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All That’s Left is You

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Everywhere Rick looked, there was chaos. The barn was completely ablaze, which provided enough light to thoroughly see the extent of the unfolding scene. Walkers poured into the yard like a movie had just let out beyond the fence, surrounding the house and the barn with a throng too thick to properly search. Bodies were scattered over the ground, still and writhing, alive and dead and… undead. The yelling, gunfire, and engines were attracting even more Walkers that flowed in like an endless wave from the fields and the dark treeline beyond. Rick knew that Jimmy was dead. He’d seen a few others struggling, and vehicles take off, but it was impossible to tell who had made it and who had gotten bit in all of the confusion. The only thing he knew for sure was that Carl was alive and safe in the front of the truck with him and Hershel. 

 Slowing down a bit as he circled toward the exit, Rick’s eyes dashed around the lawn and screened for anyone still alive as his ears strained to hear. He parked and dove out of the car before he had time to contemplate his decision, shouting over his shoulder for Carl and Hershel to stay put. Carol was alive, just a little beyond the wood fencing. She was, by some miracle, uninjured, crying and dodging Walkers as she ran for the truck, but she wouldn’t stay that way for long with the herd closing in around her, and she had neither the training nor the weapons to fight back and buy herself that last bit of distance.

Sprinting around the fence, Rick pulled a spare clip from his pocket and reloaded with a haste that would probably have replaced his personal best, before halting in his stride when he saw a decomposing hand clutch into Carol’s shirt and tug her off balance. He took a steadying breath, mindful that he would be firing directly beside the woman’s head as she struggled with her attacker, and he could very well hit her. But there was no other option. Rick took the shot. And then the next, and the next, until he’d cleared enough space for her to run. He jogged a few steps further and did it again as more Walkers swarmed in from different angles to join the frenzy. 

“Come on!” Rick shouted encouragement as they were about to meet in the middle. He raised his gun once more as the newest set of Walkers closed in around them, only to have it click. Empty. He cursed, taking a few more steps and yanking Carol forward by her arm, pulling until his body was between her and the majority of the herd. Rick used his other hand to holster his gun and draw his knife, planting it in the head of the nearest Walker. If he could clear out just a few more, he’d be able to slip away right behind her. With a shout for Carol to keep running, Rick turned and stabbed a second and third Walker in quick succession. 

Another corpse had sneaked in close from his side while he dispatched number four. Rick jerked sideways, narrowly avoiding a bite to his shoulder from the unexpected attack, before twisting and stabbing the Walker that had nearly ended him in a smooth arc toward the head. He stepped backward to regain his balance and was jostled by the other Walkers who sent him tumbling to the grass, two of the recently killed falling on top of him. 

A sharp, stabbing pain in his thigh wrenched a wail from Rick’s throat before he managed to contain it. He couldn’t see what had happened, but it felt like a flaming spike had just been thrust straight through him. The world spun, blackness threatened to overtake him, but Rick pushed it back, choking down his agonized screams so he could face the ongoing danger. Rick stabbed the first two Walkers that stumbled toward him to take advantage of his pinned state. Their added weight drove him further onto whatever was impaling him and made it difficult to breathe, air too limited to even cry out properly. Their scent, however, masked him well enough that no more Walkers attempted to reach him, and Rick took the opportunity that had presented itself to pass out.

 

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Chapter Text

Rick woke up with a groan of pain. Everything hurt, and despite the soft surface he lay on, he was sore all over, sharp pain radiating out from his thigh, and bright light stabbing into his head. He could breathe easily again, but the smell of death and decaying flesh hadn’t disappeared. 

A hand clamped over his mouth just as soon as he’d made noise and for a second, Rick’s groggy brain insisted that it was a Walker grabbing him. He reached up to pry off the offending limb, but the hand was warm and not constricting him, and a familiar voice whispered in his ear that he had to stay quiet, repeating the phrase over and over in different ways until it permeated. Rick let go of the hand and nodded. The hand disappeared, and Rick immediately turned his head to look at Daryl, who was a whole lot closer than he anticipated. Of course, he knew that the hunter had to have been very close to have whispered in his ear, but Daryl was always so insistent on keeping his space that the closeness still managed to be surprising.

Daryl raised his eyebrows expectantly while Rick contemplated the dozens of questions he had. But when he opened his mouth, all that came out was, “I have to pee.” 

The tiniest smile quirked onto Daryl’s mouth before disappearing. He shifted to the opposite edge of the bed and carefully made his way around the mattress to help Rick stand up. He noted that his shoes and pants had been removed and leaned forward to try and see his injury. Shreds of plaid cloth wound around his leg right where the greatest pain was, probably a shirt torn up for bandages, and a small red dot had started to bleed through.

“Keep most of yer weight on me, but don’t hop. I don’t think either of us would enjoy havin’ to redo yer stitches.” Daryl instructed quietly, pulling Rick’s arm over his shoulders and looping his other hand around his waist, gripping firmly near the hips. “An’ don’t step on the junk on the floor. ‘S there to mark squeaky boards.” 

Rick glanced around the room for the first time, noting that there were several used strips of cloth littering the otherwise clean bedroom floor in a manner that looked haphazard. If Daryl hadn’t mentioned it, he’d have assumed they were nothing more than a careless disposal. Rick noted the queen sized bed that dominated the room, the dresser stationed directly in front of the door and three Walker corpses tucked into corners by the doorway. He caught sight of the sole frame that still stood on top of the dresser, recognizing a teenage Maggie. They hadn’t left the farm, then.

Daryl tugged gently to get Rick moving, but his legs were jello. Any pressure on his injured left leg was agony, but even his right leg felt weakened and uncooperative. Rick immediately gave up on any previous notions about maintaining his pride or being self sufficient, and took Daryl’s advice to let him carry most of his weight. He leaned into the warmth of his side heavily, shuffling along towards the closed door that he sincerely hoped was a bathroom and not a closet doubling as a bathroom. He hadn’t been into every room in the farmhouse, and he didn’t recognize this one. Sheets had been draped over the bottom half of the windows to keep their movements hidden inside while allowing sunlight to stream in from the tops, so Rick couldn’t be sure exactly where they were or what was going on, but he was willing to bet that Daryl had picked a room upstairs. 

The door did indeed lead to a bathroom that had no other entrances. Rick frowned when Daryl turned him away from the toilet and steered him to the bathtub, prodding him slightly until he was leaning against the wall. “Something wrong with the toilet?” He asked before Daryl could slip away, noting that there was a bucket in the tub as well that had a distinct and unpleasant smell that immediately gave away its usage. 

“Mmm. Flushin’ is loud an’ makin’ it overflow sounds like a terrible plan.” Rick didn’t think he’d ever get used to Daryl leaning in close to him so that his barely audible words could be made out. But Daryl was nothing if not pragmatic, and he’d rather be uncomfortable than do something that was so obviously a bad idea. Hence the bucket.

Rick turned to the task at hand, confident that Daryl had given him privacy even if he hadn’t been able to make out his footsteps. Rick had to go badly enough that he probably wouldn’t have hesitated to pull it out if Daryl had chosen to hover and keep talking in his ear. He shook his head at the thought and carefully aimed to make the least amount of noise possible. 

Finished, Rick shifted until his back was pressed against the cool tile wall and looked towards the door. Daryl had been politely turned away and standing mostly outside the bathroom. Sensing eyes on him, or more likely hearing him shift, Daryl returned to his side and helped Rick back to the bed. “We’re still at the farm.” 

Daryl nodded. 

“How long was I out?”

“Jus’ over two days.” Daryl said it blandly but the declaration sent a spike of fear through Rick.

“What happened? Is anyone else here?” Rick swallowed several times, fighting the urge to cough and clear his throat, which would negate all his efforts to keep quiet.

“Just us.” Daryl whispered before lowering him back onto the mattress. He took a glass of water off the nightstand that Rick hadn’t even noticed and pressed it into his hands. Rick drank eagerly, only then noticing how parched he felt, until Daryl tugged it down and forced him to take a break. He figured he’d probably been drinking too quickly, and Daryl was attempting to make sure he didn’t get sick from it. The glass remained in his hands as the hunter sat down beside him, pressing close against his good side so they could keep the conversation as quiet as possible. “Everyone else cleared out as soon as they could. Saw Patricia’s body out there, but that was it. Most of the vehicles are gone, so I figure there’s a good chance they’re safe.”

“Carl was with Hershel in the red truck. Maybe Carol, too. You know if it got out?” 

“Yeah.” Daryl nodded. “Saw ‘em leave. Saw Carol get in, too.”

“At least that’s something.” Rick muttered, slouching. He was mostly relieved that Carl got out, that Hershel would be there, at least, to take care of him, and that he hadn’t let the boy jump out of the car and run to Rick as he laid there piled under Walkers. But he couldn’t help how much he ached at the knowledge that he didn’t know where Carl was or how they’d catch up to him. “You see Lori?” 

Daryl shook his head. “But I didn’t see her body, neither, so that’s somethin’.”

“Shane’s dead. Jimmy’s dead.” Rick contributed, watching as Daryl simply nodded and accepted the information. He didn’t ask about Shane, even though he’d looked like he had so many questions when Rick had gone off with Shane to look for Randall that he hadn’t asked then, either. Rick was just grateful that he wasn’t facing a temper and accusations.

“Randall was dead an’ turned, but he weren’t bit. His neck was broke.” 

Rick took another drink of water, slower, and appreciated the way his desire to cough had evaporated. Daryl hadn’t said that Shane broke Randall’s neck, but the implication was practically audible. He wondered how much Daryl knew or had at least guessed about the situation with Shane. At what point had Daryl realized that Shane was a danger to their group? Probably while Rick was still in denial about his best friend’s transformation, but possibly even earlier. He’d never gotten along with Shane, but he didn’t bring up his concerns because despite the way everyone was growing closer, Daryl still viewed himself as an outsider. And the kicker was that for all Rick had grown to appreciate his skills, his perceptiveness and his loyalty over the days following Dale’s death, he’d spent most of his time since waking up from his coma attempting and failing to repair his marriage and his friendship with Shane and intentionally keeping the redneck on the sidelines because of his temper and sour attitude. He wasn’t making that mistake again. He’d make sure Daryl had all the information, even if it led to uncomfortable questions. “Shane turned without a bite, too.” 

“Mmm.” Daryl grunted as he stared at the wall thoughtfully. 

Rick took a drink of his water as he waited for the inevitable questions about Shane’s death because saying he was dead but not bit was as good as admitting to the murder. Guilt bubbled up under his skin as the silence went on, and Rick realized he wanted to explain what had happened, wanted to defend himself against the accusations in his own mind, regardless of what Daryl wanted to know. “I killed him.”

“Figured as much.” Rick turned to Daryl and frowned. He didn’t expect sympathy for losing his best friend when he’d been the one to do the act, but he’d thought some sort of emotional reaction was appropriate at hearing someone admit to killing one of their own, even if Daryl hadn’t liked Shane, but it seemed that the hunter had already assessed and accepted the situation. Daryl shrugged. “I know all ‘bout lettin’ bullshit stick ‘round to keep the peace; Merle is my brother, ya know. Don’ mean ya don’t smell it. Figured ya let him take ya out so’s ya could clean house ‘fore someone else got killed. Ya don’t gotta feel guilty ‘bout protectin’ you an’ yers. He had more chances than he deserved.”

Rick wanted to say more, to explain further about all of the clues he’d dismissed, the way Shane had attacked him when they’d gone to drop off Randall. He wanted Daryl to understand how much he’d struggled for alternatives and hadn’t even made a real decision, even when he’d thrust the knife forward to save himself, had walked with Shane with intentions only to talk it out. He wanted to shout how Shane had never been like this before, how he’d been a good friend to him for years, and how desperately he missed the camaraderie they’d shared. Rick just wanted the guilt to ebb enough that he didn’t have to see the light dim from his best friend’s eyes or hear the gurgle of him choking on blood playing on an unending loop. But Daryl had already surmised the situation in a relatively accurate way without additional input from any parties who had been there and openly approved of the outcome. He even attempted to assuage Rick’s guilt over an act that could never really be forgiven. And while part of him wanted to beg Daryl to tell him again that he’d done the right thing, there wasn’t anything more to add to this topic that would make a difference. So instead he leaned further into Daryl’s space so he could take comfort in the warmth he felt along his side. The archer didn’t shrink away or stand up to avoid contact as he’d half-expected, and Rick allowed himself to enjoy the physical and emotional support. “Jenner said we’re all infected. Everyone will turn when they die no matter how they die.”

“Hmm.” Daryl’s expression soured. He’d probably guessed as much, if not before, then certainly after seeing Randall and learning about Shane, but obviously didn’t like having those sorts of suspicions confirmed.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, and Rick finished off his water. He held the cup between his knees so he wouldn’t be forced to break contact to set it aside. He’d always been a tactile individual, and touching was helpful to feel more grounded, reminding him that he wasn’t alone in this mess. Daryl had diligently avoided contact with others unless it was necessary since Rick had met him, so he was probably making the other man uncomfortable. He decided that Daryl was plenty capable of moving if he didn’t want to be there. Which reminded him of the other question that had been bugging him. “Why are you here, Daryl?” 

Daryl shrugged. “Couldn’t get back to my bike, ‘specially not haulin’ you. Weren’t so many towards the house since the fire kept ‘em distracted.” Rick looked towards the bodies of the Walkers in the room with them. There were three in this room alone, probably following him inside and up the stairs. He must have had a hell of a time getting through the herd with Rick acting as a deadweight. It was a miracle neither of them were bit. Daryl followed his gaze. “Don’t smell so good, but I think they cover our scent well enough. The herd has been thinnin’ down some anyway.” 

Rick shook his head. “No, I mean, why did you come back for me? Wasn’t likely I’d be alive under a pile of Walkers like that, let alone not bit. Wasn’t worth it to risk your life on those kinds of odds.”

Daryl shrugged, but he seemed to be collecting his thoughts as opposed to refusing to answer. “Carl tried gettin’ outta the truck. Hershel an’ Carol struggled to keep him in. Could hear him screamin’ even with everythin’ else goin’ on.” He grabbed the empty glass from Rick’s loose hold and set it on the bedside table before situating himself back on the bed slightly further away. Rick took the hint and let him keep his distance. His heart went out to his boy, and he wanted to hear every detail. “But they drove off. Weren’t no Walkers near ‘em, neither. I stopped close, jus’ to get a look. Most of the Walkers had wandered a bit ‘fore I got there. Jus’ a couple ‘round. Figured I had a minute, maybe two ‘fore there was too many on me. An’ that was enough time ta check, so I could at least give him that. So he could know for sure what happened. Know you wasn’t runnin’ ‘round turned. ‘Cept, I got there an’ heard ragged breathin’ an’ Walkers don’t breathe.” 

Rick resisted the urge to reach out, knowing that the gesture was more of a comfort to himself than to Daryl. Instead, he just did his best to make sure the hunter knew exactly how sincere he was when he said, “Thank you. You saved my life.”

Daryl twitched and nodded before changing the topic. “Ya landed on some metal pipin’. Guess it was part of a faucet or somethin’. Was a bitch pryin’ ya off ‘fore we got surrounded. Thought we’d use this room ‘cuz of the water an’ all, but there weren’t no medical supplies in here. Found a sewin’ kit an’ managed to stop the bleedin’, but gotta watch for infection still.” Standing, Daryl scooped up a box from its position under the bed and placed it at the foot of the mattress before dropping a throw pillow on top of it. “Better be checkin’ that anyway. Lay down.”

Rick complied easily, propping himself up on his pillow and swinging his right leg onto the bed before attempting to lift his injured one. He cringed at the pull of torn muscle and choked back the vicious swears that popped up in the back of his throat. Daryl was already there with one hand bracing his ankle and the other just above his knee, taking the weight of his leg and sliding it into position with his foot braced on top of the box. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was infinitely better than the pain of trying to lift it himself, and Rick could see that the angle allowed Daryl to reach under his thigh without having to shift his position more. “Fuckin’ hurts.” 

“Yeah, there’s a lot of damage.” Daryl muttered as he gave up on loosening his own knots and carefully sliced through the fabric with his hunting knife. “Didn’t seem to damage the bone, so consider yerself lucky. Can’t afford ya laid up for months.”

“Fair point.” Rick conceded as the pain ebbed enough to prop himself up on his elbows to see the injury. The thread was purple and clearly visible against the red, irritated skin. The stitching was surprisingly neat, and Rick was glad he’d been passed out for it. “That ain’t infected?” He asked hesitantly.

“Nah.” Daryl answered as he very gently wiped at the wound with a wet cloth before looking it over again. “Jus’ irritated from the stitches. Don’t feel over-warm.” When he was satisfied, Daryl knelt and repeated the process on the underside of the leg. His hands were warm and gentle, but the sensitivity of the injury ensured that it was still painful. He sighed in relief when Daryl was finished and carefully bound the area again with strips from clothing he must have made earlier. “The underside looks a little worse. Should try sleepin’ on yer side or stomach if ya can manage that. The bleedin’s stopped an’ there ain’t much drainage. Thought it’d be much worse when I first saw it.”

“I am lucky.” Rick declared when everything was finished. With the same careful movements from earlier, Daryl helped him rest his leg back on the floor and sit up properly. “I’m very lucky you’re here with me.”

“Ain’t nothin’.” 

Rick wanted to press it so his friend knew how much he meant the compliment, but Daryl was already twitching in discomfort and studiously avoiding eye contact. He let it drop. “We’re not precariously balanced on a single support beam, are we?”

“Huh?”

“I thought a herd that size would have torn down this building for sure.”

Daryl sat back down beside Rick so they could keep their voices as low as possible. “So did we. That’s why everyone skedaddled. But the fire y’all set in the barn changed their trajectory. Most of ‘em went for the barn an’ shuffled off from there ‘stead of headin’ for noise an’ the people in the house.”

“Even more useful than I thought.” Rick nodded, pleased that the decision had been more helpful than crazy.

“Mixed bag, really.” Daryl grunted. “The misdirection was useful for the house an’ gettin’ people out of here, but it attracted an awful lot of attention. Burned a long time, an’ prolly drew in more Walkers than we woulda seen otherwise. Also seems to have kept ‘em wanderin’ ‘round here longer. Sure didn’t help when the RV exploded.”

“The RV exploded?!” Rick only barely remembered the importance of their whispering in his surprise.

Nodding, Daryl moved to help Rick stand who gladly accepted the assistance. They teetered over to the window and carefully pulled aside the makeshift curtain to view the yard. The barn was no longer burning and was little more than blackened timber leaning in a vaguely square shape. The RV was hardly recognizable parked behind it with most of it torn to shreds and large pieces of metal strewn about the yard. There were dozens of Walkers loitering around the yard, and undoubtedly more further out and on the other side of the house. They were spread out well enough that one could probably run through them without too much trouble if nothing slowed the process down, but Rick could barely stand and was not going to have any hope of outrunning them. “Was parked by the barn, prolly caught fire an’ exploded when the flame reached the fuel line. Didn’t know if I should be impressed or worried that ya slept through it.”

“There anything to eat?”

“Not much.” Daryl confessed, helping Rick back to the bed before sorting through a satchel he must have been wearing when everything went down. He removed a couple cans and a handful of loosely wrapped jerky. Still, Rick was glad for it as his stomach grumbled unhappily. He wondered if Daryl had eaten at all since he’d dragged them into the room or if he’d planned to save it as long as possible. With Daryl, it could go either way since he understood the necessity of keeping up his energy, but was also quietly self-sacrificing, trying desperately to help others while avoiding any attention for his actions. The only thing Rick could be sure of was that there was no point in asking Daryl since he wouldn’t feel guilty about lying. Rick reached over and grabbed the jerky, splitting the pile into four. It made the amount disappointingly small, but he’d be glad for the food later. He scooped up a pile for himself and gave one to Daryl. “I also found a couple chocolate bars stashed in the dresser.” 

Rick grinned. “I’m in favor of splurging on one of those to commemorate my return to consciousness.” Daryl seemed pleased with the idea as well, retrieving the chocolate and refilling the water glass, which they were apparently sharing. “So, the RV is out of the picture, but you could bring your bike right up to the porch while I wait inside and then we can make a dash out of here. There’s still a good long while before it gets dark.”

Daryl didn’t respond for a while, taking his time chewing, then sipping on the water, before turning to the cop with a sigh. “Even if that idea wasn’t awful, we couldn’t do it. I left it idlin’ when I went to check on ya, an’ since we were forced this way, I never turned it off. It jus’ idled ‘til it stalled out, most likely when the gas was gone.”

“They’ve got farm equipment and a generator here. I’ll bet there are cans of gas somewhere, probably in the basement. We fill her up and get going.”

“Rick, ya can barely stand an’ ya can’t walk without help. Ya need more time to heal. We need more time for the Walkers to clear out. I need more time to collect some supplies. A few days for the Walkers an’ a few days for prep. I can make it to the highway on foot an’ bring back a car for the gear we collect.”

“We can’t wait that long.” Rick tried to keep his anger in check at the notion of falling so far behind his family. He just needed to make it clear that they were falling behind. “Our people would have headed back to the spot where we kept supplies for Sophia. It’s the only common reference we have. They’re not going to be able to wait there for long.”

“They’ve already left!” Daryl declared, tense and agitated. Rick figured this was the point in time when the redneck would generally be yelling, but that wasn’t an option, so he was just leaning in closer and spitting out harsh whispered words. “They think yer dead. They wouldn’t have waited.”

“But they knew you weren’t. They’d wait for you.”

“Not for two days on that highway. ’S the direction the herd came from. ‘S a straight shot back to the CDC an’ Atlanta where hundreds of thousands of Walkers are roamin’ without food. That’s prolly where the herd came from an’ it’s prolly jus’ the beginnin’. There’s no way they woulda stayed.”

Rick tried to curb his anger and frustration, knowing it was at the situation and not at Daryl pointing out the situation. He took a deep breath and tried to think about it logically. That spot on the highway was their only frame of reference outside of Atlanta and the farm. Since both of those would have been too dangerous, they must have met up there. But Daryl was right, they wouldn’t have been able to stay, even knowing that Daryl was coming. Hell, Daryl wasn’t winning any personality awards. They may have even just assumed he’d split. But assuming that they met up there and assuming that they believed Daryl would come… “They must have left a note there of where to go next.”

Daryl certainly didn’t look convinced by the idea. “‘S possible.”

“So we can’t wait days while we’re falling behind.” Rick already had a good idea about what Daryl was thinking. Even if they had thought to and had time to leave a note behind, there were still numerous Walkers surrounding them, which made Rick’s every move dangerous, and they currently had no supplies and no transportation, which made following their group suicide. And even though Rick was undeniably the leader, his injury made him dependent on Daryl and so the hunter was the one with all the power in this situation. And from the look on his face, he was not afraid to use it. Rick wasn’t entirely sure that the proud, standoffish, redneck would bend to his decisions on a normal day, and today, Rick was at ten different kinds of disadvantage. There would have to be some serious compromising. “All right. We’ll go as fast as we can without unnecessary risks. Can’t find our people if we’re dead.”

Daryl looked surprised by his sudden change in response, and he was definitely listening. The resolute defiance faded from his face, and Rick realized that his protests were all, in one way or another, about safety. He nodded for Rick to go on.

“We’ll get some good rest tonight and decide together in the morning if it’s safe enough for you to make a run past our guards here. You’ll get to the highway and find a car to bring back here. While you’re there, you should scout for any signs of our friends or any messages they may have left us. If you can get some sort of distraction set up to pull off the rest of the Walkers here, we could leave right when you get back. I won’t be doing much more than sitting and driving, so I can keep healing while we’re on the move.”

“‘Kay.” Daryl agreed with a surprising quickness. “But we need to gather as much as we can ‘fore we take off. They’ll be hurtin’ for supplies when we catch up.”

 

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Chapter Text

Daryl wasn’t sure if Rick had a hard time with his new assignment of sleeping on his stomach, or if he was unable to sleep after sleeping so long, or if he was just uncomfortable sleeping beside a man. On the last count, he could sympathize. He’d never slept beside anyone outside of Merle before, but he’d be damned if he was sleeping on the floor when there was a perfectly acceptable half a bed available. He could really do without Rick’s eyes boring into the back of his head, though. It was making it difficult to sleep. “Think I liked it better when you was passed out.” He finally grunted without turning around.

“Sorry.” Rick muttered. 

Daryl sighed and shifted until he was facing Rick. He almost immediately regretted it because he hadn’t counted on how close that would bring them together and his whole body  itched to get away from the contact. He ignored it in favor of keeping his voice at a whisper. “More ya sleep, faster ya heal. So sleep.”

“I’d love to. My brain doesn’t want to turn off, though.”

Daryl frowned. He was shit at comforting people. Last time he’d tried to comfort, he’d just ended up yelling instead. Was this the point in time where he told Rick not to worry, that his kid would be fine? Didn’t seem very honest. No one was fine anymore. “Then stop starin’ at least. No sense in us both bein’ exhausted.”

Rick averted his eyes, turning his head in the opposite direction, and Daryl rolled back over. He absolutely did not feel guilty. Rick may have lost his best friend and his family a second time just weeks after finding them, but at least they were mostly still alive. Probably.

If Daryl inched back until he felt the press of Rick’s arm against his back, it was just because the bed was too damn small for two grown men. It didn’t have anything to do with how Rick kept reaching out to touch in an obvious attempt to comfort himself. 

 

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Daryl awoke before Rick and just after the sun. Rick was snoring very lightly behind him, dead to the world, even as Daryl shifted next to him and got off the bed. He patted around the room, leaving water, food, make-shift bandages, and a loaded gun at the bedside table, but still Rick didn’t stir. He likely hadn’t been able to fall asleep for several hours with all the worries chasing around his head and would be conked out for a long while yet. 

After, Daryl padded over to the window and pulled aside the sheet that was doubling as a curtain. The Walkers milling about below hadn’t thinned overnight. He hadn’t expected them to. After the barn burning slowed down to only embers, a large wave of Walkers had left together, shambling off as a group towards a noise or perhaps just the hope to encounter more food. But an even larger chunk had meandered around the farm, taking down fences and killing off the horses and the cows, but finding the place entirely satisfactory to stay. 

Daryl figured it was something like the First Law of Motion. Once Walkers started going, they just kept heading forward until they found something to eat, picking up more to add to their numbers as they went. But a Walker at rest stays at rest until another enticement acts upon it. Barring a very loud noise someplace near enough to grab their attention or a particularly tasty looking group of survivors ambling by, Daryl figured the remaining Walkers were unlikely to move on on their own. 

This left him with a rather unfortunate problem because while he could probably make it at a dead run going from the front door to the treeline, and then keep enough momentum to stay ahead of any of the Walkers that decided to keep on his tail, it was still a risky maneuver, particularly since any option he had for leaving the house would likely draw in some unwelcome attention before he even made it to the ground. 

The fact of the matter was, it was going to be dangerous leaving the farm, and it wasn’t going to get much safer before they ran out of food. He knew that Rick would draw the same conclusions, but what he didn’t know was whether he would want to send Daryl out anyway. Would Rick see the danger and forbid Daryl from leaving, possibly dooming them both in the process? Or would he be so determined to reach his family that he’d send Daryl out with a vague hope that he’d succeed? Daryl wasn’t sure which response he’d hate more, so he decided not to give Rick any input at all and got himself ready to leave.

Prying open the window, Daryl slipped out onto the roof of the porch as quietly as possible. He didn’t dare exit through the door and leave his friend asleep unguarded with the barricade down. He’d left him with his own rations and the room silent and stinking with the hope that should he fail, Rick might stand a chance trying to get out in a few more days. Once Daryl was outside, he shut the window behind him and swung his crossbow onto his back before slinking towards the corner of the house. He remembered seeing some of the siding was decorative squares and perfect for climbing, assuming it would support his weight. 

It was surprisingly easy to reach the roof where Daryl stood and surveyed the area. Most of the Walkers were still clustered near the stables, but there were a decent number spotted throughout the yard. He crouched and considered his options. There were too many for him to fight off by himself, and even with Rick’s help, they’d still be overwhelmed. He could return to the room and cut open the dead inside and attempt the trick Rick had used with Glenn to get out of Atlanta. He dismissed it reluctantly. It was too big of a risk with the several open wounds he’d sustained while wrestling Walkers and trying to get Rick into that room. Thankfully, none of them were bites or scratches, but he shuddered to think of what could happen if some of the Walker blood slid between his own sets of stitches. 

In the end, he had no better ideas than creating a distraction and making a run for it. He crouched on the roof for a minute, soaking in the warmth of the rising sun and taking in the view. If you ignored the growling below and the fetid smell of death, the farm remained as peaceful as the days that they’d spent hoping it was some sort of oasis, untouched by the horrors of the world around it. He’d known it wouldn’t last, but it had been nice to buy into Rick’s optimism for a while. 

Daryl prowled forward to the edge of the roof opposite the woods and the highway beyond, looking around for a suitable diversion. As he inched towards the gutter, his foot slid, and a couple shingles went tumbling to the ground. He nearly lost his balance, scraping his palms on the surface in an effort to regain traction, but thankfully didn’t topple to the ground. He cursed at the attention it drew, but then realized that it wasn’t all bad. He pried up more of the shingles from the damaged patch and started hurling them across the lawn. They thumped and drew in more Walkers towards the back of the house, and he diligently tried to see if he could clock them in the head while working on the distraction. It wasn’t really any more effective than his presence at drawing them in, but he was working on a substantial group of undead interested in eating him clumped up beneath him on the back entryway. Daryl hoped that he wouldn’t cause more to try and enter the house, but it couldn’t be helped at this point. 

When the group look sufficiently misled, he climbed back over to the other side of the roof, careful not to slip on the loose shingles, and went down the decorative lining. There were still a significant number of Walkers milling around, but the closest had already been drawn to the back of the building, and he felt confident that he’d have enough time to make it to the grass before he could be surrounded. 

Until the siding broke beneath him, and Daryl tumbled to the ground with a hard thud and drawing far more attention than he’d expected with the creaks and crashing of boards. He surged to his feet, ignoring the discomfort in his wrist and ankle and sprinting for the woods. He was absolutely going to have a talk with Hershel about house upkeep if they ever managed to catch up to their group. He didn’t care if the piece was decorative and not meant for a fully grown man to climb, he still intended to plant this entire disaster on the vet. 

Daryl ran.

His ankle was caterwauling below him that he should absolutely stop, but it was keeping his weight, so it wasn’t broken. At worst, he figured it was a sprain, and he had bigger issues to worry about. He pushed himself, but it was slower going than he’d anticipated, and the Walkers further out were starting to reach him. He didn’t want to slow down, but he didn’t have another option. He yanked out his knife, twisted and stabbed the nearest Walker in the head. It rattled back through his wrist, so he grunted and switched to his left before taking down the next one, and the next. 

Daryl could feel his window of opportunity closing as he was brought to a near halt just past the barn. There were more coming, a lot more, and he needed to get out of there before they reached him. 

And then he picked up Rick’s voice, shouting and yelling out the window from the house. Daryl could see the group that had been following him split off and turn back towards the new noise. Daryl worked at finishing off the last of the ones surrounding him, glanced up at Rick, who was too far away to make out clearly, and then turned and ran again. 

As his feet pounded against the earth, he couldn’t help but think how stupid that had been of Rick. There were still enough Walkers there to tear down the house if he got them riled up enough. There were plenty to break down the bedroom door if they squeezed into the upstairs hallway. He pushed the thoughts away and ran faster. Rick would be fine. He had to be. There was nothing else Daryl could do for him now.

He slowed to a brisk walk as he made it into the forest, and tried not to think about the pain in his ankle. There were a few stray Walkers among the trees that Daryl disposed of as he went, but the trip was blissfully quiet, and he made it to the highway in good time. Before he broke the treeline, he recognized the stillness of the forest and the shuffling of hundreds of feet. There was another herd passing on the road. He immediately crouched and shifted behind a tree.

A tiny part of Daryl worried about the group. What if, for some reason, they’d risked staying on the highway to wait for him? Were they there now, underneath cars and corpses and hoping not to get caught? He worried at his lip and shook his head. There wasn’t a chance. There was no way they’d stayed, and even if they had, there was nothing he could do for them now except get himself killed. 

He waited, resting his ankle, and watching the road from his hiding spot. It wasn’t a very good hiding spot. In fact, several Walkers ambled towards him, and Daryl got up and pulled further back into the trees before disposing of them with his knife. Finally, deciding that his smell was probably the bigger problem than his poor hiding place, Daryl reluctantly retraced the steps they’d traveled while looking for Sophia and clambered down into the stream, hiding himself underneath the bramble that should have protected the little girl and hadn’t. The running water would keep his scent away from the Walkers on the road, but all he could think about as he sat in the mud was the girl he hadn’t managed to save. He wondered if this was a nightmare and not reality. He wondered if they were somehow replaying history, and he would get bit and carted off into someone’s barn. He shuddered at the thought of Rick hunting the forest for his ghost. It was nearly as bad as the thought of the house crashing down among the Walkers with Rick still inside.

The only good of the entire experience was that the chilly water helped soothe the ache in his ankle and brought down what was probably some magnificent swelling that he’d refused to check out. He left his wrist in the flow of the water, too, but ultimately gave it up when his fingers started to go numb. 

Eventually, Daryl crawled out of the creek, up the embankment and back towards the road. The herd had passed, and there were only a couple stray Walkers that Daryl put down before getting started. The sun was high in the sky now and warmed his chilled limbs. 

First, Daryl searched for a vehicle that worked and spent a solid hour siphoning off gas. He had to go a ways down the road to reach a section of pile up that hadn’t been searched, but the effort was worthwhile. He found a minivan with fold down seats that probably cost more than he could have hoped to afford before the end of the world and somehow had neither Walkers inside nor significant damage on the outside. It started on the first try. There was a carseat behind the driver’s seat which Daryl almost tossed before remembering Lori’s pregnancy and instead just unhooked and stowed behind a seat. He found some food to go with the gas and prepped the vehicle before sitting down to some beef jerky. He had to move several vehicles out of the way to clear a path, which turned out to be more obnoxious than he would have guessed, but he thought the find was worth the extra effort. 

When he’d cleared out as much supplies and food as was easily accessible and had the van ready to leave, he had a brief, unexpected thought that he could just go. He could leave Rick in that farmhouse and no one would know. If he ever caught up to the group, they already thought he was dead, so what difference would that make? It was no worse than what the cop had done to his brother, leaving him trapped and ultimately severely injured and surrounded by Walkers. Karma was a bitch.

Daryl shook his head, dismissing the idea, unsettled that he’d even entertained it for a moment. Rick had done all right by him. It was Merle’s own fault that he’d lost his hand and gone and went missing because he should have known Daryl would come back for him, no matter what. And now he supposed he’d go back for Rick, no matter what.

Daryl spent an embarrassingly long time hunting for signs of his group near and around the spot where they’d left supplies for Sophia. Once he’d circled the area and expanded his search and come up with nothing, he started looking under, in and around vehicles for a less obvious hint. He even skimmed the edges of the forests and, though he wasn’t prepared to admit it, checked under hoods and in trunks. He looked for fresh tracks and footprints, abnormal indentations, and especially any sort of note or sign. But the herd of Walkers had trodden down anything he could have expected to see and there was no sign like the one they’d left for Sophia. There was no promise to return at any point, nor was there any indications of where they were intending to go. 

They’d left him behind. They’d known he was alive, and they’d left him behind. The thought stung, no matter how desperately he tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter, that he didn’t much care for that group anyway. He’d thought at least Carol might have made an attempt, but he’d done nothing but yell at her for the last few days they were together. They were probably glad to be rid of him. 

He shook his head to clear it as he plodded back to the van. It didn’t matter. Rick’s family was with that group, so they’d find them anyway. And once they’d found them, well, Daryl didn’t need to stick around. 

Daryl suddenly wished he’d paid a little more attention to anything besides Sophia or sulking in his tent. He wasn’t sure how far away the neighbors were, or the little town with the pharmacy, or the bar where Hershel had gone to drink and returned with a whole mess of problems. He hadn’t even paid all that much care to the map Rick had used to set up a search grid since he’d been more concerned about following her trail than combing every piece of land. The end result was that he wasn’t familiar enough with the territory for the plan he wanted to use and was stuck wasting precious fuel and daylight circling around and around on the back roads.

He needed a place that was close enough to the farm that he could attract the Walkers with some loud noises, but not so close that they’d lure them back by their own noises as they prepared to leave. It couldn’t be too close to the highway, lest he drag another herd into the area. It had to be secure enough that it could withstand a pounding before the Walkers reached it, but not soundproof. 

As the afternoon faded away, Daryl finally decided on a farmhouse that was kitty-corner to Hershel’s land. He’d originally dismissed it as too far, but he didn’t really have the luxury of being picky unless he intended to stay out all night, and he was a little afraid that Rick would do something stupid if he didn’t make it back before dark. 

Daryl quickly cleared the house. There weren’t any Walkers inside, probably already taken care of at Hershel’s barn, but no one had had the sense to loot the food, probably out of respect for the ‘sick’. In addition to the food, there were also tools, batteries, and two rifles with ammo. Daryl loaded everything of use into his new van and hoped that one of the two trucks parked in the driveway worked. He wasn’t ready to give up the van if he could help it, but if he had to get back out to the highway for another, he’d definitely be out there past dark.

His luck was not getting any better. Both trucks started, eventually, but neither of them had a very loud speaker set and there were, unsurprisingly none to be found in the house. So his original plan of blasting some death metal on some speakers run with car batteries was toast. Daryl considered the merits of driving to Hershel’s and leading the herd back there, jumping in his own vehicle and circling around, but didn’t like his odds of not attracting a plethora of Walkers from other directions. If it turned out that the other half of the herd that had moved on were still within earshot, he’d be surrounded in no time. 

Daryl re-examined the house for anything useful, hoping he could make something work before night fell, and happened upon a trunk in the master bedroom that contained a disturbingly large number of sex toys and fireworks. He grinned and grabbed the box of fireworks, opening it to make sure it was as labeled. 

On the one hand, everything, living and dead was bound to see it from miles around and go towards it. He could potentially draw in a herd from the highway again or some unsavory characters. On the other hand, everything, living and dead was bound to see it from miles around and go towards it. It would clear out Hershel’s farm for sure and maybe even send a signal to their group, if they hadn’t already gotten too far away to see it. He shrugged to himself. There was a good distance to Hershel’s farm. They’d be safe. Probably.

The problem was that the fireworks wouldn’t last long, and Daryl wanted to make sure the Walkers hung around and weren’t tempted by any noises they might make at Hershel’s. 

He sat down on the master bed and smoked a cigarette instead of eating dinner and then dropped the fireworks out of the second floor window so that they landed on the roof of the porch and wouldn’t be obstructed when they went off. Then he set fire to the curtains with his cigarette, got into his new van, and drove to wait it out nearer to the farm. 

 

========

 

“We can’t stay here.” T-Dog declared after the dead had been mentioned and everyone had a few minutes to let the tears flow. “This place is a death trap. You can bet there’s another herd coming soon and enough strays to make it dangerous already.”

Glenn nodded stiffly. He didn’t want to be the bad guy any more than T-Dog did, but it just wasn’t safe to stay. It was hard to believe everything that had happened in the last hour. “T’s right. We’re sitting ducks.”

“We can’t leave yet.” Carol gasped, looking stricken. “Daryl’s not here yet. We’re not even sure about Andrea. We have to go back.”

“We can’t go back. It’s too dangerous. They’ve either left or they’re dead.” Hershel announced solemnly. 

“Daryl was on his bike. He was away from the herd. We just need to give him a couple more minutes.” Carol insisted.

“Daryl should have beat us here. It’s easier to get around the debris on that thing.” Maggie pointed out.

“Unless something held him up.”

“Or he didn’t come at all.” Lori put in slowly. “He didn’t much care for any of us. He might have decided he was better off on his own. Especially with Rick-” Her voice choked, and she cut herself off. 

Carol shook her head. “No. He might not be social, but he’s part of our group. He stayed for Sophia. He wouldn’t leave us.”

“We can leave him a note.” Beth suggested. “And Andrea, if she made it. We’ll let them know where to find us.”

Glenn looked around the group to find they were all nodding along, but looking to him for the final decision. Losing Rick, Shane and Daryl in one night left a gaping hole where their leadership used to be. He felt entirely inadequate to fill it. He tried to make sure it didn’t show and took a deep breath. “We can’t.” Glenn declared. “If Randall’s group were to find it… They’d kill us all. And I doubt they’re the only group we need to watch out for. He’ll be okay. If anyone can survive out here on his own, it’s Daryl.”

“He’ll find us.” T-Dog added comfortingly, resting his hand on Carol’s shoulder. “He’s a tracker, remember?”

 

========

Chapter Text

Rick didn’t expect to be able to fall back asleep knowing that Daryl was out there risking his neck or that Carl and Lori were grieving him again. After the heart-stopping crash outside his window he’d woken up to that morning and the fear of seeing Daryl nearly get surrounded, Rick figured he’d have his eyes peeled the whole day. But as it turned out, healing was a very energy intensive exercise, and Rick found himself lying back down and drifting off again before noon. 

He awoke with a jolt to the sound of a heavy crash for the second time that day, only this one was further away and a whole lot louder. The sun had well and truly set, and he had a stabbing fear at finding the room empty. Surely Daryl would have returned by now? It was just good sense not to stay out after dark. The noise sounded again, a large boom and less of the crash of boards he’d heard this morning. It almost sounded like... fireworks. Rick carefully picked himself up from the bed and shuffled carefully to the window, using everything solid within his reach to distribute his weight from his leg. He pushed the sheet to the side and looked out at the yard. Not a Walker in sight. There was also no sign of Daryl.

Rick tried to push the worry he felt for the hunter aside. He may be the only link Rick had to the outside world, but he was more than competent out there. In all likelihood, he was responsible for the lack of Walkers in the yard. Still, Rick crept towards the door, making up his mind to check out all the upstairs windows and see what the situation was outside. He’d prefer to get on the roof, but his injury precluded that option. 

As he was shuffling along the floor, leaning heavily and stumbling not unlike a Walker himself, Rick’s foot shifted a piece of cloth out of the way, and he instantly heard the creak of the floorboard beneath him. He waited a moment with his breath stilled before slinking the rest of the way and pressing his ear against the door. Almost immediately, like the Walker had taken the exact same time to reach the door as him, there was moaning and snarling on the other side. Rick glanced down, triple checking that the corpses leaning against the dresser were, in fact, dead, before sighing and making the slow progression back to the bed. 

