest and curls up as best he can, drawing away from Daryl's touch. He hears Daryl hum and Merle makes a quiet arrangement to go take the first watch. After a quiet, hesitant moment, Rick hears Daryl slide into a place near him on the floor. If Rick opens his eyes, he's sure he'll see Daryl staring right back at him.

They lay like that in silence. Rick isn't even aware of falling asleep but he knows that suddenly he opens his eyes, and he knows he's dreaming. He knows because his wrist doesn't hurt and his legs and feet can move. He pushes himself to his feet, rolling onto his stomach and gingerly putting weight on his wrists, then his knees, and then finally rolling onto his feet. They bear his weight easily and Rick grins, looking at his hands and flexing his fingers experimentally.

He raises his head when he hears a horse neighing. He walks outside and sees a pale, ghostly horse standing on the other side of the field. Death is on its back, his black cloak a heavy swirl of something darker than the void of space between stars. Rick looks at him and feels cold. In his hands is his scythe, the blade gleaming and curved like a crescent moon over his head.

Rick takes a step towards him and the horse neighs again, pawing the ground in something like aggression. Rick hesitates, and goes to his knees instead.

"I need help," he says, his hands resting in his lap.

Death cocks his head to one side, and the pale horse tosses its head and snorts, pawing the ground again. Then it steps forward, and then back, front hooves drumming against the ground in a nervous, antsy beat that makes Rick feel anxious, but he doesn't move.

Help? Death repeats. His horse rears up just a little, kicking at the air, ears back. What is it you need help with?

"I can't walk," Rick says, holding out his hands. "I can't…my right hand's all screwed up. And I don't know where to go next." Death's horse lets out a heavy snort. It looks…sweaty, and sick, and Rick frowns. He has never seen Death's horse sweat before. It's making the horse's hair look pink. The horse tosses its head, reins snapping, heavy and gold against its neck, and Rick stands.

The horses' eyes flash red and Rick suddenly sees, behind the arcing silver of the scythe, a golden crown. He can't see the skull under the hood but he knows without a shadow of a doubt that it isn't a skull he would see if the hood was pulled back.

"Yes, Rick," War says, the white bleeding off of his horse as it rears up and starts to advance. "I'd say you were in desperate need of help."

Rick stumbles back and lets out a sharp cry as his ankles suddenly give out, weak and snapping under his weight. He must be nearing wakefulness but he doesn't feel close enough to snap awake yet. He can hear the snarls and growls of War's dogs. Abruptly War's horse rears up, whinnying shrilly, and starts to charge.

Rick rolls onto his side, one hand braced for the blow he knows is coming even though he's sure it won't do anything, when he hears another animal sound. It's another horse, similarly dirty but this time with something Earthen, mud and grass and hay. It slams into War's horse mid-charge, sending the animal careening off-course and into the darkness of the other side of the field.

War lets out a war cry and slashes at the second horse, at the height of its shoulder and the second animal stumbles and falls, head tossing wildly and tail thrashing. There is no rider and no tack on the second horse – it is as free and wild as the summer breeze, as the clouds. Rick can't stare for too long since War has looped around and makes another charge at him. He rolls over and searches blindly for something in the grass to fight with – this is a dream, after all, right? Weapons always show up when they're needed.

He finds a weapon, his fingers gripping onto the smooth wood of a spear-like object, and he lifts it over his head as War's horse leaps for him. He closes his eyes and braces himself and holds the spear upright – only it's not a spear, but Death's scythe, and the arc of the blade pierces the animal's hide and Rick feels the weight of it slam against his body. He feels something hot and wet touch his hands and face. It's blood.

He gasps and opens his eyes and looks into the dead, white eyes of a walker as it grabs for him, sinking down slowly on the wooden stake Rick had grabbed with his good hand. He didn't get it through the head so it's still reaching for him, grabbing at his face and clothes as it sinks slowly down. It's hissing and snarling and wild on top of him and Rick grits his teeth, pain ricocheting through his whole body as he tries to fight the thing off.

He hears the near-silent snap of a string and then sees bright green and yellow arrow fletching appear about two inches out of the walkers skull as it goes still with a final, heavy groan. Rick turns his head so see Daryl lowering his crossbow and then the man is running for him. He hauls the walker and the stake away from Rick and pulls him upright, shaking him harshly.

"What the fuck do you think yer doin'?" he demands, his fists clenching tightly in Rick's shirt like if he lets go for even a second he'll beat Rick bloody. His cheeks are red and his eyes are wild with fear and he shakes Rick again. It hurts, Rick's wrist and legs protesting the action violently.

Rick raises a weak hand and rests it against Daryl's arm and Daryl suddenly goes still, not exactly calmed under Rick's touch but forced into stasis. "I'm sorry," he says. "I was dreamin'."

He looks around – they're about forty feet from the lean-to, just shy of the fence. Rick can see Beth's horse on the other side of the field, cantering up and down the end of it as though spooked, whinnying shrilly. Rick turns his head a little more and sees the second horse – his horse – standing calmly, regarding him.

His eyes widen when he sees the blood on the animal's flank. He whistles at the horse's ears prick up and it walks towards him with its head low, and Daryl lets him go for a moment as the horse approaches.

"Oh…" Rick's hand is shaking as he touches the raw, ugly-red bite mark on the horse's flank. His breathing is suddenly unsteady. "Fuck."

He can't move, and then Daryl is grabbing his hand in both of his and turns Rick back to look at him. Daryl is kneeling over one of Rick's limp legs, his hair a mess from sleeping on the flood, caked with mud and sweat. Rick can feel Daryl's heartbeat still racing in his hands where he touches Rick's sensitive skin, his bruised and sore wrist. Or maybe that's just Rick himself.

Daryl presses his lips together and looks at the horse, who regards them as calmly as ever. "Animals don't turn," he says. "They can't, or we'd be up to our asses in walker dogs right now. He'll be okay."

Rick lets out a shaky breath, and he hadn't even realized he'd been holding his breath until he abruptly lets it out. He feels like he's about to cry. "He saved my life," Rick says, and then looks back to the horse. "Again."

Daryl nods, and then there's a small, silent moment where he looks at the horse, and then holds out his hand. The horse pricks his ears forward and puts his muzzle in Daryl's hand, snorting softly. Daryl grunts. "Polite fucker, ain't he?" he asks, wiping his hand on the grass.

"We should name him," Rick says.

Daryl shakes his head. "Not a good idea," he says. "Just in case."

"Don't care," Rick replies. "I wanna name him. He deserves a name, and I can't just keep callin' him 'Troublemaker'."

Daryl raises an eyebrow. "Why not?" he asks, and nods to the horse. "Seems like a good name for 'im."

The horse looks at Rick and blinks, slowly. Rick smiles and gently pets the horse's cheek. "Okay," he says. Then Daryl huffs and pushes himself to his feet.

"Get up," Daryl says, holding out his left hand for Rick to put his left into and let Daryl haul him to his feet. Rick looks at him for a moment, and then down at himself. "Rick, you walked outta that lean-to. Somehow, you did. And they'll've seen it, I bet. You gotta walk. I know you can."

Rick shakes his head and looks up at Daryl helplessly. "I can't."

Daryl bites his lower lip and looks at Rick for a moment, before he sighs and goes to his knees in front of Rick. He reaches out and gently touches Rick's chest, then his neck, one hand gently brushing through his hair. "Rick," he says quietly. "I'm right here. Won't let ya fall. C'mon. Just try and walk for me."

Rick licks his lips, looking down at the grass where it pokes up between the fingers of his good hand. He twists his hand in it absently, ripping up the thick strands, and lets the light breeze blow the grass away. He closes his eyes and shakes his head. He can't. He can't just get up and walk – Daryl isn't, after all, capable of performing miracles, even something as simple as getting Rick's brain to acknowledge the truth of its own abilities. He knows there's nothing wrong with his legs. He knows this because Daryl has told him and he trusts Daryl's judgement. There's no swelling, no bruising, no real tenderness in terms of outside touching.

It just hurts, and maybe this is how War tends to get him – after all, how many wars were never started because one side was just so overwhelmingly weak? What option would there be to just settle, mingle, accept the new regime and try and live on?

Rick grits his teeth, fingers clenching. No. He imagines a man standing before him, sword in hard, clad in black armor with red around his neck and in his eyes. He won't accept that. He can't accept that. There are no deals with War – there is no bargaining, no arrangements, there are no heard cries for help. There is survival and conquering and those who win get to write their history.

He pulls one leg towards him and Daryl pushes himself to his feet, holding his hand out. Rick places his hand on Daryl's forearm and grips tight, gritting his teeth when Daryl's fingers lock into place around his wrist.

He manages to get to his knees, hanging heavily off Daryl's arm as he sucks in a breath and does his best not to pass out. Sweat starts beading at his hairline and runs down the back of his neck and his vision is starting to go red at the edges from the pain, but he forces himself through it. His injured wrist throbs in time with his pounding heartbeat as he curls the toes of one foot underneath him and drags it forward so that he's on one knee.

"That's it, Rick," Daryl says, leaning in, arm straining with the effort of holding Rick up. He fists his other hand in the back of Rick's shirt and holds him steady as he Rick breathes out a heavy, pained-sounding whine and gets his other foot underneath him. Rick grabs unsteady as Daryl's shoulders and leans on him to the point where Daryl might as well be carrying him, but he's up. He can feel his feet planted flat against the floor.

Daryl lets out a soft whistle and Rick hears Troublemaker give a soft snort and walk forward and Rick closes his eyes, feeling blindly until he finds the matted mess of mane with his fingers. He flings an arm over the animal's withers, hand still tightly fisted and grabbing his mane, and leans a little away from Daryl so that he's not weighing so heavily on the man anymore.

Both of them are breathing hard when Rick opens his eyes. His injured arm is still clinging to Daryl, his left one thrown over the horse, but he's standing. He lets out a breathless, incredulous laugh, looking down at his feet, and Daryl grins at him.

"Faker," Daryl says, affectionate and teasing, and Rick huffs a pained, breathless laugh. He doesn't think he can stand on his own, but the horse seems perfectly fine bearing his weight for now and is standing as a warm, solid brace for him.

Rick's fingers twitch, unable to grab Daryl more steadily since his hand is so badly hurt, but he tugs weakly and lets out a quiet, wanting sound, and Daryl seems to understand. He takes a step forward, closing the distance, and laces his fingers through Rick's hair and kisses him. Rick gasps, robbed of what little breath he still has, hand clutching weakly at Daryl's clothing as Daryl pets and kisses him again, a quiet press of their lips together to make Rick's heart beat wildly for an entirely different reason.

When Daryl pulls away – but he doesn’t go far, not when Rick makes another pathetic, desperate sound that pleads for Daryl to stay close – they're both breathless and Daryl's cheeks are pink, his eyes bright and shining like a sunlit ocean. Rick leans his forehead against Daryl's and sighs.

"Thank you," he says, because he can't think of anything else to say that means as much. Daryl won't let him say anything else, anyway.

Daryl smiles, and his fingertips gently brush down Rick's cheek in a light touch.

Rick jumps as, suddenly, a gunshot rings out. He instinctively looks towards the house but doesn't see anyone poised to shoot, nor does he see anything to shoot at. Even as he watches, Maggie, Beth and Herschel hurry out of the front and stand on the porch. Maggie looks accusingly in their direction but quickly shifts her gaze farther out, determining that they aren't the source. There is a line of trees beyond the field where Beth's horse is still edging, trotting nervously to and fro. Rick feels like the sound came from there.

"Where's Merle?" he asks Daryl.

Daryl runs a hand through his hair and shakes his head. "He went to go sleep in the car," he replies, and Rick nods and looks towards the police cruiser. He doesn't see Merle inside but decides not to mention it. He doesn't want Daryl to worry. "We didn't have shotguns," Daryl says.

"There's one standard issue in every cruiser," Rick says. "We had one."

Daryl shakes his head. "Ain't ours," he says. He looks back at Herschel, Maggie and Beth, who are still standing on the porch. Patricia has joined them, as well as a younger, lanky boy Rick doesn't remember meeting before. "Ain't theirs either, don't think."

They wait in silence, and after a few minutes Maggie seems to huff an annoyed breath and jogs down the porch steps, striding quickly towards Rick and Daryl. "That sound'll draw walkers," she says icily, her bottle-green eyes burning. "You two should get to the lean-to and pray it don't."

"We can handle ourselves," Daryl says.

Maggie clenches her jaw, her narrowed eyes landing on Rick. "Good to see you on your feet," she says, and Rick can't tell if she's saying it in accusation or genuine relief. After all, the sooner they're better, the sooner they leave. The Greenes seem like the kind of people to take care of their own but are very selective about who 'their own' is.

Before any of them can say anything else, Rick hears a man shouting. He frowns, lifting his head. He feels like he recognizes that voice. But that's impossible – it couldn't be…

"Clear the way!"

A man comes bursting out of the trees, carrying something in his arms like an offering. There's blood on his face and hands and chest and soaked into the center of the bundle he's carrying. Rick squints, trying to see as the man alters his course and mans a bee-line for the house, as though now that he's seen it, there's nothing else in the world that matters more than getting to it. A few seconds after him comes another man, shining with sweat and with dark hair; a woman with long dreads and dark skin; a heavyset man with a baseball cap and a sweat stained-brown shirt.

The first man sprints past the field, not around the corner where Rick and Daryl are as that one is by the road, but past the police cruiser, and Rick's eyes widen. "No fucking way," Daryl whispers, and then Rick sees that not only is the man carrying a bundle, but that bundle is distinctly child-sized and shaped, and Rick can see, dangling from his neck, the old Sherriff's hat that Rick had given him months ago.

"Carl!" he yells, but Shane doesn't hear him or doesn't dare slow down as he bolts for the house. Rick grips Troublemaker's mane tightly and grits his teeth, limping as quickly as he can towards the fence line. The horse follows at a slow walk until Rick can brace himself against it. He makes it there just as the other three run past and the first man slows on seeing Rick, dark eyes wide. "Glenn," Rick breathes, then looks to the other two. "Michonne. Otis. What the fuck happened?"

"It was an accident!" Otis cries, holding what Rick sees is a shotgun in his shaking, trembling hands. Rick blinks and looks down, red lining the edge of his vision for a reason entirely different than pain. Or maybe it is pain.