He was pretty sure there was just the one Walker out there, but it could be awfully hard to tell sometimes, and he didn’t think it was worth the risk just to evaluate the situation for himself. Even if Daryl was stuck out there and injured, there wasn’t a lot he’d be able to do for him in his current condition. He resigned himself to wait, checking his watch every two minutes and letting his mind wander over how he felt like a princess trapped in the tower, even as he simultaneously felt like a father awaiting the late return of a child. 

Rick intended to wait two hours before taking action, but revised the decision to one hour after the first twenty minutes stretched on. After exactly 47 minutes of waiting, assuming his watch was still functioning properly, there was a knock at his door. It was surprising at first before he considered that he really didn’t have any idea how else Daryl might have got into the room. He’d destroyed whatever ladder he’d been using that morning and the barricade was, well, barricading. 

Rick made the return trip to the door quite a bit more quickly than the last time, hissing in pain as his weight shifted too much onto the wrong leg and struggling to properly brace himself as he scooted the dresser out of the way. Daryl gave him a hand once it was angled properly and then slid it back into place with his back as soon as he was fully inside. 

“We were supposed to decide together if you should go.” Rick hissed with a frown that might have been lost in the darkness.

“Didn’t see the point. Was my skin on the line.”

Daryl was talking at his normal volume, so Rick figured it was safe enough to do so and followed suit. He already missed the sense of pseudo camaraderie that leaning in and whispering evoked. “You were almost surrounded. It’s damn lucky I woke up or you wouldn’t have made it to the woods.”

Daryl didn’t say anything or make any noticeable movements in response, but Rick could tell that he was conceding the point. He let the matter drop, knowing that that was as good as it was going to get. The hunter wasn’t known for apologizing, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if he did. It was more gratifying to know that he thought the point was valid and probably wouldn’t be making the same mistake again.

Rick shuffled himself back towards the bed, turning down Daryl’s offer to give him a hand with a reprimanding look. “You’re hurt.” It wasn’t a question. Even though it was pretty dark in the room, Rick could tell with just a few steps that Daryl was stiff and limping. 

“Ain’t serious.” Daryl brushed it off, hobbling to the bed and sitting down heavily on it. “How’s yer leg?” He deflected.

Rick was just about to redirect his attention back to the question on hand, when he decided that the ensuing argument was not worth it. Daryl would cave to pragmatic reasoning, provided the conversation wasn’t already heated. “Still hurts something awful, but the site didn’t look any worse today than yesterday. Want to take a look at it?”

Daryl nodded, reaching over to the nightside table and quickly lighting both the candles that rested there. He then grabbed the glass of water that Rick had filled but not finished drinking earlier in the day and passed it to him before digging around in his satchel and pulling out a bottle of what Rick assumed was aspirin. “First, take this.” Rick complied eagerly, hoping the aspirin would tone down the thrumming agony that had encased his whole leg since this morning, and had begun to travel up his side. 

Afterward, Daryl helped him lay down properly, dragged one of the candles close to his leg and inspected the stitches. He nodded but didn’t comment, which Rick took to mean that there wasn’t anything alarming to be seen. 

“Your turn.” 

Daryl raised an eyebrow. “Told ya. Ain’t that bad.”

“It’s the Dark Ages out there, Daryl. Our best hope for survival is prevention of illness.” Rick cut himself off before he could comment more about how they lacked a doctor, and proper medicine or facilities. He didn’t say how an infection could be lethal for them, or how if one of them went down, the other would have a hell of a time surviving. He didn’t need to. That line of thinking was abundantly clear, and Daryl wasn’t the stupid redneck that everyone had him pinned for at the start of this mess. One look at the frustration on his face, and he knew Daryl had pulled that all together for himself. 

Rick waited until Daryl had himself situated properly on the bed, mostly leaning against the headboard and hiking up his pant leg for Rick to view his ankle. It was swollen up and a mottled patchwork of bruising. Rick cringed at the thought that Daryl must have been walking around on it for some time to get this sort of effect. “Wish we had some ice, but I guess the best we can do is some compression and elevation to get the swelling down.”

“It ain’t as bad as it looks.” Daryl muttered, petulant and unhelpful, but he let Rick take hold of the appendage and work on wrapping it up. He considered that with all of Daryl’s protests, he might be embarrassed, but of what, Rick couldn’t say.

“How’d you do this, anyway?”

Daryl shrugged. “Landed on it funny when that shitty siding broke under me this mornin’. My wrist wasn’t too happy ‘bout it neither.”

Rick’s first thought was that Daryl had been running and then walking on that ankle all day, and it was probably a miracle that it wasn’t any worse. His second thought was about what Daryl had actually said, and he let out a chuckle. “You thought it was safe to climb the trellis? Didn’t you learn anything about sneaking into a girl’s bedroom in High School?” Rick had never actually climbed one, but Shane’s stories even back then had always suggested that it was a well-known and often failed tactic.

“Weren’t no ladder layin’ ‘round.” Daryl protested, huffing angrily but not meeting Rick’s eyes. Rick attempted to tone down his glee at finding out that Daryl was, in fact, embarrassed. “‘Sides, didn’t know no girl rich ‘nough fer a second floor.”

“Let me see your wrist.”

Daryl extended his arm, and Rick scooted himself around Daryl’s extended legs so he could take his hand gently to look at the injury. It didn’t look particularly serious, and had the benefit of not having been overused all day long. His eyes caught on a fresh set of stitches further up along the archer’s forearm, and he brought the candle closer to them. “What’s this?”

Daryl tried to pull away from the contact, and Rick tightened his grip without thinking, which caused the other man to tense up at the rough treatment of his wrist. 

“Sorry.” The cop apologized, immediately letting go and pulling back out of his space. 

“Weren’t easy gettin’ in here with that herd.” It was the only explanation Daryl was inclined to give, so Rick took it. If he’d been scratched by a Walker, they’d both know it by now. 

“Doesn’t look infected. Any others?”

Daryl sighed, and tugged down the collar of his shirt, exposing another set of stitches just below his collarbone. Rick leaned in, ignoring the way Daryl stiffened, and examined the neat row of thread. It looked better than the injury on Rick’s leg did, probably due to the size rather than any indicator of infection or concern. He wondered how his friend had managed to do that without any painkiller or medical supplies.

Keeping those prying questions to himself, Rick glanced down at Daryl’s covered abdomen. He’d completely forgotten how the man was pierced all the way through not that long ago. He wasn’t sure how long those sorts of injuries took to heal, but he was guess that running and climbing were undoubtedly still painful for him. “And the one Hershel fixed up?”

“Fine.” Daryl grunted, making no move to show that wound. Rick decided not to push his luck. 

“Water’s still running. We should use the opportunity to clean them up properly in the morning before we leave.” The thought reminded him that he hadn’t even gotten a report out of Daryl yet; he’d been too distracted with making sure he was okay that the rest of his concerns had been put on the back burner. “What did you find?” Daryl’s mouth tightened briefly, and Rick knew before he said a word that it wasn’t good news. The archer hesitated, occupying himself by retrieving a couple of cans from his bag and opening them with his knife, handing one off to Rick for dinner. Rick didn’t wait for him to answer. “Any tracks?”

“Herd went through, least one. Weren’t nothin’ left to see.”

Rick brought his hand up and rubbed at the stubble on his chin as he thought. “Well, there’s no way they went towards Atlanta since that’s where the herds are coming from, so we get back on the highway and head South. Maybe we can catch some sign of them. Hell, maybe they left a note further up the road.”

Daryl obviously did not share his optimism, but he didn’t shoot the idea down, either. “Can leave in the mornin’. I found a car, some gas, an’ took care of the Walkers.”

“With fireworks?” Rick asked, remembering the distinct sound that had woken him up. 

Lifting his mouth into a smirk, the archer nodded. “Took a page from yer book and set a house on fire, too. Should keep ‘em distracted.”

Rick didn’t need to comment on how much of a dangerous idea the fireworks had been. He knew Daryl well enough now to know that he’d considered it when he set them off. He’d probably also considered that if their group were still close enough to see them, they might come back. “We’ll leave in the afternoon. Should give us some time to stock up before we go.”

 

==========

 

Andrea kept running, knowing that no matter how tired her legs were, or how much her lungs pounded, she would be dead if she stopped for more than a couple minutes. A decent number of Walkers had trailed her from the farm, unrelenting in their pursuit and keeping pace with infuriating consistency. She supposed it would be a whole lot easier to run like them if she didn’t need to breathe either.

Gaining a little distance, she tucked herself in a crouch behind a tree and rifled through the infamous gunbag that had caused such a mess in Atlanta. She’d managed to grab it as she fled, and although she was happy for the extra guns and ammo, she didn’t want to fire and attract more Walkers to her. Her presence in the woods was already dangerous enough and Walkers joined in the chase nearly as fast as she managed to take them down. She picked through the ammo and stuffed every bullet she could find for her own weapon into her pocket, reloading quickly and then taking off. It was becoming apparent that she’d have to fire again soon from the sheer number of Walkers. She was probably running straight through the tail end of the herd that had moved on Hershel’s place.

Andrea had no idea how she found the strength to keep herself moving as the sun moved across the sky and started to set. She was no longer able to run, but she pushed herself forward, hoping for some kind of miracle that would let her rest before she gave out. Her gun was out of ammo now, and she might have picked out another with more ammo, even if she wasn’t skilled with it, but even the idea of jogging ahead of the Walkers to search the bag felt overwhelming and exhausting. She turned the gun around and used it like a hammer, alternating between that and her knife to get through the next few Walkers.

The herd had thinned enough that she could stop for a bit, but she didn’t want to risk the sleep she so desperately craved for fear of the herd catching back up with her. She kept moving, stumbling over her own feet as much as the twigs and branches as the woods darkened further. She turned to take care of the closest Walkers, smashing and stabbing and then tripping and falling. The third Walker was on top of her. Andrea felt for her knife among the dead leaves.

And then her miracle arrived in the form of a woman with a katana. Andrea looked at her with wide eyes, wondering if she should be more afraid of the sword-wielding hooded lady who had Walkers trailing after her on a chain or the loose Walkers in the forest. 

“You bit?” The stranger asked, tipping her head slightly.

Andrea shook her head.

“Good. We’ll set up camp right here.”

“We have to keep moving. Find a car or something.” Andrea panted. “There’s a herd. I’ve only just managed to stay ahead of them.”

The woman smiled, pearly white teeth standing out against her dark skin. “We’ll be safe. Just have to keep the right sort of company.” She tugged on the chains in her grasp and the Walkers behind her took a couple steps closer, but didn’t attempt to bite or claw at either of them. Andrea looked them over again, blinking in surprise as she realized they had neither a jaw nor any arms. 

“How does it work?”

==========

 

Rick woke to sunlight filtering in the unobscured window with a warmth pressed against his side. His first instinct was to burrow into the heat and go back to sleep, but something told him this would not be a good idea. It then came back to him that he was in bed with Daryl and cuddling might just get him knifed. He sat up quicker than he should, which woke Daryl up and that didn’t improve the situation. Rick felt guilty because he’d obviously chased the other man to the edge of the bed in his subconscious search for warmth if the way they were positioned was any indicator.

“Sorry.” Rick mumbled, wiping his face and yawning. 

“S’okay.” The archer grunted as he slowly sat up and stretched out. Rick didn’t know if he’d apologized for encroaching on his space, waking him up, or forcing him to share the bed in the first place, but Daryl surprisingly seemed entirely unperturbed. In fact, he’d seemed almost relieved the night before when Rick had nixed the idea of sleeping in separate rooms now that the farm was cleared out. They were safer together. Rick wondered if Daryl felt the same extreme reticence of letting each other out of sight for fear of getting stuck completely alone. His next statement almost seemed to confirm the notion. “Me an’ Merle used to share a lot when we was young an’ pa was drunk.”

Daryl limped over to use the bathroom, and Rick tried not to think about all the connotations of that sentence. He’d seen the scars on Daryl’s back when he’d helped Hershel treat him, and had a few good guesses about his family life. The fact of the matter was that Merle may well have been the best part of Daryl’s life, sad as it was to contemplate. Instead, Rick concentrated on the fact that the statement seemed to imply that Daryl felt safe in his company. His mind quickly drifted to Lori and Carl, wondering if they were safe and who all was travelling together and where they’d decided was the best place to go. 

While Rick was in the shower, carefully cleaning the wound in his leg and staying longer than needed to appreciate the feeling of cleanliness, Daryl had collected some fresh clothes and stacked them on the bed next to a cane. He sat to get dressed and took his time. 

When he was ready, he systematically searched the rooms of the top floor for anything that would help them survive. He didn’t bother with clothes, which could be replaced easily enough, but concentrated his search on useful items like batteries and sewing kits and medicine. If it wasn’t likely to break, he tossed it out the window to be picked up later, and everything else was stowed in a bag he’d found in one of the closets. The only exception was when he came upon the photo album that Lori had been lugging around since the beginning. He couldn’t in good conscience take the whole thing; they didn’t have the luxury of that sort of sentimentality, so he limited himself to just two pictures of Lori and two pictures of Carl and a photo of them altogether. After a brief debate, he snagged one with Shane in it as well. 

The stairs were every bit as awful as he imagined, and Rick took careful steps down, keeping his weight on his good leg and making use of the railing and cane. When he was finally at the bottom, he’d worked up a sweat and decided that anything he’d missed or forgotten upstairs were not worth retrieving. 

Daryl had been working on a similar search of the house on the first floor and was now moving boxes and bags onto the porch. “I wanna check the basement and the shed ‘fore we leave. Hopin’ we can find some extra gas.” Rick nodded. He wanted to offer to do something, but he felt utterly exhausted from just the brief work he’d done already. He was so tired that he didn’t even protest when Daryl told him to sit and rest for a while. 

Daryl ended up doing most of the remaining work, and Rick tried not to feel guilty about it. If their roles were reversed, Rick would gladly shoulder something extra so Daryl could rest. The pep talk didn’t really help, so he spent his time looking through the photo albums in the living room and finally choosing a picture of Maggie and Beth that looked pretty recent and another of Hershel that looked to be terribly outdated. He browsed until he found one that included all three of them. It was a bit old, too, but they were all smiling, at least. He added them to his collection in his pocket.

Shortly after noon, Daryl joined him in the living room, kicking his feet with dirty boots on the coffee table and tossing Rick a bottle of water and a granola bar before digging into his own food. “Three full cans of gas.” He reported in with a pleased half-smile.

“Excellent.” Rick returned the smile. “We’ll have to thank Hershel when we catch up to them.”

“We can go any time.” 

Part of Rick wanted to wait a little longer in hopes that his family had somehow seen the fireworks and made their way back to the farm. He’d been having heroic fantasies about reuniting all morning, but of course the chances of them being close enough were slim to nil. “Any time after you take a shower.” 

Daryl grumbled something unintelligible, but it seemed like a good-natured complaint and peeled himself off the couch to get back upstairs. Rick was feeling better for having sat for a while, so he set about trying to be useful. He wanted to collect some clothes and bring them up for his friend as had been done for him, but there was no way he was going back upstairs. Instead, he decided to head back outside and see how their vehicle situation was.

Daryl had managed to find a van and loaded up a decent haul in the back. There was a good collection of cans and food as well as guns, ammo, and tools. Rick even spotted a baby’s carseat tucked into the back and smiled at the quiet optimism that spoke of. He only found two cans of gas in the van and looked around to see what had happened to the third, finally spotting it beside some shrubbery next to Daryl’s bike.

Rick was just about to hobble his way to the motorcycle and see if he could help fill the tank or check the engine when he heard gravel crunching in the driveway. There were two cars quickly approaching the house. Rick stuffed down the hope that it was the rest of his group and reminded himself to be practical. He swept several boxes of ammo into his bag, swung it over his shoulder and grabbed a couple guns that he could hold one handed before using his cane to dart back into the house as quickly as possible. 

He halted just inside and sneaked a look through the smashed front window. The cars did not look familiar and were filled with people he didn’t recognize. There were at least ten of them, mostly or all male, and although he couldn’t make them out clearly from the distance, they looked dangerous. Lurching towards the stairs, Rick hissed for Daryl, but he knew it was futile. The water was still running, and if he shouted now, they would certainly hear him outside through the many broken windows.

Chomping down on the pain, Rick clutched everything that looked stable and hopped up the steps as quickly as he could manage. He could already hear raised voices floating in before he even made it halfway up. They were talking about the van parked out front, that someone was looting the place and must still be inside. Rick grit his teeth harder and kept going.

He was sweating profusely by the time he reached the bedroom he and Daryl were sharing, and tried to keep his gasping breaths to a minimum. His leg was on fire. 

Rick pushed into the room. The dresser was no longer barricading the way, and he glanced at it in contemplation, but dismissed the idea of putting it back immediately. It would only serve to give away their location and the group’s superior numbers would be able to bust in right away. He limped to the bathroom, peeling the door open without a second thought. He didn’t even get through Daryl’s name before he was pressed against the wall with a knife beneath his chin. He probably should have expected that a man like Daryl wouldn’t even be unarmed in the shower. “People here. Not ours.” He explained between pants. 

Daryl nodded his understanding, yanked on some pants, and scooped up his belongings as Rick peaked out the doorway to make sure the coast was clear. 

“They’re downstairs.” Rick whispered, eyeballing the window. “Any other way out of here?”

“We get on the porch from that window an’ they’ll see us outside. Come on.” Daryl led the way down the hall into another room where he quietly closed the door and pried open the window. They would still be able to get onto the porch roof, but they’d be on the other side of the wrap-around. It wasn’t a great option, but it was better than hiding in a closet, especially if they needed to make a run for it. “Don’t scream.” Daryl instructed before bodily picking Rick up and setting him feet first out the window.

Rick forgot how to breathe and nearly bit his tongue off to keep quiet from the sudden jerking motion and pressure on his injured leg. Daryl urged him to move, pushing him sideways so he could get out the window, and then shutting it behind them. Rather than try to get Rick to move any more, he just rotated around him and leaned up against the house on his other side. 

When the pain subsided to more bearable levels, Daryl was holding out some aspirin and water, which Rick took greedily before leaning back against the house. They were safely out of sight; someone would have to stick their head out the window to see them from inside, and at that point, Rick thought he might not even hesitate to stab them to keep them quiet. It wasn’t a perfect hiding place because anyone who stepped away from the house and came around to their side would be able to spot them without difficulty, but it was safe enough for the moment, and Rick needed that moment to work through the pain. 

In retrospect, Rick couldn’t imagine how else he was supposed to get through the window with so little control over lifting his leg and so much pain accompanying it, but it was still excruciating. Daryl looked a little apologetic at least as he slipped his shirt and vest back on. His shoes were next, though both socks had apparently been lost, and it was a painful struggle with the swelling in his ankle. Last, he slipped his satchel on, keeping his crossbow ready in his lap.

“Quick question.” Rick asked when he finally felt in control of himself, leaning well into Daryl’s space to whisper. “How do we get down from here without being seen? There’s not even a trellis anymore.”

Daryl scoffed. “What kinda idiot would try an’ climb a trellis?” 

Rick let out a surprised huff of laughter before turning back to Daryl. “The van’s out front. They know we’re here. And if that’s Randall’s group, I don’t think we want to risk being found.”

“Shit.” Daryl chewed nervously on his thumbnail. “Probably is Randall’s group. An’ I drew ‘em in with them fireworks.”

“Doesn’t matter now. How do we get out of here?”

“We can jump.” Daryl suggested, eying the edge of the porch and the ground below. “Or fall.”

Rick ran a hand through his hair, opened his mouth to comment and shut it when he heard noises come from the room they were leaning against. Daryl stiffened beside him, obviously hearing the men clomping around in the bedroom as well. There was a ruffling of things in the closet and the sound of drawers being roughly thrown open. A few minutes later, the boots stomped away.

Rick glanced into the room, noting that the people had truly left and that the door was ajar. He pulled back and continued whispering to Daryl. “Okay, you go in there and grab the sheets. We’ll tie them to the latticework and climb down.”

 Daryl nodded, accepting the dangerous mission without hesitation or complaint. Rick wished he could go with him, but even with a sprained ankle, Daryl was in far better condition to move around quickly and quietly. Rick looked again in the window and then gave Daryl the signal to go in, watching anxiously through the glass as the hunter padded around the room quietly. He was about the peel the bedding from the bed when he glanced into the closet and instead returned with a stack of folded sheets. Rick didn’t dare breathe until he was safely back on the porch roof working on knots. 

Daryl made it look easy to get down. He gripped the cloth firmly between his hands, triple checked that the coast was clear and braced his feet against the building as he walked backwards towards the ground.

Rick did not find it so simple. First, he had to wait as one man was pacing on the porch while he smoked a cigarette. And then he had to adjust the make-shift rope back into a useable position. He couldn’t brace his injured leg and was forced to let it dangle and his upper body was protesting at the extra burden. 

Finally, Rick made it to the ground with no further injury and tried to get comfortable in a ducking position. Daryl gave him a look as they observed the sheer number of people milling about the house and how the van seemed to be swarmed, and Rick gestured towards his motorcycle with his head. “Gassed up?” 

Daryl nodded.

“Does it start?”

Daryl shrugged. 

Rick’s face pinched up in displeasure, but it was a risk they’d have to take. They’d be shot down before they reached the van; there never seemed to be fewer than three strangers standing around looking through their goods. “We need a distraction. Don’t suppose you’ve got any fireworks left.”

A withering stare was thrown his way, but Rick had already shifted his attention to his watch, setting the timer for just two minutes before undoing the clasp and hurling it as far as he could over the house. The roof would do, the opposing side would be better.

Everyone started talking when the beeping started, most heading into the building, but some shading their eyes and looking up. Rick and Daryl took the opportunity and ran, leaning heavily on each other. Rick knew the archer was carrying an unreasonable amount of his weight, but there was no chance he was going to be able to walk on his own, nevermind run.

Somehow, their mad dash to the motorcycle went unnoticed by the group. The spurring to life of Daryl’s engine; however, was impossible to miss. Rick gripped hard around his friend’s waist as he tore through the brush, trying to ignore the shouting behind them. There were a couple gunshots, but Rick didn’t have a clue if they were even close. Car doors slammed and he knew they’d be following soon. 

“Highway is the other direction!” Rick shouted against the wind when he realized Daryl had turned the wrong way.

“Too straight an’ open. Need to lose ‘em first.” Daryl shouted back. At least, he thought that’s what was said. It was hard to hear anything over the engine and the wind whipping around them. 

Daryl seemed relatively familiar with the back roads and turned several times before Rick was sure they’d lost their tail. He then circled back around towards the little town, slowing down and slipping easily between buildings until he pulled up by a library which had a long ramp and cut his engine. 

“Stay here. I’ll make sure it’s empty.”

Rick shook his head. “We should get back on the highway, get away from this town.”

“Nah. We need to rest for a bit an’ I need to redo yer stitches.”

Rick looked down at his leg, noticing for the first time that there was blood seeping through his pants. He didn’t know how long it had been there because the pain hadn’t really ebbed since he’d been awake and had only gotten worse with the constant use. He sighed and nodded.

His family would have to wait another day.

 

==========

Chapter Text

The library was thankfully empty of any threats. Daryl would have been far more surprised if there had been anyone inside. Small town libraries weren’t exactly known as a place to try and hold out through the apocalypse. Rick looked even paler and was listing off to one side when Daryl returned just a few minutes later. He put the bike in neutral, then pushed it up the ramp and through the large glass doors with the cop still astride it. The building wasn’t the most secure, but Daryl was aiming for incognito over defensibility, and there was a reading nook hidden from just about every angle that had a plush couch and chair wedged in the corner. 

After guiding Rick off the bike, Daryl had him lean against a bookshelf while crouching in front and helping him remove his pants. The act would probably have been awkward if Rick had been conscious enough to process more of it, and Daryl was glad for the first time that Merle wasn’t around or he’d have to deal with a mess of snide comments as well. Rick sat too quickly and sucked in a quick breath at the unexpected resurgence of pain, so Daryl fished around for the aspirin and some water before retrieving the sewing kit from his satchel, wishing they had more than water to clean the damn thing. 

As if reading his mind, Rick contributed, “The pharmacy is a bit too far from here and mostly cleared out, but there’s a bar a couple blocks up the road. Just be careful. That’s where we ran into Randall’s group in the first place.” 

Daryl nodded tightly, debating if the additional blood loss was worth the sterilization, but decided that Rick would probably need the alcohol himself in a moment, anyway. “Keep pressure on that till I get back.”

Daryl made the journey at a speed that was recklessly fast, but he figured it was just a matter of time before their pursuers decided to check the town, and he’d like to be tucked back in the library by then. He was also afraid of leaving Rick by himself, afraid that by the time he got back, he’d have to put down a Walker and be completely alone in the world. There wasn’t one activity they’d done that day that Rick should have been doing with the kind of injury he had. They’d been pushing their luck heading out so soon already and that was with the assumption that Rick would spend most of the day sitting down and doing very little. Now, Rick had popped open his stitches and done untold damage to the wound that had only just begun to heal, and Daryl didn’t have so much as bandages to provide for him. All their additional supplies were lost with the van, a blow to their chances of survival that Daryl hadn’t allowed himself to grieve. And worse, it was all his fault for setting off those damn fireworks. Had he really believed that their group would be waiting around close enough and looking for a sign? They hadn’t even cared enough about him to leave a note, not that he blamed them.

Shaking his head, Daryl concentrated on breaking into the bar and collecting up several bottles, stowing them in his bag and slipping out as quickly as possible. He ignored the bodies on the floor. This place had been overrun with Walkers a little over a week ago, according to Rick, but none of them had stuck around. Daryl wondered if they’d somehow made their way to the farm and joined in the barrage. 

Daryl jumped at the shuffling in an alley on his way, which turned out to just be a rat, then nearly had a heart-attack at the sound of male voices across the street. He ducked behind a trash can. 

“-same assholes that shot Dave and Tony?” 

“Too close to be a coincidence.”

“‘Cept there’s only two of ‘em.” A third voice joined as the trio walked across the street towards the bar. Daryl held his breath, knowing that he wasn’t well hidden. If they looked his way, one of them might spot him. “There were three at the bar, an’ probably more b’sides. Bet that group cleared out soon as those bastards made it back.”

“Leftovers, then. Don’t much matter, though. They’re obviously trouble, and Harlan don’t wanna risk trouble sticking around.”

The bar door banged loudly behind them, and Daryl waited only a few breaths before taking off down the street, ignoring the pulsing pain in his ankle, pushing himself until he skidded into the library, only slowing to carefully make sure he was alone first. He pushed in the locks at the top of the glass doors before getting out of sight. It wouldn’t stop Walkers or people, but it should give them a warning, at least.

Daryl came around the edge of the bookshelf to find Rick exactly where he’d left him, except he had his gun raised and was clutching a pad to his injury. Rick sighed in relief and lowered his weapon. “That even loaded?” Daryl asked as he pulled out his new sterilizing agent and cleaned up his hands, the needle, then the thread.

Rick nodded. “Grabbed some ammo from the van before they arrived. It’s not a ton, but it’s better than nothing.”

Dropping down to kneel, Daryl pushed Rick’s hands away from his wound, pulling up the panty liner that was currently being used as a bandage and raising his eyebrow at the other man. “Where’d ya get this?” 

Rick looked a touch embarrassed, though Daryl wasn’t sure why. It was a whole lot more sanitary than using their clothes at this point, and the damn things were designed to absorb blood. “Grabbed some of them from one of the bedrooms. Thought the ladies would appreciate the gesture.”

Nodding, Daryl splashed a significant portion of the drink over Rick’s leg, causing the cop to curl in on himself and hiss. Daryl belatedly realized he should have warned him, although he shrugged it off. Rick could have guessed what was coming. He offered the rest of the bottle to him in consolation, but not before taking a drink himself. Rick accepted, eagerly chugging down more than was healthy on an empty stomach before Daryl even got to work fixing the stitches. 

The opening on the top of his thigh had to be completely redone, all but one of the stitches having torn through skin. It made the site look even more ghastly than it was before, and would be more painful than the original stitches. Still, that wasn’t the kind of wound that could heal properly on its own, so Daryl set to work, ignoring the gasps of pain and swearing coming from above. The writhing was more difficult to ignore because it was making the task harder and more painful. “Stop wigglin’.”

“I’m trying.” Rick whined, sucking in a deep breath. This entire process had been a whole lot easier when Rick was unconscious, and Daryl wished he’d just pass out again. As it was, he was contemplating sitting on him to stop the dangerous movements, but the angle wouldn’t make sewing any easier. It’s not that he didn’t have sympathy for the agony Rick was experiencing, but he knew it was more important to finish. 

“Bet there’s a stapler on the desk. Wanna try that instead?”

Daryl had no idea if staples were worse than getting sewn back together, or even if the type of staples were remotely the same, but the comment was apparently very motivating because Rick worked hard to keep himself still despite what Daryl knew to be a painful process. He must have assumed the insincere suggestion was a threat.

Resewing the back side of Rick’s leg was substantially easier, either because fewer stitches had torn or because the alcohol was kicking in, but Daryl was just thankful for it.  When he finished, he bound the pantyliners to Rick’s leg and warned him to try and keep as still as he could. Daryl then hunted around for anything else useful, draping a shawl over Rick before settling down sideways on the chair. The chair wasn’t nearly big enough, but he’d slept in worse.

“Think they’ll come into town?” Rick slurred, his face still planted into the cushion and words difficult to make out.

Daryl hadn’t actively avoided telling Rick they were already there; he just didn’t see the point. There wasn’t anything that could be done, and it was an extra worry Rick definitely didn’t need. “No one’s gonna look fer us here.”

Rick nodded and let himself doze off. After some hesitance, Daryl followed suit. The place was relatively secure, and breaking in would create enough noise to wake them. The best thing he could do for them was to lay low and hope they got overlooked, and his ankle would appreciate finally getting some rest. 

 

===============

 

They stopped when one of the trucks sputtered and quit, gas gauge long past hitting the E. The other truck wasn’t doing much better in the way of gas, and the car was below a quarter tank. They should have stopped, siphoned off one truck and left the other, but the panic and despair had permeated so deeply within the group that no one was thinking all that clearly. 

Glenn looked over at his girlfriend who was sitting quietly in the front seat beside him. This blind panic would have to change if they were going to survive, and he wasn’t going to let anything happen to Maggie or her family. He was going to protect the others, too. They needed to start thinking more rationally, to start planning. Nodding at her, he stepped out of the car and faced the others. 

Carol and Lori were both even closer to freaking out than they had been before, the forced stop heightening the tension and the nearby heavily wooded area reminded them that they were defenseless and surrounded by danger. Lori clutched at Carl, which was probably scaring him more than helping, and Beth looked uncomfortable and nervous as well. T-Dog seemed resigned, leaning against the empty truck and waiting for the next decision. Hershel was the only one interested in meeting Glenn’s eyes, and the look he gave boosted his confidence.

“We’ll need to ditch one of the trucks. Maggie and I can go on ahead, find some gas and bring it back, maybe get an idea of where we’re going.”

Hershel shook his head. “Not tonight. It’s getting dark, and splitting up the group is dangerous even under the best of circumstances.”

Glenn sighed, frustrated at being contradicted by the person he’d thought was going to have his back, but he could concede Hershel’s point. “In the morning, then.”

“What are we supposed to do until then?” Carol asked, more accusing than Glenn thought was fair. 

“We’ll camp over there.” He pointed to the ruined remains of a building, a few stone walls standing at half their original height. It was too close to the woods, which was dark and terrifying, but everything was too close to the woods. “The walls should allow us to build a fire without getting spotted and provide a little extra coverage.”

“We’re going to sleep out here?” Lori asked dubiously. Glenn decided not to comment that they’d been camping near the forest since the beginning and that this wasn’t any different because it was different. There were fewer people to protect them, fewer guns to go around, fewer safety precautions and not even the false security of a tent. Glenn wasn’t thrilled by the idea himself.

Hershel took over. “It’s either pushing forward on foot in the dark or staying put until daybreak, so we’re just going to have to take that risk. At least together, we can stand guard and hopefully get some sleep.”

Glenn nodded and picked up from there. “We’ll do double guards, always with someone familiar with a gun awake and armed, and someone else to act as an extra set of eyes. Carl and I can go first, then T-Dog and Carol, then Maggie and Lori, and then Hershel and Beth.” Glenn figured Lori would complain about Carl taking a shift, but it didn’t come. She might have just been planning to take over his, but Glenn was prepared to argue against it.

As if following his train of thought, Hershel continued. “We’ve all suffered some great losses, and some of those losses were our greatest resources. No one’s denying that we’re much worse for it, and that the times ahead are going to be challenging. But each of us remaining have skills, abilities and ways to contribute, and we all have strength being together. We’re going to get through this because we’re together.”

“I know I’m not a leader.” Glenn started back up, nodding to Hershel. “Not really. But I’m not asking anyone to follow me here. Everyone will get a say, everyone gets a chance to express themselves and their fears, and help decide what we should do next. And we’ll try for consensus as often as possible, and vote if we can’t reach it. All I’m asking is that we stick together, no matter what, and if you disagree with what the group has decided as a whole, you follow through with that play anyway, because we’re only strong if we’re united.” 

Maggie smiled widely at Glenn, like he’d just said the perfect thing, and rubbed his shoulder as she stepped in beside him. “Does anyone have a better idea for tonight?” She waited until it was nearly awkward before nodding. “Okay, then let’s set up camp.”

 Glenn was more than a little nervous about opening up the floor for people to speak their fears and air their frustrations after the set-up had been completed and they were all sitting around the fire with nothing to eat. The idea bordered on lunacy, if Maggie’s glances were anything to go by. But apparently, being able to speak openly about the reality of their situation was more cathartic than anarchist, and the tension started to ease within the group. 

It quickly became clear that everyone was on the same page, just looking at it from different angles, which was perhaps more of a boone than a problem. Everyone thought they were too close to Atlanta, too close to people, too close to herds, and it was easy enough to agree to move South and keep on the lookout for places they could hole up for a few weeks at a time while they cleared houses for food and supplies. Everyone agreed that training in self-defense was going to be a high priority, that other people were too dangerous to risk encounters, that they should have a meet-up place in case they got separated. It was easier then to start making decisions, to start making plans.

Maybe no place would feel as safe as the farm again, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They needed to stay alert to stay alive. 

 

============

Daryl awoke to the distinct sound of someone trying to open the front doors of the library, easily recognizable even if he was groggy and never heard it before, because he knew the possible dangers it heralded. He didn’t wait for any additional clues as to whether it was Walker or man behind that door, not entirely sure if the second batch of the same sound made one more likely than the other. Instead, he readied his weapon, glanced over to see Rick still sleeping. He crept towards the front, crouching low and peeking through gaps in the shelving to check out the situation. 

It was dark, sometime deep in the night, and Daryl realized that they’d slept the day away. There were a few figures at the door leaning on the glass and straining to see in, clearly human by the muffled rumbling of voices. Daryl couldn’t be sure what any of them were saying, nor could he recognize them in the dim light, but it seemed very likely that they were the same three men that he’d encountered in town earlier. He didn’t know what had taken them so long to find their new hiding spot. It’d certainly been too long for them to have followed him back, which suggested that they’d either taken a substantial break or had been systematically and thoroughly checking every building they came across. 

Daryl clutched his gun tighter, knowing that it was the more dangerous weapon to use because of the noise, but doubting he would stand a chance against them all at once with his crossbow and the time it took to reload. If they’d been checking every building, Daryl and Rick were screwed. He may be successful in getting the drop on them, may even be successful in killing them all before they got him, but that would alert everyone else around to their presence, not to mention the Walkers drawn in to the sound. And could he really shoot three men in cold blood? While he’d adapted to killing Walkers nearly from one blink to the next, killing people was a step he’d never crossed, and even though he’d known it would be inevitable, Daryl was still slightly terrified at the prospect. Mercy killings aside, ending a person’s life changed you, and not for the better. It was the major and sometimes only reason that Daryl hadn’t murdered his father. With so much bad blood in his veins, he wasn’t sure that he could come back from that act, wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t forever be stuck as a monster. 

But Rick had already shot people dead, the evidence of that was lying on the floor of the bar a few buildings away. He may have even killed people before that, had likely killed people before that, if Daryl’s read on the man was correct.  Yet, Daryl still trusted him and trusted his moral compass. So, maybe there was hope for him, that when he crossed that line, he wouldn’t lose whatever humanity still swirled around within him.

It didn’t matter; Daryl knew he would fire that gun when the time came, and he wouldn’t be aiming anywhere but the head. 

Just as the resolve settled over him, calming his heartbeat to a more reasonable level in preparation to do whatever he had to do, the three men at the glass door turned and walked away. Daryl hadn’t heard their conversation, so he couldn’t be sure, but he figured they’d left the library alone for the same reason he’d chosen it as a hiding spot. Whether they were looking for them or supplies, libraries were simply not a priority. They didn’t generally have food, clothing, weapons or useful gear, and Daryl couldn’t picture this group as the sort that would consider the long-term benefits of the knowledge warehoused around him. Coupled with the fact that breaking the glass door would attract the attention of whatever Walkers were lurking in the dark, and it would most likely be written off as a wasted effort.

Daryl let out a long, slow breath before carefully sneaking around a couple bookshelves to get a good look outside, and confirm that the group had lost interest in the building. They were already at the small shop next door, tugging at the door and disappearing inside when they found it unlocked. He watched and waited for several minutes until they exited that building, and confirmed that they were moving further down the street. They really were checking all the buildings for them. Or maybe supplies. Maybe both. 

Daryl padded back to the reading nook, careful not to walk directly in front of the doors, and settled in his chair. He was unsurprised to see that Rick was awake and sitting up, gun at the ready. “Walkers?” He asked in a whisper.

Daryl shook his head. 

Rubbing a hand along his face, and probably fighting off a hangover, Rick sighed. “Persistent, aren’t they? How many?”

“Three.” 

“Then there’s probably more out there. We should find a better place to hide.”

Daryl shrugged. “Think that’s it. Only three at the bar, too.”

Rick’s head jerked up, and he cringed at the pain the action caused before cursing. “Why didn’t you tell me they were at the bar when you went?”

“Didn’t seem relevant. Couldn’t leave without stitchin’ ya up, an’ couldn’t go nowhere else with ‘em already in town.” Daryl scowled, unconvinced that it would have been better to tell Rick. The idiot probably would have tried to make them leave as soon as he discovered they weren’t alone, and that just brought along the sharp, if somewhat unrealistic image of Rick dying and turning while seated behind Daryl on his motorcycle, and then biting him. 

The cop pinched the bridge of his nose, and his voice was tense and harsh when he spoke. “You have to stop keeping things from me. Running off before I woke up at the farm nearly got you killed. And you risked my life right now without even telling me I was in danger. You’ve always had the option to disagree, or not do what I ask, but now that you’re leading, you haven’t shown me the same courtesy.”  

Daryl froze in his seat. Had he somehow taken over leadership here? His mobility had given him an advantage, but he hadn’t intended to take charge. It felt like an intellectual pursuit where he was constantly outclassed, and he didn’t enjoy it, too preoccupied with the knowledge that no one would follow him willingly. Of course, Rick hadn’t been willing. “Don’t wanna lead.” 

“Then, let me.” Rick insisted, firm but soft, the sort of voice a natural leader could conjure up without effort. “I can’t make proper decisions without all the facts.”

Daryl filled him in on the brief conversation he’d overheard in the alley, and Rick nodded along attentively. Apologizing didn’t mean anything before the world ended, and it meant even less now that so much had changed, but he hoped Rick understood that being forthcoming was an attempt at making amends. 

When he was finished, Rick thought in silence for a few minutes before coming to a decision and working his pants back on in careful, deliberate movements. “We’ll leave now.”

Briefly, Daryl wondered if his faith was misplaced. Rick obviously was not skilled at self-preservation, ignoring that he was drunk, hurting, and barely stitched together in favor of running again. They could handle three, probably, and they’d already overlooked the library. “Ya shouldn’t be travelin’.”

“I know. But from what you heard, it sounds like that group is nearby and staying put, which means that sooner rather than later, they’re going to find us. That’s thirty violent, dangerous people or more that won’t hesitate to kill us, if Randall was honest. We’re out of food, not to mention everything else, and it’s too risky to move around town.” 

Daryl frowned at Rick’s assessment, but it wasn’t in disagreement. Maybe in their search parties, maybe on a supply run, maybe the Walkers would draw them, but it was a given that the awful group Randall had described was on their tail and going to find them if they did nothing. It was the same argument that had him trying to sneak past a herd of Walkers the day before: they were better off moving before their situation got any worse. And all of that was not even touching on the fact that they were falling behind their group. Rick had made it a factual, logical argument despite how his heart must be screaming at him to find his family. “Think the engine might attract some attention.”

“We’ll push it out a ways before starting it up. Should be easy enough to move around with the cover of darkness. Head back towards Hershel’s, and then loop around to hit the highway. With any luck, they’ll miss us entirely or think we’re heading the other way.”

“You can’t walk.” 

“Fine. I’ll sit on it while you do the hard work.”

“All right.” Daryl agreed, shifting to get started, but Rick raised a hand for him to wait. 

“Let’s decide where we’re going, so we don’t have to stop anywhere close. I want to get some miles between us and them before we chance that.” 

“Hang on.” Daryl grunted, levering himself out of his seat and looking across the shelves. He thought he’d spotted one for local books earlier, and he found it again easily. Most of the titles actually were about Atlanta, but there were a couple more specific ones, and Daryl flipped through those until he found a fold-out map of the area, which expanded over several surrounding counties. It seemed largely interested in pointing out local businesses and geographical features, and incidentally worked as a roadmap as well. He was pleased by the find, having expected something on a much smaller scale and only minorly useful. On his way back to Rick, he snagged a book from a display shelf on Louis L’Amour, stuffing the novel into his bag. Maybe it was stupid to pick it up when they were on the run and hurting for real supplies, but he remembered the way boredom had set in and everyone had fought over the handful of books Dale had stocked in his RV. Part of him hoped they’d somehow get back to that point.

Rick also seemed excited by the find, unfolding the paper and instantly identifying their location and State Highway 85. From there, it was easy to point out where they’d left the supplies for Sophia and where they figured their group would have met up. “So, I think we can safely assume they would have left from there and headed South.” 

Daryl nodded along unnecessarily. It was their best guess. “They stay on the main road an’ go fer distance or they take a side road?” Daryl would have headed for the woods himself, and taken back roads if that weren’t possible. He’d be less likely to run into a herd and able to feed himself better on the wildlife there. But that wouldn’t necessarily be the best option for the others since they no longer had a hunter with them. The highway would be easier to gain distance and find gas, but more dangerous overall. 

“Or did they decide on a specific destination and head straight there?” Rick added, apparently no more clear on what the best option would be than Daryl. He stared down at the map in frustration, like it would magically light up the right course of action, and Daryl joined him in silence. Finally, he tapped at the map. “We’ll take 16, and look for some promising side-roads.”

Daryl accepted the decision without complaint. All of the options were as good as the last as far as he was concerned, and the fact of the matter was that they’d have to get lucky to find their people. Rick folded up the map and stuck it in his pocket before accepting Daryl’s help in getting situated back on the motorcycle. It was undoubtedly painful, but it was unfortunately still their best option. Daryl wasn’t looking forward to the additional strain on his wrist and ankle.

The trip was made in complete silence, and Daryl was glad that Rick had had the foresight to plan out where they would head and how they would handle the trip so that he could concentrate on balancing the bike and listening for Walkers. The temperature had dropped significantly over the night and the chilly wind on his bare shoulders stopped being pleasant after about a mile of pushing the bike along. But all they had for extra clothes or blankets was that insubstantial shawl he’d found in the library, and he’d refused to take it from Rick since he was moving and could stay relatively warm. It was almost a relief to tuck into Rick’s body heat when it came time to start the engine and drive instead, even knowing that it was the most precarious part of their journey. For all they knew, the enemy camp was just out of sight or there were scouts listening for the distinctive noise of his bike.

The tension eased a great deal as they picked up speed on the more open stretches of road and Daryl could revel in the familiarity of rushing wind and a rumbling engine beneath him. He probably spent more time than necessary trailing around on the back roads before circling around towards the highway, but Rick didn’t say a word about it, so he let himself stall for a few minutes longer before returning to the now very familiar pile-up. He slowed down to make his way through carefully, but he didn’t stop. He’d asked if he should while they’d been making plans and was surprised when Rick shook his head. The cop didn’t even cite excessive danger as an excuse; he’s just stated firmly that he trusted Daryl’s assessment of the situation. It made him feel inadequate and proud at the same time. Rick’s grip tightened noticeably around his waist and Daryl wasn’t sure if it was accidental or if he was trying to comfort one or both of them.

Daryl didn’t pick up speed after they were through, but kept their progression just quick enough that they could easily maintain their balance as they scoured the surrounding areas for signs of a message or a trail or perhaps even a familiar face. It was still early, but it was fully light out by this point, which simplified the task. They both knew that it was going to take an extraordinary stroke of luck to find anyone with no resources and no clues except the assumption that they probably didn’t head back towards Atlanta. Surprisingly, a ways down Route 16, they got lucky. 

Rick was patting his hip excitedly with one hand while he used the other to point forward, but Daryl had already spotted the abandoned truck and brought the motorcycle up to a halt beside it. 

“This is one of ours, from the farm.” Rick said as soon as the engine cut out, already trying to climb off the seat and only consenting to wait at the fierce look Daryl sent his way.

“Hard to tell fer sure.” Daryl hedged. He was nearly as certain as Rick, but he didn’t think it would be wise to let their hopes run away with them.

“It is.” Rick insisted. 

“Don’t mean nothin’ ‘cept someone made it at least this far.” Daryl swept around the truck, checking the seats and the footboard, and even climbing into the truck bed to look around. “No blood.” He finally declared. “No signs of a struggle, an’ they took everythin’ with ‘em. Prolly jus’ ran outta gas.” He twisted the key still dangling in the ignition, but the car wouldn’t even start so he could see the gas gauge. He circled around again, spotting a couple half prints in the dirt, but their group had stuck largely to the asphalt. “Might of just transferred to another car an’ drove off.”

 “Yeah. Or they might’ve stayed here awhile. Looks like some sort of protection over there.” Rick was pointing down the hill towards the remains of a building that probably died in a fire long before the dead started walking, and Daryl shrugged before wheeling Rick along with him. There was no sense in not checking it out. Rick’s guess was accurate and the remains of a campfire and a well worn parcel of land greeted them as they passed the low walls. “Definitely camped here.” Rick articulated before pegging Daryl with a hopeful look. “What can you tell me?”

Daryl shrugged, examining the footprints littering the area, and the campsite at large for several minutes before returning to where Rick sat, his good leg braced on the ground. “I’d say it’s prolly all of ‘em.” He finally concluded.

“Carl?” Daryl nodded at Rick’s question, a comfort he was pleased to give. “Show me.”

The hunter nearly asked if he wanted a tracking lesson or if he wanted to look for his family, but bit down on the response before it could get out. It was what he’d said when they were looking for Sophia, and he didn’t want to remind either of them how poorly that search had resolved. Instead, he walked the bike over to a set of footprints, and gestured to them with his foot. “Light, small prints. Definitely the kid’s.”

Rick nodded absently. “Who else do you see?” 

Daryl shifted slightly and pointed to another singular shoe imprint. “Glenn’s.” Rick made a sign for him to go on, and Daryl was about to move to the next track before he realized that Rick wanted to understand how he knew. “Men tend to walk with their toes angled more outward, longer strides. Glenn’s a lighter, more narrow build than the others, which ya can see by how deep them impressions are. Over here’s T-Dog, he was standin’ guard, facin’ outward an’ leanin’ to his left like he does. His gait is pretty distinct besides. Hershel’s tracks are a mess. Ya see how he don’t pick his feet up all the way when he walks? Real common as ya get older.”  Daryl scooted them a few more steps to another series of prints. “Carol here. Recognize her shoe treads.” He gave Rick a crooked smile, which was returned. “Not so familiar with them Greene girls, so’s I ain’t completely sure between them an’ Andrea an’ Lori, but I’m thinkin’ this set is Lori’s since it’s mostly paired with Carl’s.”

“But they were all here? They’re together?”

“Seems like. Ain’t so many clear tracks as to make ‘em cut an’ dry when they was all packed in and shufflin’ ‘round.”

Rick didn’t seem put off by this assessment, just nodding in a supportive manner and smiling at the progress they’d made. He chased down every bit of information Daryl could pick up on, eating up Daryl’s ideas with intense interest, even if the hunter knew that most the information couldn’t be new or useful to him. Rick had probably already guessed that they didn’t have tents, and that they’d only stayed one night, and that there was no clear sign that they’d cooked any food, and that Carl had taken a turn on watch as well. Rick ate up every detail, and they spent hours combing over the place to make sure they hadn’t missed anything potentially useful. 

When they’d finished, Rick pulled out the map and opened it up on top of the obnoxiously designed handlebars. “They’re going to prioritize food, and with how cold it’s gotten, blankets and proper clothing. Then weapons and additional supplies. There’s a couple small businesses here with a cluster of houses that they’re bound to see if they keep on this road. We’ll go there first. If we’re lucky, we’ll run into them. If not, we can build our own supplies up and then we’ll check out this spot here, and this one here. Even if we don’t find them, we may find more signs of them that will give us an idea of what to do next.” Daryl agreed easily to the idea and was about the turn the motorcycle back to the street to leave when Rick stopped him with a surprising decision. “We’ll stay the night here. We don’t know what we might be walking into and neither of us has eaten since yesterday morning.”

When Daryl got back with a pair or rabbits, Rick had a fire going in the same spot their group had used a few nights before. While their dinner cooked, Daryl checked over Rick’s injury, belatedly realizing he should have done it before leaving to hunt. It was puffy and red and irritated, but the bleeding had definitely stopped. Rick fussed over his ankle for a few minutes before examining his wrist, which had not appreciated all the extra usage. He frowned at their unimproved state, but didn’t comment. Daryl briefly wondered if maybe Rick was spending an extra day to try and let them both rest up, but even so, he wasn’t sure if he should appreciate the gesture or feel insulted that Rick thought he couldn’t keep going. In any case, it was a good call because it was getting dark by the time they’d finished eating, and it was starting to rain. The rain was freezing, and they hurried to get in the truck rather than soak their only pair of clothing.

Daryl tucked his hands into his armpits and resisted the urge to shiver. He was wet and cold with no good prospects of getting warmer, and if the weather pattern followed yesterday, it would be damn cold. He reminded himself that he’d had plenty of experience dealing with the cold in his unheated mobile home as a kid, and that the temperature wasn’t even cold enough for frostbite to be a concern. 

Rick lifted his injured leg onto the bench style seat, turning so his back was against the door. The action forced Daryl to sit forward a little and lose some of his own seat, but he didn’t have it in him to be mad when Rick had to be in a significant amount of pain. That was the best position he could have chosen to take care of his leg. The shawl was over his back, keeping the chill of the truck’s metal from reaching Rick directly, and Daryl contemplated asking for it to cover his bare arms. 

“Daryl.” Rick said once he was situated and a few minutes had ticked by. He sounded slightly amused. Daryl eyed him suspiciously. “It’s going to be awfully hard to share body heat from this distance.”

“I’m fine.” Daryl replied automatically. Rick couldn’t seriously expect him to sit between his legs and lean against him, right? It wasn’t that cold yet. The rain may have been a lot closer to freezing rain than normal, but they hadn’t even had their first snow of the season. 

“Well, I’m not. I’m cold, and I don’t intend to get sick on top of our other problems, so get your ass over here.” Rick patted the bench invitingly, which was not effective, before trying to downplay the issue. “It’s not really any different than me holding onto you while you were driving. Practically the same position.”

Daryl let out a sigh before reluctantly shuffling over and cautiously leaning his back against Rick’s chest. He didn’t dislike being touched exactly, but he didn’t have a whole lot of pleasant experiences associated with it, so it was really just an uncomfortable waiting game until it ended. There was no way he was going to be able to relax enough with Rick’s arms wrapped loosely over him to get any sleep. But he wasn’t going to get any rest shivering and cold, either. At least this way, he wouldn’t get sick and Rick would have a chance to sleep. “Tell anyone ‘bout this an’ I’ll gut ya.”

Rick didn’t call him out on the obvious lie, nor did he point out that there was no one to tell. Instead, he agreed and solemnly stated, “I promise I won’t tell anyone we cuddled.”

If Rick weren’t already badly injured, Daryl would have given him something to think about for calling huddling for warmth ‘cuddling’, but since he couldn’t, he concentrated his effort on ignoring the other man as best he possibly could while still being pressed up against him. He didn’t expect that he could fall asleep with someone else in his personal space like this, but he did.

 

============

Chapter Text

Glenn, Maggie and T-Dog volunteered to check the pharmacy as the last stop before they left the area and searched for something more stable further to the south. It was more well-known than the little shop that Glenn and Maggie went to near the farm, but there was still a chance some of the supplies had been overlooked. Everyone else stayed in the cars. 

Maggie tapped quietly on the door to see if anything was nearby, then again louder. When no Walkers came to check out the sound, she and Glenn pushed open the door. “Watch our backs?” She confirmed with T-Dog. He nodded, propping open the door with his foot and swiveling his head around to make sure they were safe.

The place had clearly been ransacked once or twice before, but they still looked around, particularly since the store was devoid of Walkers. The pair circled the aisles, picking up a few dropped boxes of bandages and painkillers. Glenn grinned and held up a box of tampons triumphantly. Maggie rolled her eyes but smiled. 

The haul was disappointingly small, but they’d expected as much. When they finished with the front, they moved to the closed door of the back room, pausing when they heard snarling. 

“I think it’s just the one.” Maggie said, pressing her ear to the door. “Should we try it?”

Glenn nodded. “Could be something useful back there.” He readied his knife and his gun while Maggie pulled open the door, but nothing rushed him. Instead, they looked in to see a single Walker dangling from a noose, chair kicked over several feet away. The Walker looked excited to see them, growling and stretching its arms toward them, but it was not within reach. 

Glenn walked around the creature, staying out of its reach, and rifling through the bins on the back shelves while Maggie spotted a note left on the desk nearby and popped it open to read. 

“Bingo!” Glenn exclaimed, holding up several bottles. “Real medicine. I think these ones are some sort of antibiotic. We should get your dad to see if they’re useful.”

“Just take them all. No telling what we might come down with.” Maggie suggested distractedly. “This is interesting.”

Glenn looked up from stuffing his bag, finishing quickly and rejoining his girlfriend. He read a few lines over her shoulder. “Suicide note?” His tone of voice suggested that he couldn’t see what was so interesting about that. 

“It’s just… it doesn’t say he got bit. He gave up and decided to hang himself but he didn’t mention getting bit.” Her voice was carefully even.

“So? Plenty of reasons not to want to live in this world without getting bit.” He declared somberly.

“Yeah, of course. But why’s he a Walker if he didn’t get bit?”

Glenn looked back up to the gurgling corpse strung from the ceiling where Maggie was already staring. They couldn’t see any bites, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. “You know, when Daryl and I found Randall as a Walker, Daryl seemed pretty certain that he wasn’t bit, either. His neck was snapped, but that was it. I figured it was dark in the woods, and we’d just missed something.”

Maggie looked back at Glenn intensely. “What if you don’t have to get bit? What if everyone turns when they die?” 

“Let’s cut him down and have your dad check him over first.” Glenn suggested, righting the chair so he could reach the rope. “Make sure that’s what we’re looking at.”

Maggie tucked the note underneath a family photo sitting on the desk. She doubted there was anyone left who’d come looking, but it’d be there in case. “And if it’s true? That we don’t have to get bit to turn? What then?” 

“Doesn’t really change anything, does it? We just… I don’t know… plan accordingly?”

Maggie nodded absently. The thought had terrified her at first, the idea that they were all already infected with some sort of virus, but maybe it wasn’t that bad. People weren’t keeling over for no reason because of it. The only real difference was that if someone died for a reason that wasn’t a bite, they still had to… plan accordingly. That’s how she’d tell everyone else, after they talked it over with her dad.



=================

 

It’d been three days of searching, and every second of it was frustrating. They couldn’t put in much time because of their injuries, so it was a slow crawl through house after house. Some of the houses were empty, others had a few Walkers, some had bodies. Many of the houses in the small neighborhood looked to have been looted, but it was difficult to tell what exactly had happened. Had the owners simply left in a disorganized hurry, tearing up their own house in their haste to locate everything of use? Had one neighbor searched houses nearby before leaving? Had a group come by later to clear the place out? Was it their group? Any of these possibilities seemed as likely as the last, and none of the evidence pointed one way over another. 

Even the slowly growing pile of supplies was not enough to deter their building frustration. They’d found a working car and enough gas to drive it and had started to load it up with the most useful things that had been left behind, primarily clothes and blankets, but every once in a while, they got lucky with food, medicine and weapons. They were fortunate enough that they were eating well without hunting, but they hadn’t run across a single sign of their friends. 

In the evenings, they’d barricade a room on the second floor of a house where Walkers couldn’t stumble through the windows, then check over each other’s injuries. Daryl was healing despite continuing to use his ankle, but he was not impressed with how Rick’s leg was doing, huffing in disappointment every time the wound was unmasked, unnecessarily reminding him that they should keep on the lookout for antibiotics. Rick didn’t need the reminder. He felt weaker by the day, struggling to keep up with even their slow pace and stealing naps nearly every time they took a break. 

On their fourth day, Rick decided that they were going to check out one of the other neighborhoods he’d pointed out as a possibility, and they ran into their first living person. Rick’s gun was already drawn for the express purpose of clearing the house of Walkers, and the woman had her sword drawn and brandished, likely for the same reason. Neither of them spoke at first, staring each other down instead, until a creak of a floorboard caused the woman’s eyes to dart to the space behind her. Rick couldn’t see past the open kitchen doorway from his angle, but the stranger stiffened, shifted her weight, and grudgingly lowered her katana. So, Rick made an educated guess that it was probably Daryl with his crossbow knocked and aimed at her. The intrusion broke the spell of silence.

“We’re not interested in hurting you.” Rick slid his gun back into its holster. It was really an empty gesture since Daryl was still armed behind her, but he hoped it conveyed his honest intent. “We’re just collecting supplies and looking for our people, my family.” 

The woman’s eyes darted between Rick and Daryl before she settled on a vague response. “Haven’t seen many folks.” 

“My wife, she’s-” Rick was just about to produce his small collection of photographs from his breast pocket when Daryl took a step into the room so he was clearly in Rick’s line of sight and quickly shook his head. His bow was still at the ready. Rick aborted his attempt, frustrated that he couldn’t ask the proper questions but trusting Daryl’s judgement. “You see anyone around here?”

The shrug given in response wasn’t exactly casual, but she didn’t strike Rick as lying when she said, “Just me and mine.” That could mean a whole lot of things these days, and could be a whole range of numbers, but he figured that was probably her intent.

“We got this place. Find somewheres else.” Daryl growled. 

The woman nodded, waited until Daryl was fully out of her way, then passed by him to exit through the back door.  Daryl padded to the window and watched her leave. Rick sidled up beside him. “Why’d you do that? We could use a group, or at least more information. She might have known something useful.”

“An’ if she worked with Randall’s group? Yer clues could get ‘em killed.”

“Don’t know that there are many women that would work with them from what you got out of Randall.” Rick frowned, watching as the best hope in days to find his family walked out of sight behind some cars. “Besides, she didn’t seem the type.” 

“Shows what you know.” Daryl scoffed. “Lady had a pair of Walkers chained up that she were draggin’ ‘round. Mauled ‘em, too, takin’ off their arms an’ jaws. Some fucked up shit.”

Rick turned, scanning Daryl’s face for any sense that he was lying or exaggerating. “Why would anyone do that?” 

“Beats me.” 

“Alright. Let’s get out of this neighborhood. We’ll try that trailer park we passed earlier.” It would bring them backwards, closer to Hershel’s farm than the other two places they’d searched so far, but it was the last place he could think of that their group might head to collect supplies before leaving the area. God, he hoped they hadn’t left the area yet. 

“Good. Saw a pharmacy there.”

The pharmacy was empty, thoroughly looted and shot up to boot. It wasn’t all that surprising. Rick let himself hope that it was his own group that had looted the place and left with medicine in case of future injuries. They turned the place upside down anyway, on the off-chance that something had been overlooked that they could make use of. Daryl kicked a shelf over in frustration, but Rick didn’t have the heart to reprimand him about the noise he was making. It wasn’t like the archer didn’t know, anyway. 

In the back room, their gaze was immediately caught by a body sprawled on the ground beneath a dangling rope from the ceiling, noose still wrapped around its neck. Rick confirmed it was dead before checking through the bins in the back. He glanced over his shoulder only to find that Daryl hadn’t moved, still looking at the body. “Someone you knew?”

Daryl shook his head. “Nah, jus’ saw somethin’ like this with Andrea once. Walker strung up on a noose. She asked me to kill it, even though it couldn’t get at us.”

Rick pushed himself back to his feet, nearly stumbling as he moved to stand, an action that was not lost on Daryl. He waved the hunter away when he moved to help and took a few unsteady steps toward the body. He felt like shit even with the painkillers he’d finished off earlier that day. “Think it was her?” 

Daryl shrugged. “Could be anyone.”

Rick nodded like that was somehow helpful and turned to leave, bracing himself on the doorframe as he left the back room. “We should clear a couple places before it gets dark.”

“Nah.” Daryl objected casually, but his eyes were heavy on Rick’s back. “You should sit tight and rest. I’ll clear a few places an’ come back.”

“The pharmacy is the first place anyone’s going to check.” Rick pointed out. “Besides, my leg is probably infected in a bad way. Sitting tight isn’t going to make it better.” Daryl knew that, of course. It’s why he was so frustrated at finding not one thing of use in the store. But Rick stated it anyway because they weren’t in a position to ignore the looming consequences any longer. If they found their group, and Hershel, he’d likely make it. If they found some more medication, particularly antibiotics, he might survive this infection. As it stood, they were banking on some fiercely bad odds that his body would fight off the infection on its own. He was trying to muscle his way through and his body was running on fumes. 

Daryl didn’t kick up a fuss at Rick insisting on joining him as they drove down the road a ways and cautiously swept through some of the trailers for anything of use. They made it through seven mobile homes before it started to get dark. They could have gone through more but there were a couple that Daryl absolutely picked to pieces, tearing open mattresses, opening up vents, and shuffling around for loose floor boards. And Rick could see why, even if he did sit down and rest halfway through the search. There were all the hallmark signs of a drug addict’s residence that Rick had been trained to notice at the Academy, and Daryl must have picked up from all his years with Merle. He assumed anyway. It wasn’t a conversation he cared to broach. In the end, they found nothing worth keeping besides one rifle, a few blankets, and two cartons of cigarettes. 

Rick was so exhausted by the time they’d decided on a trailer that didn’t smell like death that he practically collapsed on the bed in the first room he came across and couldn’t persuade himself to move. He jerked awake with his gun drawn when Daryl came in carrying a bowl of stew some time later. There wasn’t any light left.

“Sorry.” He muttered, pushing himself against the wall so he could sit up enough to eat. He wasn’t apologizing for pointing a weapon on his friend, but he was feeling a little guilty over falling asleep when there was work to be done.

Daryl grunted in response, inhaling his own food as soon as Rick started eating. Rick figured it wasn’t a good sign that he couldn’t finish his portion and didn’t feel any more energized for having eaten it. If anything, he felt a little nauseous. “Lay down.” Daryl commanded after Rick deliberated for a few minutes. While Rick worked on situating himself, fully clothed and with his shoes still on in case they needed to move quickly, the hunter took away their dishes and put them in the other room, returning with a bottle of water that he set on the bedside table. “Move over.”

Rick shifted and turned on his side so he was facing the wall, feeling the bed dip under Daryl’s weight and then the warmth of his body behind him, close enough to touch but not touching. The mattress was only a full sized, thankfully bigger than the narrow twins he’d seen in most of the rooms they’d visited today, but not as large as would be comfortable for them to share. Still, he didn’t complain, or even mention it. If Daryl was sharing the space with him, it was because the other man had deemed it necessary. Probably, the other mattresses in the trailer were lousy or gross. Rick didn’t know because he’d barely made it into this space. Or maybe Daryl was just as tired as Rick, and he didn’t want to drag another mattress in. Whatever the logic, Rick was glad for the company because it was chilly, even with the blanket Daryl had hastily thrown over them and the way he seemed to be sweating. 

“Should probably keep watch.” Rick mumbled half-heartedly. He wasn’t sure he could so much as stand, but his mind had helpfully reminded him that this location wasn’t as secure as their previous ones. 

“Already put up a perimeter. Sleep.” Daryl’s voice rumbled in his ear, thick with sleep.

Rick wasn’t surprised at the efficiency but he was surprised to find that he’d fallen asleep for so long before dinner. He felt guilty again that he hadn’t helped, but he wasn’t sure that he would have been much use. 

In the morning, Rick woke to Daryl trying to extricate himself from his clingy embrace. They’d somehow managed to reverse positions in their sleep, and Rick had plastered himself to the warmth of Daryl’s back.

“Yer a furnace.” He grumbled with a concerned look. “Take off yer pants.”

Rick snorted and started working at his pants. It was harder than he remembered it being. “Not even gonna buy me a drink?” Daryl ignored the comment, helping by tugging his jeans from the ankles until they were obnoxiously wrapped around his knees. They both stared at his injury. “Well, that doesn’t look good.”  

And it didn’t. The wound looked off-colored and inflamed and pus seemed to be playing a much larger role in the scene than it had before. Only one thought crossed Rick’s brain at the sight. ‘I’m going to die.’ 

Daryl’s face said something similar, but he didn’t voice it. He just nodded at Rick. “Right. Stay here an’ try to sleep. I’ll find somethin’ for ya.”

Rick couldn’t have protested if he wanted to. He didn’t feel well enough to stand up and move around. So, when Daryl left, Rick guzzled half the water and then went back to sleep. 

The hours blurred together, with Daryl coming and going, and Rick too weak to keep track of him or the weapon he should probably be pointing at the door every time he heard a noise. It could have been days for all he knew. He did remember it being light and dark from the window by the bed, but with the way everything was spinning, he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t his mind making things up. Daryl tried to get him to eat and drink, but he didn’t know if anything made it down. At some point, Daryl had tied one of his wrists to the bedframe and dragged in a mattress which he slept in on the far side of the room. Rick wasn’t sure if he’d made the request or if Daryl had just understood the need. Probably the latter. Daryl was good at surviving. 

Rick was still tied to the bed when he heard a voice he didn’t recognize, and opened his eyes to the blurry form of a man in a red cap waving a hand in front of his face. “Shit, I should just put you outta yer misery.”

Rick swallowed hard, trying to focus his vision. “Ain’t bit.” He stated, trying to make his voice firm and loud.

“Don’t matter none. You ain’t gonna make it.” The stranger smiled like he was enjoying this. “I’ll help ya out.”

Fumbling under the pillow with his free hand, Rick searched for his colt. He couldn’t feel it, so it’d probably fallen to the ground or beneath the bed during all his fevered shifting. Fat lot of good it did him there. “There’s no need for that.” He stretched out his free arm, trying to placate the man in the red cap, but it was heavy and he had to drop it back onto the bedding. 

“Come on, now. You gotta know yer just holdin’ yer people back like this. They’re giving their food and water away to a dead man.”

The comment stabbed at his heart. He was holding Daryl back due to his injury, and there didn’t seem to be a snowball’s chance in hell that he was going to recover. Daryl could find his family, could protect them, but not if he was lugging around a man who was a hair’s breadth away from death. His hand landed on his gun by accident under the blanket, but now he wondered if he should even use it.

Before either of them could say or do anything more, the cap was skewered by a wooden bolt while still astride the stranger’s head. His dead weight fell heavily onto Rick’s chest before Daryl was at his side, yanking it off and fumbling to cut loose the rope around his wrist. “Gotta go, Rick.” Daryl muttered urgently, glancing up repeatedly at the open bedroom door and the exposed glass window, like he wouldn’t hear the danger coming before he saw it. Rick tried to comply, but his limbs refused to listen to him and seemed to buckle under the slightest weight. 

“Shit.” Daryl grunted, swinging his crossbow over his shoulder and lifting Rick into a fireman’s carry. He grabbed Rick’s gun to occupy one hand while he used the other to keep Rick balanced over his shoulders. 

Daryl took a few strides forward, out of the room and towards the front door when it banged open and several boots appeared in Rick’s field of vision. His head swam, and then he passed out. 

 

=================

 

Andrea let out a sigh of relief at her friend’s return, falling into step easily beside her. It had taken some convincing on Michonne’s part that sweeping houses could be a one person job if that one person was careful and systematic, but they had yet to run into trouble and were covering ground a whole lot faster. Michonne had been doing it for weeks before they met, but Andrea was still concerned when she took longer than necessary. “I was starting to get worried. Find something interesting?”

“People.” Michonne replied succinctly as she tugged her docile Walkers behind her. “Not your group.” 

“Are you sure?” Andrea asked, excited and anxious all at once. This was the first time they’d run into anyone alive.

“Just two white guys. One of them trying to find his wife.”

Andrea’s mind leapt to Shane and Rick, and slowed their progression. She looked back hopefully. They weren’t far yet, the pair could still be there. “Cops?”

“Didn’t look it, and we didn’t exactly exchange pleasantries.” Michonne finally stopped and gave Andrea a sympathetic look. “You said there were a few cars that made it out, maybe most of your group, that they’d have known to meet at the pile-up we searched. You said we’re searching for a dozen people, not two.”

“They could have been separated somehow, like me. Or know something. At the very least, we could search together. We’d do better with more people.”

Michonne shook her head firmly, grasping Andrea’s shoulder with her free hand. “We agreed to search for one week and then move on. So, let’s move on.”

It was an agreement they’d made when they met, and Andrea didn’t regret it. Search for her group for a week, then start making preparations for winter. It was already starting to get cold, particularly at night, and they needed to make sure they had the proper food, supplies, and shelter if they expected to survive. “We still have the rest of today.” Andrea said with mixed feelings before letting herself be pulled on. Andrea wondered if it was worth fighting just a little harder. On one hand, her group had kept her alive, taught her to shoot and take care of herself, and was filled with decent people she felt she could trust. On the other hand, with Dale gone, it certainly didn’t feel like she had anything close to a family with them; some of them still had lingering grudges when they parted ways. She wondered if that was why they hadn’t left a message for her about where they were going. She figured it probably had more to do with them assuming she was dead. 

“They were pretty rough around the edges. Could be part of that other group you were talking about, the ones that threatened your friends in the bar. And even if they are alone and they are good people, one of them looked pretty sick, probably bit. We’re leaving.”

Andrea nodded, keeping pace with Michonne and putting the strangers out of her mind. They needed to concentrate on making it through winter.

 

=============

Chapter Text

Several things quickly became apparent, and Daryl had no idea how to address any of them. It was going to take a miracle to find their group by searching random houses nearby. They had no way of knowing if they had even gone to these houses or had any reason to stick around. Any looting that may have happened in the area had to have taken place several days before at the very least, and Rick’s injury was only getting worse. 

They spent nearly a week looking for their group. More accurately, Daryl spent nearly a week looking for signs of their group and desperately trying to locate some appropriate medicine. Rick spent four days searching before using the rest of the time to alternate between comatose and hallucinating. When Rick could no longer get out of bed, Daryl started scrambling for something that might work. 

Daryl didn’t know much about drugs of the legal and medicinal variety. He’d never once set foot in a hospital in response to any of his numerous injuries or illnesses over the years. The illegal and recreational sort were a little more in his realm of knowledge, but only to the extent that he understood when he’d have to peel his brother off the floor and when he had better duck and run from Merle’s buddies. The second-hand experience was enough to avoid most of that shit. Daryl had no medical training and could kill his friend by giving him the wrong medication or in the wrong dosage. But none of that mattered anymore. The only thing that mattered was finding something, anything that could give Rick a fighting chance. 

The trailer park was a big fat zero, so the hunter circled back to the small neighborhood where they’d run into that psycho with a sword and swept through the houses they hadn’t gotten a chance to look through. When there was nothing for Rick there either, he figured that someone, or several someones had gotten there first and conducted a very thorough search. Even his secondary concerns, like food, warm clothing, and weapons were hard to come by. He finally settled on a thick woolen poncho stuffed in the back of one hall closet when the nip in the evening air proved too unpleasant for his light summer clothing. 

Daryl returned to Rick’s bedside empty handed just after noon, ignoring the potent smell of sweat and body odor. He picked up the washcloth from the tepid bowl of water on the floor and patted down Rick’s forehead and neck as he laid out his next set of ideas. Hershel’s farm might have something left over. Or the pharmacy Maggie took Glenn to on horseback. Maybe he could track down the van that had been taken from them as there’d been medicine among the lost supplies. He could even head further north, back towards Atlanta where the pile-ups were bigger and there were more things to find. 

“I… I don’ know what to do.” Daryl finally admitted. He had the oddest urge to curl up next to his friend’s overheated body and drift away from these problems. The fact of the matter  was that while he’d always been better on his own, he no longer wanted that. He’d spent most of his life alone with the occasional interruption of Merle, but even though he loved his brother, he didn’t really like him. When Merle was around, the archer longed for the peace and quiet of solitude. But somehow with Rick knocking at death’s door, the thought of returning to his previous norm terrified Daryl. He couldn’t let Rick die.

Rick’s eyes were glazed over and his responses were utterly incoherent. This was obviously not one of his better moments, which were getting fewer and further between, and Daryl released a sigh of disappointment. The hunter helped his friend sit up and slowly poured some water into his mouth. The cop swallowed some, but most of it trailed down his neck to wet his shirt. 

“Hold on.” He muttered as he stood up following a good hour long break where he forced himself to eat a small meal despite his roiling stomach and contemplated over the local map, collecting his gear to head back out. The archer had just sat astride his bike and was about to turn it on when he spotted a few forms meandering through the trailer park, their steps too sure to be Walkers. The park was rectangular in shape, but with none of the regularity that might suggest, and back up against some thick forest.

Daryl quickly wheeled the motorcycle out of sight. Because of where the people scattered in the park were moving through, he actually brought the bike to the front of the building he and Rick were using and tucked it beside the front porch to keep it from being noticed immediately, listening to the heavy footsteps and occasional shouts of conversation. Then he inched around the side of the building to get a better look at what was going on, crossbow armed and at the ready. There were three men that he could see, one of them smoking or perhaps keeping guard and looking the opposite way, one looking into the filthy cracked windows of a mobile home fifty feet away, and one with a red hat ambling straight for the trailer Daryl was crouched beside. A lacy pink curtain fluttered in another, suggesting that these three were certainly not the entire group. He wasn’t sure if it was the heat from the sun blazing above in the first bit of warmth they’d experienced all week or the way his mind was fumbling for a method to escape with Rick in tow, but sweat was starting to trickle along his hairline as he took quick darting looks around.

A slight crunch of gravel alerted Daryl to the presence of someone else behind him, and he forced himself not to give away his only advantage. If the person attempting to sneak up on him hadn’t shot him yet, they might not want him dead, but he didn’t want them to know their position was compromised as well. Whoever it was might have been a hunter themselves for how stealthy their steps were and how close they’d managed to get before he’d heard the shifting rocks.

Not hearing much else, Daryl estimated their speed before spinning around and taking a large step forward right when they were within reach. He had just a moment to register the stranger’s surprised expression before Daryl clocked him in the head with his bow. The man tumbled to the ground, rifle slipping from his grasp and faded jean vest sprawling out, and didn’t move. Daryl kicked him in the leg to make sure he was really out before dashing up the small set of stairs to the front door. He could kill the stranger, probably should kill him, but he’d rather avoid crossing that line if at all possible. Besides, if things went sideways, he could use the man with the mostly white and gray hair as a hostage. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, Daryl concentrated on sneaking back into the trailer. The guy with the red cap was surely inside already and had likely found Rick. He padded along the floor, careful to keep his footsteps as light as possible and roaming the small house with his eyes to make sure no one else was around. But the unfamiliar voice in their bedroom gave away the location easily. 

“You gotta know yer just holdin’ yer people back like this.” 

Daryl slunk into the doorway and lined up a shot. The bastard was apparently trying to convince Rick that he was a burden. And he sounded like he was getting off on the whole situation. Daryl hesitated a moment despite the anger swirling in him at the terrible claims being made. He could kill the man threatening Rick’s life, but Rick himself would probably prefer that he gave the would-be murderer a chance to go quietly. Of course, one shout, and they’d all be dead. 

“They’re giving their food and water away to a dead man.” 

Red cap’s finger slid toward the trigger. Daryl fired his bow. It wasn’t as hard killing a man as Daryl thought it should be, and the action didn’t weigh on him as heavily as he expected. In fact, he dismissed that man and his lifeless body from one breath to the next, concentrating solely on the next step in protecting Rick. 

Rick didn’t put up a fuss over Daryl lifting him over his shoulders, which was probably a bad sign. He was unnaturally limp in his grip, and Daryl silently begged his friend to hold on just a little longer. 

The door swung open and there was the guy he’d knocked out, blood dripping from his nose and the side of his head, but looking more intrigued than angry. The same could not be said for the two men behind him, a chubby, balding man and a slender long haired man with a bushy beard, both of whom had weapons raised on him. Beard looked like he might have an itchy trigger finger. Daryl kept Rick’s gun pointed at the one he’d bloodied.

“You pull that trigger, these boys are gonna drop you several times over.” The man waited a beat, obviously expecting Daryl to lower his weapon, but not reacting when he didn’t. “Name’s Joe.”

“Daryl.”

Joe nodded, dropping his rifle from his shoulder and casually directing it at them. “Dan, check the rooms. Make sure we’re alone.” Daryl stiffened without thought, a motion that Joe’s keen eyes seemed to catch and note with interest. “Something you wanna tell me?”

Daryl contemplated for a moment, but he couldn’t see any way out of the scenario. There was no way he could kill all three of these men before they shot both him and Rick, and there was no way he was going to be able to prevent Dan from spotting the body lying in the open just around the corner. “He was gonna kill my friend.” It was the truth and, he supposed, the reason he didn’t feel one shred of guilt over the action. 

“Shit! They got Mitch!” Dan’s voice was overly loud in the small, quiet house. 

Daryl kept his gaze locked with Joe’s who strangely instructed the other two not to shoot him unless he tried something. Cautiously, he followed the older man’s instructions to walk into the bedroom and put Rick back down on the bed. Daryl tried to keep his movements casual as he felt for a pulse from the limp body, letting out a breath when he found it slow and steady beneath his fingers.

“A bowman. I respect that.” Joe stated calmly as he rolled the red capped and bolt-pierced Mitch onto his back with a careless prod from his foot. “See, a man with a rifle, he could have been some kind of photographer or soccer coach back in the day. But a bowman’s a bowman through and through.” Daryl felt Joe’s eyes heavy on his back, but the stranger didn’t step any closer, obviously having learned his lesson from outside. “What you got there, I’ll be donkey-licked if you didn’t lug that thing around before all this went down. Though, personally, I’d want one with a bit more ammo and minus the oblongata stains.” 

Daryl turned to face the hostile newcomers as Beard grumbled, arms twitching like he was considering firing before Joe gave the signal. “What are you playing at, Joe? They killed Mitch. Let’s shoot ‘em and go.” 

“Didn’t much care for Mitch. Always trying to shirk the rules. Lied to me once, too.” Joe raised his arm to halt Beard, keeping his eyes on Daryl. “You killed him, but you didn’t kill me. Why’s that?”

Daryl scanned the room again, like some exit strategy would suddenly present itself. He wasn’t about to tell Joe that he had hoped to leverage him as a hostage. So he just repeated himself. “He was gonna kill my friend.” 

Joe cocked his head as he watched Daryl with an intensity that made the archer uncomfortable. It was like already Joe had him all figured out, which was probably fair. Daryl only had one goal anymore: keep him and Rick alive at all costs. The gray haired man seemed more interested in him than the situation warranted, and Daryl was torn between thinking that it might be his way out of here alive or that it would make their situation significantly worse. It could even be both. “You do a lot of hunting before all this, Daryl?”

Daryl blinked at the unexpected segue. “Yeah.” He responded cautiously.

“You any good?”

He shrugged. “Guess so.”

“Your friend, he bit?” Joe asked, eyes finally skittering to the form lying still on the bed.

Daryl shook his head. “Ain’t bit.”

“He a hunter, too?” Daryl nearly shook his head again, but then decided that since Joe seemed to be putting a value on the skill, he’d be better off lying, even if that was obviously a fast-track onto Joe’s bad side. He nodded. “Alright, bring him. We’ll see if our doctor can do anything.”

At the word doctor, Daryl dropped his guard and scooped Rick back up. He still didn’t trust them one inch, but since he was already in their hands, he didn’t want to dissuade them from having their doctor see Rick. He was going to get Rick help, even if he had to walk straight into the lion’s den to do it. The other two men kicked up a fuss at Joe’s decision, but didn’t shoot him, so Daryl considered that a win. 

Daryl was ushered into the backseat of a rusty car that reeked of death, propping Rick up beside him and watching over him. He heard the distinct roar of his brother’s bike coming to life and looked out the window to see another man he didn’t recognize taking it with them. He wanted to scream for them to leave it alone, but it would be easier to make this trip by car, and now was not the time to anger their captors.

They made no effort to blindfold him or prevent him from knowing the location of their camp, which Daryl figured was probably a bad sign, but he watched attentively anyway. He wasn’t really surprised when they wound their way back into the town with the little library they’d holed up in, and then moved onwards to a two story motel at the opposite end of town. He’d considered that Joe’s group and Randall’s group might be one in the same when he first spotted them clearing houses in the trailer park, but the bustling of activity in and around the motel seemed to confirm the idea. There was no way two large groups were coexisting in this small area, especially with the hostile tendencies he’d observed in them.

Daryl hoisted Rick back over his shoulders and followed Joe through the jarringly clean lobby and into a decent sized office space in the back. There were several armed men patrolling, but none of them made any attempt to stop Joe or his new company. Inside the office, a balding man with black hair sat in a cushioned computer chair with his feet crossed and lazily draped over the desk. He was chatting with a middle-aged woman with stern features and a pointed nose. They both looked up at Joe’s entrance and stopped talking, eyes flickering to Rick and Daryl with curiosity.

“Heard the motorcycle come up. You the stragglers from that group on the farm, the one that killed my men that were scouting at the bar?” The man asked in a nasally voice, not bothering to stand up or assume a more aggressive position, even with his aggressive tone and accusations. He was well aware that he held all the cards.

Daryl gave a sideways glance at Joe before returning his gaze to the two others who seemed to have some sort of authority here. He wondered how much they knew. Had the man who’d gotten away seen Rick? Would he recognize his voice? Did he know his name? “Ain’t stragglers. Just been us. Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout yer men in a bar.” He shifted Rick a little on his shoulders, his dead weight was becoming very uncomfortable, and he wished the doctor would come and take care of him while this interrogation went on.

“So, what? You lived in that trailer park, saw the fireworks, and decided to stick around to gather supplies?” 

Even though it was presented as an easy explanation, Daryl could practically feel the trap in the statement, though he wasn’t sure what it was. Maybe they’d checked the trailer park before. “Nah, we was in Atlanta, headed South so’s we could gather supplies some place with fewer geeks.” Daryl intentionally avoided using the term Walkers, thinking that Rick would have tried to negotiate and that was a term that could have come up, could label them as the ones from the bar. The whole conversation felt like walking barefoot through a field of mousetraps. “Saw that farm overrun, figured there might be somethin’ good there an’ set off fireworks to clear the place fer us.”

The leader nodded just a fraction, giving Daryl the hope that he might have avoided labelling himself as a liar. “Why’d you run from us if you weren’t the ones who attacked our group?”

“Same reason y’all fired on us at the farm.” Daryl shot back pointedly. “Can’t trust strangers no more.”

The woman rolled her eyes and stood, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning against the desk. Her voice was clipped and clear, her accent one he’d heard on television that he generally just categorized as northern city dweller, but might possibly suggest New York. “Part of that group or not, why are these two still alive, Joe? We agreed to remove any threats so we can stay here for the winter.”

“Yeah, Jane, and we also agreed that we’re going to need to put more emphasis on alternate sources of food if we’re staying put. These boys are hunters. They’ll be worth patching up and keeping around.”