"You shot my son," Rick hisses, and if he could stand on his own two feet he's not sure he wouldn't lunge at Otis and beat his face in with the butt of his gun just on principle. He still might try. His legs feels cold, like he can't feel anything, his arm burns with ice and itches for his weapon. "How did this happen."

"Herschel can fix 'im up," Otis says, voice weak and whimpering. "He'll be good as new."

Rick's eyes flash to Glenn, narrowed and burning. "If he needs blood, I got it," he says. Glenn's eyes widen and he nods. "We're the same blood type. Make sure Herschel knows."

Glenn nods again and bolts, understanding the implied order without Rick having to say it. Rick breathes out, closing his eyes, and he's unable to hold himself upright. He falls to his knees and against the fence, breathing in and out shakily. His head is spinning. He can't breathe.

"Rick! Rick, look at me," Daryl says, grabbing Rick's face and holding him still until Rick blinks and his eyes focus. "Carl's gonna be fine, you get me? He'll be just fine."

Rick swallows harshly, shaking his head. "Just…just make sure he's okay," he begs, reaching out and grabbing Daryl's forearm weakly. "Please. Go. Make sure he's okay."

"I will," Daryl says, and then he climbs over the fence and runs towards the house, leaving Rick, Otis and Michonne alone. Rick is burning with questions, about how and why Michonne is with them, where are the rest of the group? How the fuck did Carl get shot? But he keeps silent for now. Michonne, it seems, is perfectly content to stand with him until they hear news back. After a while Otis leaves, either sensing the bubbling, acidic anger in Rick, or called away to do something else.

Rick doesn't care. He closes his eyes and conjures up the image of Death. He feels the cold in his fingertips and his breath mists in the air. When he opens his eyes Death is there, grinning down at him.

"Please," Rick says. "Don't take him, too."

Death is silent, but stands with him and doesn't go into the house, and Rick figures that's all the answer he needs.

Chapter Text

Rick remembers the day that Carl was born. Lori had gone into labor while he and Shane were on a stakeout, and had needed to wait for Sullivan to come and relieve him and take over with Shane while Rick rushed to the hospital to be there. Carl's birth had been relatively quick (although he was sure Lori wouldn't agree with him, the way she was screaming) and his son had been born a mere forty-three minutes after Lori had been fully dilated and started pushing. Rick remembers holding her hand through it, feeling the power in her delicate fingers as they laced between his. He remembers her cussing him to the ninth layer of Hell and back.

By the time Carl had been cleaned off and brought back to them, Shane had gotten his own replacement and come to the hospital with celebratory beer and cigars that Rick would later join him on the room to smoke while Lori slept. They hadn't known the sex of the child before Carl was born. Lori had wanted to have it be a surprise, even though her mother was insistent that "the way you're carrying, it's definitely a girl, dear. I remember how you were".

Rick remembers seeing them sleeping together a few hours later, Carl curled up in a fluffy blue blanket against Lori's chest, mouth split wide open in a yawn. Lori had been sweaty, red-faced, her hair sticking out in little curls and wisps from her ponytail, but absolutely glowing with pride. And she'd let Rick hold him and Carl had woken up and stared at him with big, glassy blue eyes and Rick isn't ashamed to admit he cried like a Goddamn baby, holding his son for the first time. Shane had come in the room later and not even given him shit about it, and his eyes were wet when Rick handed Carl off and said "Here, man, hold your Godson."

He feels that way now. Daryl, Merle and Glenn had helped him into the house and up the stairs to the spare bedroom where they had put carl. The bed was a mess of blood but Herschel had managed to sew up the wound and stop the bleeding. Daryl and Glenn had immediately left – apparently there was a medical supply store nearby and they should be able to get what was needed to set up a blood transfusion. Herschel and Maggie had gone with them.

Which left Shane and Merle with the Greenes and Rick. Merle is downstairs, hopefully keeping his head down and his big mouth shut. Rick isn't much of a praying man but he sends out a prayer to any God or angel that might be listening that Merle doesn't fuck up their chances of staying here. Rick is curled up in the bed next to Carl, watching his thin chest move up and down in slow breaths.

He just wishes Carl would open his eyes. Just look at him, even if it's unfocused and hazy like a baby does. Babies can't see very far when they're first born – he remembers reading that in one of Lori's books. Their eyesight gets better as they grow and become accustomed to being in the world. If only Carl would just look at him…

Shane comes in and Rick sucks in a shuddery breath, his eyes wet, his hand curling gently around his son's. "How did…how did this happen?" he asks.

Shane bites his tongue, runs a hand through his hair. "We were out in the woods," he says. "I was showin' Carl how ta…fuck, I don't know. He was upset 'bout you leavin' and I was just tryin' ta talk to him, and then we see this dear, and I point it out and he's walkin' towards it. Thing's not even scared of us. Got bigger things to be scared of, I guess." He huffs a broken-sounding laugh and rubs his hand over his mouth. "He's almost at the thing and then I just hear this shot and he just…he just fuckin' drops. Was that Otis guy, tryin' to get the deer. And he's just bleedin' out and this guy tells us he's got a doctor at his house so I just picked him up and ran. Glenn and Michonne were around and followed, I guess."

Rick presses his lips together and squeezes Carl's hand. There's no response. Had this been what it was like, when he was in his coma? How many times had Lori and Shane and Carl come to his bedside and Carl would sit, teary-eyed, squeezing his hand, just begging him to wake up?

"What happened?" he asks, lifting his eyes. "Did you go to that refugee camp?"

Shane nods. "Jacqui and her family wanted to go so we just decided to follow. You know, no sense stickin' around when there's a chance of being in a bigger group, you know?" Rick nods. He had expected as much, anyway. "We packed up and left and stayed with them. Michonne's got a kid."

Rick blinks. "How old?"

"Three or four, I'd guess."

Such a tender age. He might be one of the only children who will grow up to have no memories of the world as it was before. Rick tries to think back to when Carl was that age – he had just been learning to have conversations, at that age where about half of what he said made any sense, and the rest was so ridiculous it had made him and Lori weak with laughter. He smiles, but it's a strained thing.

"Daryl and Glenn will find what we need."

Rick closes his eyes and nods. "I know," he says. He trusts Daryl with everything, after all, especially something as dear to him as his child. Carl is the one thing Rick would defend to the death, and the one thing he demanded he keep when he committed his crimes. Carl is his son and his legacy and if Rick can't keep him alive then what's the point of even saving the world?

Shane is silent for a moment and when Rick opens his eyes, he sees Shane looking him over with a frown on his face. "What happened to you guys?" he asks. "Did you…do what you needed to do?" His eyes keep moving to Carl, as though afraid he might wake up and hear that his father murdered another man.

Rick sighs. "Do you really want to talk about that?"

"You've been gone for two weeks, man. There's a lot we gotta talk about."

Rick frowns, leaning up on his good arm to regard Shane. That…can't be right. They've been separated for days, at the most – maybe three or four. "What?" he asks, and then shakes his head. "No, we haven't. We left…it's only been a coupl'a days."

Shane looks at him for a moment, before he takes another step into the room and closes the door behind him. "Rick," he says, slowly, like one might approach a crazy man with a knife, or speak to a child in the middle of a tantrum. "Y'all left almost two weeks ago. Honestly I thought you might be…"

Dead.

Rick shakes his head again. No. No, he can't have been gone for… Where did he lose that time? Does Daryl know? He thinks back to the nights he's aware of, to the days they spent wandering, and the time they spent here. That can't be right. That isn't right.

Abruptly Merle's antsy behavior starts to make more sense. Maggie and Herschel's cold behavior towards them…"It's been two weeks?" he asks, and Shane nods, trapping his tongue between his lips for another moment. "Oh my God…" He lays back down on the bed and covers his eyes with a hand. "I didn't… I swear, Shane, I thought we'd only been gone a couple days. We were driving back and met Maggie and Beth – Herschel's daughters – on the road, and then we came here, and -."

"Hey, it doesn't matter now," Shane says gently, reaching out for him but making no move to come closer. "What matters is you guys are alive, and so are we."

But it does matter. When will Rick wake up and find that a year has passed and he still has done nothing? Will War's strength merely grow, and thicken, and spread like a wildfire until they all burn to death within it?

"Where's Lori?" he asks. "And the others?"

"Back at the camp," Shane says. "I gotta go tell 'em what happened. Where we are."

Rick nods. "I'll…be here," he replies weakly, and Shane nods. His eyes go to Carl one more time, and then back to Rick, and Rick licks his lips. "Shane, I'm sorry," he says. "I'm sorry this happened. I'm sorry I – I pulled a fuckin' gun on you, man."

Shane nods, once. He won't forgive Rick for that, Rick is sure. But there are far worse things Rick could have done, might have done had no one else been around. His fingers curl, thinking about what it might have been like to pull the trigger and put Shane down in front of everyone. He thinks about how it felt when he shot Daryl – or James, with Daryl's skin, he now knows it was. His hands start to shake.

"Daryl and Glenn will be back soon," Shane whispers. "I can wait with ya."

"No," Rick says, shaking his head. He puts his hand back in Carl's and curls up a little tighter, closing his eyes. "No. I need to be alone with my son. Please."

"Alright, brother," Shane says. He walks around to the other side of the bed and squeezes Rick's shoulder. "I'll be back." And then he leaves, closing the door with a quiet 'click' behind him, and Rick grits his teeth and squeezes his eyes tightly shut and does his best not to sob.

 

 

 

Rick isn't sure how long he stays there, just listening to Carl's breathing. His hand starts to hurt from squeezing Carl's hand so tightly, and while his legs ache from being curled up so tightly and his wrist throbs with pain, he can't bring himself to move. No one comes to them to bring him food. Herschel visits once to change Carl's bandages and Rick watches him do it and wonders how, like him, his son could have been shot just a little shy of his lungs. Will Carl be like this for months, just as he was?

"Thank you," Rick says to Herschel when he changes the bandages and puts Carl's bloody clothes back in place to hide them. Herschel regards him with a flat expression. "I know you don't know me, and you don't know him, but I can't…if he makes it outta this, I'll owe you for life."

"Perhaps you could repay me by leaving, when it's done," Herschel says coolly. Then he sighs. "That Glenn fellow told me a little bit about you, Rick. Told me Carl is your son."

Rick nods. "His mother's in a refugee camp a little ways from here," he says. "Shane's his Godfather, and her husband now. He took care of 'em when I was in my coma, and then…afterwards."

Herschel nods. "That's a good man," he says, and Rick can't help but agree. Shane is a good man and Rick almost killed him like he killed three other probably good men. And a woman. And two others who were not good men but were definitely men at some point in their lives. And because of him Daryl is a murderer too. How many more of them will fall, led to the destruction of their souls because of his quest?

"Glenn also told me how you saved him and his friends, in Atlanta," he says, and Rick isn't sure what he did could qualify as saving them. More like they saved him, from wandering in his vision-induced stupor and getting himself killed in Famine's jaws. "I believe redemption is possible for everyone, Rick, even you, but you can't keep going on as you have."

Rick looks at Herschel for a long moment. The man's eyes are dark, the color of the ocean after rain. They aren't as myriad in blue as Daryl's, and not nearly as expressive, but Rick feels like he can read the emotions there plain as day.

"Did Glenn tell you anything about…about anything else?" Rick asks.

Herschel shakes his head. "If there's anything else to be said, I believe it's best that I hear it from you."

Rick nods. "I promised I'd answer you honestly," he says. "Anything you ask me. I haven't lied to you."

Herschel nods, but doesn't speak.

Rick sighs and looks to his son. He is sitting upright now, out of the way for Herschel to work. He pushes some of Carl's hair back from his face. "In my coma, I would wake up at night," he says, and keeps his eyes on Carl's face so that he doesn't lose focus of what he wants to say. "Death was standing at my door, and I would see him moving around the hospital. The people he touched passed away the next day, and every night I would think 'Tonight, this is the night he comes for me', but he never did. He would go on and then one night I followed him and I spoke to him. And he told me about…all this. He told me the apocalypse was coming."

Rick swallows, hard. "I had no reason not to believe him. I would hear patients coding after he touched them. In my coma, I could hear. I could hear when Lori – my wife, Carl's mother – visited me. I was…aware, some of the time. And when I woke up I knew it was coming, because Death had told me. And he told me how I could stop it."

"By killing people," Herschel says flatly.

Rick shakes his head. "They aren't people," Rick says. "Not really. They're…vessels, for the horsemen. Like the walkers."

"They're still people," Herschel says, his voice getting a little harsh, gaining an edge like the blade of a sword. Rick lifts his eyes and meets the other man's. They're darker now; stormy. "My wife is in that barn. You knew about the barn. How?"

"I had visions," Rick says. "I've had them about a few things. Like…like this place. Not a lot, and it's fuzzy. And sometimes the visions don't make sense, but I still have them. I knew your daughters before I even met them. I knew about the barn but I didn't know if I'd ever actually see it." He looks away. "I'm changing the future. Some of it, anyway."

"I don't believe you," Herschel says. "It is not in the nature of man to be able to change destiny."

"I'm not a man anymore," Rick confesses. "Sometimes….Death still visits me. He came to me the day before it happened and told me it would happen. And then it did. And he comes to me and tells me where to go, sometimes, and I see him touching people and I see that they might die. I'm trying to save people, I am."

Herschel is silent for another moment, and Rick huffs a weak, hurt laugh. "Daryl didn't believe me either. Even when it was happening. He was with me when it happened. He didn't believe me until we met Famine."

"So you've seen these horsemen," Herschel murmurs.

Rick nods. "I have dreams of them. They speak to me around an open fire, but since I've been awake and moving they've tried to attack me. They tried to come after me. Famine and Pestilence are gone. After War it's…it's over."

"That's one horseman too short, Rick."

Rick looks at Herschel and bites his lip. "I said these people aren't men anymore when they become vessels," he says slowly, meaningfully. "And I'm not a man anymore either."

Herschel blinks at him, and Rick sees the exact moment that he understands what Rick is saying. He straightens up and sucks in a breath, his fingers curling until his knuckles turn white on his knees. "So you mean to say that…"

"After War, it's just me," Rick says. "I know this. A sacrifice must be made." He sighs and pushes another strand of hair from Carl's face. It's growing long now. He wonders how long it gets before it starts to annoy him, like Daryl's does sometimes. They all need a haircut. The thought makes him smile. "When that times comes, I'm ready."