 Jane did not look impressed. “You’ve already got several hunters. Len, Billy, Harley, Lou…”

“And we’ve got three dozen people we need to feed. We don’t need a repeat of the last time we ran out of food.” Joe shrugged one shoulder dismissively, and Daryl realized that Joe was not asking permission, but informing the other two. He briefly considered if Joe might be the actual leader, but concluded that there was some sort of three-way power structure between them. Or maybe the group was actually three groups working together. He wasn’t entirely sure, but it still eased something inside him because if Joe said they were in, they were apparently already in. He’d worry about getting out later.

Jane snorted. “You can’t possibly believe his crap about it being just the two of them. There was a carseat in that van they were loading. They’ve got others.”

Daryl’s heart started to pound, sweat prickling at his hairline despite being out of the sun now. Joe didn’t tolerate liars. He tried to keep his voice calm and level. “‘S just us. Used to be others, my brother fer one. His son. But it’s just us for a while now.”

“Relax.” The man at the desk said, standing up as well, and ignoring Daryl to look at Jane. He was unexpectedly short for the sort of air of authority he carried. “They’ll stay enclosed at night, and since he seems to care for his friend, there, he’ll have good motivation to stick around and keep producing.” Daryl was pretty sure ‘enclosed’ was some sort of code for locked up somewhere, and that there was definitely a threat regarding Rick’s life, but he hadn’t really expected anything different from these sorts of people. He was a little surprised by the brazen threat that followed. “Besides, we can always kill them later.”

They were interrupted by Dan appearing, pushing a metal food cart, and a graying older woman whose skittishness reminded Daryl of Carol and instantly provoked a sense of emptiness. He pushed the thought back down as quickly as it came. The cart had a flat metal top where he was directed to place Rick. It obviously wasn’t designed as a gurney, and his calves and feet dangled off the end. The woman felt for a pulse before directing Dan to push the cart away. 

“I’m Harlan.” The short leader introduced himself before Daryl could follow. “Welcome to The Living.”

No one tried to stop him from following Rick, and he was led to one of the motel rooms on the first floor just a few doors down that smelled strongly of antiseptic. He and Dan lifted Rick onto the empty queen bed and stripped him of his pants so the doctor could see the oozing wound. She tisked under her breath but otherwise didn’t comment as she set to work. Dan drew a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and latched it to Rick’s wrist and the headboard, the metallic snick sounding loud in the quiet. Daryl glared hard at him, but didn’t want to risk stopping him. Instead, the archer just tested the cuffs to make sure they weren’t too tight the moment Dan left the room.

Daryl’s eyes circled the room to assess threats in between monitoring the woman for signs that she meant Rick any harm. She had the clinical, detached mannerisms of someone who’d worked in a hospital for many years, and Daryl decided that she probably was a legitimate doctor. On the other bed, there was a boy roughly Carl’s age stitching up a cut on a broad man’s hairy arm. The boy was probably not a legitimate doctor. 

“My grandson, Tyler.” The doctor said quietly as she worked at thoroughly cleaning the festering wound on Rick’s leg, apparently taking in where Daryl’s gaze had landed while still concentrating on her task. “He’s learned enough to handle the easier cases. It keeps him safe.”

Daryl nodded, wondering what exactly she meant by that. Randall’s description of this group had been disgusting and something monstrous. He honestly hadn’t expected to find women working openly with them, especially not in the sort of position Jane held. No, this was a group that admitted to raping young girls in front of their father. What did they do to young boys that weren’t deemed as valuable? Rape them, too? Or maybe kill them outright? Or were those sorts of atrocities reserved for outside of camp?

“My name’s Judith.” She continued, unconcerned that Daryl wasn’t talking. “Your friend here has quite the infection, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.”

“He gonna live?” 

The doctor hesitated long enough to unsettle Daryl’s stomach. What if it was too late, and now he was stuck with these monsters instead of Rick? “I don’t know.”

Daryl clenched his jaw and ignored the urge to shake the doctor and demand better answers. Instead, he just watched in silence as the woman steadily worked through her process, injecting Rick with something after a few minutes before examining the stitches. 

“You do these? Not too bad.” Judith commented lightly. After several more minutes, the man being treated by Tyler stood up and lumbered from the room without so much as a thank you. The boy joined them, hovering nearby but carefully out of the way. 

“How’d ya wind up with these folks?”

The doctor looked up, and an understanding passed between them that they were amongst bad people and none of them wanted to be there. “We’re from Virginia. Richmond. Everything there was just… gone. We heard that there was help in Washington, so we headed there. Ran into The Living along the way. They said there wasn’t any way to get to Washington and suggested we go with them.” The doctor’s eyes darted over to the kid beside her.

The conversation slowed, but didn’t evaporate and Daryl found that he didn’t mind that Judith was looking over Rick. He felt confident in her abilities and relatively comfortable in leaving the injured man under her protection. When Joe came by an hour later commenting on wasting daylight, the terror of being separated from Rick had lulled into a discomfort that he ignored in favor of earning their keep. 

 

==============

 

Carl pretended to be asleep when his mom leaned over to check on him. He didn’t want to deal with any more of the concern from her or from anyone else. She pressed a kiss to his head and wiggled out of the nest of blankets, sliding towards the fire where most everyone else was still awake. Carl hoped they’d find some house to stay in tomorrow; the ground was frigid even with the fire’s heat nearby.

“I’m worried about him.”

“He probably just needs time to adjust.” Hershel responded evenly. “Things are different than we allowed ourselves to believe. We all come to terms with that in our own way.” 

“He had to put down Shane, his uncle by all rights.” Lori sighed. “He thinks Rick is going to come back. That can’t be healthy, living in denial, not allowing himself to grieve.” 

Carl clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes tight. His mom didn’t know anything. She’d given up on his dad before, said he was dead, but he still came back. He came back after getting shot, came back after Atlanta, came back when he went to get Hershel from town. He always came back. Carl jerked upright, unable to stand it any longer. “He’s alive. He’ll find us!”

Lori, Hershel, Carol and Maggie were gathered around the campfire and they all looked up at his sudden rebuke. Lori shifted closer, reaching out to touch him, but he moved out of the way. “Honey, you saw what happened to him.”

Carl had seen, and he’d heard his dad screaming, too. He couldn’t forget because it played on repeat in his dreams more often than not. But they didn’t know anything for sure. Andrea went down, too, but no one demanded he accept her death. Carl could accept that Shane was dead; he’d been the one to shoot him, but there was no way his dad would go down like that. It was impossible. “I saw the Walkers reach him, and I saw him fall. I didn’t see him get bit.”

No one seemed ready to argue with him, which felt like a hollow victory. He bundled the blankets tighter around himself and turned away to glare at the trees in the distance. After a few minutes, the quiet conversation picked up again, discussing, as they always did, how to get more food. Carl imagined it was probably the only topic anyone could think of with their stomachs angrily reminding them of the dinner they’d missed. 

After everyone offered up their best strategies, none of which were new, the conversation turned back to Carl himself. His stillness must have convinced them that he was asleep this time. “Maybe we should circle back to the farm.” Carol suggested tentatively. “Seeing the body might give Carl closure. And maybe we could find out what happened to Daryl and Andrea. Would certainly love the food that we left behind.”

“If there’s anything left of our people, I don’t think any of us want to see it.” Maggie pointed out bluntly. “And if Randall’s group is still around, we’d be inviting a mess of trouble.” 

 “You’re right. I guess I just have a hard time believing that Daryl would up and leave like that.” Carol’s voice was so quiet, Carl could barely catch it. She sounded like she blamed herself. Carl considered that she’d lost a lot, too. He’d lost his father and Shane, but she’d lost her husband and Daryl, and they’d both lost Sophia. 

“Would it be easier to know he was bit or would it just hurt in a different way?” Lori asked gently. Carl finally drifted off before he heard Carol’s response, but he knew what he thought about that question.

The next day, Carl volunteered to help Carol with cleaning their limited pile of clothes, and when they were working in relative solitude, he tried to pass along some comfort. “My dad and Daryl, they’re gonna come back. You’ll see.”

Carol smiled sadly back at the boy. “People don’t come back anymore. At least, not as the people we knew.”

The words twisted in Carl’s gut in a way he didn’t understand. He wondered if it was his punishment for saying that Heaven was a lie. 

 

=============

Chapter Text

 

“Is there a plan?” Andrea asked during their second day on the road. In addition to a little bit of hero worship for the strong, independent woman, Michonne was always so mysterious and competent that it was easy to forget that she was just as prone to mistakes as anyone else. “Or is it just, South and look for shelter?”

Michonne shrugged, chains in her hand rattling at the movement. “I know what I’m looking for. Something away from people, small town nearby for supplies, well insulated from the cold. We’ve got time before winter really sets in to find it.”

“I’ve been thinking.” Andrea brought up hesitantly. “Fort Benning might not be a bad idea, after all.”

Michonne tossed over one of her looks that Andrea was slowly learning to read. This one said, ‘you turn into an idiot when I wasn’t looking or something?’ She replied, “You said it was overrun.”

“Not exactly. It was a guy from that awful group, Randall’s group? He said they’d run across someone from there who said it had fallen. That’s like three unreliable degrees from actually knowing anything.” Andrea fell silent as a Walker teetered towards them, drawn by her voice. Michonne checked to confirm that it was alone before taking it out so they could keep talking. “Shane might still want to check it out. Either way, if it’s still functional, we could have actual walls and military support.”

“I think that’s a long, long trip for a big if. There’s going to be a lot of people drawn to that spot, which will make it dangerous. There will be more people than food, and less protection or supplies than those people need. And that’s assuming it’s still operational. Trust me, refugee centers are no sanctuary.” Michonne’s tone suggested that the words were spoken from experience and not just her excellent intuition. Andrea wanted to ask, but she held back, knowing that some stories had to come out on their own and that there was nobody left alive who hadn’t lost someone.

They continued on in silence for a while as Andrea considered if it was worth trying to get Michonne to change her mind. Somehow, having a destination in mind felt much more palatable than simply walking in one direction alongside the main road. Occasionally, a Walker would pass by, and sometimes Michonne would kill it, but mostly, she wouldn’t bother, letting it stumble along in its path and leave them be. If they heard a car, they’d move out of sight until it passed, but those were few and far between.

As afternoon closed in on evening, they began to consider good places to spend the night. They could camp out again, but it was beginning to be too chilly for that, and they both preferred some walls to keep them warm. Soon, they came across a small one-story house set in from the road enough to obscure it mostly from view, and started up the gravel driveway. It should be quick to clear and reasonably safe for a brief stay.

“Shut her up, would you?!”

The shout startled them, and they quickly shifted off of the gravel into the trees, looking around to make sure they weren’t spotted, before approaching the origin of the noise cautiously. As they got nearer, the sounds of sobbing grew clear. They crouched behind some bushes to take in the scene playing out on the small home’s front lawn. 

There were four grisled looking men, armed with rifles and pistols and a dangerous air, standing above a small, broken family. One of the ruffians kicked one of the women in her shoulder, toppling her onto the ground beside the fresh corpse of a man. The woman looked to be in her mid-twenties and was pregnant beyond the point where movement was easy. The other woman, barely passed her teens, lunged at the man with a shriek. He caught her by the arms and laughed in her face before dragging her into an unwanted embrace.

Michonne gripped tightly onto Andrea’s upper arm before she was even aware of making any motions, as if sensing that she was ready to charge in there blindly. “We have to help them.” Andrea whispered, voice barely audible to her own ears.

Another man leaned forward and dragged the pregnant woman to her feet. “Y’all were real lucky we ran across this place. Wouldn’t’ve made it on yer own, but we’ll keep ya safe. All you gotta do is keep us fine gents company.” 

“It’s suicide.” Michonne declared, nodding towards what Andrea hadn’t immediately noted. There were three more people standing further away on guard. 

It wasn’t an issue of a challenging fight of two on four, with the element of surprise in their favor and the possibility of help from the two victims. They were significantly outnumbered and clearly outgunned. Andrea’s mind flickered from one idea to the next but came up with nothing that didn’t require more supplies and time than they had. She clenched her fists in anger and frustration as she watched the captives struggle as they were loaded into a truck that sat idling in the driveway. There was no way she could see to get involved that wouldn’t end in disaster. She couldn’t do anything for them. It reminded her of the helplessness she felt sitting above Amy’s body and waiting for it to turn.

The Walkers behind them puttered, clanking together their chains, and starting up a swelling fear in Andrea’s chest that covered the anger. If they were found, they’d be in the same boat as the two other women, assuming they weren’t killed outright. The group on the lawn seemed to take notice, a couple of them commenting on the odd sound. Michonne got to her feet and sliced through the heads of her pack mules without hesitation before crouching back down. 

Luckily, another Walker stumbled towards the group, passing by the silent pair and heading for the noisiness on the grass. Seemingly satisfied by the appearance of the Walker, the men packed themselves up into the truck and drove off. Andrea thought she might throw up.

“Come on.” Michonne said when the truck was out of sight and they’d collected their gear from the corpses on the ground. Andrea had always thought there was something important about those two Walkers to Michonne, but clearly she’d been mistaken since her friend wasn’t reacting to their death in any way. “Let’s get back to the main road. We’ll find a car and put some distance between us and whatever the hell is wrong with this area.”

“To Fort Benning?” 

“Yeah. We can head to Fort Benning. I’m not promising we’ll stay, though.”

Andrea nodded. It was dull comfort in the face of what they’d seen today, but it was still comfort. Maybe Fort Benning would still be there. Maybe there was law and order left somewhere.

 

==============

 

Consciousness came back to Rick slowly. Distorted, unfamiliar voices trickled in with the somewhat familiar scents he associated with sterile hospital rooms. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed while he was out of it, and it gave him a great sense of deja vu from waking up in a hospital after society had already collapsed. 

“He’s awake!” A voice echoed through his head, bringing into focus the swell of a fierce headache, but he ignored it. That voice had been a child’s, a boy’s. 

“Carl?” He asked desperately, opening his eyes and trying to sit up properly, only to be halted by his wrist’s refusal to cooperate. The movement made him nauseous, and he closed his eyes until it abated some. A firm hand rested on his shoulder, pushing him until he was settled more firmly on the bed.

“Don’t try to move too much.” A feminine voice commanded.

Rick tried to crack his eyes back open. “Lori?” Had they suddenly found their group while he was out of it? The light was nearly unbearable, and it took a few minutes for him to adjust and process what he was seeing. He was in a small room with two large beds, their comforters made of a gaudy, floral design. It was warm, the curtains spread wide to let in the late-afternoon sunlight. A woman and a boy were with him, but they weren’t Lori or Carl, which meant that he hadn’t miraculously found his way back. The boy fetched him a plastic cup of water, and helped him get some of it down despite the awkward angle. They introduced themselves as Judith and Tyler, and he tried to greet them without the disappointment he felt staining his voice. 

“What happened? Where’s Daryl?” 

“I’m a doctor. Your friend brought you here so I could treat your infection. It was touch and go for a while, but now that you’re conscious and alert, I think the rest of the infection should clear your system, provided you rest and let yourself heal.” Judith looked him over warily, like she hadn’t yet established him as friend or foe and was readying herself for a tactical retreat.

Rick nodded, taking in the odd pair. An older woman and a young boy weren’t very likely to have made it this far on their own, but he trusted that Daryl wouldn’t have left him alone with them if he didn’t feel he was safe. “Where’s Daryl?” 

“He’s out hunting with Joe’s group. They usually come in before it gets dark, Daryl especially. He’ll probably be along shortly to check on you.”

Rick wondered who Joe was and if he could be trusted to watch Daryl’s back. He tried to bring his hand to his head but found it rattled and stopped short. He glanced up to see a pair of handcuffs keeping him to the headboard. It was unsettling, but not necessarily bad. Judith may have kept him handcuffed in case he turned. He tried to keep himself calm. “How long was I out? And where are my pants?”

“A week.”

“A week?” Rick repeated in disbelief. He’d lost an entire week? They’d have fallen so far behind the others by this point, he didn’t know where he’d even start looking for them. 

Tyler piped up, then, “Longer, actually. Daryl said you were mostly out of it for days before he got you here.”

“You’re lucky to be alive at all.” The doctor announced cautiously. “And we almost had to take your leg, anyway, because of how severe the infection was.”

Rick goggled at the pair for a moment before sighing in resignation. It wouldn’t do any good to make his saviors believe he was angry with them. “Thank you.” The cop forced out. “I know I wouldn’t have made it without you.” 

Judith nodded, stepping forward and settling into a more confident persona. It was probably the one she’d used before when being intelligent and bossy got things done instead of getting you shot. “That’s true, but don’t rest easy yet. The Living aren’t exactly friendly, if you know what I mean.” 

“The Living?”

“It’s what Harlan calls the group. Something about preserving the human race against future disasters by returning to more primitive ways. Just an excuse to go all cave-man if you ask me.”

“What do you mean?” 

“It’s more about survival of the fittest in here than it is out there with the lamebrains.” 

“If you don’t like them, why don’t you just leave?” Rick’s eyes flickered around the room, looking for his gear. “Pants?”

“You’re either with them or against them, and if you’re against them, you’re dead. Besides, I’m not sure they’d let me leave with my skill set.” Judith snorted. “Just be thankful your friend is reliable or you wouldn’t have lasted long enough to treat.”

The door swung open suddenly, and Daryl was standing there, looking at the bed in surprise. “You’re awake.” The hunter was breathing heavily in a way that wasn’t warranted, but his face collapsed in relief when Rick turned to smile at him.

“Good job finding a doctor in the apocalypse. Best I ever did was a vet.” Daryl took two heavy steps forward, and for a moment, Rick thought he was going to be on the receiving end of a fierce hug, but the archer stopped in front of the bed and seemed to stop paying attention to him entirely. If Daryl leaned in a little closer, Rick was going to give him that hug anyway. 

“Can he walk?” Daryl asked Judith. “Could sneak out now, ‘fore they move him.”
“I can walk.” Rick contributed, deciding that it would simply have to be true even before he discovered that shifting carefully into a sitting position was nearly too much on its own. He could hear Daryl’s concern loud and clear, even if his tone was level and quiet, and wondered if their position in the camp was as precarious as Judith made it seem. 

“No.” Judith contradicted him immediately. “He isn’t even fully over the infection. Even if he were, he needs weeks to regain full use of that leg. Tyler, go and get the keys to the handcuffs. I think Toby has them.”

“Sure.” The little boy agreed easily, darting from the room. 

“We shouldn’t stay here if it’s that dangerous on my account.” Rick insisted. “I can heal up anywhere.”

“Did we not just go over how lucky you are to be alive? I’m not going to just let you waste all of my hard work by getting yourself killed immediately.”

Rick was going to keep arguing but Tyler returned with a large man who must have been very close by. He internally cursed the window of opportunity slamming shut so quickly. 

“Oi,” The man, presumably Toby, grunted. “Was starting to wonder if your lazy ass was ever gonna wake up.” He unlocked the handcuffs and Rick instinctively pulled his arm to his chest and rubbed the slightly abraded skin. The stranger gave a pointed look at Judith. “He good to walk?” 

“Not if you expect him to recover.”

Toby scowled and left, returning shortly with a food cart that Daryl helped him climb onto. Daryl mostly just lifted him onto the thing, but Rick made enough marginal assistance that it felt a little less pathetic. His leg stung in its awkward position half curled onto the surface, and he wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to just try and walk. He shivered on the cold metal in just his boxers. “Seriously, no one’s going to give me pants?”

“I’d like to see that wound get more air.” Judith finally addressed him with a disappointing negative. “And I doubt you’ll want to work them on and off again every time I come to check on you.”

When he was situated and clutching the sides of the cart, feeling very foolish with himself and the situation, Daryl wheeled him down the hallway, and Rick realized they were in a motel from the several labelled rooms they passed. They stopped at one with 114 embossed on it in gold lettering. 

“Home, sweet home.” Toby smirked, undoing a heavy bolt from the door and swinging it open for them. Daryl didn’t comment as he rolled the cart over the threshold. Rick tried not to flinch at the harsh thump of the door smacking shut behind them.

The room was a mirror image of the one they were in previously, but it didn’t have the clean, antiseptic smell. The mattresses were situated on the floor with not one bit of additional furniture, and the sole window had been boarded up, the only light from the small rays that slipped through the cracks. In other circumstances, he might have thought the place a safe-room, protected from Walkers, but he knew better. This was a prison. 

There were two women with long brown hair seated on one of the double mattresses playing cards, one of whom was heavily pregnant. They looked up cautiously at the sound of a cart being wheeled in. 

“You must be Andy.” The pregnant one cocked her head. “I’m Claire. That’s my sister, Rachel.”

Rick nodded slowly, unsure of how to respond to them, but having several clear questions in mind for Daryl. He waited until they made it into the relative safety of the doorless bathroom before asking in a whisper, “this Randall’s group?”

“This is Randall’s group.” The archer confirmed, leaning in to hide their voices and drawing Rick back to their extended stay at the farm, “them ladies are alright, but didn’t dare use yer name.” 

“So, I’m Andy and you’re Daryl?” Daryl nodded and moved quickly out of his space. Just standing up and taking care of business was exhausting, and Rick didn’t appreciate the indignity of stumbling and being half-carried to the second mattress, especially when he nearly passed out again. He breathed through the pain. He couldn’t believe how bone tired he was after being awake for less than an hour. 

He wasn’t aware of falling asleep. It seemed like one blink to the next left him confused about the sudden change in lighting and absence of his friend. Rick scooted up to his elbows and looked around the room. He couldn’t see Daryl, but the two women were still there. Rachel was lying down with her back turned, presumably asleep, while Claire was sitting against a wall where the largest ray of light reached, knee bent awkwardly to avoid her large belly and provide something to write on. She stopped scribbling and smiled tentatively at Rick. “You’re awake.”

“Yeah.” Rick rubbed over his face and carefully sat up. His leg hurt, and he felt weak and sore all over. He thought he might pass out if he tried to make it to standing, even with the wall for support. “Yeah, I’m up. Where’s Daryl?”

“He’s out hunting.” Claire explained, setting aside her paperwork and awkwardly rolling herself to a kneeling position before standing back up. She stretched out her back. “It’s his job. He’s gotta keep providing meat to pay for your medical care. If he tries to run off or doesn’t make it back by sundown, they’ll kill you. It’s what they say, anyway. He doesn’t talk much.”

 “Right.” Rick acknowledged, trying not to think too hard on the topic of death threats. He’d obviously been successful thus far. Rick was getting pretty sick of relying on Daryl for everything, but the man stepped up every time, seeming to grow to fit the need. He could hardly imagine that volatile redneck from the quarry turning into this dependable, loyal, heroic individual in hardly more than a month. Then again, maybe Daryl had always been that way, and Rick just hadn’t seen it. 

“He’s a good man.” Claire added, probably taking his response as doubt. She collected a tray from across the room and brought it over, setting it beside his bed. There was a cup of water, and a small serving of soup. It was cold, but that didn’t put him off. His stomach growled, and he carefully brought it to his lips to sip at the side of the bowl. “We were so scared when they brought him in. Figured he was one of them, you know? I mean, he looks pretty rough. But he didn’t touch us.” Rick swallowed hard and brought the bowl back to the tray so he wouldn’t lose what he’d gotten down. Of course he’d known that Claire and Rachel were not here in this room with the lock on the outside of their own volition. And he’d guessed they probably weren’t hunting to earn their keep. “Knocked out two of Toby’s teeth when he came to take us. Possibly the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.” Claire scuffed her foot along the floor and wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Would have kept going, too, ‘cept they said they’d kill you if he ever tried anything like that again. My point is, you don’t need to worry. He’ll come through for you.” 

“He’s one of the good ones.” Rick agreed, drinking some more of his water and finishing up the soup. Seemed like they’d done nothing but threaten to kill him to keep Daryl in line. He felt even more like a burden than before. They wouldn't be in this mess if it weren’t for him. “I’m sorry he couldn’t do more for you. I’m sorry I can’t do more.”

Claire shrugged and gave a crooked smile. “I’m sorry about this.” She said as she handed him a plastic bottle. Rick took it in confusion. “I certainly can’t help you up, and Rachel’s not strong enough to get you to the bathroom, either.”

“Oh.” Rick turned it around in his hands a few times. He had been wondering what he was going to do. It didn’t seem likely that he could hold it until Daryl got back. Claire gave him privacy while he relieved himself, though it was still uncomfortably loud in the small room. He set it aside awkwardly and cleared his throat. “She okay?”

“Late night.” Claire shrugged, fidgeting. “She tends to be busier than me.”

Rick cursed internally for dragging it back to the forefront of their minds. He felt so impotent, weak and sick, relying on others to take care of him, watching injustice around him and unable to change it. No one could afford to be looking after him like this, yet Daryl had chosen to stay behind and care for Rick twice now when he would be better off without him. He vowed that he was going to recover and protect Daryl, no matter what.

Rick looked over at the young woman who was rubbing her bulging stomach absently while they talked. “We’re going to get out of here, Daryl and I, we’re going to leave as soon as I can walk. We can take you with us, you, and your sister, and your baby. We can keep you safe.”

“Not sure safe is a thing anymore.” Claire confessed. “But I’d rather take my chances out there with you. Count us in.”

The bolt on the door slid open with a heavy metal thunk, alerting them to guests before the door even opened. Rachel jerked up in her bed, scooting herself into a corner and folding up like she could make herself disappear. Rick’s heart clenched at the sight, wondering if she’d been awake listening the whole time or if that was simply a conditioned response. Claire stood like a guard dog over the bed, but relaxed when it was only Judith and Tyler who entered, the door closing behind them. 

“Glad to see you’re awake, Andy.” The doctor said, nodding to the women before crouching in front of Rick’s bed. She tossed the blanket off of his lap without waiting for permission and instructed Tyler to empty the bottle beside the bed without a second glance. Rick flushed a little in nothing but boxers and a T-shirt, but the old woman was nothing if not professional. She prodded him enough to make him hiss, but wasn’t aggressive in her touch. She felt his forehead with the back of her hand and asked him a few perfunctory questions on his sleep and hunger and aches, before standing back up. “About as expected. We should see a lot of improvement in the next few days now that you’re able to eat again. Don’t push to try and stand or walk yet, but keep wiggling and pumping your feet so you don’t lose muscle mass or get bed sores. Soup only for a few days.”

Rick nodded along at the instructions, dismayed that even standing was off the menu for the time being. It really was going to take him weeks to recover, and as dangerous as The Living were, they had a doctor and some decent protection set up. He needed to heal at least enough to walk properly, preferably to run because their lives weren’t much else these days, or he wasn’t going to be able to protect Daryl. He was just going to keep being a burden. As much as it hurt, he mentally shifted “find family” off of his number one importance slot. He needed to start thinking more logically and play the long game. He couldn’t sacrifice his health to move faster on a mission that might well take months.

Next, Judith looked over Claire, Tyler hovering with a bag of her gear while she checked over her vitals, before turning her attention to the baby. She asked a few questions and seemed satisfied that everything was as well as could be expected given the circumstances. “About a month, I’d say. Got any names picked out?”

Claire shrugged and looked away. “Danny and I did, but…”

There was a somber understanding, and Judith rubbed her shoulder gently before moving on to her sister, crouching again despite the way her knees creaked at the action. She held out a packet that Rachel cautiously took. “Best I could do. Anything you want me to take a look at?” The mousey girl shook her head quickly, and Judith frowned a little. “Can do it in private.” When she was again met with refusal, the doctor stood.

“I like the name Isaac.” Tyler announced to the room at large. “Or Lily for a girl.”

“I’ll keep them in mind.” Claire patted Tyler on the head. Rick’s heart ached for his own son, a little older than the boy trapped here with them, while he watched the familiar, doting gesture. Judith knocked on the door to be let out, Tyler following with a little wave to everyone in the room.

Rick tried desperately not to watch Rachel for fear of making her uncomfortable, but the woman was trauma incarnate. There was no question why Daryl had had such a violent reaction to watching them being carted off, knowing what lay in store for them. The only real question was how he’d managed to stop himself from doing it every day since. Rick felt queasy knowing he would have to do the same, and levered himself back to a laying position. It didn’t help with the nausea in the slightest. 

He drifted off again, only to awaken when the door opened a second time. It was still light out, light enough that the room was clear despite the boarded up window. Rick inched himself up until he was on his elbows and then sitting somewhat properly. Daryl entered the room this time, carrying a bowl of soup, another man with floppy gray hair following right behind him. The door was left wide open, but even if Rick could run, he doubted it was unguarded. 

“Was starting to believe we were wasting medicine on a dead man, Anthony.” The gray haired man said in greeting. 

“It’s Andy.” Rick corrected immediately, doubting the slip-up was anything but intentional, and taking the bowl from Daryl. He’d eaten earlier but was ravenous again and slurped down nearly half of it before anyone else could speak. Daryl shifted, leaning against the wall beside them with a calculated casualness. 

“Right, right. I’m Joe.” The man extended a hand like it was still common behavior, and Rick set aside his bowl to take it because there was no sense in pissing this guy off. “I understand you’re probably still gettin’ up to speed, so let me fill you in some. There’s four groups workin’ together to make this place work, and we call ourselves The Living, mostly cuz we ain’t the dead.” Joe let out a sardonic huff. Rick wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a joke or self-reflective, but it managed to carry a ring of threat with it instead. If you’re not with this group, you’re dead, as Judith said. “Daryl works with me, and you will too, if you can hunt.”

“I can hunt.” Rick declared immediately despite virtually no experience. There was no way he was going to get placed in a different group. Or worse. They wouldn’t ask him to do it, anyway, with his leg how it was, so it was all semantics at this point. He hoped. 

“Oh, I know. Daryl told me.” Joe chuckled, glancing at Daryl with a half-smile that was disconcerting. Daryl’s face was carefully blank. “Now, I don’t make things complicated. Don’t lie, don’t steal, and we ain’t gonna have a problem. That’s it. Simple, right?”

 Shit. Two sentences in and already two lies. He just needed to steal something before Joe left the room and he’d have a trifecta. “Makes sense.” Rick replied confidently despite the way his heart rate picked up. Not one word out of Joe’s mouth had been an accident, leaving just enough slack in the line to hang himself with. He’d been quizzing Rick to see if Daryl had been honest with him, and Rick was going to have to be a hell of a lot more careful if he didn’t want to get them both killed. 

Joe nodded, keeping up eye contact with him even as he reached out a hand toward Daryl, who pulled his sheathed knife from his belt and placed it on the open palm. Rick then realized that Daryl’s crossbow was already over Joe’s shoulder. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed that before. “Well, I wish you a speedy recovery.” He announced before nodding to Daryl and leaving the room, ignoring the other two captives entirely. 

The door shut, the bolt loudly announcing that it was locked, and Daryl slid down the wall until he was seated on the ground. “Jesus.”

“Yeah.” Rick nodded, waiting for his heart to stop racing. He glanced over at Claire, who was sympathetic in her gaze, and Rachel, who was finally looking at him, before turning back to Daryl. He could speak freely. “I just nearly killed us.”

“Coulda been worse. Coulda said ya weren’t a hunter.”

Rick frowned. There was no way that man would not follow through on some sort of cross-examination, and there was a decent chance Rick might not even see it coming. “Well, sooner or later, he’s going to figure out that I’m not actually a hunter.”

“Whaddya want from me?” The archer bit back. “Was just tryin’ to keep ya alive.”

“Sorry.” Rick rubbed over the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry. Thank you.”

Rick went back to sipping at his soup while Daryl filled him in on what he’d already said so they could keep their stories straight. It wasn’t far from the truth, really. Daryl had only fudged the things that were distinctly problematic, like their group still being out there without them. He listened intently before setting aside his bowl. Rick hadn’t seen anyone else eating and he hoped like hell that they were just doing it when he was asleep, and that it wasn’t just him getting fed. He was a little afraid to ask. 

“You could teach him.” An unfamiliar voice spoke quietly, carrying only because of the lull in conversation. “You could teach Andy to hunt. You could teach all of us.”

Daryl frowned at the woman who’d been thus far silent. “Can’t take him out with me, even if he wasn’t laid up.”

“You could do it in here.” Rachel suggested.

Claire gave her a funny look. “Look, I’m all for something more interesting than Go Fish, but how the hell is Daryl going to do that in here?”

“It’s possible.” Rachel insisted, swiveling around on their mattress before producing the notebook Claire was using before, flipping it open and holding up a drawing, ignoring her sister as she protested. It was a landscape drawing of a cliff overhanging a large, wooded lake, done in practiced, confident pencil strokes. At the side of the picture, a man stood facing away, crossbow strapped across his back, and more than a passing resemblance to Daryl. Rick noted, as was surely the intent, that Claire had significant artistic ability. “He can explain, and Claire can make visual aids.”

“Like a sketch artist.” Rick said contemplatively. “But with paw prints and tree leaves.”

“It’s… a whole lot more complicated than just knowin’ what print yer lookin’ at.” Daryl said slowly, like he didn’t want to be the one to burst the bubble of hope in the room. Or, more likely, that he was restraining himself from calling them all idiots.

“I know. I know. But you can explain it. Demonstrate. Bring back something if you can. We can make lists and study them. Quiz each other when you’re gone.” Rick looked at Rachel and could see that she needed this. She needed something in her life that was vaguely positive and useful. 

“It won’t be the same. We know that.” Rick agreed, bridging his way to a compromise. “But it’s better than nothing.” Better a halfwit than a complete dunce when Joe came around to test him.

Daryl looked at him in surprise, like he’d expected Rick to understand best of all the futility of this attempt, but he must have seen that Rick was serious. He shrugged. “All right. We’ll start tomorrow.”

Amid quiet cheers, Daryl crawled under the blanket and pressed his back right up to Rick’s side, even though the mattress was large enough to leave space between them. It was chilly at night lately, even inside a building. He might just be cold from spending so much time outside. Rick was certain that’s what Daryl would pass it off as if pressed, but Rick was just as certain that the hunter liked knowing Rick was alive and they had each other. Rick knew he drew far more comfort than warmth from the light touch between them.

 

=============

 

 Consensus, Glenn found out quickly, was one of those things that sounded great in theory but was a nightmare to implement. Either no one had any opinions or everyone had a differing opinion, and even when everyone grudgingly agreed on the next course of action, almost no one was happy about it. It was because of this frustrating mode of operation that it took them two weeks to settle on a large farmhouse just outside of a blink-and-you-miss-it town for their next semi-permanent shelter.

The farmhouse had a lot in common with the Greene home, which probably factored into the debate in a more negative way than anyone was willing to openly admit to, but it had a lot of defensive points in its favor that eventually won out. There weren’t the high walls or fences that they were hoping for, but there was a clear line of sight all around the building, tilled farmland gone unplanted on one side and grazing land on two of the others. 

Everyone agreed to the twenty-four hour guard on the roof, though there was a lot of discussion about who should be involved and how long shifts should be and so on. Should Maggie and Glenn have a shift when they were the ones most regularly making runs to look for supplies? Should Carl take a turn on his own or with someone else? Could they afford to have those with little gun experience having their own shifts? The discussions continued on long after it was practical. More and more, Glenn found himself relying on T-Dog and Maggie to keep things running while everything else grinded to a halt while everybody talked it out. It was driving them all nuts.

“Son, we need you to step up in a big way.” Hershel stated solemnly when he joined him on watch for no other reason than to talk. Glenn revelled in his care, attention and advice, but he was also wary of the familiar footsteps of the old man because of how much fell on his shoulders these days. Today, it seemed the request would be a doozy. “We don’t have the luxury of time or energy to spend our evenings arguing any longer.”

Glenn sighed. “I’m doing my best.”

“I’m sorry, but you’re not.” Hershel contradicted, and Glenn swiveled to actually look at him, hurt by the accusation. “You need to learn to lead without fear of making the wrong choice or offending people. You need to be able to make the hard decisions for the good of the group.”

“Why me? If you know what needs to happen, why don’t you lead?” Glenn knew he was whining, but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t sign up for this.

“I don’t claim to know everything, but I do know what makes a good leader.” Hershel declared, resting a reassuring hand on Glenn’s shoulder. “People will follow the one who leads the charge, the one who believes in the plan, and cares enough about his people to assign himself the most dangerous mission. I think you’ve proven plenty of times that that’s you.”

Glenn was caught between preening at the praise and cowering at the responsibility. “But what if I do it wrong, make the wrong call? People could die. People I care about could die.”

“Refusing to act is a decision on its own. We’re all slowly starving right now. Lori will lose that baby within weeks if this keeps up.” 

Glenn couldn’t help the way his mind flickered over the possibility with a hint of hope. That baby would cost them extra food, and put them in a huge amount of danger. If it died, they’d all be better off for it. He immediately felt ashamed of himself for wanting to see a baby dead rather than be burdened by it. No, he was going to do everything he could to keep them all alive, including the bump that had just begun to show on Lori, even if they hated him for it.

Hershel patted his shoulder, like he’d known everything that had gone on in Glenn’s head as clearly as if he’d said it aloud. “I knew you’d come to the right conclusion.”

Glenn spent the rest of his shift outlining ideas in his head over and over again, until he knew what he wanted to see happen. He shared them with Maggie to check that they were reasonable before announcing them to the group. They needed to start training with weapons, all of them. They needed to be systematic in clearing houses, stores, and even towns. They needed a policy on what to do with strangers. They needed to watch out for herds and keep themselves moving. 

This was no longer a democracy.

 

================



It took Rick six weeks to recover enough to properly pace the length of the motel room with only minimal pain, and he was making full use of that ability now. The infection had long since passed, with him impressively no worse the wear for nearly dying. He suspected he could probably manage a decent run, if ever he had the opportunity. There was no real way to test that out since he’d yet to leave this make-shift jail cell since arriving. He paused by the wooden planks covering the window and peeked through a crack to examine the small bit of parking lot that was visible, like something interesting might show up right then and there, before continuing in his pacing. 

He’d have to sit back down if someone came in. Judith was keeping the extent of his recovery on the down-low, so that he would have more time. Rick was simultaneously grateful and frustrated. He knew that the extended rest had done him a world of good, and that going out hunting could reveal his lie, but he was also being driven mad cooped up inside the room with the same dim lighting, the same stuffy smells, and the daily torture of watching two kind, young women being dragged off to be raped. Sometimes, he thought he could hear them in nearby rooms, but it could have just been his mind playing tricks. It turned his stomach into knots and made it hard to keep down the tiny portions of stew they provided him with for lunch and dinner every day.

Rick picked up his pace, growing angrier at his inability to do anything productive or helpful. He couldn’t do anything to help Claire and Rachel. He couldn’t share Daryl’s burdens, or break them out of here. And if and when they did get out, he knew there was an increasing possibility that they would never find his family. Rick’s leg started to buckle, and he sat down on the mattress, rubbing at the soreness. The more he thought about it, the angrier he grew. Daryl should have left him behind. He should have stayed with the group and protected Rick’s family. It would have been so much easier dealing with being separated from them if he knew that Daryl was looking after them, keeping them fed, helping them survive. If not the first time, he should have left Rick behind the second time, when he was on the brink of dying from that infection. He could have escaped if he hadn’t gone back for Rick, and by this time, he could be back with their people keeping them safe instead of wasting his time hunting to provide for a group of morally bankrupt people that hardly gave them back enough to survive.

And Rick would be dead. 

He tugged at his hair in frustration. They were going to die right here if they didn’t do anything to change course. The winter had already set in, snow coming in short spurts here and again, and the room too chilly to sleep properly without pressing tightly into each other beneath the blanket. Before he could move around properly on his own, he spent the mornings shivering and bored, contemplating if there was any harm in asking to share body heat with Claire and Rachel. Ultimately, the answer was always, yes because trauma, and he’d work on the muscle retention exercises Judith suggested for him or read the book Daryl left. When the hunter had initially gave him The Quick and the Dead , Rick thought it was a bad joke, but apparently, he had possession of the only book in camp. Rachel and Claire fought over it incessantly during their breaks. Now that he could move around fully, the most pressing concern for survival was the dwindling food supplies. There wasn’t much to hunt these days, and the sheer number of people in camp were burning through their canned goods faster than they could possibly replenish them. They needed to move on before things got any worse here.

By the time Daryl came in, shortly before dusk with two bowls of soup, Rick had worked himself into something of a fury. “I don’t understand what we’re still doing here.” Rick complained the minute the door was closed. 

Daryl slipped some slices of slightly burnt meat and a handful of nuts from under his vest, and split the smuggled food into fourths for when the women returned for dinner. It was a common occurrence, though not daily, that was probably half the reason Rick was well enough to be angry right now. “You’re healin’.”

“I’m healed.” Rick countered. “You know I’m doing okay. We could head out any time. Next time it’s just one of them that brings you in, you just turn your bow on them instead of turning it over, and we all run out the back.”

Daryl ate his soup while Rick talked, quirking an eyebrow when he was finished. “An’ leave Tyler an’ the doc?” 

“We’ll get them on the way out.”

“Ain’t so easy as ya make it sound.” 

“Then what’s the plan?” Daryl shrugged in response, which just irritated Rick further. How was he supposed to make any sort of plan when all he’d seen of the place was one hallway? Daryl would have to do it, or at least supply him with a hell of a lot more information to work with. “You’ve been out there for weeks, and you don’t have an escape planned? Do you want to stay here? Like the attention Joe gives you or something? You know he wants to fuck you, right?”

“He don’t.” Daryl immediately contradicted. Rick waited a few minutes for Daryl to fidget and shrug again, like he wasn’t entirely sure what Joe wanted from him, despite his insistence. “Think he just wants what you do.”

Rick bit his tongue before he could spit out the first words that popped into his head. ‘So, he wants to fuck you.’ He had no idea where that thought had come from. He didn’t think about Daryl that way. They’d been sharing a bed for weeks now, spooning to keep warm most nights and, even with the occasional morning wood, he hadn’t thought about having sex with Daryl before now. He shook his head. “And what’s that?”

Daryl glared at him. “Someone who’s got yer back even when yer bein’ a prick.” The hunter shuffled away from him and crawled into the bed, not bothering to discard his shoes. He looked exhausted, tired to the point of nearly burning himself out. Rick felt guilty for pushing him when he was already working so hard to try and keep him safe. Of all people, Daryl didn’t deserve his anger. Rick knew that getting out of there was not going to be easy, particularly with a pregnant lady and a child. They’d have to be in the same place, bypass a deadbolt, take out a guard, sneak past the vast majority of the group that was housed in the motel, and gain enough distance that the trackers wouldn’t be immediately upon them. Assuming they could outpace them, they’d only have to survive on their own in the middle of winter with no weapons and no shelter and herds of Walkers stumbling around. 

Rick sighed and tugged on the blanket until it came out from beneath his friend, who grunted but didn’t move, and threw it on top of him. He turned back to his dinner, disappointed that in addition to getting into an argument, he’d be missing the best part of his day. Hunting lessons were really the only thing he could look forward to in this prison, but he didn’t begrudge Daryl for wanting the extra sleep, or even to just avoid him for a while.

Claire and Rachel returned shortly after, a little later than normal. Claire explained that she’d stopped by to check in with Judith about some pains, and asked after Daryl. “Just tired.” Rick told them.

“He works so hard.” Claire nodded along. “Don’t know how he even has the energy to teach us anything.” 

Rick nodded and took the opportunity to apologize to Daryl since he was undoubtedly still awake, but wouldn’t be able to protest. “He’s a better friend than I deserve.”

“Don’t sell yourself short.” Claire smiled. 

“Can we practice anyway?” suggested Rachel. She’d already collected up the sketch pad and was determined to use the last of the daylight to occupy her mind with something useful. They reviewed tree names and leaf shapes and types of tracks and droppings, but those were familiar to them by now to the point of being too easy. Daryl had covered them in the first lessons, along with a slew of poisonous and edible plants, and moved quickly on to explaining the sort of things they should be looking for and how to add several signs together to get a better picture, and even whistling signals that he and Merle used to keep track of each other in the woods. He gave lengthy explanations about proper technique to gut and skin an animal and how and why it varied from creature to creature. As Rick healed more, Daryl started to teach less theoretically. He sneaked in some sticks and twine and showed them how to make traps, which was more fun than it had any right to be. He showed them how to move stealthily, and even used a blanket to try and generate a topical map to demonstrate his techniques on a scaled model. It wasn’t really successful.

Rick wasn’t sure he could fool anyone about his experience or skill in the woods, but he did feel like he could probably use those tools to fumble his way through. He knew he was an excellent shot, so he’d only need a few opportunities and a little luck to bring back some meat. If Daryl ever let him take his place. 

It wasn’t much more than an hour before the door was reopened and the women were escorted out again. They were usually gone the whole night, only returning after Daryl left for the day. Rick tried not to think about it, but all the anger that he’d managed to push down while practicing cropped right back up like it’d never left. He’d misdirected that anger at Daryl, but it wasn’t any less valid. 

Rick slid under the blanket and tried to sleep. Daryl was in a surprisingly deep sleep, probably due to his ongoing exhaustion, and didn’t react even when Rick kept shifting and turning in an effort to get comfortable. He was ready to pounce and make something happen, and his body was too wired to rest. He didn’t know what to do with all that extra energy making him jittery and feeling too tense to relax for sleep, so he decided to go with the tried and true. 

He settled on his side facing away from Daryl and slipped his hand into his waistband, coaxing up an erection with just a few strokes. It hurt too much to think of Lori, either past encounters tainted by arguments and Shane or the possibility of a future one so painfully distant, so he searched his mind for something else to substitute in for the time being. His mind instantly edged away from images of Claire or Rachel, both very attractive with soft features and wide eyes, before he could wilt at thoughts of where they were now. He figured he’d just settle on a generic image, concentrating on the curves of her smooth body than recollecting a particular face because that felt wrong, too, when just about everyone was dead.

Rick worked his hand up and down at a slow and steady pace, careful to keep his breathing low and praying that Daryl would not wake up. He glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping man to make sure, and his brain decided to supply helpful images of a different sort. Daryl’s tan skin and muscular arms drifted through his mind unbidden, followed quickly by glimpses of his bare, firm chest. 

Rick tried to pull back from the scenes and go back to the nameless, faceless woman, but his southern brain was far more interested in seeing more of the Daryl’s skin. His mind flashed back to the day they escaped from Hershel’s farmhouse, and how the hunter had jumped straight out of the shower, naked and dripping wet, to pin Rick against the wall. Instead of a knife near his neck, he just saw Daryl’s eyes darkened with lust. 

Rick came before he had time to process that this was definitely not what he wanted to be thinking about while masturbating. He wiped himself off on a bit of toilet paper that he stuffed beneath the mattress to take care of later, more than a little disturbed by what had happened and glanced over at Daryl again, like the other man might somehow know that he’d had inappropriate thoughts regarding him. He was, thankfully, still asleep, so exhausted these days that he hardly twitched in the night.

Tipping onto his back, Rick threw his arm over his face. That didn’t mean anything, though. Everyone thought about weird shit when they masturbated. It didn’t mean they were actually into it. He didn’t want Daryl that way, it was just that Daryl was there. 

 

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Chapter Text

Crossbow loaded and in hand, Daryl trailed a few feet behind Lou, contemplating shooting him in the back of the head. Even this close to the motel, it was still thickly wooded enough that no one would see him do it. By the time they even noticed that Lou was missing, he could collect Rick and the other captives and have a lead on any pursuers by half an hour or more. 

When they’d first been taken in by The Living, the opportunity would never have presented itself. Joe or one of his hunters personally trailed him everywhere to make sure he stayed on task, wasn’t a danger to them, and wouldn’t abandon Rick for greener pastures. He also figured they were testing to see if his hunting skills were worth the effort to keep him around. 

Even with the early restrictions and close guard, Daryl had his bow and his knife and an exit strategy. He didn’t consider himself a planner, but looking for a way out was second nature to him. He memorized the guard schedule and rotations everywhere in camp, but particularly around their room. He familiarized himself with the layout of the motel, the surrounding buildings, and every inch of the woodland beyond for miles. He knew where their weapons and gear were stored, and where they kept all the vehicles, including his brother’s motorcycle, which was only a viable option in a couple of the scenarios he’d come up with. But none of it was useful while he needed The Living to keep Rick alive. 

Six weeks of good behavior had seriously revised local opinion of him, though, and the escort back to the motel was largely a formality at this point. Daryl figured it was nothing more than a holdover from the original agreement that he not have free movement around the camp since he was not usually tailed or monitored outside of it. Lou and several others walked ahead of him without a second thought, though Len and Dan, the first of Joe’s hunters he’d met, still walked behind him. Joe was the only one who felt inclined to walk at his side or talk to him. This probably had something to do with the fact that Joe was the only one Daryl bothered to respond to most of the time.

The gutting and the skinning took place in a separate building set a few blocks away from the motel and was actually completed by a trio from Harlan’s group. If they were running behind, Daryl might be asked to stay and help, but his duties were generally limited to hunting, like all of Joe’s group. He knew that Joe’s people would also get pulled to clear supplies from nearby buildings on occasion, but he had no idea what the rhyme or reason was for their participation since he’d never been asked to join them.

Lou and Daryl made their way towards the prep building in silence. There were no Walkers nearby, nor any guards. Daryl could shoot Lou here, too, and get away before anyone knew what was happening. With Rick mostly healed, the option looked increasingly feasible. The timing was good, too, because it was approximately the same time that Claire and Rachel returned for dinner, and he knew that Rick wasn’t going to leave without the sisters. Honestly, Daryl wasn’t sure he’d be able to leave them to their fate. He could shoot Lou right now in the back of his head, exposed and vulnerable, and return to their cell armed and alone. He’d have to kill Toby as well, who was usually in charge of bringing the girls back and stood guard during their evening meal, but he wouldn’t have any reason to suspect an attack, either.

In the kitchen, Daryl dropped off his string of squirrels and the few small mammals he had to show for the day’s work, leaning against the doorframe while Lou unloaded and chatted with the skinners. 

Lou didn’t have much to show for his time, which was fair because the chill had sent most critters into hiding, but it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for him and most of the hunters. The only ones who ever caught near as much as Daryl were Len and Joe. The way he figured, the three of them were likely the only ones with significant hunting experience before the outbreak, and the rest were amateurs, which gave him hope that Rick’s lack of training would not pose a major problem and also helped explain Joe’s quick investment in Daryl. It was possible, likely even, that Daryl had helped turn around a particularly problematic food situation for them. He wasn’t sure what they would do if they ever ran out. He planned to be gone before that could happen.

When Lou finally wrapped it up, he passed by Daryl with barely a glance and headed back towards the motel, unconcerned that Daryl’s bow was still out and armed. There was, after all, the occasional Walker to keep an eye out for. Lou could be on the ground before he had any clue what was going on. There were plenty of buildings to stash the body. Buildings that no one would search before Daryl was already long gone. Hell, if he did it right then, he might not even have to kill Lou, he’d just have to get the jump on him and tie him up some place where no one would hear muffled shouting. There were options around here for that. Maybe. Of course, if he blew it, and Lou alerted anyone else to his betrayal, he’d never have a good opportunity again.

Regardless of how he took care of Lou, Daryl would still have to kill Toby. He couldn’t risk the man making noise or giving a struggle in the hallway where the entire group roomed. But Toby was an awful man who enjoyed watching the terror on Claire and Rachel’s faces as they were dragged from their cell. He got off on it, and Daryl had no doubt that he was one of the participants in some of their nightly activities. It had driven him to attack the man with more viciousness than common sense within minutes of meeting him.

No matter what Rick had accused him of when he was angry, Daryl did not harbor any doubts about the quality of company they were in and his desire to leave it. Even within the confines of their own camp, it was clear that these were deplorable people who would not hesitate to betray their own for personal gain. The story that Randall had told in the barn, the story that had disgusted him enough to accept a role as an executioner, that was just one of many tossed around camp with glee and nostalgia. 

It was hard to tell how much was accurate and true in any one story when nearly everyone was trying their hardest to one-up the rest with the gruesomeness of their so-called conquests. But if even some of these stories were half as awful as they claimed, Daryl would gladly see every single one of The Living turn into the dead. He was among rapists, murderers, pedophiles, torturers and sadists, and it made him sick how easily they accepted him as one of their own. 

Inside the motel, one of the rooms closest to the entrance had been retrofitted into a storage space. Lou took Daryl’s crossbow and knife from him and stowed them among the weapons. Daryl could spot Rick’s python among them on the shelf above where Lou was putting things away, his back still turned to Daryl. It would be so easy to slip his arm around the man’s neck and clench down until he ran out of breath. He could tie and gag him in a closet nearby or even just leave him to turn on the floor of that room. They could be long gone before the next person came to use the room and found a nasty surprise. Lou turned and left and Daryl followed him out.

‘Pussy.’ An unmistakable voice echoed inside Daryl’s head, both encouraging and condescending in a way that only Merle could pull off properly. ‘Man up already and take care of the problem. Ain’t like that jackass wouldn’t do the same to you in a heartbeat.’ 

Daryl scowled. Rick was still healing, no matter what he said, and it was stupid to try and make a run for it when the man literally could not run. They ought to be smart. Bide their time in the relative safety of their environment and go when they could take Judith and Tyler as well.

‘Real safe environment.’ Merle chimed in again. ‘I’m sure them girls would agree. Must feel real protected with you cowerin’ under yer blankets pretendin’ to be asleep when they get taken.’

One deep breath later, Daryl forced himself to keep moving, but he had to concede imaginary-Merle’s point. None of them were safe and any illusions of safety were, at best, short term. Rick might be willing to consider leaving Judith and Tyler given the protection the doctor’s training provided, but Daryl considered them more or less essential to the plan because Claire’s pregnancy would likely necessitate a doctor at some point. And because unlike Rick, he had a much better idea of the sort of people they were with, and he didn’t believe any of them would be safe with that group long term, medical training or no.

Lou accompanied him to the cafeteria for some food but left Daryl alone before they even reached Toby. He may not have his weapons with him, but Daryl could still kill the man, he was sure. He’d even been left with his belt, which was basically a weapon in his book. All he had to do was sneak around the corner, get the jump on their guard, and they’d be home free. The doctor’s room wasn’t being guarded at all right then, like providence was sending him a message to get his ass in gear. 

Seeing Dan arguing with Toby as he rounded the corner was almost a relief because it took the decision out of his hands. He walked steadily toward the pair and was unsurprised to find that Dan was trying to weasel his way in to see Rachel, or preferably, have her out to see him. The shit-stain was well-known for trying to fuck anything with a pulse, particularly if they weren’t on board, but had a predeliction for kids. Rachel was young enough that she might qualify in his book.

“Can’t do that.” Toby folded his arms across his chest. “You ain’t allowed.” 

“Fine, how’s ‘bout the guy then? Ain’t right that he just gets to laze about all day while the rest of us are working. Why don’t you bring him out so’s he can earn his keep? A pair of cocksucking lips like that shouldn’t be reserved just for Daryl.”

Daryl clenched his hands tightly around the tray, rage blazing up from inside of him. Was Rick being used as well and simply hadn’t told him? Rick was something of a pretty boy, he should have considered the possibility sooner. Daryl was going to murder Dan and then he was going to murder Toby and take Rick the hell away from this place. It didn’t matter that both of them were still armed and would see him coming. It didn’t matter that the commotion would undoubtedly bring more people. Daryl was done with this place. 

“He’s not to be touched.” Toby said. “Joe’s orders.”

Daryl took a few deep breaths to calm himself down at that proclamation. The urge to kill Dan hadn’t dissipated, but it was easier to remember why it would be too dangerous to do so here and now. He needed to be smart, and he needed to get a move on. No more dallying. He’d do it the next day. Of course, he’d been telling himself that for nearly two weeks but hadn’t made the attempt yet. Rick’s anger with him a few days ago about delaying their escape was entirely warranted, but he just... couldn’t.

Daryl was fairly sure he conveyed his plans to slit Dan’s throat in his sleep pretty clearly with just a look as they passed each other in the hallway if the man’s quickened pace was anything to go by. Toby nodded to him before unlocking the bolt and letting him inside. For once, Daryl was grateful for the guard’s presence and even nodded at him.

Rick was the only one inside the room and looked to have freshly sat down when he heard the door. He didn’t look overly alarmed, so Daryl figured he hadn’t overheard the conversation in the hallway. Either that, or it was something he’d heard often enough to no longer bother him. Daryl grit his teeth and sat down on their mattress. 

“You look pissed.” Rick commented as he took his portion. 

Daryl grunted. “Where are the girls?”

“Back to see the doctor, I think.” 

“Again?”

“She’s officially overdue, if the calculations are correct. They’re talking about inducing labor, or even a C-Section.”

“Shit.” Either of those options sucked. It would take time for Claire to heal enough to walk, and now they were going to have a baby to contend with, and babies were loud. Absolutely everything was going to be harder now. He’d really shot them in the foot by delaying so long. Rick didn’t lay on the condemnations as was appropriate, though, just sighed and leaned in to brush against Daryl’s side. 

“I was thinking. They still haven’t picked out a name. If it’s a boy, I’m going to suggest Carl.”

Daryl squinted at Rick. Since when did he look so defeated? Daryl was used to Merle coming and going into his life, but Rick’s prolonged separation from his family must be agony. This latest hurdle had to be disheartening. “That’s gonna be hella confusing when we find yer son.”

Rick snorted, then chuckled, then let out a deep belly laugh before flopping back onto the mattress. Daryl let himself smile. It had been a while since he’d seen happiness like that. “Yeah. I don’t know what I was thinking.” 

 

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At first, Carol was just waiting for the boot to drop. She kept her head down, trying to be as quiet as a mouse. She never complained about anything, only venturing an opinion if it was to back someone else up. Surely, it was just a matter of time before they realized that she wasn’t just useless, but she was a liability to the group. The only question was why they’d yet to put that together. Ed had seen it. Ed had known she was weak and useless and a burden from nearly the day they met. Yet somehow, everyone else seemed to miss what was staring them in their faces. 

It was her fault Sophia was dead. Daryl had spelled that out clearly for her when they were still on the farm in a fit of unbridled honesty. Carol had taken the verbal assault because it was no worse than what circulated in her own mind. She deserved the condemnation for losing the only thing in her life that had been genuinely good through her own ineptitude. 

Carol could understand no one mentioning her daughter. It was a loss wrapped up in a punishment all on its own. What didn’t make any sense was why no one protested keeping her around after what had happened when they left the farm. It was her fault that Andrea was dead, going down after trying to drag her out of danger. And Rick fell shortly after to the exact same fate. Carol was the direct cause of both of their deaths, and she couldn’t fathom how anyone could stand to keep her around when she could barely stand to remain in her own skin.

From time to time, Carol’s gaze would slip over to Lori, emaciation emphasizing what would otherwise be a very small and slowly forming baby bump. Lori lost her husband because of Carol and her best chance at survival. They would all be better off if it was Rick sitting there with them at the campfire and not Carol. He was intelligent, capable, a planner. He was a crack-shot. He was a force to be reckoned with. They wouldn’t be slowly starving to death with Rick. They probably would also be much better off if it was Andrea instead of Carol. Andrea had concentrated her efforts on learning to shoot and become pretty skilled over a short period of time. She had taken ownership over her fate and wouldn’t go down easily. She’d be able to protect the group in a way that Carol just didn’t know how to do.

And then there was Daryl. Was it wrong that she missed him more than her husband? Daryl could be cruel, callous, thoughtless and dangerous, but he had a good heart. He’d thrown himself headfirst into finding her daughter while Carol had puttered around camp and been able to do little more than worry. For a few brief days, Carol had entertained the idea that maybe, just maybe, Sophia wasn’t dead, Daryl would find her, and they’d be a family. They’d be the sort of family she’d always dreamt of in her childhood that cherished each other. The sort that even when they argued and railed and hurt, they’d still have that slightly nauseated look Daryl had given her when she flinched in expectation of physical violence. 

But Sophia was gone, and now Daryl was gone, and it didn’t really matter if he was dead, or they’d left him behind, or he’d left them behind. All of those options amounted to the same thing. She was never going to see Daryl again, and whatever contributions a hunter might have made to keeping them alive were no longer available. So, she packed up all of those feelings, bundled them into a chest and locked it away. 

Carol stood at the precipice, convinced she shouldn’t be with the group, for a long time. Leaving was suicide, but suicide had been more of an enticing option than a threat since the day Sophia emerged from the barn. Staying was easier, but not if anyone else suffered on her account. She couldn’t bear the thought of one more death on her conscience. 

It was because of that guilt that Carol didn’t even think when she saw the Walker closing in on Lori from behind. Carl was holding back his mom’s hair as she vomited and everyone else was busy inside clearing out the building. Carol yanked her hunting knife from its sheath on her belt and leapt in, stabbing the Walker straight in its head without one thought to it being her first kill. Carl gazed at her with wide eyes, while Lori turned, absently wiping at her mouth and thanked her. Carol nodded, staring down at her knife.

It had been a present from Daryl who’d been disturbed to find that she was walking around camp completely unarmed. He’d shuffled into her space and awkwardly held out the long blade, handle first. “Here.”

Carol accepted it, but wasn’t sure what to do with it once she had. Was Daryl giving her a means to put an end to her suffering? Was he giving tacit permission? It was so unlike him, but her mind had been so consumed with grief that she could hardly piece together another explanation. “What’s this for?”

“Can’t run ‘round with nothin’ to protect yerself.” Daryl muttered. 

“I can’t take this from you.” Carol protested, eyeing the blade and noting the exceptional handle that felt easy in her grip. She wasn’t sure what the wood was, but thought it was a rare design, possibly even unique. ‘Dixon’ was carved into the base, verifying that it was his personal knife and not one he’d picked up elsewhere. 

“Got others.” Daryl shrugged. “Don’t need it.”

While there was no doubt that the hunter had other knives, one large one was visible right then strapped to his belt, Carol didn’t think he was the sort to easily hand over any of his weapons. She bit her lip. “I don’t know how to use it.”

“Ya gonna tell me Ed skinned his own kills?” Daryl scoffed. “Chopped his own food? Stop sellin’ yerself short.”

Carol had intended to give the knife back once she’d found a good one for herself, but they’d gotten separated before that happened, and now she clung to it as a reminder of the man whose name was carved into the handle. But it wasn’t just a reminder now that she’d used it to save Lori, and it wasn’t just a passive opportunity to end it all. That knife was something she could do. She could protect herself and others with it, and that was just the start. She had some general ideas about trapping that she’d gleaned from Ed’s hunting days that she could start to employ. She knew some of the local plant life that would be safe to eat. She vaguely knew firearms. And she knew that she could learn. She would stay with the group, and she would learn to be a resource they could rely on, like the people who were no longer with them.

 

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Three days later, Daryl returned to his room to find Rick holding a small bundle and cooing at it, smile wide across his face. The hunter set down their food and came around to look at the tiny figure swaddled and tucked into Rick’s arms. The delicate, vulnerable newborn tugged at something inside his chest, and his heart swelled to accommodate the sudden influx of warm feelings. He tried to squash them down. Realistically speaking, the kid was not going to survive. And even if it did, it wasn’t his. Then, the child opened its eyes and looked straight at him, and Daryl knew he was in trouble. He reached out a finger, and the baby grasped it tightly in a surprisingly strong grip. To hell with statistics, he was keeping this baby alive. 

“Boy or girl?” 

“Girl.” Rick responded, smiling even wider as he foisted the baby off on Daryl, setting her into his arms when they instinctively came up. Daryl didn’t have much experience with kids in general and even less with babies; he knew he didn’t look like a good influence on children and had historically acted the part. It hadn’t been uncommon for women with small children to cross the street or lock their doors if they saw him coming. Rick’s own wife had scolded Carl for going too near his campsite on more than one occasion. Yet, Rick didn’t hesitate to pass off the wiggling infant, like he didn’t doubt for a second that Daryl would keep her safe. “Quiet most of the time, too, like she knows it’s important.”

Daryl failed to contain his answering smile. “She got a name?” 

Rick shook his head. “Not yet. Rachel said something about Vikings not naming their kids until they turned two or something, in case they died, but I’m pretty sure Claire just wasn’t ready.”

“Claire’s alright, then?” 

Rick shrugged, sat down and started in on his stew before giving a proper answer. Daryl levered himself down beside him with a bit of trepidation, careful of the precious cargo. She felt so small and fragile in his grip, he thought he might accidentally hurt the kid. “From what I got out of Rachel, it was pretty terrible. The birth was hard enough; it’s not like we’ve got all the supplies we should here. Then, the baby starts crying and everyone starts freaking out, like they didn’t know it was coming. You’d think none of these people had ever seen a baby before.” 

Might not be far off, Daryl considered. There wasn’t anyone here who should be around children. Hell, he even felt out of his depth cradling her, but too enamored to give up his charge anyway. “Ain’t great planners.”

“They were going to kill her. Claire said she’d kill herself if they did, then Judith started throwing around threats. Think Jane would have just killed them all if it had been her decision, but Harlan talked her out of it.” Rick stroked the baby’s cheek, and it was clearly written on his face that he was considering what kind of monsters would suggest murdering a baby. “Glad he’s here to temper Jane out. Thank god for small favors.”

Daryl grunted. He wasn’t sure Harlan was any safer than Jane. One was a poison-dart frog, painted in threats and danger. The other was a cow, tame and unassuming until it felt threatened, and then it’d charge and trample just about anything under its sixteen hundred pound mass. 

“She’s… working.” Rick spat the word, clenching onto his emptied bowl as the anger visibly shook him. “Jane insisted that Claire would only be getting fed if she was contributing and the baby would have to survive off of what milk she could produce.”

Daryl looked down at his own bowl, still full of stew, and tried to keep the guilt from consuming him. It was his fault Claire was in this situation. He should have made his move earlier. Now he would have to review everything piece by piece and try to account for a baby as well, and he still hadn’t figured out what kept holding him back from pulling that trigger. Daryl longed for Merle’s overbearing presence. It was easy to fall in line behind his older brother’s larger, intimidating force. He’d make the decision, and Daryl would back him up. And sure, Merle had led him astray plenty of times in the past, too many to count, and he probably shouldn’t trust his judgement, but it was comforting to let him lead anyway. Maybe it was just the familiarity of it all, falling back on the same routine he’d had his whole life, or maybe it was because, at the end of the day, Merle cared enough to consider him when making decisions. For all his faults, Merle had ‘take care of Daryl’ in the back of his mind since the day he was born, and there hadn’t ever been anyone else who’d expressed an interest in his well-being.

Except maybe Rick, who was currently fussing over holding the newborn so Daryl could eat, even as Daryl tried to protest that he wasn’t hungry. “Should save it for Claire.” Or maybe Rick simply understood that their fates were inseparable and the concern was little more than self-preservation. 

“No, you most of all can’t afford to skip meals.” Rick said it like the decision was already made, and it was strangely comforting to accept the order for what it was and work his way through the stew he had no appetite for. 

The next morning, Joe walked Daryl out to the forest, which was nearly a daily occurence. There was no snow on the ground that morning, and the sunlight was warm enough that Daryl wasn’t cursing his lack of gloves. All told, winter was still in its earliest stages, even if Rick had taken to complaining about the unending chill weeks ago and was trying to calculate when it would end. Daryl didn’t know how to break it to the cop that a few light flurries and cold snaps aside, the cold always set in about this time of year and would go on for months more. It was just that this was probably the first year in Rick’s life that he’d be going without heaters, fires or good insulation. 

“That baby keep y’all up?” Joe asked cheerfully as he passed over Daryl’s daily rations. It amounted to about a small meal that Daryl usually saved for an early lunch. 

Daryl shrugged. “Not really.” It was a stretch at best, but thankfully Joe didn’t push him on the answer. Daryl had never had the opportunity to room with a newborn before, and what he’d discovered that night was that they had an expectation to be fed every few hours regardless of the time of night, food that he and Rick didn’t have. They’d been up for hours trying to hush the whining child until Claire got back, when she took the crying newborn into her arms with a look of adoration and unconditional love.

“Good.” Joe commented. “If it becomes a problem, though, there is a second bed in my room.”

Giving Joe a side-glance to ensure that the offer was being made in earnest, Daryl nodded in response, trying to keep his face blank as his mind whirled with the connotations of that suggestion. It wasn’t just an offer of a new sleeping arrangement, it was an offer of sleeping in Joe’s room, where Joe would be vulnerable and the door wouldn’t be locked. It was an offer of trust, and an offer to move up within the ranks of The Living, not just as an official member of Joe’s group, but as someone worthy enough to share his own space. 

Daryl could take him up on the offer, probably should take him up on it. It would put him in a better position in the group, no longer a prisoner, but someone with some shred of power and authority. It would give them their best chance at survival with The Living, and their best chance of escape from them. But at the same time, Daryl knew he couldn’t accept. If he confessed that the baby was a problem for him, Joe would move him as promised, but he’d probably have the child killed as well, and that wasn’t something he could risk. 

Joe was just as terrifying and cruel as Jane or Harlan, and Daryl only stuck close to him because of Joe’s peculiar affection for him. Daryl was still working him out despite usually being able to read people quickly and accurately. He understood that the older man had expressed an interest in him from their first meeting that was unusual and uncomfortable. As the weeks progressed, it’d evolved into something that would be better described as obsessive. Joe sought him out for conversation, dragged him into discussions with others, asked his advice, and was endlessly sharing his insights on the new world order with him. Joe frequently talked about ‘men like us’ in their mostly one-sided conversations. At first, Daryl thought he was taunting him, stringing him along because he’d already determined that he’d been lying. It took days for Daryl to accept that he genuinely believed Daryl belonged with them. Daryl was a little afraid that Joe was right.

The interest wasn’t sexual like Rick thought, he was almost positive of that. It was more like Joe wanted him as a second-in-command or possibly an heir. But that wasn’t quite right, either. He’d tried to put words to it so he could explain it to Rick, and the closest he came was that Joe considered people a disposable resource, and, for whatever reason, didn’t see Daryl as disposable. Maybe he’d seen the way Daryl had protected Rick and wanted that loyalty for himself. Or maybe he was still confused about why Daryl hadn’t shot him when the opportunity presented itself on their first meeting. Maybe he saw them as kindred spirits, identifying with him far more than Daryl thought appropriate. 

It occurred to Daryl within their first few conversations that Joe and Merle would have gotten on like a house on fire. They both were rough around the edges like it was a fashion choice and thrilled at being crude to the point that it made people uncomfortable. They kept a sense of superiority borne through stereotypes and hatred and held aloft by a set of self-defined rules which they felt made their behavior acceptable. And Daryl had little doubt that Papa Joe had also beaten his son something fierce. He was branded with it in his mannerisms in a way that Daryl couldn’t define but could see clearly. He wondered if he and Merle had been wearing their past so openly without even knowing it and if that shared bit of history was what drew Joe to him.

What concerned Daryl most about that train of thought was that he couldn’t pinpoint where Joe and Merle would diverge. He’d watched Joe’s men beat one of their own to death after he’d lied to Joe’s face about doing a perimeter check. Daryl had been rooted to the spot, unable to help the poor bastard, unsure if he deserved saving as he was one of the familiar faces that abused Rachel and Claire. Joe had egged them on, told the attackers that they were teaching the man a lesson. Daryl struggled to keep his mouth shut about dead men not learning lessons. It was only a small mercy that they shot him in the head when they were finished so he wouldn’t turn. Was Merle capable of that? Yeah, Daryl could admit that he was, but he hoped his brother wasn’t the sort to go through with it, wasn’t the sort to revel in it.

“Something on your mind?” Joe interrupted, reminding Daryl that he shouldn’t let his thoughts wander or let his guard down in the other man’s presence.

“Just thinkin’ ‘bout my brother.” Daryl tried to keep his responses as honest and as short as possible. It was the safest way to talk to Joe. 

Joe cocked his head. “Merle? Left him in Atlanta?” 

Daryl nodded. Of course Joe had already catalogued that information. Then, because Joe was waiting for more, Daryl fed him what he could deem as safe. Preferably, it was repeat information, but he’d stick something new in on occasion so he didn’t come off as evasive. “Only brother I got. Ain’t got no proof he’s still alive, ‘cept he’s too stubborn to die. Figure he’d like you.”

Joe practically preened at the praise, like he wanted to impress Daryl’s brother before he even met him. It was more unsettling than it was a comfort. Daryl didn’t think there was anyone Joe liked well enough not to betray in the right circumstances. It was the problem with staying with The Living, even if he somehow managed to move them away from being prisoners. There was no honor among them, even if Joe did have a code.   

They parted ways shortly thereafter, and Daryl tried not to sigh too loudly at finally being by himself in the comfort of the woods, the closest thing he’d ever had to a home. He needed to be extra productive today, and while a lot of that was luck, he could help it along with good strategies and concentration. They were all counting on him with their shrinking portion sizes, and Claire was going to need more food than before. 

First, Daryl checked his traps, resetting them and migrating a couple that didn’t seem to be faring well. Then, Daryl would search for sign of deer while taking down any small critters he came across that were worth the effort of prepping. Mice and small birds were usually the only escapees. When the sun was high in the sky, Daryl would hike to his personal spot beside a small hill for lunch. 

The location was prime real estate because he was hidden from three directions by thick shrubbery, rocky edges and the hill. It wasn’t the greatest defense against Walkers because it would leave him blocked in, but it made for a very discrete camping spot where the smoke and light from a small fire could be concealed. A few times each week, Daryl would start up a fire and skin and cook a couple of his kills as fast as he could, working only with a steel rebar as a spit and a broken horseshoe as the world’s worst skillet. There was little in the way of proper tools to be found beneath the fallen leaves, but trying to sneak something out increased his chances of getting caught. He loathed that he was forced to burn up the skins and possible useful but inedible parts, but he didn’t dare leave them anywhere that might get found.  Len had a nasty habit of wandering into Daryl’s hunting terf to check in on him. 

While the meat cooked, Daryl scouted the neighboring area for anything else he could slip back to his cellmates or subsidize his own meal. He was not above eating worms, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and leaves, but most of the berries and edible plants were too far out of season to be of any use. It was during his foraging attempts that Daryl saw a distinct boot print in the mud that did not belong to his own shoes. He straightened slowly, heart hammering. It was too close to his secret cooking spot. Someone had been here. They must have seen him cooking the meat he was supposed to turn in. 

Daryl tried to calm himself down. It could have been a Walker. He traced the footsteps back, looking for more signs of an intruder and slowly started to piece together more of the puzzle. There was no way a Walker had moved so carefully around the place and left so few tracks behind. It was possible the other hunter had only visited briefly and earlier, and knew nothing of his secret. But Daryl wasn’t prone to getting lucky.

“You know, Daryl, I thought we had an understanding.” Joe’s voice came suddenly from behind him, and Daryl had to concentrate to not jump from it. The man had nearly managed to sneak up on him before when they first met, so he wasn’t entirely surprised by his unexpected appearance. But the tone was something he couldn’t recall hearing since his father died. “I’ve been good to you, good to your pal, Andy. You seemed to get it, but...I guess I misread the situation.” 

Daryl turned slowly, stowing his finds in his satchel and shouldering his crossbow. He could shoot Joe right then, and make a run for it, but he didn’t doubt that there were others nearby and the attempt would get both him and Rick killed. The smell of burning wood and cooking meat was heavy in the air and there was no way Daryl could claim ignorance here. “Didn’t have a choice.” Daryl finally settled on, wondering if there was any chance Joe would beat him to death but leave Rick alive. 

The gray-haired man gestured for him to walk back towards his firepit, which Daryl reluctantly did, Joe walking in tandem, like they were friends having a friendly chat. “See, we’ve always got choices. You chose to take from the meat that you promised to our group. I think we can agree that’s stealing. If you’re telling me you didn’t have a choice, then I’d say you’re lying as well.”

Daryl chewed on his bottom lip. There was no way he was getting out of this alive. He’d seen what Joe did to theives or liars. “Didn’t think we’d survive on what we were given.” 

“There you go.” Joe replied, thumping Daryl hard on the back and making him nearly lose his balance. Daryl stiffened and nearly rammed his elbow into Joe’s jaw as his hand slid down his back to his pants, but the leader just retrieved his gun before pulling back. They’d arrived at his breached sanctuary, and there were several of Joe’s hunters waiting for them. Billy had taken the squirrel carcass off the flames and was tending to the fire and the meat. Len was standing towards the back, pleased grin on his face, and Daryl would stake his soon to be terminated life that Len was the one that had followed him and reported his hiding spot. “Now, you tell me the truth, son. You do this before or is this your first offense?”

Daryl glanced around at the group, calibrating his odds of fighting them off. Six on one weren’t good odds in the best of scenarios, but his back was to the opening of an enclosure that was blocked in every other direction. He might be able to dodge out of the space and get some headway on them between the trees. Of course, they were all armed with guns and more. It was suicide. ‘Suicide is stupid.’ Joe’s voice echoed in his head, a comment he’d made several times now, and his eyes seemed to be saying right then when Daryl’s gaze finally landed on him.

Daryl tried to decide what the safest answer would be. Joe liked him well enough right up until that morning. Maybe there was some way to play on that affection. First offense sounded like it might be an easy out, but Joe liked honesty, so he’d give him honesty. It would be a hell of a lot better than what would happen if Joe already knew about all the other times. “Ain’t the first time.”

“Good boy.” Joe praised, and Daryl immediately bristled at being treated like a dog but wisely kept his mouth shut. Joe had to have known already that he’d done this before. “You fucked up, but you owned it, and I respect that.”

“Oh, come on!” Len groaned from the back, straightening and letting his irritation show. “You’re not seriously going to let him get away with this! He was keeping his kills from us, feeding himself and letting the rest of us go hungry. He broke one of your rules!”

There were murmurs of angry agreement from the men gathered around, but Daryl hadn’t expected any different. He hadn’t expected Joe to even consider letting him off for the offense. Joe raised his hand to stall the flow of unrest from his hunters. “No one gets to break the rules without punishment.” 

The others seemed to take this as permission to attack, and Daryl hardly made it a few steps backward before they were on him. It was enough time to twist his crossbow around and bring it up, but not enough time to aim, and the bolt went wild to stab into a tree without improving his odds at all. Harley tore the bow from his grip and tossed it aside.  

Daryl did his best to defend himself against the blows coming from all directions, raising his arms and punching out at everyone as his body jerked back and forth from the onslaught. Within minutes, he was on the ground, trying to protect himself from the worst of the damage from his vulnerable position, but they weren’t kicking. Instead, he felt several hands working to pin him face down in the dirt. Someone’s knees were on his shoulders, another set of hands were on his wrists, and someone else was straddling his thighs, hands pulling down on his waistband, thankfully halted by his belt. Daryl froze. 

“Jesus, Dan, you’ll really fuck anyone, won’t you?” Lou asked with a snort. 

The hands on his belt slid down to grope Daryl’s ass, fingers kneading into his clothed flesh. He could feel Dan’s erection poking him in the backside. It triggered Daryl to surge into action, trying to buck off the three people on top of him. They pushed down harder. Daryl couldn’t breathe.

“That’s enough.” Joe interrupted. “You don’t shit where you eat, and you don’t fuck people who don’t want it if you gotta work with them the next day. You want it, Daryl?” Joe didn’t wait for Daryl’s confirmation, just plugging on like his answer was a foregone conclusion. It absolutely was, but Daryl didn’t have the air to respond. “No? Okay, then, that’s that. Ain’t nobody’s fault but yers that you got banned from usin’ those two whores.”

Dan didn’t get up, but he stopped trying to work Daryl’s clothes off. The pressure on his back eased as well, and the pinned hunter took in deep breaths. “Whaddya mean we gotta work with him? Thought we was gonna teach him.”

“I’m going to teach him.” Joe declared, and Daryl thought it sounded just about as awful, even if he was obviously intending to spare his life. “He’s gonna be punished, something he ain’t ever gonna forget.”

Daryl couldn’t make out much around the legs pinning his shoulders down, and the dirt obscuring his vision. He could hear Joe moving around, and whatever he was doing seemed to satisfy his group well enough, and that was terrifying on its own. 

“Gag him.” Joe instructed. “Don’t need him attracting lamebrains.” Smelly, stale cloth was thrust into Daryl’s mouth, the awkward angle making it even harder to breathe when the weight returned to his shoulders. “Pull up his shirt.” His poncho was lifted, immediately followed by his vest and shirt in one go until he was skin was open to the air. He detested having his back exposed to anyone under the best circumstances, but not one of the hunters commented on the scars that littered his skin.

Daryl tried to keep himself calm. He could survive this. Whatever Joe had planned, he wanted Daryl to keep working for him, he’d just said as much, so it wasn’t going to kill him. He’d be okay. He’d survived all kinds of things in his lifetime. This was just going to be one more thing to survive. 

Daryl was screaming through his gag before he even had a chance to process the searing pain that suddenly appeared on his lower back, enveloping the area in a heat so intense that it felt more like several knives stabbing straight through him at once than a burn. He was choking and struggling to catch his breath behind the cloth shoved in his mouth, so distracted by the pain that he couldn’t coordinate any other effort his body was making. It took several minutes before he realized that the act was long since over and the pain was just lingering. No one was even on top of him anymore, he was just lying limply on the ground. Finally, his brain filled him in on what had happened, slowly re-engaging and battling the urge to pass out on sheer instinct. He’d been branded. Joe had pressed the red-hot broken horseshoe against his flesh. Someone tugged the cloth back out from his mouth, and he lay there gasping and panting, unsure if he’d ever move again. 

“Looks like a J.” Someone said with a snort. “Guess he belongs to you now, don’t he, Joe?”

Daryl didn’t perceive most of what happened over the next few hours, his brain too occupied by the overwhelming sensations of pain to bother with anything that wasn’t life threatening. He struggled against whoever it was that tried to drag him to his feet until they gave up and let go. Instead, he brought himself upright and looked around for his bow, locating it looped over Joe’s shoulder. He cursed silently and plodded along behind Joe and Harley. Billy trailed behind him, apparently charged with making sure he didn’t fall over. No one else was around that he could see. Everything went in and out of focus. If he fell, he didn’t recall the tumble or being brought back to his feet.

Daryl vaguely recalled being brought to see Judith and refusing to accept her help, either. The doctor eventually returned him to his room and left with the infant, muttering something about trading one baby for another that Daryl would be insulted by if he weren’t in so much pain. It was only when he was alone with Rick that he found himself submitting to the instructions to remove his shirt and lay down on the mattress. He didn’t want to comply with either order, but he could acknowledge that letting the wound get infected would be an awful choice and eventually succumbed to Rick’s quiet, steady logic. Applying the antibiotic cream and numbing lotion onto the site was painful regardless of Rick’s careful attempts to keep his touch gentle and light. It was in direct contrast to the way he was fuming at the fresh injury. 

The deadbolt flicked to the side, and Daryl turned desperate eyes to his friend, breath quickening. Rick seemed to catch onto his desire before the archer could even put words to his thoughts. He didn’t want to be laying down and vulnerable when someone else came in the room, so they both tried to ignore his pain and adjust him back into a seated position. The action proved worthwhile when Joe came into the room a second later. 

“Brought ya a little somethin’ special.” Joe announced, holding out a bowl of pineapple chunks, obviously from a can, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless. Daryl had been eating mostly stew for weeks; he was certain luxuries like these didn’t even exist in camp anymore. He accepted the bowl and ate a few pieces with his dirty fingers. 

“Thanks.” He mumbled, not sure what was expected of him.

“You know I had to do it, right?” Joe asked after a moment of watching him eat, completely ignoring Rick and the glares being shot his way. Daryl slowed down. He wanted to share the treasure with Rick, but he didn’t dare do it in front of Joe. “They wanted your blood.”

Daryl nodded slowly. The flaming sensation in his lower back disagreed vehemently with Joe’s assessment, and Rick was not subtle in his pissing anger, but Daryl wasn’t about to drown any good will between them if Joe was still looking to help. He’d make sure the man was dead when he left the group, but there was no sense in squandering what his pain had earned him. If there was more fruit to be had, Daryl was going to play along. “I get it.”

Joe nodded, pleased, but trying to keep it off his face. “And the offer still stands, if you want an upgrade in your accommodations.” 

That caught Daryl off guard, and he met Joe’s gaze in surprise. It seemed unbelievable that Joe would still be trying to promote him after what had happened today, but the intent was there. Daryl nodded again. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Joe finally bothered to address Rick. “Hope your leg is feeling better. You’re going to show us what you can do starting tomorrow so Daryl can rest up.”

“I’ll be ready.”

They both waited until the door was shut and locked before breathing properly again. Daryl passed the rest of his bowl over to Rick, who frowned at it. “He definitely wants to sleep with you.”

“He don’t.” 

“Let me guess, the upgrade on your accommodations was to share a room with him.”

Daryl shrugged, instantly regretting the pull on his sensitive skin. “Don’t matter, anyway, if he did. Just extra food for us.”