"I've heard enough," Herschel says, and stands. "When your friends come back, I will return to set up the blood transfusion. As soon as you both are able, I want you off my farm. That is my final word on the matter."

Rick nods, letting out a soft breath. "Can I take Troublemaker with me?" he asks. "I led that horse to Atlanta, and he keeps finding me. I think he's meant to be mine."

"Suit yourself," Herschel says, his hand on the door. "Though I think it's time for you to have a good, long think about what is yours and what is not in this world, and if continuing on like this is the best for everyone you claim to love."

Rick turns his face away.

"You are still a man, Rick. You're blood and flesh and bone just like the rest of us."

Rick smiles and Herschel lets himself out. Rick gingerly lays back down to curl up around his son and tries not to think about how much time might be passing outside of this windowless room, how many if he goes to sleep and wakes up it will be another two weeks, or a month, or a year, and Carl might have died by his side and his wrist will be healed and War will have taken over the world.

 

 

 

Rick wakes to a commotion and noise coming from downstairs. He hears Herschel and Daryl's voices and sits up just in time for Herschel, Maggie, Daryl and Glenn to come into the room, a bag in hang brimming with plastic-wrapped medical supplies.

"You found some," Rick breathes, smiling as Daryl comes around to stand beside him and help him to a sitting position. Daryl smiles and rests his forehead against Rick's hair, just for a moment, before he pushes himself into the corner of the room to give Maggie and Herschel room to work.

Rick remembers the feeling of needles and IVs being stuck in him. When he'd woken from his coma he had yanked the things out in a panicked frenzy, shouting for his family until orderlies had rushed in to sedate him and call Lori to let her know he'd woken up. At the time, Rick hadn't known that he would have woken up to a world still whole, and hadn't been able to relax for a long time until he'd seen their faces, tired but happy, rushing towards him.

They push his arm until it's bare and raised and hook a line into Carl's arm. A little blood comes out when Maggie does this and Rick winces, but holds still as Herschel does the same with him. They connect everything up and soon there's a tube of blood between him and his son, replenishing what Carl has lost.

"You ate?" Daryl asks, and Rick shakes his head. He doesn't miss the glare Daryl sends to the back of Maggie's head before he reaches into his pocket for another granola bar and unwraps it. Rick's good arm is being used for the blood transfusion and he of course can't use his other hand so Daryl holds it to his mouth while Rick takes a bite, already starting to feel lightheaded.

His stomach clenches sharply, reminding him how little he's eaten in the last few days – or maybe two weeks. He waits until Maggie and Herschel are gone, only Glenn and Daryl remaining, to ask; "Glenn." The man looks at him with wide eyes. "How long has it been since we saw each other?"

Glenn swallows. "'Bout two weeks," he says, and Rick looks to Daryl, who nods.

"Told me that too on the run," Daryl bites out, taking a bite of the granola bar before handing the rest to Rick, who eats it in one bite. "Didn't believe it at first, but the days are shorter, the air's colder." He shrugs one shoulder. "Thought it had only been a few days."

"So did I," Rick whispers. "Do you think Pestilence -?"

"Shit." Daryl shakes his head. "I don't know what to think anymore."

Glenn presses his lips together and looks at Carl. "How's he doin'?" he asks.

"Guess what you'd expect," Rick replies. "Hope he doesn't follow like me. When I got shot I was out for months."

"Probably for the best he sleeps," Daryl says. "World ain't exactly friendly right now."

"Shane told me you guys hooked up with Michonne's camp," he says. "Where is she?"

"Think she went with Shane, back to the group?" Glenn hazards, and Rick nods. "That makes sense. Her kid's there – Shane tell you she has a kid?" Rick nods again. "Crazy shit, man. Lori's probably sick with worry, too." Glenn sighs. "We lost Amy."

"Amy?" Andrea's sister. Rick thinks about the shadow that moved behind her and touched her neck. "How?"

"On the road. Walker came outta nowhere. Andrea wouldn't leave her at first. Then she turned and we had to put her down." Glenn's face is pale, his eyes sad. "I put her down."

"I'm sorry you had to do that," Rick says. After all, he is no stranger to death, or murder, or playing the bad guy. "Everyone else okay?"

Glenn nods.

"Good," Rick says, closing his eyes and leaning his head against the headboard. "That's good."

"That camp will probably move soon," Daryl says. "Ain't safe where they are. You said that."

Rick nods, and thinks about the people they might lose. "Herschel wants us gone soon as Carl can move," he says, looking to Daryl. His face is pale and he looks tired. Rick can't remember the last time he got a good night's sleep, bereft of Rick's nightmares. Maybe the night they first kissed, if then.

He can't look away from Daryl, too caught in the storm of the man's eyes. After a moment Glenn clears his throat and gets up. "I'll leave you guys be," he says, "go see if maybe there's something we can do for the Greenes, for what they did for Carl."

"Thank you, Glenn," Rick says, warm with gratitude, and Glenn smiles and nods at both of them before he leaves the room. As soon as he's gone Daryl slinks from the corner of the room and stands at Rick's side on the bed. "Two weeks," Rick murmurs lowly. "You really didn't know?"

Daryl shakes his head and gently takes Rick's hand, wrapping his fingers between Rick's. Rick squeezes gently, careful not to loosen or unhook the IV in his arm, and kisses Daryl's fingers. "How your legs feelin'?" he asks.

Rick shakes his head. "I don't want to talk about that," he says.

"I think we gotta talk about somethin'," Daryl replies. "I'm all for stoic silences too, but I feel like…" Daryl sighs, biting his lower lip. "I hate leavin' you alone."

"'Cause you think I might do somethin' stupid?"

"That's a reason," Daryl says, smirking a little. "But you know that ain't all of it."

"I know," Rick says. He presses the back of Daryl's hand to his mouth and breathes deeply, closing his eyes. "Thank you. For Carl. For knowin'…"

"He's your kid," Daryl says, shrugging.

"Still. Thank you."

"Ain't nothin'," Daryl murmurs. He brushes his free hand through Rick's hair and sighs. "You know I got your back."

Rick manages a weak smile, and turns his face up to look at Daryl. Daryl regards him for a moment, before he leans down, cupping Rick's neck, and presses a kiss to his forehead. Rick feels a tremor run through him that might be sorrow and might be elation, he can never tell when Daryl is touching him.

"We'll figure it out," Daryl promises, and Rick doesn't doubt him for a moment. He licks his lips and whistles softly and feels Daryl's smile against his skin. "Yeah. Me too."

Chapter Text

Rick loses track of time in that windowless room. Bedrooms should have windows – even the one he'd had in the facility had had one, high up but just large enough to let the light in and let him know vaguely what time of day it was.

Daryl stays by his side, only leaving to get food and to relieve himself in the guest bathroom. Rick doesn't move. He doesn't feel things like hunger until Daryl feels him, and his body seems intent on saving whatever he eats because he never feels like going to the bathroom though Daryl asks him if he needs help getting there, too. He just wants to lay down and sleep, and wake up to his son alive and awake and whole, and Daryl by his side – always by his side. Daryl sleeps on the floor by the bed and Rick gets the distinct impression that he only does this because the bed won't fit all of them. Whenever Daryl wakes the first thing he does is reach out to touch Rick as though assuring himself that Rick hasn't disappeared while he slept.

It's a legitimate concern. Rick fights off sleep for the most part, terrified to the bone that he will have a dream and go wandering and get himself or someone else hurt. Besides, with the IV still attached, he won't risk rising and dislodging it.

After a while he starts to feel weak and Carl's face is regaining some color. He clears his throat and rolls onto his back so that he can catch Daryl's eye. "Herschel should probably come remove this," he says, and Daryl nods and leaves without a word. A few minutes later he comes back with Herschel, who pulls up a small stool and sets about  examining Carl's stitches, his pallor, and whatever else a doctor might look for in a gunshot victim.

"Bleeding's stopped," he says, though Rick would hope that is the case. He lifts up Carl's shirt and the bandages, pressing his lips together. "Doesn't look like there's any swelling or internal bruising. I think it's safe to take out that IV."

Rick nods and sits still as Herschel unhooks everything, before placing a second piece of gauze and taping it over the entry wound on Carl's arm, and then he hands a piece to Rick to do the same. Rick folds it and curls his arm up so that the wound will scab over more quickly.

"Your friends are staying out in the lean-to," Herschel tells them, and Rick assumes that means Glenn and Merle, since Shane would presumably still be at the refugee camp with everyone else. He nods, accepting that news. "I told them the same thing I told you – when the boy's good and ready, you all should move on."

Daryl shifts his weight, folding his arms over his chest. "C'mon, man," he says, his voice a mix between annoyed and plaintive. "You gotta know it's better if the living sticks together in this kinda world. We have people, and weapons. We can protect ourselves here."

"We don't need much protecting," Herschel says coolly.

"You've been lucky," Daryl replies, harsher now. "You don't know what it's like out there. You got this nice Eden, good for you. It'll fall."

"Daryl," Rick warns, reaching out a hand to put it on Daryl's side. Daryl shifts his weight again and lets out another rough, angry sound. Rick turns back to Herschel. "Thank you again," he says, and Herschel nods and gets up and leaves the room.

"You know I'm right," Daryl says darkly.

Rick nods and lets his hand fall. "I do," he says, voice quiet. "But arguing with him isn't going to change his mind." Daryl shakes his head and runs a hand through his hair, letting out another annoyed noise. Rick looks up at him and bites his lower lip.

They remain quiet, and then Rick cocks his head as he hears singing coming from downstairs. It's a woman's voice, high and young, and he sighs and smiles. "You remember when Jack would sing?" he asks, thinking of the giant, angry man that had so often confronted him and wanted to start fights. Daryl breathes out heavily from his nose and nods. "He had a nice voice."

"I think that's Beth," Daryl says quietly, hesitating as though expecting Rick to have a negative reaction to that. Rick frowns. "She talks to me, y'know. Asks me about my life. About you."

Rick thinks he might hear what Daryl won't say. "What kinda stuff she ask about?"

"Just told ya," Daryl replies, and then huffs again and slides down the wall until he's sitting. He runs both hands through his hair again and shakes his head. "Rick, I don't know how long I can…"

Rick frowns. He wants to reach out and touch Daryl but Daryl is sitting too far away.

Daryl looks up, and he looks so lost and young Rick wishes he could leap from the bed and cradle him close like a pup, run his hands through Daryl's hair and kiss him until the sorrow and the fear is all gone from his soul.

"I don't know who War is," Rick says, turning his face away to stare towards the end of the bed. "I'm sorry. For a second I thought…"

"For a second I thought it was easy," Daryl finishes with a nod and a broken huff of laughter. "I mean, it's been less than two months and we already clocked two of the sons of bitches. It's been scary as fuck, but we got 'em, and now I'm thinkin'…now I'm thinkin' it was too easy, you know?"

Rick nods. It's a thought he's been entertaining for a while now. They've been hurt, yes, and starving, and broken, but they've been making it, making progress. But now there's nothing – no direction and no idea where to go or how to get there. Merle had been right.

"You haven't been sleepin'," Daryl whispers. "Don't think I didn't notice."

"I'm afraid to sleep," Rick confesses.

"Why?"

"Because what if I don't wake up?" Rick looks back at Daryl, helpless. "What if War kills me in my dreams?"

"You think he could?"

"I don't know what I think anymore," Rick says, and sighs. "Death hasn't come to me since…since Carl got shot. I saw him and I begged him not to take Carl and he didn't but since then he hasn't been here. I don't know what he's thinking. I don't know…"

Abruptly the singing from downstairs cuts off and Rick hears the scrape of a chair abruptly being pushed back, followed by a cry of "Daddy! Come quick!". It's definitely Beth, and Rick tenses up, hissing in pain when his ankles and his wrist give protesting spikes of pain. His legs feel better, almost like he could walk, but he doesn't want to chance it.

"I'll go look," Daryl says quietly, pushing himself to his feet and leaving the room. He leaves the door open and Rick swallows back an anxious whimper. He hates not being able to see Daryl.

Daryl comes back a moment later and Rick thinks he might hear the rumble of a vehicle. "Someone's coming," he says. "Get up."

Rick shakes his head helplessly but Daryl doesn't seem inclined to humor him. He comes around to the bed and Rick swings his legs around so that his feet rest against the floor. His legs feel atrophied, like they did when he first woke up from his coma. He almost collapses against Daryl's chest when he tries to stand and lets out a growl of pain when Daryl hooks his arm under Rick's and hauls him upright.

Rick hears the shrill whinny of a horse.

His legs drag and don't seem to want to work but he manages to keep himself relatively upright with Daryl's help. His broken hand curls limply over Daryl's shoulder and he uses the other to brace himself against the bed and skirt around it, through the door and out onto the landing above the stairs. By the time they reach the bottom he sees a collection of cars pull up outside the Greenes' open front door.

He shakes his head and sighs. "They came back," he says.

They make it out onto the front porch where Patricia is standing, a rifle in her hands but not aimed or ready. Otis, Beth, Maggie and Herschel are walking towards the cars and Rick sees Glenn and Merle coming from the field. Troublemaker is trotting back and forth across the fence, tossing his head wildly.

It's the red Honda, and Glenn's Dodge, and the RV is also there, trundling to a stop behind them. Lori gets out of the Honda, teary-faced and frantic, and she's yelling something at Shane as he gets out the driver-side door. She rushes around the front of the car and Shane catches her, and Rick can see him speaking but can't make out what he's saying.

Maggie runs forward with Otis and the two women start in a fast exchange. Lori's face is red and puffy from  crying, and then she sees Rick and Daryl and her face darkens completely.

He pushes past Shane, Maggie and Otis, and runs to the porch. "You," she hisses, jabbing a finger in Rick's chest. Fresh tears have welled up in her eyes and are falling freely down her face. "Where is he?"

"Lori." Rick catches her hand, cradling it in as gently as he can manage. He yanks her hand free. "He's okay. I gave him my blood, he looks better. He's gonna be okay."

"To Hell with that," she hisses. "Where the fuck is my son?"

"First door on the left," Daryl mutters. "Upstairs."

She nods and rushes past them and Rick doesn't think to stop her. The Greenes and Shane and Glenn all converge on them at once. Shane is running a hand through his hair and speaking quickly;

"Herschel, I'm sorry, man. I couldn't – she's his mother."

"I understand," Herschel says, although he sounds angry. He looks at Rick with something like suspicion, as though Rick could have orchestrated the whole thing. Truthfully, with what Rick has told him, it's not an unfair thing to think. "I expect you think you'll all move in now, hmm?"

"We'll stay away," Rick says quietly. "Keep to the field. Keep to our own. We won't bother you. Then we'll go."

Herschel nods and walks inside, Beth and Maggie hot on his heels. Patricia and Otis follow them inside and close the front door and Rick finally feels the strength in his legs give out. He falls and Daryl lets out a curse and Shane rushes forward to help him get to a reasonable sitting position on the front porch steps.

"Who's here?" Daryl asks.

"Dale, Andrea, me and Lori," Shane says. "Andrea drove Glenn's car. And…and everyone else is gonna follow."

Rick blinks and looks up at him. "What?" he demands.

Shane spreads his hands out in a helpless gesture. "I told Lori about Carl and she lost her shit. Started screamin'. Drew a crowd. Then she kept goin' on about how it wasn't safe here – you told her that, and they don't even know ya but I guess Michonne got a feelin' about ya, or somethin', 'cause she demanded that they all move. Started a fight. But I guess…some of 'em decided they were gonna come 'cause they felt safer with us."

Rick blinks, wondering how strangers he's never met could choose to follow him – and their group – so easily. But then he remembers it's been two weeks, and two weeks in this world could feel like years. Plenty of time to form strong emotional reliance and bonds. He remembers learning about the psychology of groups, the herd mentality, in the police academy and even more when speaking with the therapists in the facility. They'd been afraid he might Cuckoo's Nest the whole joint. Rick is charismatic. That's what they liked to call him. A natural leader. Unemotional. Does what needs to be done.

That's just a polite way of saying psychopath.

"Herschel's gonna be pissed," Daryl mutters, and Rick can't help but nod.

"We'll keep to our own, like you said," Shane says, like he's offering a compromise. "Provide for ourselves."

"Don't think that's gonna fly," Daryl replies. "He really don't like Rick."

"Then I'll leave," Rick says, lifting his head and staring out towards the cars, where Glenn and Andrea are deep in conversation with Dale and Merle. He sees Merle laugh and sling an arm across Andrea's shoulders and winces in sympathy, knowing how heavy Merle's arm can be. Andrea seems to bear the weight just fine, though she does give Merle a dirty look that he just grins at. "And whoever wants to follow can follow. S'me he has a problem with. Ain't no reason y'all gotta suffer for it."

"Rick…" Shane looks uneasy, scratching the back of his neck, and he shifts his weight. "Come on, brother. You can't keep talkin' like that."

"Like what?"

"Like leavin's the only answer you got," Shane says, rolling his eyes in exasperation. "Fuck's sake, man, I only just found you again! You're my brother. I can't just keep letting you go like this. And 'sides…what the fuck happened to ya? You look like you can barely stand."

"He got hurt," Daryl says quietly. "Fighting Pestilence."

Shane's eyes widen. "So you did find him."

Rick nods, closing his eyes. His wrist throbs when he thinks about how he'd pulled his gun, putting Doctor Woodmore down for the second and final time. "I couldn't have done it without you and Lori," he says, lifting his head and meeting Shane's eyes. "It was my therapist, at the facility. Doctor Woodmore. He was…he was dead, but…changed."

"Like a walker?" Shane asks.

Rick shakes his head. "He could speak," he says. "And fight. He…" He looks at Daryl. He never told Daryl what Woodmore had promised him if he would agree to stop fighting. He doesn't think he could bear to give Daryl that information. "He made me sick. Real sick. Broke my legs and my hand."

"Fuck," Shane says, rubbing a hand through his hair. Rick thinks he might see, just a spark and then it's gone, a flicker of understanding and acceptance in Shane's eyes. After all, a fight's a fight. Wounds are physical, evidence, proof. Maybe Shane is starting to believe him.

The thought doesn't fill him with as much excitement as he thought it would.

Lori opens the front door and steps out, Beth's arm slung around her shoulders and shushing her quietly. "He's asleep," Lori says numbly, and comes forward to stand next to Shane. She wraps her arms tight around his chest and Shane holds her close, pressing his face into her hair. Her shoulders are shaking.

"He's going to be okay," Rick says, and Lori turns to look at him. She wipes her hand across her face and heaves in a shaky breath.

"I believe you," she says, and Rick isn't sure how much she means to say. She turns more fully and takes another deep breath, one hand falling to her stomach and fisting in her loose shirt. Rick forces his eyes not to fall there, knowing that there's a life growing inside of her now. She must be sick with anxiety all the time. Rick remembers how sick she was with Carl, and that isn't even bringing into the equation the world they live in now. He tries not to think about how fragile the life is at this point, how easy it might be to lose it.

He doesn't see a shadow behind her, not yet, but that doesn’t mean he won't. He bites his lip and turns his face away. Daryl is there – he's moved to sit behind Rick, shoulder against one of the porch beams, legs stretched out behind Rick's back a respectful distance away.

"Rick…" It's then that Lori seems to notice how pale Rick is, how tired he seems. Her eyes fall to his injured, shirt-wrapped wrist and widen. "What happened?"

"Got in a fight," Rick replies, scratching the back of his neck with his good hand. "Won."

"Was it one of the changed?" It's Beth's voice and Rick turns to her, looking up into her wide blue eyes. He shakes his head and she presses her lips together, folding her arms across her chest. She sits down on the step, looking out to the cars and the field beyond.

Rick's eyes fall to the barn and he sucks in a breath. "No one go near the barn," he says quietly. He sees Shane and Lori look towards it. "Tell everyone who comes here. No one go near the barn."

"Why?" Lori whispers, turning pale.

Rick shakes his head. "Just don't," he says, and doesn't miss how Shane looks at it again, eyes narrowed and calculating.

"What do we do now?" Lori asks after another quiet moment.

"We wait until Carl's up," Rick says, sighing. "Then…then we move on, I guess."

"Daddy won't make you," Beth says, her voice firm. She looks down at her hands and her wrists and bites her lower lip, before she shakes her head. "I'll talk to 'im. And Maggie. He can't make you leave."

"Don't think that's up for you to change," Rick says kindly, trying to smile. "It's okay, really."

"I'll talk to 'im," Beth says again with a firm nod, and Rick shakes his head but decides not to argue anymore.

They set up tents and their encampment by the lean-to, in the field. Troublemaker keeps Rick upright as they do so, and as they're doing it another collection of cars shows up. Carol and Ed are in one – no Sophia, but Rick doesn't have the stomach to ask them where she is. Glenn said they hadn't lost her, but Glenn doesn't know what happened on the road. Carol looks sick with worry and there's a bruise on her cheek that Rick believes without a doubt was put there by her husband.

Michonne doesn't join them, and no one else that Rick doesn't recognize. He accepts that with a nod – it would have been strange if so many had flocked to him just from stories the others had told. At worst he's been labelled as insane, a crazy man on a foolish mission to save the Goddamn world. At best he's just Carl's father, no more important than any other man. Rick would sometimes prefer it that way.

They station the cars by the field fence as a second barrier and set themselves up in relative comfort. Lori is allowed to stay in the bedroom with Carl and so she is the only one inside. Dale has taken his usual spot on top of his RV, keeping watch.

That night, Rick sleeps in the grass, Troublemaker standing by his side and Daryl laid out next to him. The air is chilly and he shivers, clinging to the blanket and wishing it was big enough to throw over Daryl as well so that they might share some body heat.

Daryl is facing him, a darker silhouette in the night, and Rick reaches out and finds his hand. Daryl squeezes it. "I'm scared to sleep," he whispers.

"Don't be," Daryl replies. "I'm here."

Rick bites his lip and closes his eyes, trying his best to relax. Sleep comes to him easily, his body so worn out and frayed that it succumbs easily to the lull of sleep. Maybe he'll be so tired that he won't dream, but he doesn't hold out much hope of that.

He opens his eyes and is in a suburb, the road stretching out in front of him like it has no end. There are solar panels on either side of it, and clean, untouched white houses lining each side of the road. Rick turns around and there are walls made of sheet metal, stretching up so high he can barely see the tops of the trees beyond them. He doesn't hear any walkers, but birds chirping and the occasional chatter of a squirrel. There's life here, some Eden like Daryl had said. There's a place where they could be safe.

A child runs past him that he doesn't recognize, with blonde hair and dark brown eyes. She giggles and tugs on his hand, which is no longer broken. "Come play with me, daddy!" she says in a her young burbling-English, and Rick smiles and follows her.

As he follows the child he catches glimpses of himself in the windows. He stops, eyes wide when he sees himself. His face is covered in blood, fresh and wet. His hands, too, and there's a smear on the little girl's hand where she had grabbed him. She stops and turns around, calling for him, but Rick can't take his eyes away from his reflection in the window.

He walks up to the window and sees gold, wrapped like snakes around his neck and on top of his head. It almost looks like a crown. He reaches out and touches the window and his reflection doesn't move, merely stands and stares at him with the same horrified expression.

His fingers leave a streak of blood on the window.

Abruptly his reflection slams against the door, beating on it as though it's a different man on the other side of bulletproof glass. He's yelling something, and Rick thinks he can make out the words 'Turn around' in the frantic shape of his mouth.

He turns and gasps, a cold shaft of fear and horror striking through his heart. There are bodies in the street, lying dead, limbs akimbo, eyes white and all staring straight at him. He sees Glenn. He sees Lori, and Merle, and Dale. He sees people he hasn't met yet. He sees Beth.

He stumbles down to the road and falls to his knees near Glenn's body. Glenn's white eyes are staring at him almost in accusation. The child giggles and Rick looks at her and abruptly sees whose child it is – her eyes are the same dark brown, her nose just like her mother's. She bares gleaming white teeth at him and covers her mouth with her bloody hands.

Then, he hears a whistle. It's not one of Daryl's whistles, but he's heard it before. He's heard it in his dream about Famine, and he's heard it in his visions. It has many voices.

He hears a sound like the scrape of metal against concrete and spins around again, on his knees and then on his hands when he feels the edge of a sword laid against the back of his neck. He can't look up, doesn't dare look up to see the man's face, but he can see his reflection still beating frantically at the window. He sees the reflection of the man with the sword – and he looks like any other man, clad in black, but there's a crown on his head and Rick knows who it is.

He bows his head and closes his eyes. "No," he whispers, and War laughs.

"No?" he asks, in a voice that is so familiar and foreign. There are so many voices that make up that of War, clamoring for blood and justice and land and whatever else it is men will kill each other over. "Lift your eyes, Rick. I want to see your face when I kill you."

The sword moves away and sits with the point on his shoulder, and Rick straightens up, opening his eyes. He trembles, something like cold and fear and dreadful certainty making his breaths shake. His gaze moves up, takes in the standard issue gunbelt at the man's waist, the pistol sitting there. He sees the tan uniform shirt – no longer black, nothing like the reflection. He sees the smear of blood on the collar, and there's a huge bloodstain on his chest where Rick's bullet might have gone.

He lifts his eyes to see the man's face. There's no hood, just a crown sitting on his head, golden, with gems the color of red stars and fire set within.

"No," he says again, and War laughs and lifts his sword to strike.

Rick surges awake, yanked out of his dream by some grip much stronger than his will. He thrashes wildly and finds that he'd been standing, and his legs don't give out on him but whether that's because the adrenaline hasn't worn off of because he's truly healed, he cannot say. He screams, grabbing at his neck, sure that he'll find the first hot spurts of blood coating his fingers.

"Rick!"

It's Daryl, awakened by Rick's scream, and he surges up and grabs Rick's hands. Rick's wrist aches sharply but he can't make himself move his hands and he screams again, the sound breaking off as Daryl grabs him and forces him to his knees. He sees Dale shift on top of the RV, gun at the ready, but then his focus is entirely on Daryl. He sees the grass between their knees and can't stop fucking shaking.

"God, no," Rick moans again, as frantic and ravenous as any walker. He leans forward and puts his head in his hands since Daryl won't let his hands go, trembling and shaking so hard he thinks the Earth might just shatter below him and swallow him whole.

"It was a dream," Daryl says, as quietly as he can manage, but loud enough to be heard over Rick's screams and groans. "I'm here. You're okay. You're awake now."

"No, no, no." Because Daryl doesn't understand.

"What did you see, Rick?" Daryl asks. "Talk to me. What did you see?"

"Is he alright?"

It's Glenn, and Rick lifts his head to see Glenn and Shane running towards them. Shane has his gun out and Rick flinches away so hard that Daryl breaks his hold, and scrambles back on the grass despite the way the broken bones in his wrist scrape and rub together loud enough for him to hear.

"He's fine!" Daryl barks. "He had a bad dream. Get away."

"Another vision?" Glenn whispers, but then Shane reaches out a hand to stop him and they don't come any closer.

Daryl crawls after him and kneels over Rick's legs, forcing him to be still. Rick grabs him frantically, digging his good hand in Daryl's leg hard enough that he's sure it hurts. "I saw him," he whispers. "I saw War."

Daryl's eyes widen. "And?" he breathes.

Rick takes in a shuddering breath, his eyes filling with tears, his throat too thick to speak. He shakes his head and bows down, burying his face in Daryl's neck. Daryl holds him as tightly as he can, so tightly that Rick feels like he can barely breathe.

"It's Shane," he whispers brokenly. He hears Daryl's heartbeat stutter in surprise, feels the man's surprised gasp. "God, Daryl, it's Shane."

He feels Daryl turn. "Go back to sleep," he commands. "I got this." He's not sure if Glenn and Shane move away. He doesn't know if he can bear to look at the man's retreating back. His hands shake so hard he feels like he might shatter all over again.

"Rick," Daryl says, and pulls back just enough to cup Rick's face and force their eyes to meet. "You said it might be 'im before."

Rick lets out a broken sound. "I saw him," he says.

"Okay." Daryl pets through his hair and unlike usual, the touch does nothing to soothe him. "Okay. It's okay. It was a dream." Not a vision. Not just a dream. "We'll figure it out. Just calm down. Please. Please calm down, Rick."