“You’re joking.” Rick declared, giving Daryl a pinched look. At first glance, Daryl would have thought it was jealousy, but that didn’t make any sense. He reviewed the data and tried to figure out what had Rick’s panties in a twist. He knew that any benefits from the extra attention were good for all of them. He should be encouraging Daryl to play it up. Unless he really thought Daryl had fallen for Joe’s charm and wanted to stay with The Living. He felt his face heat up, but he wasn’t sure if it was more in embarrassment or anger. 

“You were right. Shoulda left soon as ya could walk. Wouldn’t be injured an’ wouldn’t have a baby to worry ‘bout if I’d stuck to the plan.”

Rick shook his head, tension leaving his shoulders. “I shouldn’t have left it all on you. Should’ve come up with a plan together.”

“The plan was fine. Keep my bow. Shoot the guard. Leave out back. Easy. ‘Cept now we’ve got a baby.”

Rick looked utterly confused about why Daryl was now accepting the same plan he’d shot down before. “I don’t understand.”

Daryl chewed on his thumbnail as he thought. He didn’t want to tell Rick that he’d pussied out every time. He didn’t want to admit to his failure. But Rick had a right to know, especially if it might get them killed because Daryl had fucked up and waited too long. He didn’t know the right words to explain what had happened, so he forced himself to close his eyes and open his mouth and say whatever came out. “Dale was in pain. Mitch was gonna kill you. I don’t regret killin’ ‘em.” Daryl grit his teeth. “I regret attackin’ Jim an’ Jenner more. They didn’t deserve it. Was just scared.”

Rick’s hand came down on his shoulder in what was obviously meant to be a reassuring gesture, but Daryl shrugged it off immediately, ignoring the pain it brought to his back. The touch felt particularly awkward without the barrier of his shirt. “These people here, they’re not innocent. They deserve it.”

“I know.” Daryl cut in before Rick could start supplying a list of crimes. Rick didn’t even know the half of it. “This whole place should burn.” Daryl sighed, picking at a hole in his pants instead of looking at his friend. “I’ve been tryin’. I just can’t do it.”

“Jesus.”

Daryl waited for the reprimands, for Rick to tell him that their safety was at risk, that their cellmates were already suffering horribly, that time was not unlimited, that he needed to man up and do what had to be done. It was the same things he kept telling himself.

“I’m so sorry.” 

Daryl’s head jerked up, and he looked at Rick to try and piece together what he was thinking and came up empty. “Why?” ‘I’m the one that failed.’ He wanted to tack on but didn’t.

“I wasn’t thinking.” Rick shook his head like he was clearing it. “You killed someone for me. Did I even thank you for that?” Rick pressed forward like the answer was irrelevant, so Daryl didn’t answer. “In police training, I was taught what to expect if I had to kill someone, I came to terms with the possibility. And then, when it happened, I saw a counselor for months until I could learn to accept what I’d done and why. Many cops wash out after their first shooting because it’s not easy to kill another person. After the outbreak, when it became clear that there was no more law to rely on, I knew I’d have to do it again to protect my family. You just stepped up and did it because it needed to be done.”

“Still needs to be done.” Daryl muttered, frustrated with himself. 

“No, just listen.” Rick cut in, angling his head so Daryl would have to look at him. The hunter caved and met his gaze. “I expected someone with no training and no experience to commit pre-meditated murder by sneaking up on someone and shooting them in the back. That was not a reasonable expectation, and it was unfair for me to put it on you. You balked at it because you’re a good person, Daryl.”

Daryl ducked his head and almost snorted at the accusation. He knew what the problem was with their plan now, and it sure as shit wasn’t him being a good person. He was going to have to pull that trigger on another human being again, and Mitch’s death still haunted him. Not because he’d done it, but because he’d done it so easily and did not regret it even a little bit. He was afraid of what sort of monster he’d become if he took off the leash. Daryl thought a lot about killing Dale as well, wondering if maybe the ease with which he’d accepted that job and position wasn’t because he wanted to help end the old man’s suffering, but because killing came easily to him. Did he belong with this heartless group of killers for crossing that line without one hint of remorse? Everyone always said that Dixon blood was bad blood. Maybe they were right.

Rick reached out and turned his head with a barely present touch on his chin that was uncomfortably intimate, but the cop clearly didn’t notice or didn’t care, dropping his hand when Daryl looked at him again. “You are. I owe you my life several times over, and I’m not the only one. I’m sorry for how everything fell on you, and I don’t blame you for not being able to do it all. I’m going to be hunting for the next few days. I’m going to take care of it and get us out of here. It’s my turn to step up.”

Rick set aside their dishes and helped him lay back down. Every slight tug on the skin of his back felt like fire, and Daryl clenched his teeth tightly to barrel through the pain of getting situated. He decided on one side so nothing would brush up against his back and the blanket wouldn’t get stuck to the wound. He felt Rick crawl under the covers and shift against him until the waves of pain abated enough to process that Rick was on his back with Daryl’s head resting on his shoulder. This wasn’t how they usually slept. It had been a solid month since Daryl had last put up any fuss about their sleeping arrangements, the memorable occasion when Rick had decided that it was cold, and they were spooning, and the only say he was giving Daryl was whether he wanted to be the big spoon or the little one. Daryl had folded because it was too cold for an ego, and they simply stopped talking about how they slept. He would have gone right on ignoring it, if not for the way Rick’s hand had slipped into the hunter’s hair and was currently making soothing rubbing motions. “Ain’t yer damn wife.” Daryl frowned, but he didn’t know if he had the energy to shift away or even bat at the hand in his hair. Any of that would probably ramp up the searing heat of his wound. 

Chuckling, Rick didn’t let up on the comforting motions. “Oh, I know. Just trust me, okay?”

Consciously, Daryl forced his body to relax. Rick’s touch, firm but gentle, was familiar territory now. More familiar, he realized, than anyone that had come before. Most people didn’t dare touch him, and those that did usually found a good reason not to continue shortly thereafter. Even Merle, far more tactile than Daryl by nature, only rarely threw an arm over his shoulders or smacked his back in affection. Those were the only acceptable gestures between men, Merle had explained once in a drunken rant, unless there was going to be fighting or fucking involved. Merle would have a conniption if he saw the way his brother was letting the cop touch him, but Merle wasn’t there, and it was nice to have the comfort of someone who felt safe and cared about him.  

He was starting to drift when Rick started talking, voice little more than a whisper. “You did real good, Daryl. You’ve been so good to me, kept me alive, kept me safe. Nothing for you to feel bad about. Not for killing Mitch. Not for waiting to leave here. Not a damn thing.” 

Daryl wanted to protest, complain that he wasn’t a child or a dog, and he didn’t need Rick’s praises or absolution. But even with the pain thrumming through him, he wasn’t sure he’d ever felt so content as he did right at that minute. He’d let it go on for just a minute and then he’d set Rick straight about this touchy-feely shit. He didn’t intend to fall asleep.

 

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Chapter Text

Since Judith was first forcibly recruited by The Living, she couldn't say that she’d ever slept easy. Now though, every night was plagued with recurring fears and memories. She’d largely stopped sleeping entirely, a trick she learned from her days in residency, and pulled out from time to time when she was on call too often. This was the first time she’d had to extend its usage without the benefit of caffeine and the wear was showing already. God, she missed coffee.

Shaking her head to try to stay alert, Judith dropped into a stool beside the definitely-not-sterile motel mattress doubling as a hospital bed. This was the fifth case that day involving some sort of brawl between two or more of The Living. Mostly, they were minor scuffles with easily treatable injuries, but one woman was left with a knife protruding from her shoulder. Three of the cases were directly linked to the food shortages, and the doctor would bet that the other two were probably related as well. Every day was worse than the last, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that they couldn’t risk staying, not after what had happened the last time they ran out of food. 

They hadn’t discussed it more than in passing, but Judith knew that Andy and Daryl had an escape in the works and planned to take them along. But the fact of the matter was that they’d waited too long, and now she had to concentrate on keeping Tyler safe. She was leaving without them. 

The upheaval in camp was fortunate because it generated an excuse to get out of the room while she checked on injuries, and it reduced the number of people available to stand guard. The next day, Judith increased her rounds, flitting around the motel and the surrounding buildings to check on everyone she’d treated and surreptitiously using her extended freedom of movement to pilfer as much gear as she could without arousing suspicion. Both her and Tyler’s bags were filled to bursting when she casually led the way to the food stores. It was strangely unguarded, but Judith wasn’t prepared to look a gift horse in the mouth. A few cans and she and Tyler would have a much better chance on their own. 

The boy bumped into her back as Judith stopped dead in her tracks while entering the room that should have been stocked with every bit of edible items in the group’s possession, bar what was being prepped from the hunters. There was nothing left. The room was devoid of anything. It was possible the food had been moved for safe-keeping, but the doctor knew in her heart that that was not the case. 

Tightly gripping her grandson’s hand, Judith pulled him along towards the collection of vehicles. The time for subterfuge was over. They needed to get out of there immediately, pull out all the stops and flee like a bat out of hell. Tyler had long since learned not to question her sometimes erratic behavior and obediently sped his pace to match her steps. Judith made a beeline for the sky blue rust-bucket in back. It was probably the oldest car there, but she knew it ran, and they’d long since lost the keys and had been using a screwdriver in the ignition to get it started. It was her best bet.

Her luck held out long enough for them to slink along the pavement and crawl into the car. Starting the car, however, was a dead giveaway, and Judith found herself whipping it around recklessly fast, checking a curb and narrowly avoiding a tree to get the vehicle onto the road as quickly as possible. A swell of shouts came from behind them, followed by a few gunshots and then more shouting. Judith pressed her foot further onto the pedal and glanced over at Tyler who was gripping at his seat belt like that hold alone would keep him alive. Judith wanted to say something to lighten his spirits, but even as they moved away from one danger, she knew there was another one ahead, and keeping her own optimism was already challenging enough.

Up the road they went, navigating around one crash and then another, cruising as quickly as she dared, when the car suddenly stuttered to a halt. Her first instinct was gas, but the gauge was settled at just above a quarter, so Judith wasn’t sure what to blame it on, except that it was an old car. They couldn’t afford to stop. The Living were undoubtedly on their tail, either to kill them or drag them back, and they were sitting ducks where they were. Judith looked around. There were a few other cars nearby. One of them might still be running, might still have gas. It wasn’t impossible. 

Judith looked over at Tyler to let him know the game plan, but his gaze was fixed beyond her through the driver’s window, eyes wide with a look of abject terror. The woman twisted around and spotted the lumbering corpse working its way towards them. Lamebrains, The Living called them. “Hey, it’s alright.” Judith reassured him as calmly as she could. “It’s just one. I can take care of it.” The window was a hand-crank. She could lower it just enough to slip a knife through the crack. They weren’t bright enough to pull back.

Tyler sat panting roughly, and Judith was reminded that he had virtually no experience with these creatures to speak of. All he knew for sure was that they’d killed his parents and everyone else he knew, and given the opportunity, they would rip him to shreds and eat him alive. 

Judith hushed him, spreading comforting words about her plan, but she didn’t think anything was sinking in from the way he lunged for the door handle. The doctor leaned across his seat to yank the door closed. “We’re safer in here.” She reminded him over and over again, tugging him bodily towards her so he wouldn’t have access to the door. He struggled harder. “We just have to stay calm.”

After a few minutes of no success and noting the arrival of two more undead, Judith changed her tactics. She took off her jacket and had Tyler lay on the floor of the backseat, covering up his head so she could deal with the problem. It worked, right up until the new lamebrains thudded against the car. Tyler dove for the opposite door handle to their approach, apparently too panicked to realize it was right next to her door and the original monster he’d been struggling to avoid. Judith grabbed his arm before he could open it, forcing him away from the danger. 

“Tyler, you have to calm down. Just close your eyes and count to 100. It’ll be over by then.” Judith pressed her palms over his eyes to help with the request, starting to count with him. At ten, she moved his own hands over his eyes and dropped her jacket back over him, sighing in relief that he’d finally given up. 

Judith turned to roll her window down a nudge, but realized that it was too late. The dead were on the ground, and the car was now surrounded by The Living. Reluctantly, Judith opened up her door and showed her hands, wishing they were still at the mercy of the lamebrains. 

“I wanted to cut off one of your hands.” Jane said conversationally, immediately directing Judith’s attention towards where she was standing between two idling cars. The doctor swallowed hard. “But I realize that you wouldn’t be a very good surgeon with only one hand.” Judith looked her in the eye, not contributing her own thoughts to the suggestion, but unable to hide the unease the mere notion brought up in her. “And then, I had a stroke of genius. Tyler’s not a doctor. He doesn’t need both his hands.”

“Please.” Judith was speaking before she had a chance to contemplate her words. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to do that. I’ll come back. I’ll stay with you.”

Jane took a few steps forward, placed her hands on her hips and spoke without emotion. “Here’s your only offer. Come back with us quietly, do your job and don’t ever pull this shit again, and I’ll only cut off two of his fingers. I’ll even let you choose which ones. Do anything, anything I don’t like, and he’s losing a hand, and you’ll still be coming back with us.”

Judith swallowed over and over, trying to get the acid back into her stomach. She could hear Tyler still counting behind her, blissfully oblivious to the threats being made against him just a few feet away. He was nearing 100. Tears prickled at her eyes, and the doctor felt a warped sense of unreality overtake her like when she’d found her daughter stumbling around in the woods, still chewing on her husband’s entrails. “We’ll come back with you.”

 

=============

 

The sunlight filtering through the trees felt better on Rick’s face than a bubble bath after a long day of hard labor ever had. It was the first time in weeks that he’d managed to get more than a strip of it slipping through the window of his cell. The soft breeze against his neck was no less than euphoric despite the chill in the air. He couldn’t have imagined how blissful something so simple would become to him a few months ago. Now, the fresh scent of pine trees mingled with earth and moss was easily superior to his favorite meal at the finest restaurant. He hadn’t even realized how miserable it had become to smell nothing but body odor. He’d even become so desperate that he’d press his nose into Daryl’s hair at night to try and chase the smells he was freely experiencing now. His breath fogged up in front of him, and he felt as giddy as a child on a snow day. 

And then it all came crashing down with a forceful shove between his shoulder blades. “Move it.”

Rick glared at Harley for ruining the moment but began walking forward obediently. The contentment of a minute ago was completely destroyed. Instead, Rick concentrated on his surroundings and keeping up with the others. He needed to remember everything, but that was only a secondary concern to ensuring his safety within the group, and then with Joe as everyone else fell away and he was led to Daryl’s normal territory. He decided to address the issue head on.

“No way he believes it’s an accident if something happens to me first day out.” Rick stated as soon as it was just Joe walking along beside him and chatting about expectations. There was no question as to whom he was referencing.

Joe snorted. “No, I don’t suppose he would.” For all that Joe liked Daryl, he hated Rick just as much. Rick had a pretty good idea that it had everything to do with him occupying the spot Joe clearly wanted at Daryl’s side and in his bed. He just couldn’t figure out why his friend, with all his general perceptiveness and ability to read people, was blatantly ignoring Joe’s advances, even after getting branded like livestock. And for what? Pineapple?  

It was also very clear that Joe wasn’t just prepared to go straight through him to get to Daryl, but rather planned on it. He’d obviously hoped that Rick would die of his wounds long before he became an issue or used up too many of their resources. The motel had provided a relative form of safety because there weren’t a lot of things that would affect only one person there. Now that he was being taken out to hunt, Rick could already see the gears working in Joe’s head. 

“Not on the first day.” Rick swallowed hard and nodded. They had an understanding then. A truce for the day but no promises for the next one. There was one saving grace to Joe’s fascination with Daryl: he wanted Daryl to want to be with him.  He didn’t seem interested in forcing Daryl into anything as Rick had initially feared. It was awful enough to watch Claire and Rachel be dragged from the room day after day, Rick didn’t want to contemplate Daryl suffering a similar fate. Instead, Joe seemed to be patiently trying to convince Daryl to come to him on his own. Joe nodded back, patting him heavily on the shoulder before turning to leave. “Feel free to wander off, though.” 

Rick waited until Joe was completely out of sight before turning around and heading down the ridge to a location Daryl had described. The temptation to shoot Joe was great, but it was imperative that he kept his cool until he had a good plan worked out. He had no doubt that if he showed up at the motel unaccompanied, they’d kill him on sight, and if they found he’d killed one of their own, there would be dire consequences served between all the captives. Joe didn’t trust him an inch, which meant he’d already prepared for any common reactions Rick might try to follow through on. It would be easier to lull them into a sense of complacency and then make his move, presumably what Daryl had intended to do. But Rick was sure he’d already acquired a huge target on his back which made that scenario unlikely at best. 

Sucking in a deep breath, Rick let himself relax for a moment. The first trap was empty, but he knew where to look for the others, and the soft wind and partial sunlight on his face still felt incredible. Without Joe leaning over his shoulder, Rick could enjoy being released from his prison and allowed to move about properly. He’d missed the fresh air and the clean smells and the unimpeded walking. 

He’d been going stir-crazy, Rick decided as he shifted direction and carefully made his way down an incline, mindful of not stressing his only recently recovered leg. That morning, Daryl had woken him up just before dawn broke, shuffling off of him and face planting into the pillow instead. Rick had grabbed the lotion left by the doctor from beside their bed and started applying it to Daryl’s injury, a blistering fiery red J beneath Daryl’s large demon tattoo. The archer hissed and curled away from him, but Rick just steadied him with his other hand. 

“It’ll feel better in a minute.” Rick muttered as he worked, comforting himself as much as his friend. It wasn’t easy being the direct cause of his pain, even though he was trying to help. And it felt even worse because there was a not insubstantial part of him that was definitely enjoying the freedom to put his hands on Daryl.

The hunter stilled beneath him, and Rick tried very carefully to keep his touch as light and clinical as possible, but his mind kept wandering to how warm and smooth the skin under his left hand felt, the hand that didn’t strictly need to be there but absolutely refused to obey commands to return to its owner. Instead, his thumb was rubbing soothing circles right beside a stray scar. He could feel Daryl breathing steadily beneath that hand, could feel the corded muscle and the lowest two ribs. Rick wanted to bend over and press a kiss into that spot. He wanted to spread kisses all over Daryl’s back.

Rick jerked back quickly, peeling his hands from his task and wiping off the excess lotion onto his pant leg. He cleared his throat and hoped his voice didn’t sound too strangled. “All done.” He was saved from any further conversing by the appearance of one of Joe’s lackeys at the door. He couldn’t name most of them, and he only vaguely recognized this one who was taking him out to start his day in the forest.

The third trap was damaged and Rick tried his best to fix it, reciting Daryl’s instructions inside his head a few times before deciding it was a lost cause and moving on. He shot a squirrel on his way to the next trap where he was fortunate enough to find a rabbit. After, he spotted a hoof print in one of the spatterings of snow and tried to track it from there, scanning the ground over and over again for the signs that Daryl had taught him. It was a whole lot harder in practice than he’d anticipated, but didn’t quite keep his mind from wandering back to that morning.

He was outside now, refreshed, and with some small measure of freedom. So, in theory, if his sudden urges to touch and kiss Daryl were simply a manifestation of being cooped up with no other reasonable candidates and a reawakening sex drive, the prospect should have mostly disippated. Except it hadn’t. If anything, it was stronger than before, and he was bombarded by images of the way the morning could have been. Rick wanted to run his hands up and down Daryl’s back, a vulnerability he hardly exposed to anyone, but exposed to Rick. He wanted to lean over the broad, strong shoulders so his kisses could land on the hunter’s face. He wanted to line their hips up and rub against him until Daryl gasped and pushed back. Rick forcefully cut off that train of thought before things became any more uncomfortable.

So he was attracted to Daryl. He could man up and admit that, especially in the quiet of his own head. It wasn’t that farfetched. He’d been attracted to men before without allowing it to become an issue, hell, he’d found Shane attractive, and he’d never done anything about that. Shane was straight, and even though he’d probably have fooled around with Rick anyway, to try things out, Rick was not prepared to endanger their friendship over something that was definitely a mistake. He didn’t want to be a notch in Shane’s bedpost or a drunken experiment. 

And then he’d met Lori, and it didn’t matter at all if he wanted to sleep with men because he wanted to be a good and loyal husband far more. He fell for her hard and fast, taking her in as perfection between the hazy glow of a new relationship and the blurring lines of young love. Lori was beautiful, kind, determined, and courageous, and had fallen for Rick just as quickly. They got married young and had Carl not long after, and it took Rick years to realize he didn’t know her well at all, having just seen what he’d wanted to when he looked at her. Still, he had a wife out there somewhere. They may have been in a rocky situation and she may have cheated on him, but Rick had no doubt that he loved her and wanted to find her again. He was married, and he needed to squash whatever this blooming attraction was in the bud. 

He also didn’t want to get punched in the face for making unwanted advances. This point, though, was beginning to feel increasingly unlikely. The archer tolerated his touch every night without complaint and just the previous evening had accepted his comfort. Rick’s previous assumptions about homophobic tendencies were slowly being replaced by the idea that Daryl just didn’t know much about human contact. 

 By the end of the day, Rick hadn’t caught much more, long since abandoning his attempts at tracking the deer that had either climbed a tree or vanished into thin air. Still, he had a few squirrels and a couple rabbits, and he felt like a conquering hero as he found his way back to his meeting spot. Lou was there, unenthusiastic about having to escort him and eyed his catch briefly. 

“Ain’t enough.” Lou informed him as he approached.

“There’s not much out here.” Rick reasoned. “Winter’s coming, and there’s a lot of us hunting.”

Lou shrugged like he didn’t care, which he probably didn’t, and they continued on in silence. It wasn’t until Rick was returned to their room with no tray of food for dinner that the cop determined what ‘enough’ had meant. Daryl confirmed it, not bothering to get up. He was laying on his stomach on their mattress, arm wrapped protectively around the tiny, sleeping baby sprawled beside him. Rick wished he had a camera so he could preserve the image forever.

“Gotta reach a minimum ‘fore they give ya dinner.” Daryl whispered so as not to wake the infant. “Twice as high for you, ‘cuz yer feedin’ both of us.”

Rick swallowed and nodded. No wonder Daryl looked so exhausted trying to keep up with such high demands. And he’d done that on top of the food he’d been smuggling. Of course, there was no way Rick would be able to smuggle any of his own now that that secret was out, so it looked like they’d be going hungry that night. 

“Just gonna get harder from here.” Daryl added after a bit of watching Rick silently blame himself. “No one’s gonna do well with huntin’ as it gets colder. Just not as much to find. Doesn’t help we’ve pretty well cleared this area.” Rick nodded. This wasn’t news, it was the same conclusions he’d drawn about the situation. This camp was a time bomb, and they needed to get out of there. But the best plan he had come up with so far was to bide his time.

They didn’t go hungry that night. Rachel and Claire both shared a portion of their own meals, insisting that Daryl and Rick had already given them so much that it was their turn to give back. They didn’t accept no for an answer, and Rick didn’t want to give them that answer. He’d rather go hungry than take food from a slowly starving nursing mother, but he also knew how important it was for them to feel like they could do something positive for a change. Daryl threw him a look at his instructions to take the food, but followed his lead anyway, either puzzling out his logic or having faith that there was a reason. 

The following morning, Daryl tried to insist that he was good to go hunting despite his stiff movements and pained grunts. Rick and Joe finally agreed on something and insisted that he stay put for a few more days. It was almost comical to be hunting while Daryl stayed behind with a newborn tucked securely in the crook of his arm, both of them completely out of their depths with their new roles. 

After the initial terror at being left alone with a newborn subsided, Daryl was actually great with the baby. He kept her from fussing even when Claire was gone for too long, and kept her clean and happy. It was definitely in the top ten most adorable things Rick had seen in his life, not that he was stupid enough to say that aloud.

Joe didn’t try to kill him the next day, or the one after that, but Rick knew it was coming, the weight resting heavily on his shoulders. As soon as he was in the woods, he felt like his senses heightened in preparation for an attack that might come out of nowhere, and getting through the day with this hypervigilance was exhausting. In the evenings, he practically fell into bed just moments after arriving, which was probably for the best as they weren’t being given anything for dinner aside from water. It was entertaining to watch Daryl struggle with his pent up energy after just a couple days because it felt like vindication for his mounting frustration from the last few weeks. At least, it was entertaining until Daryl kept writhing around in bed at night and waking his bed mate up repeatedly. Between him and the newborn’s schedule, Rick thought he might snap and do something stupid.

On the third day, Judith came by to check in on everyone. Rick immediately noticed that she kept her eyes downcast and barely spoke a word as she went through her normal examinations. Her grandson was also not in sight, which was an odd and troubling occurrence. He followed her like a tail. 

“Everything alright?” Rick asked cautiously. “Tyler okay?” 

Judith shrugged, her face tight and eyes averted. “He’ll be okay.”

“What happened?” 

“Things are getting worse out there.” The doctor replied evasively. “The scavengers have been going further out and bringing back less. The food stores are empty.”

“Empty?” Claire sucked in a breath, inching closer and subconsciously holding her child tighter to her chest. “I thought they put everyone on half rations.” Rick was pretty sure they’d started out on half rations, and cursed the group for not starting everyone out that way. They should have been looking to stretch their supplies a lot sooner.

“That was a week ago. Now, the food’s gone.” Judith confirmed miserably as she packed up her things and headed for the door. “If you see a way out, I suggest you take it.” No one was surprised that when the door closed after her, it stayed closed until morning without dinner being brought for any one of them.

 

=============

 

Lori lay shivering and hungry in her sleeping bag, watching Carl sleep. Even in light of everything that had happened and the struggle daily survival had become, her son rarely had any difficulty drifting off. She thanked god for that. It was one of life’s ironies that before the world came crashing down, Lori had rarely expressed her gratitude for her many blessings, and now she found herself desperately counting and rejoicing in them every day. 

She was alive, but more importantly Carl was alive. She was with a group that looked after her and protected her child. She had something to eat nearly every day, though it hurt to recognize that this was not the case for most of the others. They had fire to keep warm. The baby was still growing.

Lori actively kept those thoughts in mind, listing them over and over throughout the day because if she slipped up and let them go, her mind almost immediately fell back into a circle of despair. Rick was dead. Shane was dead. She was so hungry and so cold all the time. The only reason she ever managed to put one foot in front of the other was because Carl was still there, and he needed her. 

Often, she’d think back to the days on the farm and how the place had seemed almost magical in its serenity. It was why Rick had tried so hard to make it work. But then the memories of peacefulness would fade, she’d think about all the arguments she’d had and how she’d been wrong about every one of them. Lori had clung to the old world, naively thinking of stability and homes instead of security and survival. She was wrong about graveyards, wrong about Shane’s relentlessness, wrong about treating every new problem like they were temporary. She hadn’t known loss, Andrea had said as much, but Lori refused to hear it. Now, the simmering anger at her words seemed meaningless. Her struggles of the time were only minor inconveniences. Now, she could understand Andrea’s pleas for death and her support of giving Beth the option. 

Lori glanced across the fire where Carol stood guard. Carol knew loss, better than any of them, Lori figured. She couldn’t fathom how the childless widow kept going, kept getting stronger, in the face of it all. She’d somehow managed to turn a quiet resignation to abuse into something else entirely. Lori wished she knew how to emulate her, to flourish under the harshest of circumstances.

“You need sleep.” Carol chided kindly. 

“I know.” Lori responded. Shifting onto her side to look at Carl again and resting her hand on her stomach, she tried to figure out why it was so much harder to sleep without Rick or Shane nearby. It wasn’t fundamentally any different than sleeping beside Carl while someone else was on watch, but it felt different. She wasn’t sure if it was simply due to spending so much of her life with someone who cared about her at her side, or if their protective natures had brought a better feeling of security to the group. Lori desperately wished Rick was alive, so she could lay in his embrace and feel his fingers running through her hair again as he tried to soothe away her fears and distress. She blinked back tears. 

Rolling over in a feeble attempt to get comfortable, Lori considered her children, if only to avoid thoughts of her husband. She’d been wrong about them, too. It wasn’t about some well of good memories that they had to draw from. It was about adaptability and perseverance. Carl had those things, and the baby would, too, if they managed to keep it alive on the pitiful rations they could acquire. It’s why he was snoring softly beside her and she was awake dwelling on memories.

 

=============

 

When Joe’s assassination attempt finally came, Rick didn’t immediately recognize it for what it was. After all, Rick stumbled across the occasional Walker as a regular part of being outside the safety of their encampment. It only made sense that sooner or later he’d come across a herd, or it would come across him. He wasn’t even suspicious when Len ran by him, shoving him hard in the back and causing him to stumble onto his knees shortly before he heard the sounds of the approaching undead. As far as the cop could figure, Len had never done anything that fell under the category of altruistic in his entire life and that sort of behavior was par for the course. Rick dragged himself to his feet and quickly took off after the other man, mindful of the way his leg twinged with the effort. The Walkers were close, and there were definitely more than a dozen of them following, but he could easily stay ahead of them with a moderate pace. He wasn’t even suspicious when he tripped for a second time over someone else’s animal trap. He finally clued in when he had reached the ladder to the hunting stand only to have a bullet lodge into the wood between his hands. 

Ears still ringing from the shot, Rick look up and was unsurprised to see the gun wielder was Joe. Len was nowhere to be found, but Rick figured he was probably somewhere nearby hiding and cackling. Rick glared at Joe, but turned away from the ladder. It wasn’t worth the risk; he’d find a new place to hide. Except Joe was apparently eager to watch him get torn to shreds by the impending herd and gave another warning shot as Rick started to make distance from the tree stand. Message received: he was stuck in that clearing.

Taking in his surroundings with a quick, efficient look, Rick contemplated his options. Fighting the Walkers off with just his six-shooter was not ideal, but possible. The ground was mostly clear and even, so he would probably stand a chance fighting by hand, but there were a lot of them to contend with. There were a few clusters of trees that could cover his back, but they’d also trap him. He saw Joe smirking at him, legs dangling from the wooden perch and gun lazily draped over the edge. Rick sucked in a deep breath, trying to stave off panic. He could shoot Joe, but it was unlikely that he could pull it off without at least earning his own bullet. Assuming he was successful, there was Len somewhere around here, and probably more of Joe’s group lurking around to keep him in line. And even if he took them all on successfully, he wouldn’t be able to make it back into the motel without them. 

Cursing under his breath, Rick took several steps back until the asshole in the tree stand let off another warning shot, then scooted until he had a couple trees covering his six. He’d climb up one if he weren’t positive Joe would shoot him down from there, too. 

The Walkers crested the hill, and Rick quickly counted them. Sixteen. No, seventeen. He checked his chamber and confirmed what he already knew. He only had four bullets left. Somehow he doubted Joe would be inclined to toss him a spare firearm. Aiming carefully to make sure he wouldn’t waste any of his limited supply, Rick took down four of the ones closest to him in quick succession. Thirteen more to go. He pulled out his two knives and got them ready. One was Daryl’s, a large, sharp buck knife he was borrowing while the hunter was out of commission, which he kept in his dominant hand. The other was smaller, but sufficient to pierce a Walker’s skull. He’d done it many times before. If they weren’t bundled so closely together, he’d probably stand a better chance. He’d knifed enough by now to know what he was doing. 

A growl from behind him and a smirk from above was the only warning Rick had of a stray Walker approaching, probably drawn to the sound of his gunfire. He dispatched it quickly with his knife and came back around the cluster of trees. He needed to keep in mind that noise was his enemy here. 

Or perhaps not. It was unlikely that any noise he made now would be any worse than the shots he’d already fired, but he could use it to his advantage. He wished he had firecrackers or something so he could draw the herd away and pick them off one at a time. He’d have to settle the only other noisemaker he had in range. 

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Rick asked, letting his anger and frustration show. “I’m helping you guys! Why try and kill me?”

Joe laughed, then shouted back. “You’re a shit hunter, and you’ve been eating up our food without contribution for weeks. You’re useless.” The questions were pointless, Rick already knew Joe’s motivations, the ones he said and the ones he didn’t, but he was pleased that the man fell for it and made himself known to the approaching Walkers, several of whom branched off to shuffle towards the new source of racket. Now there were eight heading for him. 

Jogging forward, Rick jammed his knife into the eye socket of the nearest just as it was entering the clearing, not waiting for it to drop before skittering backward a few steps to keep the rest away from him. He leapt at the next, taking it down and immediately turning and kicking another hard in the chest so it stumbled into some of the others. Rick took the next two down one after the other before backing up. His next strike swung wide, glancing off bone, and he cursed, kicking the Walker down before moving back again.

His spine slammed into a trunk and he stole a glance over his shoulder to see he’d backed up into his original spot. Three Walkers were on him a heartbeat later and he struggled to keep them all at bay, twisting and ducking to avoid the snapping jaws. Finally, he managed to loop his foot beneath the middle attacker and bring it to the ground. It tried to grab at his ankles, but Rick brought his heel down hard until he felt the skull give beneath it. From there, he jerked back to raise both his knives and bring them up at the same time, piercing through two jaws and into their brains from below.

Rick didn’t have a moment to relax because there were several more Walkers coming towards him now, having lost interest in Joe’s inaccessible position and drawn by Rick’s vulnerability. He went on the offensive, slashing his way through a wave of bodies, aiming for the eye or the ear or the jaw. He lost track of how many were left as he disposed of them, a pile forming at his feet that the newest were forced to step on in order to reach him. 

When it was finally over, Rick stood panting over them all, counting out more than the fourteen bodies he’d expected strewn across the clearing. Several others must have lumbered in to join the fray from the treeline. He scanned the area for any more, and, seeing none, turned his attention to the immediate danger on the stand above him. 

“Hold up!” Rick gasped, raising his hands into the air level with his head and trying to think quickly. Joe looked surprised enough that he’d survived the trap laid out for him, but that hadn’t lasted long enough to generate even a hesitance between the last Walker falling and the detestable hunter raising his gun to point at Rick’s head. “You don’t want to kill me.”

Joe chuckled before lowering his weapon to rest on the wooden bar in front of him, making a big show of it. They both knew that he had the high ground and ammo and there wasn’t a chance Rick was going to take him out, even if it was just the two of them left now. The sun was still high in the sky, and Joe had all the time in the world to toy with him. “And why’s that?” 

“You shoot me, and Daryl’s going to know it wasn’t these Walkers that took me out.”

Joe snorted. “So I should what? Let you go, and you’ll promise never to come back?” 

Rick shook his head. “Just take me back, and I’ll promise not to tell Daryl.”

“You’re a lot stupider than you look.” The hunter gripped his gun again, and brought it back up, bored with his argument. Rick raised his hands higher and hurried to get to his point.

“Just hear me out, okay? If you shoot me, he’ll go off the rails, we both know that. He’ll attack you, and he sure as hell will never work with your group again, and you’ll be forced to kill him.” Joe looked distinctly unimpressed with his simple logical reasoning, and Rick took a few cautious steps forward, trying to keep eye contact to show his integrity while avoiding the bodies piled at his feet. “I tell him what happened today, and it’s the same outcome. Keeping my mouth shut is the only way to keep both of us alive, and it’s the only way you’ll keep Daryl’s trust.”

“Me and Daryl, we’re not the sort that trust people, even before the world ended. It’s why it had to be this way, so he could see for himself that I wasn’t involved.” Rick knew that that was why Joe hadn’t outright shot him before now, and why it had been the production that it was. Joe’s interest in Daryl apparently warranted staging a crime scene, so the tracks and the bodies and the injuries would all show that this was just a herd attack and had nothing to do with any living person. It was the only way he could kill Rick and keep Daryl. “And I sure as shit don’t trust you.”

“You don’t have to trust me. Just trust that I’m motivated by self-preservation. Right now and for all foreseeable future, the only thing that’s keeping me alive is my willingness to never mention this incident again.” For the first time since observing Joe and Daryl interact, Rick prayed that the obsession was as deep as he’d previously feared. He knew he was a loose end at this point now, in addition to the problem he was before. Rick watched his face carefully to see the older man waffling over the decision. Was his interest in Daryl going to be enough? “You can always kill us later.” He added.

Licking his lips thoughtfully, Joe lowered his weapon again, leaning forward to rest his arms over the bar where his gun had been a moment before. “He could always act like he doesn't know, wait for the right moment.”  

“You think he could fool you?” Rick asked cautiously, banking on Joe’s arrogance to guide him to the desired answer. He held his breath. It was a tightrope he was standing on because Joe was dangerously observant. It was only because of a willful ignorance when it came to Daryl that they’d gotten away with breaking his rules already.

“You’re right. He’s no actor.” Tucking away his gun, Joe started down the ladder of the tree stand. “Come on. Let’s get you some more ammo. Can’t have you coming back empty handed.”

 Rick reluctantly accompanied his would-be murderer up the hill and away from the pile of the dead, still unsure if he was in the clear. He stole a few glances out of the corner of his eye before deciding that talking might be an easier way to gauge his relative safety. “Besides him being able to hunt, what is it about Daryl that makes him worth all this fuss?”

“Surprised you of all people would ask.” Rick shrugged, waiting until Joe continued instead of replying. He didn’t bother addressing Joe’s implications. He wasn’t the first in camp to make assumptions about them. “Daryl’s a natural leader, but he’s able to put that aside and follow when it’s in his best interest. He knows how to take care of himself. He’s the sort that just does what it takes to survive without getting hung up on the details. He’s got his own code, same as me, and I could use someone who keeps loyalty right up there with his honesty.” Joe explained. “I think he’ll be loyal to me so long as I don’t give him a reason not to, same as you, and keeping him around will be worth it in the long run.” 

Rick wanted to laugh. The urge bubbled up within him to bend over and slap his own knee and release the tense air between them. Joe’s obsession with Daryl had been keeping them alive for weeks, but the man didn’t know the first thing about the object of his affection. Not one trait in his list of admirable attributes was accurate to what Rick knew about Daryl, except that he did abide by some sort of moral code that included loyalty to his terrible brother and Rick himself, though that loyalty was certainly not extended to Joe. 

Daryl knew how to take care of himself in a strictly physical sense, but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t put his own survival above Rick’s, a quality that seemed to extend to Sophia and others. He seemed entirely clueless about how to look after his own mental and emotional well-being. His friend was also not able to follow through on killing people to get them out of there, primarily, Rick thought, because he was no leader.  Daryl had explicitly stated that he had no interest in leading, and he lacked the confidence in himself to make those decisions except in the case of immediate need. He was content to submit and follow Rick’s orders, and that was clearly a result of a trust Joe believed Daryl couldn’t have. Rick was certain that if he’d been alongside Daryl as his friend was struggling to take the shot, he would have done as instructed without hesitance.

 Daryl was the actor that Joe claimed he wasn’t in crafting what Joe saw, holding up a mirror to Joe’s self-serving behavior with his quiet, placating responses, and inadvertently pitting himself as the perfect partner for the leader. He appeared as everything Joe liked about himself in combination with his own capabilities and loyalty. Hell, Joe’s desire to keep him around and alive undoubtedly was largely influenced by a sense of self-preservation. 

Rick squashed the hysterical laughter before it could emerge and tried to move away from the topic. “Don’t suppose it will make much of a difference how things play out with the food shortages.”

“Yeah, with everything up in the air, it might not be a bad idea to keep you around.” Joe quirked an eyebrow at him, smirking like Rick’s mental laughter had been contagious. “We’ll be relocating tomorrow. There’s a place not too far away that’s accepting new people.”

 

============

 

Chapter Text

At first, Daryl thought it was a perverse joke. He’d seen and heard a lot of things during his time with The Living that made him violently angry or sick to his stomach. He hadn’t even realized that he had any expectations left about some measure of morality among them until that moment. Claire must have thought the same, because she wasn’t reacting to the words at all, no movement detectable from where she sat turned away and nursing her newborn. 

“You want to eat the baby?” Another man clarified, pinning the first with a look that was far closer to contemplative than the horror growing on the prisoners’ faces. They were near the edge of camp and guarded, but close enough to the campfire that the conversation could easily be overheard. Daryl wondered if that was intentional. It had to be a scare tactic, right? “There’s hardly any meat on it.”

The first man, bony with long limbs and a prematurely bald head, shrugged. “Imagine it’s tender, like veal.” His smile was all teeth.

“Ain’t gonna be around much longer, and all it does is attract lamebrains, anyway. Might as well. I’m starvin’.” A new voice joined in to the conversation, a younger man Daryl recognized as Mikey, confirming that he was every bit the psychopath. 

Daryl’s appetite vanished despite the way his stomach was cramped from lack of food. Instead, he felt the heat of anger swelling up and taking away the hollow feeling. It didn’t matter that there were dozens of armed aggressors around and not one chance in hell they’d make it through more than a few of the bastards before being summarily executed and probably eaten. He was going to tear those men to shreds with his bare hands.

Daryl didn’t even make it to his feet before Rick yanked him right back down into his spot on the thin blanket that wasn’t doing much to keep the chill of the frozen earth from permeating their skin. For the first time all evening, Daryl wasn’t thinking about how cold he was. In fact, he felt hot. He glared at Rick, who leaned in to keep his voice at a murmur. “They’re just trying to get under our skin.” 

“An’ if they ain’t?” Daryl contested, letting out a huff of disgust right into the cop’s face. 

“Then attacking them head on is a good way to lose that baby’s only protection.”

Clenching his jaw tight enough that he thought he might crack a tooth, Daryl fought with his emotions. He had no idea how it had happened, but his heart ached with the all consuming need to care for that child. She was his in every sense that mattered, and he would die before he let one of those filthy bastards lay one finger on her. Was this what Rick felt for Carl? How was he even functioning without his boy nearby to protect? Squeezing his eyes shut, Daryl nodded tightly. 

A few minutes later, the conversation turned to other sources of food for the starving group, their voices quieting like they’d intended specifically for the prisoners to hear and were now returning to normal after not provoking a reaction. It led credence to Rick’s assessment, but Daryl couldn’t help but dwell. They couldn’t risk it being anything but a serious suggestion, which meant they had to get out of there immediately. Yet despite the lack of walls, escape felt further away than ever. 

They were weak, cold and hungry. The Living now had over fifty people with no fewer than six on watch at all times, and at least one guard pacing nearby. Everyone was armed, most with guns, and even some heavy artillery amongst them. There were a dozen people who could track should they manage any distance, including Joe who always kept one eye and ear pointed in their direction. Rachel was rarely with them, located somewhere across camp where Daryl couldn’t quite spot and didn’t dare to try with his loosely controlled temper, anyway. The separation of their subgroup meant that if any one of them somehow managed to escape it would be a death sentence for the remaining. 

Daryl couldn’t see a way out of there. Rick clearly had a few ideas already in mind from the way he assessed the camp with a tactical eye, but they couldn’t risk discussing them. Whatever his plans were, it was apparently not yet time to make a move. That was another frustration of their new location: they couldn’t discuss anything in private.

“It’s okay.” Claire straightened her shirt, and scooted over to the pair, unloading the baby into Daryl’s arms like it was second nature already. The hunter fought back the urge to squeeze the child tightly against himself, and settled her into the crook of his arm instead. “They’ve been saying shit like that since the day she was born.”

Rick sucked in a loud breath through his nose, and Claire gave him a sympathetic look. Daryl had no idea how she could be sympathetic with her own situation. “Don’t know how you do it.”

“I’ve got you two looking after me.” A small smile appeared, and despite all the horror, it made her beautiful. He wished circumstances were different and he could see her with a wide, genuine smile lighting up her eyes. But those kinds of requests were far too much to ask for these days. “Take care of her.”

Daryl nodded, trying to ignore the surge of anger that reemerged when Claire was escorted away, and swaddled the baby more firmly in her blanket. It was too cold out for someone so young. He wished they at least still had the vehicles to keep off the ground at night and block the wind, but they’d long since been abandoned as most of them were out of gas. They were following the train tracks on foot with the exception of a few motorcycles used by their scouts. Every once in a while, Daryl saw a sign for some place called Terminus and figured that was their destination. He spent most of his free time considering how he might slip away on Merle’s bike, parked just twenty feet away from him, and warn the unsuspecting inhabitants of Terminus of the threat heading their way. He just couldn’t figure out how to take off without sentencing Rick or the sisters to death. Even if he could determine a solution, there was no guarantee that those people could protect themselves against The Living or would provide a safe haven. There wasn’t even a guarantee that the place still stood. 

“We’ll go hunt early in the morning.” Rick declared as soon as Claire was out of earshot, pressing tightly against his side to share warmth and whisper. “Maybe we can catch something before we have to move. Joking or no, I’d rather keep cannibalism off their minds.”

Daryl frowned. “There’s fifty people here. Ya think the two of us are gonna come up with enough food to keep that conversation off the table?” It felt like the sort of conversation that once it comes up, it lingered, the sort of poisoned fruit that contaminated everything around it. He instinctively shied away from the notion.

“It’s just a few people talking. We’ve only got to worry if we hear it from Jane or Joe, I think.” Rick insisted, searching the crowd for the trio of leaders sitting near a fire. They were far too distant for any of their conversation to be made out. As if reading his distress, Rick bumped their shoulders together and tried to relieve the tension. “Besides, it’s your fault there’s fifty of them now.”

Daryl whipped his head around, insulted and confused, despite immediately identifying the comment as a joke. It wasn’t the day for jokes.  “Howdya figure?”

“Way I see it, Joe’s hunters suck. You brought in enough to feed half the group, easy, maybe more when the hunting was still good. If not for that, I figure the group would have split or shrunk long before now. Instead, they’ve brought in more people since we’ve been here.” The thought was disturbing, but Daryl could see the merit of it. Had he personally been responsible for enabling these monsters to persevere? He’d been feeding them, and they’d multiplied, and now they were a terrifying force. “Don’t beat yourself up about it.” Rick added. “Without you, Claire and Rachel would never have lasted this long. You kept them alive. You kept me alive. I’m grateful for that.”

Daryl was too, but he didn’t feel any less guilty for his role in this mess. “Go on an’ lay down. I got this.” They didn’t dare fall asleep at the same time, even with multiple people on patrol. Their captors were more dangerous than the Walkers, and he wasn’t prepared to leave their safety in such devious hands. He also wanted to be awake to make sure the baby stayed warm enough until Claire returned. 

Rick fussed until Daryl consented to lay down beside him, still on their own personal watch for any danger. It was too cold to sleep without the shared body heat; the fires were too far away and the blankets too thin. They situated the baby on Rick’s chest so Daryl didn’t need to be on his healing back and huddled together. It was a crime substantially worse than those he’d committed before, curling together with an audience, but it was too dangerously cold to be concerned about the side effects. People had been making insulting insinuations since he’d gotten there desperate to keep Rick alive, and while they were far more frequent now, they weren’t any worse. Hell, half of the comments were shit he’d said before to others with less cause. Mostly, Daryl gave in because he thought the remarks were a fair trade off for the comforting warmth of pressing close to his friend. He never thought he cared for being touched, but Rick was proving him wrong. 

After several minutes passed with no movement, Daryl figured Rick was already asleep until the cop spoke with a quiet, hesitant voice. “Back at the farm, when we had that kid, would you have killed him? If I’d asked you to do the execution instead, would you have?”

“Carl was there.”

“And if he hadn’t been?”

Daryl frowned, wondering at the relevance of the question, but gave it serious consideration anyway. Rick clearly wanted a straight answer, but Daryl wasn’t sure why. It was possible he was trying to suss out the hunter as a liability after he failed to help them escape from the motel. “Yeah. I’da done it.” Daryl waited a full minute before tacking on, “I won’t let you down.”

“I know.” Rick replied promptly, like that statement was never in doubt, which was stupid because he’d already let them down. They were only in this situation because of Daryl. He put them there, failed to get them out, and apparently, helped their captors to thrive.  

 

============

 

Daryl was reasonably sure that Rick had actually fallen asleep in the hour before Claire returned with her sister and carefully scooped the baby off his chest, but he was wide awake and starting to sit up as soon as the covers were shifted and let in the chill. It was substantially earlier than she was traditionally brought back, but the whole camp seemed to be shutting down to try and sleep through their hunger pains. Rick insisted that he couldn’t sleep, and Daryl should close his eyes for a while instead. Daryl acquiesced, but he struggled to fall asleep. 

He wanted to go knife the men who’d talked about the baby. He wanted to take down the leaders and impair the group that he’d inadvertently strengthened. He wanted to castrate every man that had touched Rachel and Claire. Most were sleeping, oblivious to the brewing anger and silent death threats being sent their way. 

Rick’s hand came up around his shoulders and gently rubbed at his back in a way that  would have earned anyone else a few broken fingers. “Sleep,” came the stern instruction. “Need you rested.”

To be fair, Daryl wanted to obey the order. He even tried, but his mind was too engrossed in tactics. Several tents were erected, but any standing and walking would be noticed immediately. The nearby trees would provide shadows and coverage, but the majority of camp was resting in a clearing. The most promising prospect was to create a diversion, but he wasn’t sure what they could use. And if the opportunity arose, and they ran, Judith and Tyler were a concern. The pair didn’t have the survival skills to make it on their own, and if they were easy for Daryl to track down, The Living had far more manpower to invest in recapturing them. 

None of their options from here seemed good, but they had to risk it, and they’d be better off using the cover of darkness. There were plenty of people still awake to keep guard, but the shadows could obscure some of the movement. They’d only have the one guard to disable immediately. Rick could distract him, while Daryl took him out from behind. “Should do it now.” He murmured without opening his eyes, knowing Rick’s ear was inches away. 

“Tomorrow’s better.” Rick responded. “I’ve got a plan.”

The words were a balm on his troubled thoughts, and Daryl didn’t remember anything more until Rick nudged him awake. It was still dark out, but the sky had started to lighten, like it was preparing a hospitable environment to coax the sun out of bed. “Shoulda woke me sooner.” Daryl groused, rubbing at his eyes and sitting, forcing the shivering to stop before it got too profound. Technically, they didn’t need to keep watch with The Living guarding the perimeter all night long, but it wasn’t the Walkers that they were most worried about, and it wasn’t themselves that they feared for. It was an agreement that needed no explanation. They’d keep watch while on the road until they were too tired to manage it.

“You can take a longer watch tomorrow.” Rick shrugged, like the hour he’d gotten earlier had been sufficient to meet his needs. “Need you to go ask Joe permission to hunt.”

“You serious?” Daryl cocked his head at the odd request, wondering what sort of plan involved them leaving behind the ones they were trying to protect. 

Rick chuckled. “Well, if I ask, he’ll just say no on principle.” Daryl looked over to Claire and Rachel cuddling together, small lump in the blanket showing where the infant lay. “They’ll be okay for a couple hours; no one is even awake yet. We need to use our best play because I don’t think we’re getting a second chance at this.”

Nodding, Daryl stood. He had doubts that Rick was making the right call, leaving those girls unattended was not a great idea. On the other hand, there was little he’d be able to do even if he was standing right next to them. He wanted to have faith in Rick’s assessment, so he straightened his poncho to better keep out the chill and headed to where he’d seen Joe the night before. He was under the impression that he’d be sleeping in the tent Jane and Harlan had slipped into, but fortunately spotted him tucked into a sleeping bag by the fire before he disturbed anyone else. He doubted either of the others would be so kind to him if he woke them. Crouching near Joe’s feet where he couldn’t be stabbed from a knee-jerk reaction to being woken up, Daryl wished he could roll the man into the firepit until his back was blistered and scarred as well.

“What is it, Daryl?” Joe asked sleepily.

“We need food. I’mma go out for a few hours with Andy, see if we can’t find somethin’ for breakfast.”  

“You ain’t runnin’ out on us, are ya?”

Daryl shook his head. “Nah, just hungry is all. Can’t sleep.”

Joe gave him an evaluating look, and Daryl fought the urge to fidget. He felt like he was in the principal’s office again as the teachers all tried to determine if he was a good kid or not. Jury was still out on that one. “You get one of mine to go with ya. Don’t need someone shootin’ ya when you get back.” 

“Alright. Should be back ‘fore y’all break camp.”

“I’m counting on it.” Joe responded, and Daryl felt the tiniest amount of guilt at abusing this connection. There weren’t a lot of people who’d ever wanted him around, but the thought was quickly dismissed. He would be nothing but thrilled to be rid of this man.

After getting the leader’s blessing, Daryl searched the sea of bodies and finally located Lou. He kicked him in the foot with his boot. Lou bolted upright, and Daryl waited a second for the disorientation to fade before asking his favor. “You owe me. I’m collectin’. Come on.”

Lou grudgingly yanked on his shoes and grabbed his supplies. He was the best choice for a companion. He wasn’t particularly observant, didn’t seem to have realized that Daryl wanted to do him harm, and wanted to make sure no one else knew about the rations Daryl had seen him steal. Keeping his mouth shut had been no trouble at all, and now Daryl was glad he’d had the foresight. “Where we goin’?”

“Huntin’. Ain’t allowed out without ya.”

“Don’t you ever get sick of it? I like the break we get on the road.”

Daryl shrugged. “Ain’t sick of eatin’.”

This was apparently the wrong response, not because Lou was less helpful, but because he was suddenly very invested in that morning’s hunt. Daryl hardly had time to collect Rick and confirm that the sisters were still sleeping safely before Lou was on the prowl. Instead of slinking away and giving them space to finally have that discussion, Lou was pushing them to actually hunt, pointing out a set of tracks almost immediately and encouraging Daryl to help him. Daryl gestured behind his back to Rick that they could kill him, but Rick shook his head. They might need him still. So, Daryl went against all his instincts and tried to be actively unhelpful to the hunt. He ‘lost’ the trail multiple times and stomped loudly as they went. He could hear Rick stomping along as well behind them, picking off any stray Walkers with his knife, but he was less sure if it was intentional obstruction.

Finally, after a half hour, Lou sighed heavily. “How ‘bout we just meet back here in an hour? We’ll go back together an’ no one’s gotta know we split up.” 

“Makes sense. Cover more ground that way.” Rick responded, like the idea was novel to him, like it wasn’t the way they’d done it before leaving the motel anyway. Lou didn’t comment, just turned and headed North, looking around him slowly to take in any useful signs. 

Rick nodded East, and they picked up their pace to discretely gain some distance. “Well that was a waste of time.” He announced.

“We could have killed him.” Daryl pointed out. 

Shaking his head, Rick responded simply. “Need him.” Daryl wasn’t sure if that was true or if the cop was trying to maintain a situation in which he wasn’t forced to rely on Daryl killing a living person. On that count, Daryl was ready. His anger was primed and he felt confident taking that step with Rick by his side to keep him from going overboard. “Okay, so there was a cabin about two miles back, a ways off the track, remember?” Daryl nodded, so Rick continued laying out his plan. “Place like that must have some sort of accelerant, I’m thinkin’ moonshine, but I’m not picky.”

“An’ if it don’t?” 

“Then I’ll just burn the whole cabin. But I’d rather bring some of that back and start something in camp, where there’s more damage, and more Walkers to cause problems. You’ll need to get to Judith and warn her.”

“I’ll fake an injury if I can. Cut myself if I gotta.” Daryl commented contemplatively. He supposed this was what Rick wanted to keep Lou alive for. He’d need the escort back to avoid getting shot at until Rick had his distraction in place. Lou would expect to see it though, which would make faking it on the tricky side. Still, he’d spotted a squirrel or two he could use to source the blood.  “Wouldn’t mind seein’ a few of them guys burn.”

Rick pressed on. “Now, here’s what we’re gonna do when we-” 

“Daryl! Andy!” They looked at each other before twisting toward Rachel’s voice, unmistakable despite the distance, and took off running. Calling out like that was dangerous, but she was smart enough to know better and quiet enough for the outburst to be unsettling. If she was doing it now, it was an emergency. 

Rick could outpace him, even when he wasn’t lugging a crossbow, and he did. Daryl barreled after, pushing to try to keep up, but neither of them were as close as Lou, and he was holding onto the woman when they got a clear visual on him. She was struggling to get away from him, her hands occupied with a small, crying bundle. Daryl raised his bow, but Rick lowered it back down by pushing on the end. 

“Can’t risk hitting Rachel.” Rick said between pants. 

“I won’t.” Daryl declared, raising his weapon back up, only to have the cop repeat the motion and get in front of him. 

“There’s a safer way. You go in front and distract him. I’ll sneak up from behind and take him out.”

Daryl grunted in acknowledgement and no small measure of displeasure. He was quieter in the forest and Rick was the better talker. Their roles should have been reversed, but he could see Rick mistaking his acquaintance with Lou for an asset. In either case, the cop was already moving, so he hastened in the other direction.

“Let her go.” He said brazenly as he neared them, readying his bow. 

Rachel stopped struggling upon seeing his arrival, and Lou’s grip on her eased, but he didn’t let go. “You’ll shoot me.”

“Could shoot you now.” Daryl growled, tempted by the suggestion. Maybe Rick had only wanted the other position so he could vent some of his anger. Daryl wanted to vent some anger right into Lou’s head. He could see Rick carefully placing his steps to stay out of his peripheral vision, making sure he didn’t accidentally give away their ploy.

“You’ll hit the girl.”

A second later, and Rick’s arm was wrapped around his neck, squeezing tightly and any pleas he might have made were lost in the choked gasps for breath. Rachel stepped away from the action, and Daryl put a reflexive hand out to steady her. She shoved the baby at him, and he nearly dropped his bow in his haste to accommodate the new charge. “What happened?” 

“Those… those monsters… from last night were serious. They woke us up, tried to get the baby. Harlan gave the okay just after you left.” Rachel sniffled, rubbing tears from her eyes. Her words were shaky, panicked. “But Claire, she… she wouldn’t let them, and then they… and she…” Rachel sucked in a deep breath, but she was still fumbling for words.

Lou was on the ground now, dead or unconscious, Daryl didn’t care which, and Rick stepped over him to reach them. He rested a gentle hand on Rachel’s arm, but he spoke to the hunter instead. “Get them out of here. I’ve got to go back.”

“She’s dead!” Rachel finally blurted out. “You can’t save her. She’s already gone! They’re gonna… they’re gonna...”

“Judith and Tyler are still there. I’m going back.”

“I’m goin’. You get them outta here.” Daryl contradicted, wanting to see them safely away and take on the dangerous mission himself. He stepped away to take out an approaching Walker. There were bound to be more drawn to the noise, and Rick should just leave already.  “I’m quieter an’ less likely to get shot if they see me comin’ back without Lou.” There was also the consideration of getaway vehicles being limited to motorcycles, and he was pretty sure Rick didn’t know how to operate them. That was an oversight he’d have to correct later. The rescue mission may include Merle’s bike, but that was a distant third in his priorities. 

“Fine.” Rick relented, frustration obvious. He was glad the stubborn man wasn’t insisting on something incredibly stupid like bringing the baby back to the camp with them. “But you try and sneak in without being seen first. I don’t want to test any theories about whether or not they’d shoot.” Rick reached out and gripped the back of his neck in a firm hand, dragging him forward in a motion Daryl didn’t even want to resist. For a brief moment, Daryl thought he might actually try to kiss him, but the angle was all wrong for it. Instead, their foreheads met in a gesture that was oddly tender. “Stay safe. I need you.”

“I’m going with Daryl. They’re planning to… to eat my sister’s body.” Rachel announced, leaning over Lou’s body and taking charge of his gun. She checked the chamber with an unexpected confidence before readying the weapon. She was still trembling and openly crying, but there was a determined set to her eyes that Daryl didn’t want to argue with. He’d let Rick handle that one. Rachel bent back over and retrieved the flask from Lou’s hip as well, opening it and sniffing the contents. 

“No offense, but -”

“I got bit.” Rachel cut into whatever monologue the cop had planned, lifting up her coat and shirt to reveal a bloody oval set of teeth imprints just above her hip. They were deep enough to bleed and both he and Rick cursed in response. Daryl fought down the swell of anguish. He had to be strong here. He couldn’t fall apart on her behalf when Rachel was holding it together. And he sure as hell couldn’t do it then when people were counting on him. “I’m going to destroy as many of those cannibalistic fucks as I can. It’s the last thing I want in life, and you’re not going to stop me.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Rick stated stiffly, pulling the young woman into a one-armed hug to avoid squishing the baby. “Should’ve had you saving us. Might have gone over better.”

“I do make a mean molotov.” 

“Pretty sure all molotovs qualify.” 

“We gotta go.” Daryl interrupted apologetically. The clock was ticking. Rick gave them one last unhappy look before heading out at a fast pace, carefully cradling the baby and watching his steps to prevent a different sort of tragedy. Daryl and Rachel jogged in the opposite direction, back towards the camp. “Sorry ‘bout what happened to yer sister.” Daryl said, silently adding that he was sorry about what had happened to her, too. 

Rachel nodded. “Me too.” Daryl eyed her as they went, realizing that she hadn’t stopped any of the tremors in her body and her apparent confidence was nothing more than an unquenchable, blazing fury. They had to part shortly after, and Daryl accepted the hug she gave him without complaint. “That baby?” Rachel chewed on her lip and tried to keep the tears from overflowing onto her cheeks. “Make sure she knows who her momma was.”

Daryl nodded, accepting the duty without hesitation. “I’ll make sure she knows who her aunt was, too.”

The young woman smiled shakily, gripping his bicep briefly before heading her own way. Daryl circled around the camp, trying to keep quiet and out of sight until he found a good spot near the firepit that he’d spotted Tyler at the night before where he could crouch and wait. He wasn’t waiting long before shots rang out and the thunderous roar of many people shouting to talk over each other, followed by more and more gunfire.

Daryl darted from the cover of the trees and scanned the area for Tyler, easier to distinguish with his diminutive stature among the group. A moment later, one of the furthest tents went up in flames, but Daryl was concentrating on the boy. Judith came into focus then, sitting beside him and gazing at the unexpected spectacle. 

“Come on, let’s go!” Daryl shouted above all the noise, grabbing the kid’s wrist and pulling him towards the edge of camp. Tyler cried out in pain, and Daryl swiftly released his grip, examining the situation. He pinpointed the problem quickly enough. The boy’s hand was bandaged, but despite the thick wrap, there was no doubt that his ring and pinky finger were entirely absent. Daryl sincerely doubted that was an accident. “Come on!” Daryl encouraged instead. 

“Grandma!” Tyler suddenly cried out, drawing Daryl’s attention to the new scene unfolding before them. He narrowly got ahold of Tyler’s arm and yanked him back before the boy could dart to his guardian. Judith was being held in a tight grip about the shoulders by Joe, who had a gun trained on her temple.

“Daryl! Get him out of here!” Judith shouted. “Just go!”

“You’re free to go, Daryl, but you can’t take the boy. We need our leverage on the good doctor, here, otherwise she doesn’t tend to cooperate.” Joe shouted over the din. “Hand him over and no harm will come to either of them.” Daryl almost snorted. Did they consider chopping off two fingers ‘no harm’?

Daryl looked around, other people were starting to take notice of the situation and they would certainly have company soon, but he wasn’t sure how to get Judith away from him. “I give him up, an’ you’re just gonna let me walk outta here?” 

“You were always free to leave. You chose to stay to see that Andy had medical care. You aren’t a prisoner, you just never tried to leave.” Joe explained, “Now’s your chance, if you want it. Just hand over the kid, and you can walk away. Can even get your bike back.”

The bang of the gun going off was unreasonably loud considering all the weapon’s fire nearby, but he also hadn’t seen it coming. The whole world felt muffled as he tried to process what had happened. Judith had knocked her head back, hard, against Joe’s nose. It was bleeding profusely, and he was gripping it and cursing up a blue streak. The unexpected attack had caused him to squeeze the trigger, and Judith collapsed at his feet with a sizeable hole marring the side of her head. 

Adrenaline pumping through him, Daryl knew that he had to move quickly. So despite the urge to open fire at Joe and everyone else, Daryl gave up thoughts of revenge. Tyler was useless to them now besides some first aid skills, and Joe was pissing vinegar. Bending at the knee, Daryl scooped the child up and took off running toward his bike, keys still dangling from the ignition like divine intervention. His body moved on autopilot as he turned it over, plunked the boy onto the seat in front of him where he couldn’t fall off in his shock, swung a leg over and took off. 

He sped down the railroad tracks recklessly fast, gunshots echoing every which way, campsite burning. He didn’t know if they were firing at him, but he did feel the distinct burn of a bullet grazing him across one arm. Everything died down behind him as he sped up to put as much distance between them as possible. 

If they sent anyone after him, on a bike or otherwise, they never caught up. Once he was on the main road and looked around to confirm he wasn’t being followed, Daryl set out to the place where he hoped he’d meet up with Rick. Most of him wanted to backtrack until he found his friend, but the cop might have taken several different routes to get there. He needed to tend to his own wounds and check how Tyler was doing. The boy had barely moved an inch, and Daryl was relatively sure he was in shock. He’d get him to the meet-up point, and Rick would find them shortly.

 

============

Chapter Text

 

It was only a few days after Rick woke up and had his very first conversation with Joe, still plagued by infection and trapped on the mattress by his injury, when he started talking incessantly about what they should do if they ever got separated.  Daryl understood the insistence more than Rick seemed to think he did. Everyone they knew was lost to them because they’d neglected to take simple measures. If they’d had a back-up rendez-vous point and hadn’t relied on the impenetrability of the farm, they’d have known where to meet up with their group, where to find Rick’s family. “I can’t live with a repeat of what happened after the farm. We have to have a plan in mind.”

It wasn’t just the regret at having overlooked a simple step, Rick also felt compelled to ensure that they didn’t fall victim to the same fate. Daryl knew without discussing it because every step away from the disabled cop made him edgy and vulnerable in a way that was unsettling in its novelty. He recognized that Rick wasn’t any real sort of protection for him as sick as he was, but their connection was the only thing they had. “All that’s left is you, and I’ll be damned if I lose you, too,” he asserted one evening while they lay together at the motel. Daryl was drifting off and couldn’t be sure if Rick had meant for him to hear it. 

So when they agreed that it was necessary to split up for Rick to protect the baby and Daryl to collect their friends, they didn’t bother discussing how they would find each other again. The instructions had been drilled into Daryl’s head more than once. “If we ever get separated and haven’t set a specific location, we go back to the last place we spent a night that was reasonably secure and safe to return to.”

Daryl had nodded. It was easy enough to remember and could work for a long term solution. It would also usually be a place not too far or hard to get to. “Nothing safe ‘bout the motel. The Living found us in the trailer park, so that’s a no-go. Place before that we couldn’t stay the night ‘cuz of that lady playin’ at Frankenstein. So, the apartment complex ‘fore that, yeah?”

“Right. If it’s no longer viable, we head to the place we stayed before that.”

“Can’t stay at the library, an’ the farm’s no good. Vatos are dead, an’ the CDC is gone. So, I guess that’d be the quarry?” Daryl frowned. Maybe this idea wasn’t the greatest. Seemed like they only left places because they were destroyed.

Rick cringed in response. “Hopefully we’ll generate some new locations once we get out of here. If all else fails, head to the Sheriff’s Office in King County. It’s easy to find on the main road and in every phone book, not a high population, nothing valuable left around, and the building’s solid. It should be secure, but you could also leave a note to a new location, if need be.”

Squinting, Daryl reviewed the possible complaints, settling on the obvious. “Ain’t close. An’ might get further dependin’ on where we go.”

“It’s just a last resort. In case all else fails, and you need to find me.”

“Let’s just hope we don’t gotta use it. Never was too fond of the fuzz.” An affectionate huff was the only response as their plans were finalized.

Daryl adjusted his grip on the handlebars, trying to brace Tyler between his arms, and headed out to the cluster of houses and apartments where the search for their friends had begun and largely ended. He hoped the boy would snap out of it quickly because he wasn’t sure what to do for him once the immediate danger was gone.

It wasn’t hard to locate the apartment they’d used for two nights inside the complex once he reached the building. The light was high in the sky, and they’d encountered few Walkers, so it was easy to pinpoint the right door, second from the end with a hand-drawn picture of a cow taped on the inside of the kitchen window. 

Daryl parked his bike behind the building, tucking it behind a bush, to keep from being seen from the outside. He couldn’t think of a worse outcome to all this tragedy than The Living finding them there. Tyler was responsive to his direct commands, dismounting the bike and standing to the side while Daryl hid it, then following closely at his heel. He didn’t speak, and his gaze was eerily blank, but the hunter thanked small mercies that the boy was mobile and stayed behind him while he checked the house for any changes. It didn’t appear as if anyone had been through since he’d last seen it, nor were there any breaches or Walkers lurking inside. He breathed a sigh of relief. 

The bullet wound was more of a graze and thankfully didn’t need stitches. There wasn’t water in the house, not to mention antiseptic, so Daryl skipped both steps for the moment and moved straight on to bandaging the wound with an old shirt from one of the closets, making a mental note to keep an eye out for some proper medical supplies. It’d be really fucking hilarious if he died from an infection, like some sort of cosmic closing of the circle.

There were three pressing issues that needed to be taken care of before night fell: food, water, and blankets, but he hesitated to leave with the kid so despondent. What else could he do? “Your, uh… your grandma, she saved us. We owe her our lives. Me an’ R- Andy. You, too.” Tyler didn’t twitch. “She was a good woman.”

The words failed to produce even a flicker of acknowledgement, and Daryl sighed. He was no good with kids, and no good at comforting people. He wished Rick was there. The cop had experience with both, and would have known what to say or how to handle the situation. Ultimately, he had to address their basic needs, something he was good at. “Stay here.” Tyler nodded at the instruction and laid down on the bed, turning to face away from him, and Daryl figured that was the best he could hope for at the moment.  

He was hesitant to leave the kid by himself. Everything always went to shit faster than anyone could account for and he didn’t know the boy well enough to be sure he’d be alright left alone, but it couldn’t be avoided. The fatal flaw in their meet-up plan was apparently that they’d be suffering in locations they’d already cleared of resources. Still, he knew they hadn’t taken every blanket from every bed, nor even the majority of them, so he started by collecting several of those. It was going to be a cold night again, he was sure, and the extra blankets would be worth it. He had to practically turn the entire top floor of the complex upside down to locate much else of use, discovering a bottle of whiskey, a six-pack of bottled water, cigarettes, and some crackers. Satisfied with his haul, Daryl returned to their temporary home, relieved that he wouldn’t have to find another source of water that night and leave shouting distance. When Rick got there, he’d find more. 

After checking the perimeter and securing the front door, Daryl looked in on Tyler, but there wasn’t much he could do for the kid. It took a lot of coaxing just to get him to drink some water, and he wouldn’t touch the crackers. He laid two of the blankets over the figure staring blankly at the wall and sat down in the adjacent room with the rest of the gear. Daryl guzzled down an entire bottle of water, ate a handful of crackers and dumped half the whiskey onto his wound before retying the bandage with fresh cloth. 

When he finished, he curled up under the pile of blankets and leaned against the bed. They smelled like dust and mildew, but he revelled in the feeling of finally being warm after such a long and stressful day. Rick would be there soon, and somehow, that seemed like enough, despite everything that had happened. It didn’t matter that he was still spitting fury at the other man every time he stopped for a moment to think and he was making plans to clock him one the moment he was back safely. He’d put his faith in Rick to make the right choices for them all, and Rick had chosen to wait until the morning before acting and insisted that they go hunting and leave the women unattended, which had ultimately led to their deaths. Rick had made the wrong call and they’d lost people because of it. Still, something inside of him had decided that Rick would make everything better when he got there and refused to listen to reason.

Daryl woke with a start, not sure when he’d fallen asleep, but it was fully dark now, so he must have been out of it for hours. He stood quickly, rolling his shoulders to loosen the knots formed from sleeping on the floor in a half seated position. He wasn’t sure what had woken him except a sense of unease, so he scanned the apartment quickly, confirming that Tyler was still fast asleep and breathing, before looking out the front window. There was little that could be made out in the darkness, but it was enough for Daryl’s heart to sink.

Rick wasn’t there. 

He’d known that he would beat the other to the rendez-vous point. It was inevitable with Rick on foot and Daryl on his bike, but he’d been certain his friend would have found a vehicle and made it before it got fully dark. That was the best case scenario, though, and there were about a thousand things that could have gone wrong. The baby could have been fussy, drawing Walkers in with mighty shrieks. He could have gotten lost or not found a working vehicle. He could have run into The Living. 

Daryl grit his teeth and swallowed down his anger. He should have gone back for Rick on his bike, or made a plan to meet up closer. Sucking in a deep breath, the archer counted to ten in his head. He had to stay calm. Rick was resourceful, and now that he was healed, just as capable as Daryl at surviving. There were many minor problems that could have held him up, and once it was dark, he would have tried to stay put. He couldn’t expect him that night, or likely in the morning, but Rick would be there by the afternoon. It was stupid of him to assume otherwise. 

Shuffling back to the bedroom with his pile of blankets, Daryl looked at his empty, chilled nest with disappointment. It completely derailed his attempts to put Rick out of his mind for the evening and make use of the opportunity to sleep. It wasn’t because he liked sleeping beside him, Daryl assured himself, just that the warmth was appreciated, as well as the idea that someone was watching his back. He dragged his blankets into the other bedroom and curled up on the far side of Tyler’s bed, a queen sized one that he and Rick had used last visit, just so he could keep an eye on him. The kid didn’t even move a muscle at having his space disturbed. That was something he’d have to work on. 

Despite what he’d told himself, Daryl only slept off and on, listening carefully for any abnormal sounds, especially the cry of a baby or a car door slamming shut. Neither of which were likely, but it didn’t stop him from waking up repeatedly to double check.

At dawn, he gave up sleeping. Tyler had woken up at some point and finished off the small pile of crackers, which gave Daryl some hope that he was coming out of it. “I’m gonna make a run to another set of buildings. ’S close by, but I think you’ll be safer stayin’ put.” Tyler didn’t respond. “Looked for medicine last time I was there, but didn’t think to grab any sort of baby gear. Didn’t know I’d need it.” There were a few places he’d seen with cribs. One of those probably had formula. Unless Rick had somehow managed to stumble upon some himself, the infant would be going on 24 hours without anything to eat. The rest of them could man up, but the baby wouldn’t know any better. She was probably already crying her eyes out. “Stay here.” He instructed, relieved when the kid at least nodded. 

Daryl found exactly one can of formula for his efforts. It wasn’t much, but it would last a few days, maybe a week. It’d buy them time to find something else. Not wanting to stay out for too long at a time, he collected up a few other baby items including warmer clothing and diapers before returning, cursing how thoroughly this area had been looted when he acquired no additional food or water for everyone else. They’d collected enough to last them weeks, and The Living had taken it all from them when they were captured and burned through it without regard to the future. 

Not long after checking on his charge, Daryl left again, this time to the woods where he hoped to clear his head of all the anger and worry by keeping busy and productive. He located a stream that could help with their water shortage, but it was frozen. Hacking into the ice was a pleasant relief to the violent anger burning in his chest. Judith and Claire and Rachel were all dead, and he hadn’t killed one of The Living in retaliation. Daryl wasn’t even sure Lou had been well and truly dead when they’d left and not just unconscious. Part of him directed that anger back at his friend, and not just for stopping him from attacking Lou. Rick had pulled him down, stopped him from lunging at the scoundrels who’d even suggested using the baby for food. He could have reached them, maybe killed one flat out. It might have made them think twice about what they’d planned for the next day.

Daryl collected a couple buckets of ice, setting them in the clear sunlight of their porch to thaw. Tyler was back to sleeping when he left for a third time, and Daryl spent several hours out until he had a few squirrels killed and cooked. They ate lunch and set aside a portion for Rick into some decently clean tupperware from the cupboards. Tyler obediently downed what was put in front of him, and Daryl was pleased that he could at least care for the kid’s physical needs. Chewing on the meat, Daryl wondered if Rick was right in his assertion that their presence had allowed The Living to thrive when they shouldn’t have. They’d contributed a sizeable amount of supplies in addition to ongoing food. It made a sick sort of sense. He pushed the thought aside. If that group was better off because of them, that was Rick’s fault, too, since Daryl would never have ended up with them had Rick not been injured. This whole mess was Rick’s fault.

After eating, Daryl tried to keep his mind occupied and, failing that, tried to keep his hands occupied while the afternoon ticked away with no sign of his friend. He heated up the melting ice over the embers of his firepit and let Tyler take his spongebath first since the boy was certainly the cleaner of the two. He spent that time searching the apartments for a few pairs of clothing for each of them, taking his time to locate something comfortable, warm, and properly sized. Daryl had never been overly fond of baths. He didn’t like the vulnerability of removing his clothes and the protective layer of dirt that had served him well in keeping others at bay his whole life, but he made an exception in this case. It’d been far too long since he’d felt truly clean and didn’t relish the idea of growing some sort of fungus in his underwear. The fresh set of clothes were a nice touch, though he wasn’t about to give up his vest or his poncho for something cleaner. 

He’d managed to kill most of the day and the sky was starting to get dark, but Rick still hadn’t arrived. He finally allowed himself to ponder what he’d do if he wasn’t there the next morning. How long would they wait? At what point should he try to track him down and how was he going to do that and look after Tyler? They couldn’t stay at that apartment indefinitely. They’d be okay even with the complete lack of supplies, right up until a herd blew through and took everything down, or one of them got sick, or The Living happened upon them and wanted revenge. He kicked the bucket over in frustration, and used it as an excuse to go fetch more. By the time he returned, it was truly dark, and there was still no sign of his companion. 

Instead of sleeping, Daryl spent most of the evening cleaning his weapons and making a new sac of practical supplies. He found a toolkit and selected a couple multitools, threw in some wire, grabbed duct tape, and then skittered from room to room to occupy his time. Ostensibly, he was looking for more things to throw in the survival bag, but it more closely resembled controlled pacing. He read the spines of every book and remembered none of them, searched for loose floorboards or other hiding spots, and was rewarded with another pack of cigarettes under a twin sized mattress. He imagined some teenager had hidden it there to keep his parents from setting him straight.

By the time there was enough light in the sky to reasonably leave again, Daryl found himself pacing and gnawing on his fingernail as he rolled plans around in his head. What if Rick was just gone? And the baby? The thought was crushing in its magnitude, burning like the whiskey he’d been stealing sips from instead of saving for cleaning as he knew he should, and he pushed it away. He was too damn stubborn to quit, but he could already feel a hollowness creeping up inside him even as he actively tried to maintain his zen. Any concerns over Rick’s leadership choices were squashed under the weight of his worry for Rick’s safety. 

He forced himself to concentrate on the next steps. Daryl melted the ice as he cooked another squirrel and collected some branches that looked suitable to start a new set of arrows. He had a couple bolts left, and his gun was fully loaded, but that wouldn’t get him far in this world. 

Tyler ate his food without being prompted that morning. “What’s the plan?” The boy finally spoke. 

Daryl looked up in surprise. “Wait.”

“Shouldn’t they be here already?” It was asked tentatively, and the archer was reminded that he’d been skittish even at the best of times before. For all that Rick and he had instinctively aligned the kid with Carl in their heads and conversations because of their ages, they were very different people. In the old world, he figured it would have been closer to the difference between a nerd and a jock, but those divisions didn’t exist anymore. Carl was smart, and Tyler would learn to be strong.

Shrugging, Daryl tried not to look as bothered by it as he was. “Long trip on foot. Lots of things coulda held him up.”

“Him? You mean Andy. Are Claire and Rachel with him?” Tyler pressed. “The baby?”

“Baby is.” 

“But not the others. They’re dead, aren’t they?” 

Daryl chewed on his lip as he contemplated his response. Lying to the kid wouldn’t do him any good, but he didn’t want him to fall back into the state Judith’s death had brought on. Still, he couldn’t keep it a secret forever. “Yeah.”

Tyler nodded and bit his bottom lip, subconsciously mimicking Daryl. “Grandma taught me lots. I’ll be useful for you.”

Cocking his head, Daryl tried to figure out where this statement came from. He didn’t know the kid well, not like Rick who had seen him regularly while he was healing. It took him a moment to piece together that Tyler feared he’d be cut loose as a burden with nothing to contribute. It made sense that he’d think that way. It was what he’d observed in this new world. “I know.” Daryl tried to come up with something that would be deemed comforting, but sometimes it was so hard to place words to his meaning. “Don’t gotta worry. If it’s just us, it’s us.”

The sun was starting to set again. Tyler found a couple books to entertain himself with and was currently scribbling inside one, which might actually be a journal and not pointless destruction. Daryl made good progress on the basics of a dozen bolts. He’d need to catch a bird eventually to finish them. His stomach was in knots, which was just as well because he hadn’t ventured out into the steadily falling snow to try and find more food. There was little chance of success in this weather and 100% chance of misery. Instead, they settled into an easier, companionable silence as they both worked at something that would be genuinely enjoyable if only the last few days hadn’t happened. 

Daryl had contemplated going out to look for Rick half a dozen times, but kept coming to the same conclusions. It would be a miracle if he even found a sign of him, and Tyler needed someone to look after him. Still, bad idea or not, he would be heading out in the morning to do just that.

Intently working on whittling down his stick, Daryl nearly cut himself in surprise at the sound of a knock on the front door. He gaped, exchanging a look with Tyler and instructed him to stay put as he leapt to his feet and ran to the front door. Some good sense remained that had him checking the peephole before unlocking it, and every ounce of anger and blame he’d been pinning on Rick evaporated in a second, like it had just been clinging to his thoughts to make the separation bearable. He grinned stupidly at Rick as he stepped inside, snow trailing in until the door was properly shut and latched. 

Rick was a mess. There were cuts and scrapes all over the exposed skin to complement the rosy tinge to his cheeks, and he was shaking from exhaustion, cold, or both. He looked as though he’d spent the last two days in a garbage disposal and narrowly lived to tell the tale. Daryl drank in the sight. “Baby?” 

Rick produced the infant by dropping the blanket thrown over his shoulders. She looked worse for the wear as well and was quietly sniffling. “She’s okay. She’s okay.”

Daryl scooped the child up and planted a wet kiss on her forehead, ignoring whatever look the action might garner. “Was startin’ to get worried.” He admitted. 

“Yeah. Know you adore that baby.”

Daryl gave him a crooked smile before giving in to his other urge to wrap an arm around Rick and pull him in tightly. It was quite probably the only hug he’d initiated in his adult life that had nothing to do with freezing to death. Rick stuffed his icy nose into the crook of his shoulder and returned the hug with equal fervor, like he’d been just as scared of losing this connection. Daryl could accommodate his need to touch, knew it was important to his friend, and that he’d take care of him in any way he needed. He could even admit that he found the contact comforting himself. 

The baby started fussing, and they broke apart. “Poor thing hasn’t had anything but water for days. Finally wore herself out and stopped screaming. Nerve-wracking, but made the trip a lot easier after.” Daryl quickly set about fixing a bottle for the distressed child, Rick following on his heels, taking in the formula and baby bottle with relief. “Thank god.”

Tyler then appeared from the other room, having apparently deemed it safe, and threw himself into Rick’s arms for a hug. Rick cringed at some unseen injury but accepted the hug, patting him on the head and turning a quick question to Daryl with his eyes.

“Just us.” Daryl explained, and Rick nodded solemnly. 

“I’m glad you’re okay.” Tyler said bravely. “I can look at your injuries.” Without waiting for a response, he gathered up some water and cloth and took on a clinical persona that hurt from how reminiscent it was of Judith. 

When he finished feeding the baby, Daryl retrieved a bottle of water and the leftover squirrel meat, which Rick devoured while Tyler prodded at the patchwork of bruising across one side of Rick’s chest. He couldn’t be sure if the man had eaten at all since they’d separated and meals before that had been few and far between. All other problems aside, it was good that they’d gotten away and no longer had the oppressive fear of starvation breathing down their necks. Stomach full and reasonably warm, Rick started to yawn and nod off. Daryl helped him pull off his shoes and get situated on the center of the bed. Then, they all bundled in around him and fell asleep.

Rick slept the entire following day, waking up around noon to accept some food before passing back out for a few more hours. He didn’t question the new flavor of meat, and Daryl wondered as he worked on prepping the feathers for his bolts if he’d have had any sort of opinion on eating owl. He doubted that it made a difference to him anymore, so long as it wasn’t human. Tyler was journaling again, and Daryl hoped to hell that it would allow him to sort himself out because he didn’t have the first idea on how to provide the sort of comfort and support he ought to be. Rick’s return did wonders for his own nerves, like he’d been fumbling around in a dark room and someone had flicked on the light. It also left him with enough space in his mind to think about those they’d lost. 

The truth was that he couldn’t blame Rick for what had happened when he’d had weeks of Joe’s lenience and the back of Lou’s head and done nothing. In the end, his own inaction was the reason for that baby and Tyler being left without any family. What did it matter if he avoided losing his humanity at the cost of losing the people he cared about? He vowed never to let that fear stop him from protecting his people again.