And Rick is trying. His vision is starting to grey out from panic. But he can't pass out – he can't go to sleep because if he sleeps War will kill him, and if he doesn't…what then? He can't just walk up and kill Shane – God, his best friend…

"Rick, I'm here," Daryl whispers. He leans their foreheads together, both hands threading through Rick's hair, and Rick thinks the adrenaline might be wearing off because he does start to feel calmer. Or maybe he's just going numb. "Relax, that's it…relax for me. I'm here."

"Daryl, I don't know what to do," Rick says.

"We'll figure it out," Daryl says. "Play it smart." Rick nods, once, slowly. His face is tacky with tears and his mouth feels dry. He presses his good hand against Daryl's chest and fists his fingers tightly in his clothes. One of Daryl's hands lets go of his head to rest over Rick's hand on his chest.

"I gotta kill 'im," Rick whispers one more time.

Daryl doesn't tell him he doesn't, but that's not a conversation they should have right now, if ever. Daryl's right, though – if what Rick saw is true, they have to play it smart. Rick's spine feels electric and his head is feverish. Maybe he's getting sick anyway. Maybe Pestilence and Famine never really died.

Maybe it's all one big cosmic joke designed by bored Gods to play on weak mortals.

"'M right here," Daryl says again, and then he tugs on Rick's hair and closes his eyes, sighing. "We'll figure it out."

God, I hope so, Rick thinks. Then, I hope I'm wrong.

Please, God, let me be wrong. Even if I'm wrong about everything. Let me be wrong about this.

Chapter Text

Rick doesn't sleep. He can't bear the thought of closing his eyes, of seeing those faces staring up at him with blank accusation, or seeing the little girl, or seeing Shane. His body feels so numb that it allows him to walk, and he curls up against one of the fence posts and wraps his good arm around his knees and cries. At first, it's heavy sobs, racking his entire frame and coming out in broken, harsh whimpers that catch in his throat and make his head burn.

Then he just cries – he doesn't know how much water he has in his body to lose but it doesn't seem to matter to his body. Every time he thinks he might be done he thinks about having to kill his best friend and the tears start anew, running down his face and soaking into the skin on his arm and his jeans.

Daryl sits by him, but he doesn't stay awake for long. He falls asleep with his head on Rick's shoulder and his hand on Rick's arm, keeping him steady and grounded – or maybe just making sure Rick doesn't wander off again if he does fall asleep. Occasionally he sees movement in the lean-to, one of the many bodies packed in there shifting in place.

At some point in the night Andrea wakes up and goes to sit up with Dale on top of the RV. Glenn wakes too but doesn't go to keep watch. Rick can feel Glenn's eyes on him, although whether the gaze is analytic or scared he can't tell.

He watches the sun break up on the horizon, coloring the sky a lighter black, and then orange and finally a bright blue. Troublemaker comes over and nudges at his knee and Rick smiles, loosening his legs and lifting his good arm to pet the horse's head. The motion causes Daryl to wake and he does so with a snort and he leans his head back against the post.

"Get any more sleep?" he asks.

Rick shakes his head and sighs. "You know the answer."

Daryl nods. His eyes move out to the lean-to again as they watch everyone else waking up. Glenn finally seems to get up the courage to rise and walk over to them both. He skirts by Troublemaker and sits down in front of Rick and Daryl.

"How you feeling?" he asks, dark eyes solemn, voice soft.

Rick huffs a laugh and wipes his hand across his face. The horse snorts and trots off with a flick of his tail, towards the other horse who is standing at the other end of the field. Like the Greenes, Beth's horse seems content to put a wide berth between them and leave it at that.

"Daryl said it was a bad dream," Glenn murmurs, and Rick presses his lips together and nods. "But was it like…a dream, dream?"

And isn't that the million dollar question. Rick used to know what was a dream and what was a vision, but nothing in that place had felt familiar, even in his memories of the visions he's had in the past. Maybe it's just a manifestation of his fears – but then again, how many times has he looked at Shane and seen the crown on his head and the sword in his hand?

How many time has he looked at Shane and not seen it?

Rick lets out a harsh whimper, curling the fingers of his good hand up tightly and shaking his head. "Fuck," he whispers, running his hand through his hair. Glenn's eyes fall to his purplish-black wrist. It looks worse than it did before, from all the shaking and running around and putting weight and pressure on it when he really shouldn't have been.

"We should have that doctor look at that," Glenn says with a nod to Rick's wrist. His fingers are white from lack of blood loss and he has a hard time moving them when he's not dreaming. "Could be a really bad break."

Rick nods. "Herschel won't wanna help me," he says.

"Beth, then," Daryl offers. He stands up before Rick can protest – not that Rick does, but something dark and ugly does curl up in his chest at the thought of Daryl talking to Beth. He can't help it, even though he knows there is nothing to be concerned about. Daryl loves him, even if neither of them have said the words. Rick doesn't think for a second that Daryl feels anything less than he does when they're together. They lose their minds when they're apart. "I'll see if there's something she can do."

Rick nods, and Daryl regards him for one more long second before he nods as well and strides off towards the bottom of the field, where the Greene house is. Glenn stays behind near Rick and after a moment Rick turns back to look at him.

"Shane told me you guys went to Michonne's camp," he says.

Glenn presses his lips together and nods. "Couldn't think of anywhere else to go where there's people who were friendly, you know?" he says with a shrug. "Rick…I'm sorry. I fought them on it, too. I kept sayin' we should wait for you to come back but then you guys kept…not coming back, and I thought – the first run had gone so quickly, you know? But it was taking so long…"

"I understand," Rick says, reaching out and putting a hand on Glenn's shoulder, squeezing gently. He offers a small smile that the other man returns. "I get it, really. And I'm glad you guys made it to somewhere safer, where there's more people. We should…we should be around people. Most of us. We're stronger in groups."

"Yeah." Glenn's face goes dark for a minute and he falls silent, before he looks over his shoulder towards the lean-to. Lori is sitting with Carol, Andrea and Ed. Even from so far away Rick can see the inward curl of Carol's shoulders, the tightness in her face. Lori and Andrea look uncomfortable too – Rick's been with Lori long enough to recognize the clench of her jaw and the way she keeps tying her hair up and then letting it down – it's something she does when she's irritated. "Not sure all of us are better off though."

Rick swallows hard and looks at Glenn, who is still turned away. "Ed?" he asks, and Glenn looks back at him, blinking in surprise, and nods.

"Yeah," he says. "Ed."

"He make Carol's face look like that?"

Glenn hesitates, then; "Can't prove it, but we all think so. Carol won't talk about it."

"Shane thought so," Rick says. "Told me as much. I told him I'd watch with him, make sure before we moved forward with anything." But there's the proof, isn't it? How long can Rick justify waiting until Ed gets worse – until he beats her until she can't walk? Until he kills her? Until he lays his hands on their little girl?

How long can he wait for Shane to become strong enough as War until Rick can't handle him anymore?

"Probably smart," Glenn says, oblivious to the thoughts rolling around in Rick's head like angry hornets, stinging his brain and the backs of his eyes. "I mean, he's still a human. For now."

"For now," Rick repeats with a nod. Aren't they all? But sometimes men just aren't men anymore, but monsters. He looks for Shane and doesn't see him around the lean-to. He must be out by the RV, or up in the house with Carl. Probably with Carl. He's a good father, a good man – Rick's best fucking friend before this whole mess started. And he's kept the group safe while Rick was away.

And they fight, but brothers fight. God, he can't be War.

Rick shakes his head and scratches harshly at the back of his neck until the skin starts to sting. He needs a shower desperately – the action of scraping off the dust and dirt on his body is making it tender and pink under his hands.

"Carol told me they lost Sophia," Glenn finally whispers, and Rick stops and straightens up.

"What?" he demands softly.

Glenn shakes his head. "Not like…like that. They were on the road and a huge pack of walkers came by and everyone was hiding but I guess she panicked and ran off. T-Dog chased after her and we haven't seen either of them since." Rick swallows harshly. "We left food and water on one of the cars and told her to come here if she found it, but…" Glenn shakes his head. "She's only eight."

"She might make it," Rick says, but his voice is weak and he can't make himself believe it. He thinks about losing Carl that way and his stomach turns. He wants to vomit, and he's shaking from so much anxiety it's a wonder he can still think.

Glenn raises one shoulder in a shrug, looking down at the grass. He picks at it absently and shreds it in his hands. "I mean, I guess anything's possible nowadays," he says with a small, sad smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. "Even stopping the apocalypse."

Rick closes his eyes and sighs, before he hears the soft steps of boots through the grass. He opens his eyes and sees Daryl leading Beth up towards him. Beth is carrying a small backpack, one strap loosely slung over her shoulder. The pattern is bright and colorful and reminds Rick of the kinds of bags one might find in a market somewhere, where everything was fringe and bohemian and reminiscent of a decade he could barely remember.

Daryl walks around Rick and Glenn and crouches down on the other side of him as Beth falls to her knees on his right, blowing some of her fringe out of her face. "Daryl told me you broke your wrist," she says, and Rick nods and holds it up for her to inspect.

"Oh, Jeez," she says, unwrapping the final parts of the t-shirt from it and revealing the pinkish, tender skin. She hesitates at the bracelet around his wrist, touching it gently with her thumb, before she looks up at Rick with wide eyes.

Rick thinks, just for a moment, he might see a flicker of recognition in them.

Then she takes in a breath and looks back down at his wrist. She sets her bag to one side and shifts until she's sitting cross-legged and sideways to him, his wrist resting on one thigh. "I know it's all going to hurt," she says with a stern look. "Tell me what's sharp pain and what's dull."

Rick nods, sucking in a breath. He is, after all, no stranger to pain. Beth's thumbs rub gently from the base of his hand to halfway up his forearm, then back down. It throbs dully whenever she rubs his arm and her fingers hesitate just briefly when she touches the scars and scratch marks Rick had put there himself.

"Sharp or dull?" she asks, pressing down lightly on where Rick had felt the snap when his gun had recoiled. Rick sucks in a breath and drags his heels up to him in the reflexive need to curl up and away from the touch, before he forces himself to relax, stomach tensed and teeth gritted.

"Sharp," he growls, and Beth nods and does it again, a little shy of the first place. It's still sharp and Rick blows out an explosive breath. She does the same thing in little concentric rings, gradually rotating outwards until Rick can tell her that the pain is dull. Her fingers keep lingering over his wristband and Rick desperately wants to ask what she's thinking, but she doesn't say anything and Daryl and Glenn are still here. Rick wouldn't mind Daryl being with him when they talk about it, but Glenn is still too much of a stranger, and that kind of weight is a very personal one that Rick wouldn't inflict on him.

"Feels like you fractured your scaphoid," she says, looking up to find Rick, Daryl and Glenn staring blankly at her. "It's one of the bones in your wrist. Most common kind of fracture, really. But if you keep messing with it you could lose a lot of use in your hand."

"So what'd'we do?" Daryl asks gruffly, folding his arms across his chest.

Beth presses her lips together and makes a helpless sound. "If it doesn't heal on its own, then usually it means surgery or a bone graft," she says, making Daryl growl in displeasure. "But we can bind it properly, ice it down, and hope for the best." She fixes her wide eyes on Rick's face. "Even if it doesn't heal completely, you'll get feeling and use back in your hand for the most part. You'll probably need some kind of exercises to get the strength back but there's very little swelling, which is a good sign."

Rick smiles at her. "Do you have anything to help me bind it?" he asks, keeping his voice gentle.

Beth nods, setting his hand on her thigh while she turns and rummages around in her bag. She pulls out a tightly-rolled bandage, some clips, an ice pack and painkillers as well as a bottle of water. "Normally these kinds of fractures don't hurt after a few weeks," she says. "How long ago did you break it?"

Rick looks at Daryl and Glenn. How long had he been gone? Had the journey to Pestilence taken two weeks, or the journey from, or had they been stuck in the hospital during the fight for days, trapped and unable to escape or fight their way out?

"Right before we got here," Rick finally says, and Beth nods.

"Here, take these," she says, handing him some Ibuprofen and a bottle of water. "You should eat something, too. I'll bind your wrist in a second."

Daryl gets up when Glenn takes the water and pills, walking over to the lean-to to where their stuff is to grab Rick something to eat. Rick sees Andrea, Lori, Carol and Ed look up as he approaches, and Carol offers a small smile before ducking her head. Lori and Daryl exchange brief words, Lori's face stony and Daryl's shoulders, tense, before he ducks inside and comes back out a moment later with one of the pudding cups from the facility.

He peels off the lid and keeps it for himself to lick clean before handing Rick the open cup. Rick grins and raises it in a mockery of a toast before he lifts it to his mouth and shakes it, slurping down the first half as best he can. As he's eating, tonguing the rest out, Beth takes his wrist again and starts to slowly unroll the bandage.

"We should really get rid of this," Beth says, thumbing at the wristband. Rick stops eating to look at her. "How long have you been wearing this?"

"Months," Rick replies, and sees her blink as she does the mental math. "I don't wanna get rid of it," he says, and shrugs.

"Okay," Beth murmurs, before she takes out a small antiseptic wipe and rubs down Rick's arm and wrist. She tries to be gentle, Rick can tell, but she scrubs at his forearm with a fierceness that seems unwarranted. She seems fascinated and repulsed by the scratches on Rick's arm – some of them left by himself, but there are more on his left that were placed there by Famine. He wonders how she would react to seeing those ones.

When his skin is relatively clean, she folds the bandage so that she can find the half and slides it around Rick's thumb. She keeps one half of the bandage free and starts to wrap the other one tight around his wrist and up his forearm, and then back down. It throbs like a bitch and Rick tries to focus on eating enough to take the painkillers instead of the pain as she wraps his wrist for him.

She binds it tightly, enough that Rick's fingers turn a little pink – but it's better than the white they were before. She wraps the other half around the first and uses two of the clips to lodge the edges into place just shy of Rick's elbow.

She sits back with a satisfied huff, wiping her forearm across her forehead, and grins at him. "Can you move it?" she asks, and Rick tries and shakes his head. His wrist is too weak to get more than a twitch and definitely too weak to fight her tight bindings. "Good. Let me know if it gets loose, but after about a week or so we can take it off and try getting your hand back."

Rick smiles at her. "Thank you," he says. The wristband is pressing on his skin harshly – he can feel it, and thinks she was right to try and get him to remove it, but it's important that he keeps it on him. It's like a brand, and lets people know that whatever and whoever he might present himself as, he was once part of a facility where the people were dangerous and it's always going to be safer for people to know that about him. He can't afford to lie to anyone.

"I'm gonna go talk to Daddy about your guys stayin'," Beth says with a smile, pushing herself to her feet and grabbing her bag. Rick sets his half-empty pudding cup to one side and takes the pills from Glenn, then the bottle of water and drinks it down. He feels incredibly dehydrated from crying all night and finishes the bottle quickly, gasping loudly when it's done.

"So, great, you might just lose your fuckin' hand," Daryl mutters once Beth has gone. He plops down onto the ground and rubs his hands through his hair before glaring at Rick's wrist as though it has personally offended him. "I swear, if Woodmore was still kickin' I'd snap his neck all over again."

Rick huffs a laugh. After a moment they hear a whistle and they all look up. Dale is by the RV and waving at Glenn, calling for him. Shane is nearby, and the hood of the RV is open. Rick frowns and hopes there's nothing wrong with the vehicle.

Glenn gets up and bids them goodbye, before he walks away from the both of them and leaves Daryl and Rick alone. As soon as Daryl guesses they're out of earshot of everyone else and no one is paying attention to them, he slides to the ground next to Rick and leans against him, his forehead on Rick's shoulder.

Rick smiles and folds his arm, rubbing his wrapped hand against Daryl's cheek, and Daryl catches his hand and laces their fingers together. He kisses the back of Rick's hand and curls up even tighter against him as though for warmth, even though the sun is high now and warming the air pleasantly.

Rick closes his eyes and rests his cheek against Daryl's hair, curling his legs up and giving a soft sigh when, for the first time, his legs don't ache. "I think the dream kicked my brain into gear," he says, and Daryl gives a soft hum in question. "Legs don't hurt."

Daryl snorts. "Great," he says, though he does sound relieved. "So just your hand now."

"Gotta start learning to shoot with my left," Rick murmurs. He takes a deep breath, the air soaked with Daryl's scent, and for the first time in a long time, he feels totally calm. Maybe it's Daryl that does that to him, or maybe it's because his legs feel better – all he knows is that he has absolutely no reason to be calm, and yet, he is. "Will you help me?"

He feels Daryl nod and squeeze Rick's fingers gently. "Lori wanted to know what you were dreaming about," she says. "Says Shane said he heard his name when you were…last night."

Rick breathes in slowly, trying to calm his hammering heart, and wants with all his might not to be thinking that War is onto him. "What'd you tell her?"

Daryl shrugs. "Said it wasn't any of her Goddamn business," he replies, and Rick huffs a laugh. "That didn't go over well."

"Shocking," Rick murmurs, flinching when Daryl jabs the fingers of his other hand into Rick's side. They both let out quiet laughs and then Daryl lifts his head and nuzzles against Rick's shoulder. "Shane is War."

"Yeah," Daryl says. "Might be."

"I gotta be sure." The fingers of his free hand curl up tightly enough that his knuckles go white. "I gotta be sure."

"We have time," Daryl murmurs. "Ain't gonna let anythin' happen to you."

Rick smiles. "I know," he says. Then his body shudders and he stifles a wide yawn behind his hand. Daryl huffs a laugh and straightens up a little bit. He lets go of Rick's hand and wraps his arm around Rick's shoulders instead, encouraging Rick to curl up and lean his weight against Daryl.

"Sleep, Rick," Daryl says quietly. "I'm here."

Chapter Text

Rick lets out another frustrated sound when the bullet hits to the left of his target, narrowly missing the empty pudding cup, one of five that Daryl had laid out in a neat line along a fallen tree branch. He sighs, taking a step back and rubbing his hand through his hair. The butt of his gun rubs along his temple before he drops his arm with a sigh.

Daryl lets out a soft snort. "I wanna make an overcompensation joke," he says, and Rick grins at him and looks over. The archer is leaning against another tree, crossbow hanging loosely off his shoulder, playing both the part of lookout, target manager and commentary as Rick practices shooting with his left hand.

"If anything, I'm undercompensating," Rick replies with a shake of his head. "I keep thinkin' I'm gonna hit it and then my hand twitches or somethin'."

"You'll get better with practice," Daryl says. He looks up and squints at the sky and Rick is silent while he takes stock of the sunlight. Daryl knows how to tell what time it is much better than he does, especially in the trees like they are. "Got about an hour of daylight left if you wanna keep going."

"Nothin' else to do," Rick replies with a shrug, and Daryl nods. That is true, after all. Carl's state has remained unchanged, and while they've managed to attain some kind of peace on the Greene farm, Herschel has yet to show any sign of warming up to them or coming up with some kind of permanent solution.

Rick sighs and straightens his stance, lifting his arm. His muscles feel weak and they haven't turned cold like his arm tends to do when he's ready to fire his gun. Then again, he's not sure that it would change if we weren't prepared to take a life.

Daryl steps up beside him and Rick sucks in a slow breath, trying to find his focus and make sure the sights line up. His hand is shaking, not used the weight of his heavy gun. Daryl is quiet for another moment, and then Rick feels his hand gently cupping the bottom of his bicep. Abruptly the shaking stops.

"Your arm'll get stronger," Daryl murmurs, so close to Rick's ear that Rick feels a tremble run down his spine. He wants to turn his head so badly but forces himself to keep his eyes on the line of pudding cups. His finger tightens a little on the trigger and he bites his lower lip. Daryl's other hand is settled between Rick's shoulder blades and Rick can feel the little touch as he rubs his thumb back and forth. "You're shaking."

"Your fault," Rick breathes. He can see the edge of Daryl's wild hair in his periphery but not much else. Daryl lets out a low, warm laugh, and the hand holding Rick's arm forces it a little higher. "I know how to shoot, Daryl."

"I know," Daryl says quietly, and Rick feels him pressing up a little closer to Rick's side. His hand shakes even harder and he finally gives up, lowering it with a sigh. He turns and Daryl's right there, and Rick pushes his bandaged hand below the mess of his hair and curls his fingers around the back of his neck and kisses him.

Daryl's arm on his back doesn't move and he gently touches Rick's shoulder as Rick kisses him, fisting tightly in his clothing and pulling him close. His lips part and he submits to the kiss with a sweet whine, letting Rick back him up against the nearest tree in a single stride.

Daryl grabs at him fiercely, kissing Rick back just as hard as Rick shoves their bodies together like he's trying to firmly, finally, make them one, make them the same person. At the Greene farm he has never had so much interrupted free time with Daryl – nothing so wild and unburdened. It feels like Daryl has been doing his best to make Rick forget his awful dreams and it's been working. With every day his hand gets better, his sleep becomes more solid, and his love for Daryl grows.

Rick pulls away when he's lost all of his air, gasping against Daryl's pinked mouth, their foreheads resting together. Daryl looks dazed, his pretty eyes heavy and unfocused, and Rick huffs a laugh. "You're distracting me," he says in accusation, but with no heat.

Daryl blinks and licks his lips, his hand running from Rick's shoulder to his arm, and then curling around his gun. "Maybe," he says, then, smiling slyly; "You're not shakin' anymore."

Rick straightens up, his hand leaving Daryl's hair even though it feels physically painful to do so, and not just because it's his injured arm. He turns his head when he hears the low hiss of a walker coming towards them. It's jaw is hanging open by a single thread of skin from its cheek, its eyes are wide and vacant and white.

Rick sees Daryl move to shoot it down and he holds up a hand, stopping him. "Let me try," he says, and steps away from Daryl and the tree to where he was standing before. Daryl nods, his crossbow ready but lowered.

Rick takes a breath and lifts his gun and fires. It hits a tree by the walker's head and the thing growls at him, lunging in his direction. He fires again and clips its shoulder.

"Relax," Daryl murmurs, coming into view at Rick's side. He reaches out and touched Rick's shoulder. "You're a good shot, Rick. Got plenty'a time."

Time, Rick thinks, might be his ultimate enemy. The walker is about ten feet from him when he makes the headshot and it goes down. He sighs and shifts his gun into his loose right hand just enough so that it's stable enough to holster, and thinks about how he might have to start wearing everything backwards now.

"Good job," Daryl says warmly, letting go of Rick's shoulder.

Rick shakes his head. "Wastin' bullets," he says. "We gotta get with some people and try and find more. Gotta be runnin' low by now."

Daryl nods and looks up at the sky. "Should be headin' back," he says, and Rick sighs again. He doesn't want to leave the peace of the woods, the serenity of being around Daryl in a place that is as natural and almost as wild as he is. His lips tingle when he licks them, eager for more of Daryl's mouth. Daryl watches him for another second, eyes dark, before he seems to snap back to reality and shifts his weight. "Come on."

Rick follows him back, both of them keeping a sharp eye out for walkers, but they manage to get back to the Greene farm unmolested. Over the course of their days here they'd managed to construct the few tents that the group owned, so now there is a camp-like installment around the lean-to. Shane, Lori and Carl have a tent. Andrea and Dale sleep in the RV, which is now parked closer to the paddock fence. Merle sleeps in the bed of his truck most nights and Glenn has another tent that is built into the side of the RV and pops out during the night. Carol and Ed sleep in their car.

And Rick and Daryl sleep in the lean-to, most of the time. Sometimes they go out into the field and Troublemaker lays down with them and keeps them warm, as well as providing the first warning sign for walkers or other members of the group waking up. Rick hasn't had any more nightmares bad enough to have him sleepwalking and screaming, but he does wake up in a cold sweat most nights, shivering and soaked to the bone with Daryl a warm balm on one side and the horse's soft flank on the other.

Daryl stops them just short of the tree line and Rick halts next to him. They can see the dark blue of Shane and Lori's tent from here, as well as the white rise of the Greene house. Rick is sure, however, that in the rapidly approaching darkness no one can see them. They don't fear alarming their people by sneaking up on them, though – Troublemaker has seemed to recognize all the people in his group and only whinnies when there's a walker or a stranger about, and the group know enough of Daryl's whistles to recognize him coming.

Rick looks at Daryl, the dusk making his face glow and turn blurry. "I don't want to go back yet," he confesses, whisper-quiet, his breath misting in the chilling air. It'll be a cold night tonight, with fall approaching.

Rick looks back out to the camp and can't help nodding in agreement. It is, after all, exactly how he'd felt the entire way back. "Do you want to be alone?" he asks.

"With you," Daryl replies, and Rick nods, letting go of a quiet sigh of relief. He doesn't mind Daryl being on his own, as long as Rick is there too – and he supposes that ruins the point of being alone, but can he honestly bring himself to think of them as anything but one cohesive unit? They don't like leaving each other by themselves, or knowing the other is out of their sight.

Rick smiles when Daryl looks at him, and together they duck to one side and merge back into the tree line and further in. They don't go far – the light is too low for Rick to see well by, though Daryl navigates the forest with the same ease as a wild animal. Still, Rick feels about as graceful as a blind elephant, trampling through the forest behind Daryl.

Finally they come to a stop. Rick can still see the light of the Greene farm and from Dale's RV through the trees if he concentrates and stands just right, but otherwise they're in the fuzzy kind of darkness that forests have when the sun is setting. Daryl finds a spot at the base of a tall tree to sit, where the ground is relatively clear and even, and sits down with a sigh.

Rick joins him, curling up so that one of his legs is crossed over Daryl's and Daryl's hand is resting on his thigh. Daryl's crossbow gets propped up next to him, against the tree, and Rick heaves another breath.

He closes his eyes, letting the cool air soak into his skin. It's a little colder than he's normally comfortable with and he's sure when they go to bed he'll need to put on a coat and grab a second blanket to stay warm, but Daryl's heat next to him warms him well enough to keep quiet about it. Besides, Daryl wanted tie alone, and so Rick will give him that.

After a moment Daryl reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Rick frowns at them but doesn't comment, and doesn't say anything when, after a moment, Daryl grunts and throws the pack into the trees.

"Thought about quitting for a long time," he says. "Seems as good a time as any."

"I assumed you were always more of a social smoker," Rick replies lightly. "Never saw you smoking alone."

"Not my choice," Daryl says. Then, "You'd watch me smoke?"

Rick nods, unapologetic. "When I was in the rec room, or Doctor Woodmore's office, or in group, I'd look out the window and see you sometimes. I liked seeing you outside." He waits for a moment, to see if Daryl has any opinion on that. Nothing comes. "I know it's stupid to think, but I always felt you were there whenever I was going to be alone. You always made sure I wasn't alone, when you could."

Daryl hums, shifting his weight a little so that his shoulder digs under Rick's and Rick can curl up against him. He bends his legs and rests them on Daryl's, their hands curling together against Rick's stomach. It's an intimate, innocent pose, the tree cradling them soundly in her roots.

"I mean, there's some truth to that," Daryl replies after a while, his voice low. "There were only so many people workin' there. Y'all outnumbered us three to one. Could'a gone full Cuckoo's Nest at any moment. We'd all sneak out for smoke breaks when there were enough of us around to keep an eye on things."

Rick chuckles, the answer surprising and somehow totally unsurprising all at once. "Who was everyone most afraid of?" he asks. "Who was your McMurphy?"

Daryl is quiet for a moment. He links his fingers with Rick's good hand and then raises it to his lips, kissing the back of his hand lightly before he lets them drop again. Rick lifts his head so that he can see Daryl's face.

Daryl raises his eyes and meets Rick's gaze, although Rick isn't sure how much of him Daryl can see. Daryl's outline is starting to become more grey, the rest of him a mix of blacks and whites to mark his silhouette, face and hair. The blue still shines, though, and Rick focuses on them.

"You," Daryl says after another moment. Rick blinks, but the answer doesn’t trouble him. It's not the one he was expecting – Old Ken, maybe, or Jack, with all his brawn and anger issues – but he supposes anyone would be afraid of someone who would commit a triple homicide without batting an eye.

"Me," Rick replies. He remembers the hours they spent in Daryl's trailer. "Are you afraid of me, Daryl?"

Daryl shakes his head. "Was never scared o'ya," he says, and Rick believes him. Daryl lets go of his hands and touches his face instead, palm spreading out warmly across Rick's jaw. Rick shivers, and not because he's cold. "Scared of what you did, sometimes. Still am, if I'm gonna be honest – but I trust ya more than I'm scared, you get me?"

Rick nods, wrapping his fingers around Daryl's hand. He leans in and Daryl meets him, stealing his breath in another kiss that warms Rick better than any fire or heated house could. He wishes they never had to go back to the camp – that they could just disappear one night and hunt down War and kill him and come back to a world made new.

But they can't. Rick can't leave Carl now, and he especially can't risk parting from the final domino in the restoration of the world.

Daryl kisses him again, his eyes closed so Rick can't see the shine of his blue eyes. "You're thinking too much," he complains, and Rick huffs a laugh and shakes his head.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I wish I couldn't think at all."

Daryl opens his eyes and sighs. His thumb brushes gently over the rise of Rick's cheekbone before he pulls his hands away. "I get it," he says. "I mean, killin' yer best friend – stoppin' the apocalypse. That's a big-ass slice of no thank you for me."

Rick nods. "I hope one day Death tells me why he chose me," he says. "For a long time I didn't even…I didn't even know what I was seeing, what I was thinking. And when I woke up I was sure that I would be okay, that it was just the drugs or dreaming or whatever else."

Daryl is quiet and Rick closes his eyes and rests his forehead against Daryl's shoulder.

"I made it a week," he whispers, his fingers tightening around Daryl's. "Death left me in peace for a week after I woke up. Then the visions never stopped. The dreams never stopped. He never stopped." He sighs. "I'm so tired, Daryl."

"I know," Daryl says, just as quietly. He runs his hands through Rick's hair and turns so that he can press a kiss to Rick's forehead.

Rick allows the moment to linger as long as he can bear it, before he becomes aware of the sound of movement in the trees. He straightens, and Daryl seems to hear it at the same time because he scrambles to his feet and grabs his crossbow. Rick stands and reaches for his gun and Daryl grabs his arm.

"Let's get back," he says quietly. It could be a walker, but it could be a person, too. Rick doesn't hear any hissing or growling. He follows Daryl back, one hand on his shoulder, until the sunset lights up the edge of the trees and they break out into the open field. Daryl lets out a sharp whistle to let Dale know that they're coming and they run to the paddock and turn around once they reach the fence so that their back is to it.

Rick sees Beth and Shane approaching and keeps his eye on the trees. "We got company," Rick says when their shadows merge with his and Daryl's. "Might be walkers. Ain't sure."

"We got you covered," Shane replies, and Rick sees him raise his gun and tries not to think about how easy it would be for Shane to put him down right then and there. He wonders if War's vessel, whoever he might be, is aware – would he see Rick's face and see Death in it? Is Shane that good of an actor? Would Rick even know if he was or wasn't?

Rick hears a twig snap and straightens, his hand on his own weapon. Daryl has his crossbow raised and ready, squinting through the sight. The sunset is making the trees grow fuzzy, the shadows merging and shifting together, but then Rick sees a shape moving through them.

"There," he says, and nods towards it. Daryl gives a grunt of acknowledgement and Rick sees him shift in place to follow it with his bow.

They wait a few more seconds. The shadow is becoming distinctly human-shaped, a much darker shade of black amongst the trees.

"Fast for a walker," Shane murmurs.

Daryl nods. "Limpin'," he says.

Rick can see that. The shadow is that of a man, hulking. His clothes are dark and there's a mesh of blood and mud caked into his clothes and on his skin. He's walking with a limp, like his ankle is sprained or broken.

Daryl lets out a soft sigh that Rick thinks only he might hear, and then he widens his eyes and lowers his bow. "I think that's…"

Rick squints. Glenn comes up to stand within the group as well.

"Is that T-Dog?"

Then, a shot rings out, and the shape falls with a high-pitched groan. Rick runs forward before he can think about it, Shane and Glenn hot on his heels. They reach the body of the man and is it, in fact, T-Dog. There's blood pooling freshly from his shoulder and Rick turns, spying Andrea crouched on top of the RV with the sniper in her hand.

"Don't shoot!" he yells, waving his hand, and hopes Daryl and Beth will convey the message properly. He turns back just as Shane and Glenn get T-Dog upright. T-Dog's eyelids are fluttering wildly and his skin is clammy with sweat but he's semiconscious, as least.

"I couldn't…find her…" T-Dog says, coughing and grimacing when the action jars his aching body. "Couldn't…find her – I'm sorry…"

"Don't talk, man, don't talk," Glenn says, grimacing under his weight, and Rick ducks down and takes his place, holding T-Dog's arm across his shoulders as Glenn straightens up. "Fuck – should we take him to Herschel?"

"Warn him, at least," Shane grits out. Rick nods in agreement and Glenn turns around and runs back to Beth, who follows him towards the house as he sprints away. Daryl comes forward with his bow slung across his back and tears off the sleeve of his shirt, wrapping it into a thick pad and pressing it to T-Dog's shoulder.

"Fuckin' bitch has a Goddamn scope and still's fuckin' blind," Daryl grits out, and Rick doesn't have the breath to agree with him, but he does. Together, he, Shane and Daryl get T-Dog as far as the RV before the man finally collapses and Rick and Shane can carry him no farther. Dale comes down and Andrea follows, her already pale face ghost-like.

"Herschel's coming," Glenn says, out of breath from sprinting when he returns. Rick nods and they clear off a spot on the ground and lay down a blanket to put T-Dog on. It looks like the bullet went through cleanly and Rick is glad for that, knowing from experience that it's often better when that happens.

"You're gonna be okay," Rick says, pulling off T-Dog's sweat-soaked wool cap and putting a hand to the man's forehead. He's burning up. Rick tries not to think about how there's a shadow looming over T-Dog that has nothing to do with the people standing around them and the setting sun, and he ignores how the blood soaking into the bandage on his wrist feels ice-cold. "You're gonna be okay."

Chapter Text

T-Dog passes out soon after they get him laid out. They bind his wound as best they can but no one knows his blood type and no one is a universal donor that they're aware of, so they can't do for him what Rick did for Carl. All they can do is hope for the best.

As soon as the worst of the panic is over, Shane whirls on Andrea as she climbs down from the RV. "What the actual fuck is wrong with you?" he demands, getting close to her, his face red with anger. The rest of the group go still and Andrea pales, clutching the sniper tightly to her chest. "You so fuckin' anxious to prove yourself you shootin' the livin' now, too?"

"Scope's cracked," Andrea replies icily. "Hard to see."

"We had it handled," Shane hisses. "If it had been a walker, we will take it down – you didn't even know how to hold a gun come two weeks ago."

"Shane," Rick murmurs, standing and nodding over so that Shane looks at Carol as she hurries towards the group of them. She's clutching at a necklace around her neck and stops short when she sees who, exactly, got shot. A hand goes to her mouth and her eyes fill with tears.

"Oh, God," she moans, shaking her head. "He was – he was out there because of Sophia."

Shane nods, trapping his tongue between his lips. He seems content to leave Andrea alone for now as he turns to face Carol and Ed, his hands on his hips. "Said he didn't find her," he says, and the tears in Carol's eyes well up and start to spill down her cheeks.

"So she's still missing," Carol whispers.

Ed scoffs, a dark expression coloring his face. "Wouldn't be if you could just keep a hold of her," he says lowly, and Rick isn't sure anyone else was meant to hear, but they do. During his time as a cop and then at the facility he became very good at noticing things about people, and one of the things that had always surprised him was how unprepared they were to face a difficult situation, and how eager they were to pretend it had never happened.

Daryl shoves himself to his feet and stalks over to Ed with a low snarl. "Hey!" he says, jabbing a finger in Ed's meaty chest hard enough that the man takes a stumbling step back. "Don't you fuckin' talk to her like that."

Ed glares at Daryl, before his eyes shift to Rick and Shane and he subsides. Rick's eyes narrow and he makes a note not to let Ed and Daryl be close and alone where something could happen. Ed isn't willing to take on three dogs in one fight. He's a weasel, and will pick them off one by one when their backs are turned.

"Ed, please," Carol says, touching his arm. He shrugs her touch away and leaves, stalking back towards the lean-to. Carol offers a watery smile in Daryl's direction and then trudges after him as though she's being pulled on a leash. Rick leaves T-Dog and the others gathered around him and stops at Daryl's side.

Daryl lets out a low, angry noise, still glaring at the back of Ed's head. "Man like that don't deserve a wife or kid," he says, and there's something venomous and personal in his voice. Rick thinks about Merle, and about Daryl's parents, and what little of Daryl he had gleaned from the trailer.

Rick nods in agreement. His bandage is soaked with blood and his hand feels cold – but not the same kind of cold that it feels when Death is prepared to take a life. This cold is very human and real, the mild discomfort of something wet being in the open air.

"It's almost night," Lori says, and Rick looks up to see that the last of the sunlight has given up the ghost and faded over the horizon. Soon it'll be too dark to walk confidently even in the field. "I'll stay up."

"Me too," Shane says with a nod, and holds a hand out for the sniper. "You won't be needing that."

Andrea glares at him before she hands it over with an impatient huff. "Anyone else, you wouldn't be makin' such a stink about it."

"Anyone else would have known a walker from a man," Shane replies mildly. Rick bites his lip to stop himself smirking, knowing the humor is out of place. T-Dog got shot and he was out here all alone, looking for that little girl. Who knows what happened to her?

"You know what? Fuck you, Walsh!" Andrea shrieks, before she turns and stomps over to the RV, going inside with a hearty slam of the door. Dale climbs down from the roof of the RV and adjusts his cap with a sigh. "Fuck all of you! I'm leaving in the morning!" Andrea's voice comes from the inside.

Dale shakes his head. "I'll talk to her," he says. No one answers him, and so he goes into RV as well, closing the door with a much more polite air about him than Andrea had. Rick catches Shane's eye and walks over to his friend's side.

He expects to feel heat, emanating off of Shane like a furnace. War is blood, and sweat, after all. He feels nothing – nothing at all. "Heard gunshots earlier," Shane says in greeting. "You two alright?"

Rick nods. "Was practicing," he says, lifting his hand up for Shane to see. "Gotta start bein' just as good with my left, just in case. Beth says I might lose a lot of use of my hand 'cause'a the way I broke it."

"Shit, man," Shane says, eyes wide. Lori leaves to fetch their blankets from their tent so that they can be warm on top of the RV while keeping watch. Shane looks like he's about to say something else when they're interrupted by a sharp whistle. Rick's head snaps up and he looks over at Daryl, even though he knows he didn't hear it come from the other man.

Merle saunters into the light cast by the RV headlights, a grin on his face. "Lil bro. A word?" Before Daryl can argue Merle has an arm slung around his shoulders and is walking him out towards the other end of the field. Rick doesn't see Daryl look back in his direction, but his stomach goes tense with anxiety as soon as the brothers step out of the halo of light.

Lori returns with blankets and Shane helps her onto the ladder onto the top of the RV. Rick sighs. "See you around, brother," he says, and Shane nods at him. Glenn stays by T-Dog and offers Rick a watery smile. "Are you still waiting for Beth?" Rick asks. He's not sure Herschel will come to them at night.

Glenn shakes his head and rests a hand on T-Dog's shoulder. "Just wanna make sure he's okay," Glenn replies, and Rick wonders if Glenn is thinking about the fact that if T-Dog passes in the middle of the night, one of them will have to put a knife through his skull. He wonders if he should ask. "He was with me from the beginning, you know? I think of him as family."

Rick smiles and nods. "I can wait with you, if you'd like?" he offers, although he knows Glenn will refuse. Predictably, the younger man shakes his head, and Rick considers himself dismissed.

He stands for a moment, at a loss of where to go. He might go to the field and lie down with Troublemaker, but he doesn't want to fall asleep without Daryl beside him. He considers going to the lean-to and making sure everything is okay there, but the thought of being around Ed makes him bristle unpleasantly. He's not sure he could hold his tongue or his weapon for long enough for the man to last the night.

Merle usually takes the cars, but he's out with Daryl. At least by the cars, Rick will know once Merle is done because he'll come back. Decided, he walks over to the police cruiser and sits on the trunk door. The car gives a soft groan of protest and sinks a little under his weight.

He sighs and settles down to wait, his eyes inexplicably drawn to the large, dark shadow of the barn against the slightly lighter backdrop of the sky. His skin crawls when he looks at it. By daylight it's unassuming, in need of some pain and repair around the edges, but strong and serviceable. Rick wonders what kind of things the Greenes used to put in there – horses, maybe, or hay, or farming equipment. They didn't seem like particularly prolific breeders or ranchers. They were the kind of family who just…lived on a farm. The girls woke up to collect eggs, made sure the cows and horses hasn't gotten out in the middle of the night, and then they went to school while their parents tended to the animals and the fields.

What a wonderful life. Rick smiles. His own childhood had been fairly unexciting. He grew up with his best friend two blocks away, the same town, the same county. Rick has never traveled farther than that one time they went to Florida for spring break in college. His brother, on the other hand, is on a whole other fucking continent. Rick has never felt the need to wander – he likes having a home, and a familiar place. For his line of work, he doesn't relish meeting new people, and he gets anxious in unknown territory.

This whole place is unknown territory. Rick remembers the first time he'd seen Death after he'd woken up. The fear and anxiety made him feel like he might go right back into the coma just to escape it. He's not meant to be an adventurer. He doesn't have the blood for it.

The air grows cold but Rick can't sense Death near him. Strange, when the other two horsemen had been around, Rick had seen him almost constantly, like he was keeping watch. His wisdom and his attitude made Rick almost consider him a friend. With Famine, in Atlanta, Death had been there. In the facility – well, Death was always there, keeping an eye on Woodmore just as Woodmore was keeping an eye on Rick.

Here, though, Rick feels distant and estranged from him. Does that mean that there are no horsemen here? He growls, tucking the heels of his boots against the bumper of the car and running his hands harshly through his hair. He just wants answers. A direction, a sign. Anything.

Rick sits up as he hears footsteps approaching. He knows it's not Daryl and Merle because the steps are far too quiet for Merle and far too loud for Daryl. He turns and winces when a flashlight shines on his face, before it drops and Rick blinks.

"I thought it was you," says a voice, and Rick recognizes Beth. She pushes herself up onto the car beside him and Rick cocks his head at her.

"You should be inside," he says. He can hear the way her breath shivers with cold. Rick hardly feels it, himself, but he's used to the cold. "Not safe out here."

"Not safe anywhere," Beth replies. Then, "I wanted to ask about your wristband."

Rick nods. He figures this was bound to come up when and if the two of them were ever reasonably alone. Truthfully he had thought it might never happen – they hardly have reason to speak to each other, after all.

"What about it?" he asks.

"It's for institutions," Beth says quietly, quickly, like she's afraid of running out of breath before the words get out. Rick can't see her, but knows she's looking at him. The flashlight illuminates a single circle of grass beyond the car near their feet. "For people who are sick, like, mentally."

Rick nods though she can't see. "That's true," he says.

"Daddy thinks you're crazy," Beth continues. "I know it's personal but I think if he knows what kind of crazy – you know, maybe he'll change his mind."

Rick huffs a laugh. "I've told your father more than enough to make up his mind," he says wryly. He hears her give a frustrated huff. "Why you so set on us stayin', huh? I promise, we'll cause a lot more trouble than we'll cure."

Beth is silent for a moment, before she looks down. "I had a wristband like that, once," she says. Rick figured as much – no one is that fascinated with one without having worn one themselves. "I…I used to hurt myself, when things got too much. Haven't for a long time, but…I saw your scars."

Rick nods. "Yeah," he says. "I hurt myself sometimes, too."

"I thought things were meant to get easier when you grew up," Beth says, and Rick can hear the tears thickly in her voice. "I thought…you know…you wake up some day and something just snaps and everything's alright. I remember when I woke up and saw my momma get bit." She shifts her weight, the flashlight roving wildly as she raises a hand to wipe the tears from her face. "You said you can cure 'em."

Rick nods. "Yes."

"Do you say that 'cause you're sick?"

And isn't that a question everyone would die to answer? Rick licks his lips and looks out across the dark expanse of the green farm, the higher horizon where the trees start. He rubs a hand over his mouth and his eyes move to the top of the RV, where Shane and Lori are undoubtedly cuddled up against the cold. How long would it have taken, without the catalyst of a coma and then Rick's psychosis, for them to end up exactly where they are now? Would it have happened at all?

"Yes," Rick finally says, because it doesn't sound like Beth is breathing, holding it in to hear his answer. "But just because I'm sick doesn't mean I'm wrong."

"Yes it does," Beth says, tearfully. "Because one day you're going to wake up and everything is going to snap back and you'll feel alright and you won't be sick anymore."

Rick shakes his head. "Doesn't work like that," he murmurs. "Do you think that's what'll happen to your mom?"

"Shut up." Beth shoves herself off the car and grabs her flashlight, wrapping her arms tightly around herself. She points the light at Rick's chest as though it's an accusing finger. "Everything can be cured," she hisses. "Even this."

"I believe you," Rick replies, and Beth lets out another hurt, angry sound and then she's leaving, moving quickly over the grass like she's running. Rick sighs and looks back out to the barn. There are walkers in there. He knows it, and Daryl knows it. Do the Greenes think they can be cured? How many are in there?

Rick doesn't know how long he stays there, staring at the barn, before the uncontrollable urge to see for himself overtakes him. He pushes himself off the car and starts walking towards it. His movements are slow and careful – he doesn't want to fall and risk hurting his wrist any more through any reflexive need to catch himself. He moves quietly past the house and gives it a wide berth to avoid activating the porch light.

As he approaches the barn, he goes still and holds his breath. He can hear them, shuffling around inside. Their noises are muted, not incensed to growl or hiss since they have no warm flesh to chase. Rick wonders if the Greenes feed them, or if they just let them stand in here like broken statues. He creeps closer and presses a hand to the barn door.

He closes his eyes and listens. He doesn't know if they can hear him, or sense him, as a harbinger of the apocalypse that created them, but as he listens to them shuffling around inside he feels a powerful sense of dread creep up over his skull. It enfolds him like a heavy blanket and Rick clenches his fist against the barn wall, swallowing back a whimper at the evil sense he has. It slithers up his arm from the old wood, snakes around his neck, and chokes him.

Suddenly a hand grabs his arm and yanks him back and Rick whirls around to fight or lash out, but then he knows it's Daryl. He hears the hitch in the man's breathing and the plasticy click of the crossbow on his back, and Daryl's touch on his arm instantly calms him. He's breathing heavily, sweating like he just sprinted a marathon.

"The fuck you doin' comin' over here?" Daryl growls, and grabs Rick's hand to yank him back towards the halo of light that is the Greene house. "You tryin' to party with dead people now?"

Rick hums when Daryl slows to a stop and turns on him. He can see the silhouette of the other man against the lights in the house and he reaches out to gently touch Daryl's cheek. "What did Merle want to talk to you about?" he asks.

Daryl huffs. "He wants to leave," he says, angry and low. Rick blinks. Granted, he hasn't spent much time around the man, but he had gotten the impression that Merle was rather enjoying himself. He's a big, fat cat with no end of mice to toy with here. "Wants me to pack up and go, but I won't leave without you, and I know you won't leave without Carl."

Rick licks his lips and tries not to let out a possessive, angry sound at the thought of someone trying to persuade Daryl to leave his side. Even if it's Daryl's own brother – there's a lineage of ownership now. Rick belongs to Daryl, and Daryl to Rick, and everyone else can wait their damn turn for a claim of their own.

"And what did you say?"

"Told him to go fuck himself," Daryl replies, and he sounds icy but Rick feels the uncomfortable brush of anxiety in his voice. Merle is, after all, Daryl's brother – and a fellow soldier in the trenches of their childhood war, and there's something to be said for a bond forged in fires that potent. "Dunno what got into him, but he said he wants to leave." Daryl shifts his weight and looks over Rick's shoulder. Rick turns so that he can join Daryl in staring. "Makes me nervous," Daryl confesses. "He's normally got good instinct about shit like this."

The spiritual high. Rick presses his lips together and looks back at Daryl. "He still think I'm right?" he asks.

Daryl scoffs. "Don't think it matters. He wants to leave."

"Where will he go?"

"Wherever he pleases, I reckon," Daryl says. Then he sighs and Rick sees his head drop. Rick steps forward, cradling Daryl's head in his hands, before he slides his good hand to the back of Daryl's neck and rests their foreheads together. "Don't matter to me."

Rick manages a weak smile. "How long you gonna act like you don't give a shit what he does?" he asks.

Daryl shakes his head and pulls away. "You gonna sleep, or perv on the barn of walkers all night?" he says, and Rick sighs and allows Daryl to steer the conversation away from the subject of Merle. He thinks about approaching the man and trying to talk some sense into him himself, but decides against it. He's sure it wouldn't do any of them any favors.

 

 

 

 

"Ed? Ed! Where are you?!"

Rick is woken by the sound of Carol's frantic cries, and he shoves himself to his feet from where he's curled up next to Daryl. Daryl is already awake and on his feet as Rick stands. They share a look and then run over to Carol as she frantically cups her hands to her mouth and shouts for her husband.

"When'd you last see him?" Rick asks as they slow to a stop next to her. Carol looks at them with wide, teary eyes. There's red around her neck and Rick hears Daryl let out a low growl.

"He…he got up in the middle of the night," Carol says, awkwardly adjusting her clothes out of the frantic need to pick at something. The more she moves, the more bruised skin is revealed around her wrists and throat and Rick honestly fears what might happen to the man when and if he comes back unharmed. "Said he had to pee, and I went back to sleep and when I woke up he wasn't here. His…his sleeping bag is cold."

And she puts her hand to her mouth and starts to cry again. Rick looks around and sees Shane and Lori approaching, Shane's gun out but not raised. "What happened?" he demands.

"Ed's gone missing," Rick says.

"I can find him," Daryl says, looking down at the ground. His eyes are on the grass and Rick watches as he follows some trail he must be able to see through it to the forest. Yes, there are footprints in the grass, but they soon disappear once they get a few yards away from the lean-to. "I can track him. Dude left a trail in fuckin' neon."

"Please," Carol says, and reaches forward to clutch at Daryl's hand in both of hers. She's shaking and Daryl looks at her, blinking in shock as though he never expected her to actually touch him and wants to flinch away. He doesn't, but Rick senses it's a close thing. "Please find him. I can't lose him and…and Sophia…"

"Daryl can track down anythin'," Rick says with what he hopes is a reassuring smile. Carol smiles back, though it's shaky, and Lori pulls her away and into a hug so that she can cry. Daryl presses his lips together and nods at Rick, before he turns and starts to head into the forest. Shane and Rick follow him for a moment.

"Best if you guys don't come with," Daryl says over his shoulder. "You're too loud and I don't need to be worryin' about your sorry asses too." Shane hesitates and Rick keeps walking, before Daryl turns and fixes him with a look. "Stay."

Rick licks his lips, a thread sigh leaving him as he shifts his weight, anxious. "I don't…" He looks over his shoulder and Shane lifts his hands in surrender, turning away to give them some privacy and rejoining Lori and Carol by the lean-to.

Daryl comes back to him and rests his hand at the back of Rick's neck, forcing them to face each other. "I'll be back before you know it," he says.

"You can't leave me," Rick replies, and he doesn't know whether he means alone or with him or anything else. "What if you don't -? How can I -?"

Daryl smiles and silences Rick with a kiss. It's short but it does the job of shutting Rick up. "I'll be back before nightfall," he promises, and Rick presses his lips together and nods. It feels like his skin burns where Daryl is touching him and continues to ache once the touch is gone, as Daryl lets go and turns away and disappears into the treeline.

Rick sighs, at once despondent and anxious, and goes to the RV. Glenn is sitting next to T-Dog's limp body. There's a blanket wrapped around him. Someone put his wool hat back on. There's blood soaking through from the inside.

Rick presses his lips together and meets Glenn's eyes when he man looks up. "Need help digging a grave?" he asks quietly. Glenn's eyes are watery and wide when he nods. Rick nods back and leaves to try and find Otis so they can borrow some shovels. As he walks by the collection of cars, he notices that Merle's truck is missing. Daryl's bike is propped against the back of the bruiser.

 

 

Daryl comes back in less than three hours, much to Rick's immense relief. He knows he looks no better than a puppy racing to their master when he hears Daryl's whistle. It doesn't matter – Daryl is alive and here and Rick's soul lights up as soon as he sees the familiar silhouette breach the horizon.

He slows to a stop once he's close enough to see Daryl's face. He knows Daryl had come back alone, but it occurs to him as he approaches that Daryl is alone, and way before nightfall. So either the trail ran cold, or he definitely found Ed.

His eyes run over Daryl's body and he's not sure if he expects to find blood there or not. He counts the bolts in Daryl's bow and wonders how many he left with.

Daryl catches him looking. "He was already dead when I found 'im," he says. There's no accusation in his voice – he doesn't blame Rick for what he assumes. "Well, half-dead. I made him stop movin', though."

Rick presses his lips together and looks over his shoulder towards the lean-to. "Was he bit?"

Daryl hesitates and Rick looks back at him. He takes a step closer and lowers his voice. "I'm going to tell everyone he was," he says. "But no. He wasn't bit."

Rick frowns. Something cold wraps around the base of his skull. "Was he…?"

Daryl presses his lips together and nods, once. "Someone followed him in," he says. "There was a fight. Someone big as Ed, gotta be a touch S.O.B. to bring him down. He wasn't far in, neither, so we'd'a heard gunshots."

There are only two people on the farm big enough and with motive enough to want to kill Ed. Rick feels that coldness creeping down his spine. "I was with you all night," he says quietly. "Wasn't I?"

"Shane was with Lori all night," Daryl replies. "Wasn't he?"

Rick turns around and looks towards the RV, where he can see Shane with Dale, ducked under the vehicle's hood and tinkering around. He doesn't see Carol or Lori anywhere. "Even if she knows," Rick says, "she'll deny it."

Daryl nods. "Like I said, I'm gonna tell everyone he got bit," he says with a sigh, and Rick turns back to look at him. "But you keep that third eye sharp on 'im, okay? Even if he ain't War, he killin' people in the dead of night and that ain't someone I trust to have around."

Rick nods. The cold in his spine flares outward, talons digging in, and tugs sharply on the back of his heart. Daryl watches him for another moment, before he sighs and shifts his weight. "I gotta tell 'er," he says.

"You put him down?" Rick asks, falling into step beside Daryl as they walk towards the house. Daryl nods. "Good. If she insists, we can get his body and bury him next to T-Dog."

Daryl looks up. "T-Dog died?"

Rick nods. "Passed during the night. Glenn ended it."

"That sucks."

"That's the world now."

"Hopefully not forever."

Rick smiles sadly, and reaches out to squeeze Daryl's arm. "Definitely not forever."

Chapter Text

Rick stands watch while Daryl tells Carol what happened to her husband. She falls to her knees, hands to her mouth as she cries, and he sees Daryl stand for an awkward moment, before he crouches down in front of her and hands her a single white flower. He says something Rick can't hear, and though Carol is still crying, he sees her manage a weak, watery smile.

When he comes back, his eyes are red around the edges and he clears his throat awkwardly. "She doesn't want us to bring his body back," he says, shoving the strap of his crossbow further up his shoulder in an anxious gesture. "I gotta…I gotta go somewhere."

"Alone?" Rick asks.

Daryl nods. "With you."

Rick smiles slightly and nods, following Daryl into the woods. They don't go in the same direction of Ed's body, but veer off as though heading to the highway. The trees rise up to greet them and swallow them whole and soon Rick can't see any trace of the Greene farm through the foliage.

Daryl reaches the place where they'd put empty cups up on a log for Rick to practice shooting. He stops, then lets out a low growl and puts his crossbow down. Rick watches him, his ears open for any signs of approaching walkers but his eyes riveted on the way Daryl's muscles, tense and angry, move under his skin.

"What was that flower?" he asks.

Daryl scoffs. "Story I heard once," he says. He looks at Rick over his shoulder and then goes back to glaring at the log. "Trail of Mother's tears, they fell and grew them flowers. Thought it was the kind of sentimental shit she might get some comfort out of."

"Just Carol?" Rick presses, taking a step forward.

Daryl straightens and looks at him. "Yeah," he bites out, aggressively. "Just Carol."

"You don't think Sophia's alive."

Daryl presses his lips together and he looks away. "I know the odds," he says. "I made it when I was eight in the woods, but I didn't have walkers to deal with. So…I know the odds. So does she. Don't matter."

"Hope's a powerful thing," Rick offers. "It would be wrong to abuse it."

"You tryin' to start a fight with me?" Daryl says, throwing his arms out to eit