He’d given up on his work and was doing nothing more productive than drinking and moping in the far bedroom when Rick finally decided to wake up. Daryl heard him rising and shuffling around for a good half hour before he padded into the room. He looked dramatically better than the previous night, not just for having slept but for making use of the freezing pail of water to clean up and change into the clothes Daryl had found for him. 

“She still sleepin’?” Daryl had been tempted to drag the infant with him so he could keep an eye on her while Rick slept, but he’d felt an almost overpowering urge to smoke, so he left her in the makeshift crib he’d made from a cardboard box and a few towels for padding. 

“Yeah.” Rick nodded, joining him on the floor beside the bed and crawling into his nest of blankets without seeking permission. “You’re not supposed to leave a newborn with a blanket while they nap. Suffocation risk. Or a hat, for that matter, but I doubt we need to worry about her overheating.”

“She’ll freeze without ‘em.”

“There’s baby sleeping bags, and, well… I guess we’ll be re-writing the book on parenting. And here I thought it was tough figuring all this stuff out the first time around.” He chuckled lightly, but it was a sad sound, and they lapsed into silence. Daryl felt better now with his friend beside him, but the air was melancholy. “It’s almost like a dream. Claire, Rachel and Judith? That’s half our group in one day. It’s unreal.” 

Daryl nodded along to Rick voicing what had been swirling around in his own head. He offered Rick the bottle of whiskey, and the other man took a slug, cringed and followed it up with another longer drink. When he was finished, he gestured for the smokes, and Daryl supplied him with one and a lighter. He hadn’t seen him smoking before and never smelled it on his clothes, so he figured Rick was just one of those lucky few who could enjoy the calming sensation of an occasional smoke without the addiction. 

“You know,” Rick continued on after several minutes had passed, “I should have seen this coming. Back at the bar, when we first ran into the group, one of the guys made a joke about eating the other. I assumed he meant as a Walker, but I’m not so sure anymore. This couldn’t have been the first time they went cannibal, otherwise there would have been more of a kick-back.” Rick finished off his cigarette and smudged it into the floorboard before flicking it carelessly away from him. “I left them alone, and now they’re dead. That’s on me.”

“That’s on us. I didn’t wanna see it, either.” Daryl corrected instantly. “An’ for the record, it was the right call. Yer plan was sound. Woulda gotten us all outta there that day.” It was true, as far as Daryl was concerned. He’d gone over the incident on repeat for days now, and he didn’t see a scenario in which they all made it. Now that the anger had calmed, he could admit it. Rick shrugged, and Daryl knew he didn’t believe him, was still condemning himself for what had happened. That was fair; it was hard to be convincing when he was blaming himself as well. He let out a puff of smoke. He was on his third already. “We take care of them kids. It’s all we can do now.”

“When Carl was shot,” Rick began, voice cracking on the name of his son, “Lori talked about how maybe it would be better if he didn’t pull through, how Jacqui was the lucky one for not having to face any more of this world.”

“That’s bullshit.” 

“Is it, though?”

“Ain’t thinkin’ of optin’ out on me, are ya?” Daryl probed hesitantly.

“Nothing like that.” Rick assured, leaning in to press their arms against each other. It was a touch comfort, the kind Rick always seemed to prefer, but Daryl found that this time it was a comfort to them both. He leaned in as well. He was so absorbed in the small contact that he nearly missed the heart-to-heart Rick was trying to engage in. “Claire didn’t have to see people trying to eat her sister’s dead body.”

“Rachel got revenge.”

“I’m not sure they’re out there, anymore.” 

The comment would have seemed like a tangent if not for how well Daryl had learned to read Rick. Daryl didn’t need to ask who Rick was referring to. He doubted there was a day that went by that Rick didn’t consider his missing family. And he didn’t question why he’d brought it up now. Losing three people they’d managed to grow close to, three good people, was devastating, and if Rick was present and still lost people he cared about, what did that say about those he hadn’t been around to protect?

Daryl frowned. He wanted to reprimand Rick for even questioning it, even if he himself was painfully aware of their dwindling chances of tracking the rest of his family. But Rick felt hollow at his shoulder, like the only thing propping him up in a metaphorical and physical sense was Daryl’s presence and the archer didn’t believe in kicking a man when he was down, not without good cause. “S’okay.” He decided. “I can be sure enough for the both of us.”

Daryl couldn’t identify the expression Rick was giving him. He only knew for certain that it was positive and it wasn’t something he’d seen directed at him before. He fidgeted and looked away, but Rick just broke into an amused smile. The cop straightened up, then nodded to himself. “We’ll head out in the morning; I want to put some distance between us and any of The Living that might have come after us. South is our best bet.”

Daryl agreed in principle, but he wasn’t sure how they’d make it happen. “Might not know much ‘bout raisin’ a kid, but we’re gonna need to find a carseat if we wanna make any distance.”

Standing, Rick stepped back into the fuzzy slippers he had found underneath the bed to use while his shoes dried and extended a hand to Daryl, who allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. They made their way over to the front side of the building, and Rick swept aside the curtain for Daryl to get an unimpeded view of the cul-de-sac in front. There were only a few cars there, and he instantly pinpointed the new arrival. Cocking his head, Daryl leaned in to see if he’d been mistaken. “Is that our van?”

“Yep.” Rick declared proudly. “Carseat was still inside, too. They took all our supplies, but we knew that.” 

He hadn’t seen the thing since the farm, and he’d been sorely disappointed by its loss, not just because of the supplies he’d stocked inside, but because it was spacious and didn’t smell like death. It was still in good condition and would serve them well. He wondered briefly where Rick had picked it up, but the details weren’t important. The Living had ditched it somewhere, and Rick had found it. That was all that mattered. “How are we on gas?”

“Quarter tank. It’ll get us far enough.” It wasn’t enough for more than a few days, especially if they wanted to make a lot of headway, but it was a good haul, particularly around these parts where everything was picked clean. Rick let the curtain drop and they padded to the bedroom to check on the kids. The baby was starting to fuss, so Daryl started up a bottle. She was a blessedly quiet child, but every kid had their limits. It was safest to keep her quiet, and that meant well fed. 

“We’ll need more formula for her.” Tyler pointed out, sitting on the bed and peeking into the box. He looked okay, all things considered. 

“And more food for us.” Daryl added. “Not to mention water.”

“Actually, I found that water truck on my way over. It was almost empty, but there were a couple jugs that escaped notice. They’re sealed and sitting in the back of the van.” Rick said, obviously glad to have good news to contribute within the vast ocean of disappointment and turmoil. “I think we’ll be okay to head out and get a good distance before we start searching. We’ll give it a few hours of driving, then start with houses, and work our way up.”

They did exactly that. Rick groused about Daryl taking the bike with the roads being covered in a layer of snow, but Daryl had no intention of leaving it behind. Besides being his only connection to Merle, it used less gas than most vehicles and would make for a quick get away or a good scout. It was also freezing with the wind whipping around and the snow on the ground. After the first few stops, Rick accepted that there was no use in trying to convince him to get rid of it and wisely concentrated his efforts on finding him proper gloves and hats and boots for the journey.

Tyler proved his worth within the first few days. The kid was still petrified of Walkers and couldn’t shoot a gun, something that would have to be rectified as soon as possible, but he was quick to volunteer to watch the baby while they cleared houses, keeping her quiet in the van so that they could concentrate on securing the area. 

They were working through side roads of houses that had hopefully been overlooked, but although they did find the occasional useful item for their minimal supplies, it seemed that someone had already been through this area and picked the houses over thoroughly. Further evidence was the lack of Walkers in and around most of the buildings. Daryl spent a few hours each day hunting, and they weren’t doing well, but they were slowly pulling themselves onto better footing. 

Except for baby food. 

“We’re gonna have to hit somethin’ bigger.” Daryl announced as Rick pulled the van alongside his bike and rolled down a window. “There’s a Walmart up the road a ways.”

“Not a good idea.” Rick shook his head, thrumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Place like that is bound to be a death trap or stripped clean.” 

“Gotta try somethin’. After today, we got nothin’ to feed her.” He reminded, though he doubted Rick had forgotten. “No idea baby formula would be such a hot commodity. We’ve checked dozens of houses. One of these families musta had a baby.”

“I’d say so. We’ve seen enough toys and cribs. Figure most of them left for refugee centers and took their formula with them. We should concentrate on the cars.”

“Everyone travelin’ would’ve searched those. Let’s just do a drive by at Walmart an’ check it out.” 

The drive by turned into a scouting session, which then escalated to a stake-out, and finally, Rick agreed that they could take the risk. Daryl was tasked with picking off the stray Walkers, just three wandering where the asphalt met the treeline, and then Rick parked the car near the entrance. There were a few others rusting nearby, and even a few bikes that Daryl decided to park his beside. He joined Rick in the back of the van so he could outline the plan. They’d go in together and keep it silent if at all possible while Tyler waited in the car with the baby. It would be a grab and go mission with an emphasis on stealth. They weren’t equipped enough to make a concentrated effort on clearing it out, even if the supplies left behind were substantial.

“Honk the horn if you’re in trouble. Might see more than usual in a bigger spot like this.” Rick reminded. “Keep an eye on the baby.” 

“We’ve got to give her a real name.” It was the only comment the kid made on their plan. Rick ruffled his hair affectionately. 

Daryl lay the baby back into the carseat, thinking about Rachel and vikings. Were they really going to wait until the kid turned two before they named her? He didn’t feel like it generated the appropriate distance it was supposed to. “She got a real name.” Daryl disputed.

Rick snorted behind him. “Lil’ Asskicker is not a real name.”

“Bet ya that in ten years, all the babies’ll have names like that. Lil’ Asskicker, Baby Knuckles, El Diablo, Reaper… We’re just gettin’ in ahead of the curve.” Rolling his eyes, Rick tugged on the back of his poncho until Daryl let the baby go and climbed out of the vehicle. He leaned back in. “If we come runnin’, start the car.” Tyler saluted in a way that could only be described as flippant. Kid was really starting to grow on him.

 

============

 

In the new world, T-Dog noticed the quiet. There was safety in the quiet, assuring them that there weren’t any Walkers lurking, or that they wouldn’t draw more in. Everyone spoke lowly because they cared and protected each other, and the loud firearms were only used when absolutely necessary, and even then usually away from the group. When it got too loud, he noticed, because there was a lingering fear of being overheard, or of not noticing some important sound. When it went completely silent, it felt like the Earth was a taking a breath before whatever screaming terror came next. 

 It was easy to be quiet these days, easy to whisper when before he might have shouted to be heard above the din of the city. It’d come with the world ending, not a learned habit developed from one too many bad experiences, but almost an instinct that made his inclination to be loud, to be seen, to fight against the man disappear almost overnight. Now he was silent aside from the swish of a blade or a crunch of a footstep. Days could go by that he didn’t say one word. 

But he’d be there, ready to step in and step up the moment it was asked of him. It took some time for Glenn to get his footing as their leader, and more than a little prodding from Maggie and Hershel, but T-Dog trusted his judgement. It helped that Glenn had never asked him to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. It helped more that they were alive, that they were surviving in a situation where that had appeared impossible at first. 

It wasn’t enough, though. As he looked around the gaunt, tired faces, he wasn’t sure that they could keep on defying the impossible, spitting in the devil’s face and pressing onward. The winter was already rough, with more cold nights than he could ever remember there being, and food was becoming increasingly hard to come by. It was made infinitely worse by the way that the herds kept forcing them to retrace their own steps and they were often pressed back onto streets they’d already cleared with hardly any food to show for it. All the carefully executed plans could not compensate for the lack of supplies nearby.

The second month since the farm had come and gone and they were steadily creeping towards the end of the third, if Beth’s count was anything to go by. She journalled every day, though T-Dog wasn’t sure what there was to write about since the scenery never seemed to change, not really. Just trees and snow and the same people he’d come to think of as family.

Another major problem was that they didn’t have the manpower they needed. Hershel could fire a gun and made for good defense, but he was older and slower. Beth tried, but she’d shown little promise in any weapons so far, only making slow improvement by sheer determination. She often acted as a lookout, but even that was done with reticence. On the other hand, Carl had shown excellent ability with both knives and guns, but Lori was adamant that he not go along. It was only recently that Glenn held his ground and overruled her, but he still only brought the boy along as a sharpshooter. 

Lori and Carol both showed massive improvement in their fighting skills, and Glenn had started them on easier locations. The hope, T-Dog knew without being told, was that they’d be sufficiently competent that there would finally be enough people to look at the larger buildings, ones they’d been forced to disregard previously. T-Dog knew Glenn had his eye on the Walmart two miles away. It was the only redeeming factor of moving around in circles, they knew what might still be promising after systematically clearing an area.

It was after the second night barricaded inside a gas station when the herd had completely disappeared, that Glenn stretched out their map of the area and pointed exactly where T-Dog knew he would. “We’re gonna try for the Walmart. All of us. If there’s any food left in this town, it’s there. Maggie and I have been scouting, and we think it’s worth the risk.”

Food was the deciding factor here. Just the mention of it had his stomach aching. It was so difficult to get enough to eat these days, and nearly impossible to eat a full meal without considering the unborn baby they were all trying to protect. “That’s a big undertaking. I assume you have a plan.” Hershel pressed. 

Glenn nodded.  “It’ll involve a lot of noise, but we can get Beth on the roof as a lookout in case we attract attention we don’t want.”

T-Dog was nervous about that idea, but Glenn had yet to let them down, no matter how strange his schemes seemed at first, so he didn’t object as the plan was laid out before them. It wasn’t all that different than the sort of plans Glenn normally suggested, but this one had them securing the front entrance shut with some metal fencing where they could draw the Walkers out and pick them off before even attempting the store. It had them clearing the large building out in sections with them all back-to-back until they dared to move around more freely. 

And it was apparently unnecessary, T-Dog concluded when they arrived. The front doors were busted wide open, a shattered sheet of glass littering the front steps surrounded by a small group of felled Walkers. Inside, it was dark and silent. They peered into the open doorway. 

“I assume that wasn’t there last time you checked.” Carol commented drily, nodding down to the pile of Walkers. 

Glenn was looking up to the roof. “Must have dropped something from the roof to drag them out and picked them off from up there. Not a bad strategy.” 

“If you’ve got the ammo.” Maggie pointed out. “They might still be in there. And we know they’re well armed.”

They looked at each other and moved as one away from the door, shifting until the lip of the building would provide coverage in the event of a shootout. They looked back at the parking lot, waiting for Glenn to make the call on whether they would stay or leave. 

“I’d say so. Only one vehicle here with fresh tracks that doesn’t belong to us.” Hershel commented with a gesture. There was already a light covering of snow over it that had obscured it from notice, but the front windshield was clear. “It’s likely we outnumber them if that’s really their only vehicle, but we should decide quickly how we want to handle this situation. If they come out guns blazing, we could lose people.”

T-Dog scanned the rest of the parking lot to confirm the assessment of numbers when his eyes landed on a familiar looking motorcycle. He plodded over without much thought, almost compelled to do so before he considered that he was losing his cover. It was unlikely, possibly astronomically so, but it did have those high handlebars and chopper style, unlike the rest of the bikes in the row. He brushed the gathered snow off the side and spotted the SS Bolts on the side. Never before in his life had he felt pleasure at spotting that insignia. But today, he drew back with a grin and hurried over to the others. “I think that’s Daryl’s bike.” 

Glenn nodded, like that confirmed things for him, and quickly handed out instructions. They’d wait outside where they’d have the advantage, some on each side of the door, and catch them as they came out. If they didn’t come out on their own soon, they’d try some noise to draw them out. 

“If it’s Daryl in there, why are we preparing to attack?” Carl asked quietly, readying himself anyway.

“Can’t be sure that’s really Daryl’s bike and not some random racist biker, and if it is Daryl’s bike, we can’t be sure who he’s with and if they’ll consider us friends.” Glenn explained patiently. T-Dog noted that he carefully left out the part where they still didn’t know why he’d left them in the first place and if that’d affect their reunion. “Now, keep quiet.”

Before the dead started to get up and eat people, T-Dog had been devout in his faith. The only return from death he’d imagined was one ordained by the lord himself. He’d gone to church every week and volunteered for every activity that made it to the church bulletin board. And while things had gotten progressively harder to believe in since then, he kept his faith, a quiet burning strength, close to his chest to keep him going. The fire wasn’t as warm these days and sometimes he could feel the chill wind threatening to blow it straight out.

He prayed harder than he could ever remember that it was Daryl approaching the doorway, steps quick and nearly silent, and that his companion wheeling a cart a few feet behind, was friendly as well. They could use a miracle like that about as much as they could use a warm meal. Daryl could turn the tide in their little war for survival. He had skills and experience that they were sorely lacking and could help them move away from reliance on found canned goods for food, a reliance that was preventing them from moving past the scramble of day to day existence. And T-Dog prayed that the hunter would still be the man that had rescued him when he was injured on the highway despite his role in losing Merle, would still be the man who’d thrown himself into finding a little girl lost in the woods. He prayed that that was the person that survived and Daryl hadn’t turned into some hardened carbon copy of his brother to make it in the new world order.

‘There are no atheists in foxholes,’ The saying went, but T-Dog was increasingly sure that the opposite might be true. When bombs are falling all around, when people in the prime of life die of disease and hunger, when good people suffer and perish, it’s harder than ever to remember that there’s someone above who’s orchestrated it all and knows what they’re doing. All of their group had confessed to being Christian with the exception of Glenn, but no one spoke of it as much more than a past acquaintance these days. They needed that quickly approaching figure to be Daryl. He needed it.

He swung out the moment the pair reached the entrance, cart scraping against the metal grating surrounding the doors, Glenn, and Maggie moving with him as their front line defense. He knew the others were ready to back them up. “Don’t move!” Glenn shouted as they took in the scene. It wasn’t Daryl, but T-Dog knew his prayers had still been answered. 

“Glenn?” The woman behind the cart asked, disbelief coloring her voice, like her eyes must be lying. “My god.”

“Andrea.” Carol sighed in relief, lowering her weapon and stepping forward before the other woman, still an unknown threat, had lowered her sword. Andrea waved the woman down, took several more steps and pulled Carol into a hug. “We thought we’d never see you again.” 

“I know what you mean.” Andrea exhaled, accepting T-Dog’s embrace next, and even Lori’s, past troubles forgotten. Maggie seemed more on the fence about her return, and T-Dog knew there was bad blood there, but no one was hostile. Andrea was one of their own and she belonged with them. She introduced the swordswoman as ‘Michonne, the woman who saved my life.’ Michonne didn’t speak much, or at all, but Andrea’s ease in her presence told T-Dog all he needed to know. They could trust her. 

There was an exuberant air of pleasure and relief and everyone seemed to be talking over each other for a moment to get through all the pressing questions, until Glenn raised his hand and voice until everyone else cut off and let him speak. “We’re thrilled to see you, but first things first. Is this location secure?”

Andrea gave a short nod. “Seems to be, though there may be a stray Walker somewhere. We didn’t exactly comb the place. Wasn’t like that when we checked it out a couple weeks ago, place was packed, but there weren’t a lot of bodies down. Someone must have pied piper’ed the place, but I can’t figure out why they would leave so much behind.”

“That can’t be a good sign.” Glenn responded with a nod. “We shouldn’t stick around long, then, in case it’s a trap.”

“That’s what we figured.” Andrea confirmed. “We’re tucked in a few miles West, unless you have something better.” Michonne shifted her weight and shot Andrea a look, but she didn’t protest the invitation. 

“Alright, we’ll use that for now. Let’s load up the cars first. They’ll be time for questions later.” Glenn said, ignoring whatever discontent the newest addition might have in favor of getting things moving. It was a testament to how much he’d grown. “Beth, you’re the lookout. Carl and Hershel, you’ll load what’s brought out and keep an eye on the parking lot. Everyone else, stay in pairs or more at all times. We’re here for food and medical supplies. Everything else is a luxury item. We’ll come back if we can.”

“This is everyone?” Andrea asked as they filed past her and back into the building. Hershel rolled the cart out of her loose grip and towards the vehicles, scoping out the space in Andrea’s previously unidentified Honda as he went past. “There’s no one else?”

“This is everyone.” T-Dog confirmed as he pulled out his own cart, slowing a bit so he could walk with the woman. From the way her cart had been stocked, she could obviously point him in the direction of the food. She walked there as she processed the news, Michonne a silent figure at her side. 

“Rick’s gone?” She swallowed hard. “Shane?” 

T-Dog nodded grimly, keeping his voice low to hear anything that might be attempting to sneak up on them in the darkened interior. His flashlight only illuminated a small radius. “Rick went down under Walkers. Carl said Shane had turned.  Jimmy and Patricia were lost, too, back at the farm.”

“And Daryl?” Andrea asked, immediately noting the person who wasn’t mentioned. “God, it’s like everyone I was sure would make it, didn’t.”

“No one knows what happened to him. Today’s the closest we’ve gotten to him.” 

“He was here?” They’d reached an appropriate aisle and started piling their cart high with every canned food that was left while Michonne stood guard, poised and attentive. They took practically indiscriminately. Much of the food was gone already, pilfered in the early days before the store was overrun, but this was, without a doubt, their best payload yet. 

“I think so. I think his bike is out front.”

Andrea bit her lip, but T-Dog already knew what was coming. “If it was his, he wouldn’t have left it behind. If it’s out there, been sitting around a while… he might not be alive.”

T-Dog didn’t even pause in his work as he responded. “It’s not likely, no. But then again, I watched you get swarmed, thought you were taken down, was very nearly certain of it until about fifteen minutes ago. But you made it out, and there wasn’t a car left, so you must have done it on foot. And now here we are, months later and reunited. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.” Andrea smiled back at him, and they shifted into a companionable quiet to work. 

Within the hour, everyone was ready to leave, but T-Dog lingered near the motorcycles. “We might never get another opportunity. He could be nearby. We could all be together again.” T-Dog closed his gaze directly in on Carol, the one most likely to support the effort.

Glenn shook his head slowly. “We can’t give up our plans or our location, even a temporary one, in anything we leave behind. There’s no guarantee that Daryl will be the one to find our message.” The rest went without saying. Randall’s group was nightmare fuel on its own, and there were others they’d found traces of as they moved around with disturbing remnants. They knew they’d been fortunate in avoiding other groups so far and that was largely due to stealth and caution. T-Dog didn’t doubt that Glenn would have erred on the side of returning after Andrea and Michonne had left had it not been for the bike that could be Daryl’s.

“Then we make sure he’s the only one who can use what we leave behind.” Carol asserted. “There are Walkies inside, we can leave one for him, and wait for him to contact us. I’ll keep the note short. Nothing given away, nothing exposed.” They waited while Glenn mulled it over quickly and gave a sharp nod, then Carol ran back inside with Maggie to retrieve a Walkie to leave behind. Glenn worked open the compartment where they’d hopefully be able to store it discreetly.

Michonne spoke for the first time, giving her opinion that leaving anything was a mistake. She described the sort of people she and Andrea had run across so far, including a group of men that abducted two women, one of them pregnant, with obvious intentions towards them. “People are dangerous, now, and your friend’s bike has been here a while with all that snow on it. You’re risking safety on someone who’s dead.”

Glenn clenched his jaw and stood up, about ready to get into the newcomers face. T-Dog was a step behind him. She didn’t know Daryl or what he was capable of, and he’d be damned if they just walked away from their first lead on his whereabouts. Hershel stepped up and interrupted the mounting argument with his calm, pacifying tone. “I understand your concerns. It’s your safety as well, but it’s because of those people that you spoke of, people driven to do evil, that those of us who do good must take extra care in looking out for each other. I believe that may require a little more hope than wisdom at times.” Michonne nodded and stood aside while they left a small slip of paper and Walkie inside the bike’s compartment. 

That night, in the drafty cabin that Andrea and her friend had boarded up and secured, they had a party. It was the first celebration since the farm. There was a fire in the fireplace, a solid roof over their heads, and a veritable feast with the promise of more food to pick up over the next few days. Everyone ate their fill for once, and T-Dog ate enough that he started to feel a little sick. Lori’s baby would be okay now that they weren’t all be starving. There was finally enough to go around, and while they’d have to start rationing again in the morning, everyone agreed that the break was well overdue. 

Andrea told the story of heading toward Fort Benning in a last-ditch effort to find them, but the trip was long and perilous, with unsavory characters both alive and dead. There were herds everywhere and most of the roads were awash from the sheer number of pile ups. They were doubling back nearly as often as they pressed forward. The weather didn’t help and ultimately, they’d decided to sit still for a while and build up some proper supplies. They’d been fortunate that upon doing a drive-by on the Walmart while blasting music, there didn’t seem to be evidence of significant Walker presence, and they could take it on. 

T-Dog thought this might be the first good news they’d experienced since the farm, and with her return, their fates would be improved. It would be two new mouths to feed, but they were both capable and experienced survivors now, and their presence could only improve their overall situation. God had answered his prayers before any of them died from their situation. He’d even thrown in a bonus that they may even be able to catch up with Daryl one day, but even if that never happened, T-Dog was starting to think they might survive on their own. 

 

============

Chapter Text

There comes a time after so many days of staying awake that the human body becomes so sleep deprived that every waking hour takes on a state of unreality interspersed with brief moments of lucidity. It’s why extreme sleep deprivation could be determined as a mediating factor in criminal cases. There could be massive gaps in memory while the person was functioning on ‘autopilot’, irrational emotional responses, poor decision making and a pervasive fogginess surrounding most thoughts. In short, it made a person slightly insane.

Working most of his life as a cop in a small department for a decent sized county, Rick had experienced extreme dry spells where the only entertainment was Shane and his exaggerated conquests for days or even weeks on end. He’d also experienced weeks when the entirety of King County seemed determined to get in all criminal activity at the same time, like the weather might suddenly turn sour for carjacking. It felt like some grand conspiracy to ensure that everyone was suffering through double or triple shifts. Those were always somehow the weeks where Carl was the fussiest as a baby and neediest as a child. It felt like a constant state of sleepwalking, and he’d been guilty of putting more than one dirty diaper in the fridge.

  So, as Rick roused in a small brick room that prickled with familiarity despite the dim lighting, he recognized this feeling of sleep deprivation and the bizarre sense of unreality that came with it. What he was less clear on was how he’d reached this condition. 

Sitting up, Rick took in the details of the scene with a quick scan. He was on a flat excuse of a mattress that he’d have pinned for a prisoner’s cot even before locking onto the literal cell not ten feet away. Fortunately, he was sleeping outside the cell and there was no obvious threat of being locked in. A second mattress was pressed tightly against his own to form a double bed, but it was empty and cold to the touch. His gun was still nearby, though resting on his gunbelt and jacket beside the mat and not around his waist, and he immediately grabbed it. The lighting was too poor to make out much else. There was a profound chill in the air, and he shivered as the pile of blankets pooled around him. 

“Daryl?” He called reflexively before his mind caught up with his mouth and the dangers of being vocal. Careful of any possible injuries, Rick used the bars to pull himself to his feet. He didn’t feel weak and wobbly like when he’d woken up in the hospital at the start of this whole mess, but the feeling of disorientation was similar. He donned his jacket and slipped his gun belt back into place. A few hesitant steps out of the room with the cell, and he’d confirmed his suspicions about this place and the feeling of familiarity. He was at the Sheriff's Department in King County. 

For a brief moment, Rick’s heart beat rapidly, threatening to throw him into a panic. The last time he’d been here was shortly after waking up from his coma, before he found everyone. He couldn’t explain being there now except that finding his family, finding Daryl was all a dream. “Daryl?” He called again. He couldn’t have dreamt everything that happened over the last few months, right? Cautiously, he peeked around the corner and stepped into the office space. 

“Hey.” Rick whipped around, sighing in relief at Daryl’s appearance. He had the baby in the crook of his arm and a bottle up to her lips as he watched Rick’s movements cautiously. The world coalesced into something more solid underneath him. Rick knew this wasn’t the first time he’d stood here with Daryl nearby watching him try to sort everything out, but aside from the sensation of deja vu, he wasn’t sure what he was missing. 

“I’m not…” Rick pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t remember getting here.” Daryl nodded like that response was completely expected. He must have hit his head, then. The hunter was sporting a black eye and a significant bruise on the jaw himself, so something had gone down, but he couldn’t say what. “What happened?”

Daryl shrugged with a casualness that was at odds with the tension in his shoulders. “What’s the last ya remember?” Sinking into what used to be a very comfortable rolling chair, Daryl nodded towards the hard wood one across the desk. Rick wondered if he knew he was sitting at Rick’s old desk where he’d written reports for years or if it was just a coincidence and a convenient location. Had he pieced it together from momentos lingering in the back of his drawers or had Rick simply told him during one of these lapses in memory? Rick sat.

“We went into Walmart.” It’d been quiet, but not quiet enough. The distinct shuffling of Walkers lingered in the background, every step further in suggesting more than the previous estimate, but neither of them were willing to turn around with so much at stake. While there were certainly many of them, the noise was far off, likely at the back of the store, and there were many shelves and aisles to keep their presence hidden. This decision was made and agreed upon with just a quick glance shared between them. Daryl always seemed to be on the same page, picking up his train of thought with ease. Rick had hoped they’d be able to hit up the pharmacy as well, but that would simply be reckless given the situation. It was going to be in and out. They could come back later with a better plan for anything else they needed. “There were more Walkers inside than we expected.”

Daryl grunted out a noise that Rick took for affirmation, but this part of the story was easy. He remembered letting Daryl take the lead. His footsteps were nearly silent on the tile, his bow raised and at the ready as they swung around corners. Rick held their flashlight in one hand, angled down to keep from alerting Walkers and his knife brandished in the other. He left his gun in its holster. He was thankful that The Living had allowed them to take out their own weaponry while hunting and thus enabled them to escape with their gear intact, but he wasn’t going to use his beloved Python unless it became an emergency. It was too much of a risk here. 

He concentrated on keeping his footsteps light with the methods he’d learned back at the motel. Every sense was primed for an attack, but even with his preparation, one of them managed to sneak up behind him. He only had a few seconds’ warning from the unexpected thudding of careless feet, and he twisted to stab it through its chin before the snarl could get too loud and attract others. He was breathing heavily when he turned back to Daryl, not from exertion but adrenaline. Daryl nodded at him again, reminding him that he was watching his back as well. It did little to ease the pounding of his heart.

Around the next corner, there were three more Walkers milling about that became interested in their presence. Daryl shot one with a bolt before the light was even on it, and they quickly took down the other two. Rick gestured into the next aisle, and they scurried across to gain some distance from the noises they’d just made. They could head back around a different route to avoid whatever else might be drawn over.

Finally, the glow of the flashlight landed on a promising shelf, and he slowly raised its beam until they’d located the formula. Like most of the shelves, a significant portion had already been removed, but there was still a sizeable haul left. Rick shucked his bag lightning fast and started piling in as many of the plastic tubs as he could cram into the space. He was just finishing, trying to decide if he should carry several out in his arms as well when Daryl lunged forward and took down another Walker. Rick nodded in thanks and pulled the bag back onto his back. 

“We found a bunch and packed it up. It was too crowded inside to try for anything else so we just headed toward the parking lot.”

Daryl waited a long minute before responding, like he was waiting for Rick to say something else, but the cop wasn’t sure what else there was to say. They got in, found the formula and got out. He couldn’t be mistaken because the baby was right there being fed. He reached out to take her once the bottle was empty, but Daryl leaned back and kept her out of reach. He shifted the small bundle over his shoulder and patted her back gently. Rick wondered what he was missing. Daryl might have taken to that baby with surprising ease and enthusiasm, but he always preferred to watch Rick handle as much of the child care as possible, like he wanted to see it all in action so he couldn’t mess it up. 

“Right?” Rick pushed after a moment of silence.

“‘S late.” Daryl replied. That much was true. The small windows bordering the top of the squad room were completely black, suggesting that it was sometime in the night. Rick had no idea how long he’d been sleeping. “Let’s talk in the mornin’.”

Frowning, Rick sighed but accepted the decision. Daryl looked exhausted, and Rick didn’t feel any better for having apparently just woken up from a long sleep. He returned to the mattress and laid back down. He felt sleep deprived, so maybe if he went to sleep, the hazy cloud currently occupying his mind would lift, and he’d be able to think clearly again. He’d piece together whatever it was he was missing and come up with the line that Daryl was waiting to hear. He strangely didn’t feel tired in the least, but that didn’t seem to matter at all because he was out like a light as soon as he felt Daryl’s reaffirming presence joining him on the mats.

Rick dreamt that he was a dog, or perhaps a wolf. He wasn’t sure how he knew this with such certainty because he also looked and moved like himself. He was working his way through the woods on the trail of something, taking in broken branches and crumbled leaves with keen eyes, but every once in a while, he’d press his nose straight into the dirt and start sniffing. He didn’t recognize the smell he was following, except that it was important he find the source.  

 Stopping again to breathe in the scent, it came much stronger than before and Rick darted after it, running on two legs, then on four, crashing through trees and pushing faster and faster until he could make out a faint form ahead of him in the distance. It was a bright yellow dot, darting and buzzing around like a bee, but closer inspection revealed that it was a bunny wearing a sheriff’s hat. It outpaced him the instant he saw it and he was left sitting in a pile of snow that wasn’t there before, tracks visible now from the elusive bunny, but only looping around and around in circles with no beginning or end in sight. He could follow the path endlessly, but it wouldn’t lead him anywhere. 

In despair, Rick yowled at the sky until Daryl appeared beside him, whacking the back of his head with a rolled up newspaper and demanding that he shut up. Furious, Rick turned with a menacing growl and leapt on the man, knocking him off his feet and taking a bite out of his shoulder before remembering himself. Apologetically, he licked at it, cleaning away the blood and whimpering. 

When he was finished, Rick led him back to a cave where they could take refuge. The cave was also somehow a Walker that they crawled inside of, smearing blood and guts everywhere. The smell was nauseating in its persistence, but it didn’t bother him once they started kissing. They were making out like teenagers, and it was only with the sudden influx of calm from Daryl that Rick realized how frayed his nerves were. Rick pushed him backwards to get even closer and a long, demanding horn resounded throughout the cave. Daryl was panting, legs spread invitingly, but the droning sound went on and on, so Rick couldn’t take advantage of the offering in front of him. 

Jerking awake, Rick looked around for the source of the horn, only to discover that the sound had only been inside his head and in his dream. Belatedly, he identified it as a car horn. He remembered it echoing in the parking lot while they were inside the store. He remembered racing for the front of the store, heedless of the Walkers they might attract from their own movements when the noise would undoubtedly drag them all outside anyway. He remembered nearly getting bit from one that appeared around a corner if not for the bolt suddenly lodged in its head. He remembered Daryl going down from an unexpected grip on his ankle and helping to free him so they could continue the mad dash to the door. Then… nothing.

Rick couldn’t be sure how much time had passed since he’d laid back down to sleep, but the place was fully lit with sunlight rather than eerily glowing with moonlight now. Daryl was awake again, or perhaps still, and feeding the baby. He’d forgotten how often infants demanded food and how utterly inconvenient it must have been while Rick was out of it. He offered to take over, but Daryl directed him to make something for them to eat. 

“We left because of the car horn.” Rick commented as he worked. “He pressed it to get us.” 

The archer was watching him again, and it was less comforting and more unnerving than it had been in the past. “No.” He finally contradicted. “That’s wrong.”

Rick frowned, and closed his eyes. It hadn’t been that weird dream. He remembered the car horn. He remembered them racing to get to it, but what reason did Daryl have to lie? “Why did we come here?”

Biting his lip, Daryl shrugged, trying to pass it off as a minor undertaking when he explained. “You said to come here. If all else failed, an’ I needed to find ya.”

“We got separated again?” 

“Yer body was there, but ya weren’t with me. I didn’t know what to do, man. Was like ya just left.”

Suddenly, Rick wanted to ask where Tyler was and why Rick had yet to see him. Was he in the break room where the door was conspicuously shut and a familiar scent leaked from the corners? But his mind shied away from the question and the answer, like it knew something he didn’t. So long as he didn’t ask, he didn’t have to hear what Daryl might say. “I’m here.”

“For now.” 

Rick let the comment go because he couldn’t refute it, not when he still wasn’t sure what had happened. Even now, he didn’t feel entirely with it, and he couldn’t say how many times he and Daryl had already had a similar conversation. From the way he was acting, Rick must have lost it, and he had no idea how badly or for how long, but part of him had a budding suspicion as to why. It was understandable, but at the same time frustrating because Daryl was keeping him at arm’s length and away from the baby as well.

Sitting across from his friend, he placed their breakfasts in front of them, nothing more complicated than opened cans with a side of jerky, but Rick was never going to under-appreciate food again. “Sorry.” He said after several quiet minutes of chewing. Daryl looked up in confusion, so Rick gestured towards his black eye. “Got a feeling I was behind that one.” 

“Was an accident.” Daryl grunted. Rick thought that was likely true. He could remember struggling against him, though not the reason why, and his flailing elbow meeting Daryl’s face. 

Cautiously, Rick leaned in closer, and when the hunter stiffened but didn’t retreat, he tugged down on the collar of Daryl’s shirt until the base of his neck was fully exposed. There sat a deep, flaming red bite mark that would have stopped Rick’s heart right then if he wasn’t completely sure the bite hadn’t been from some Walker. “Don’t think that one was.” He didn’t even know why he’d done it. 

“Got in a few good licks, myself.” Daryl shifted, knocking Rick’s hand away dismissively. 

Rick tried not to think about licking at the wound. That must have been part of the dream and not something he’d actually done. He hoped. He could feel the bruises Daryl was referencing on himself, one on his cheek, another throbbing somewhere around the base of his ribcage, a few more scattered around. These were apparently not from Walkers since they’d been fighting each other.

“Come on.” Daryl said after they finished their breakfast, standing up and tucking the baby into a carrier Rick hadn’t even noticed until she was secured tightly against his chest. Next, he slid on tiny mittens and a hat before arranging his poncho around them. He grabbed a spear made from what was probably a sharpened broom handle from its spot against the desk, looped his crossbow over his shoulder, and headed towards the door. Rick checked his person for a knife and his gun and eyed the shut door of the break room, wondering what the odds were that Tyler was safely behind the door sleeping. He didn’t ask. “There’s a shop down the road I wanna get to.” He headed straight towards the front door without seeming to care whether Rick would follow. 

Checking his gun to confirm that it was loaded, Rick noted that there were exactly two bullets left. ‘Four men, four rounds. What are the odds, huh?’ Shane’s voice echoed in his head. Now there were two bullets and two men. Rick counted to ten before trailing after Daryl, helping to shift the barricade so they could slip through the main doors. The hunter spun around, making sure the area was clear before making a beeline to the van parked outside. It had seen better days, cracks running along all of the windows, and spidering out heavily from the windshield.

Daryl opened up the sliding door of their van to set the baby properly in her carseat before skirting the car and getting into the driver’s side. Rick slid into the shotgun position. The van headed towards the outskirts of town instead of further into the denser buildings. It was the opposite direction from the house Rick had lived in with his family, and he wasn’t sure if that was better or worse. Part of him wanted to insist that they head straight over there. Part of him wondered if he could handle it. 

“It smells awful in here.” It was an odor he knew intimately by now, death and viscera, but new to the van, and Rick didn’t have to look around to know that the inside of the vehicle was pretty well coated in it. He took a deep breath and prayed that it was from a Walker and not the boy he didn’t dare ask after. He swallowed hard and comforted himself that there was no way Daryl could keep the van if that’s what was covering the walls and the windows from the inside. 

“Guess ya don’t remember that, either.” Daryl grunted, but didn’t elaborate. Rick wasn’t sure he wanted to know. 

The shop Daryl parked in front of was colloquially known as Marty’s, which wasn’t its official name but the only one anyone ever used. The sign had been vandalized and broken back when ‘hoodlums’ were a probable cause instead of ‘undead’. Rick knew instantly why the hunter wanted to check this spot out, though he was less clear on how Daryl always seemed to pinpoint the most useful buildings with no effort at all. Marty’s sold fishing and hunting gear and was likely to have useful weapons and more ammo, assuming no one else had looted the place yet. Being as poorly labelled as it was, Rick thought there was a decent chance of finding something valuable inside. He was also grateful that Daryl had taken him along for backup. If there was anyone local still around, they’d have certainly made a move on this place and could still be holed up inside.

“You’re taking the baby?” Rick asked in disbelief as Daryl opened up the sliding door and started to unlatch the baby harness. He’d been holding his tongue and letting Daryl do as he saw fit, but the choice made no sense. He couldn’t seriously be considering taking a newborn to clear a shop. But the look in Daryl’s eyes said that he wasn’t just considering but had already decided. 

“It’s gonna be fine. Just fed her, so she’ll be extra quiet. Ain’t that right, Lil’ Asskicker?”

“That’s only one-”

“I’m not lettin’ her outta my sight!” Daryl interrupted with finality, glaring at Rick. “We did just fine while you were… gone.”

For the first time since waking up with a memory emptier than a swear jar for a church playground, Rick considered that he wasn’t the only one who was off his rocker. He took a step back and raised his hands. “At least let me carry her so you can use your bow.” Despite it being slung over his back, Rick knew there was no way he’d risk using it with such a fragile package strapped to his chest. 

“No.” Daryl immediately refuted. 

Rick took a few hurried steps to insert himself into Daryl’s way. He couldn’t help the anger that was worming its way up inside him. “You can’t seriously think I’d hurt her.” 

“I think you’ve got a real skewed sense of what’s safe at the moment. If you decide to run into another herd of a couple hundred Walkers with nothin’ but a pocket knife, I don’t want her strapped to ya.” 

“I did that?” Rick asked, wracking through his brain to try and come up with the incident and coming up with nothing. Surely that was just an exaggeration. 

“You may have had two knives.” Daryl conceded, finishing his task of securing the baby to his chest and closing the door. He quirked an eyebrow and gave a half-shrug. “Was actually pretty impressive,” he muttered, “in a shit-your-pants sort of way.”

“Right.” Rick cleared his throat. His imagination alone was slightly terrifying. “I’ll go in first.” Daryl didn’t fight him on that one, at least. He wasn’t sure if it was because he was starting to feel and act more like his normal self or if it was simply that the person holding the baby should not be in front. Thinking back to their initial encounters, he remembered all the challenges and brush-offs he’d received before he’d earned Daryl’s trust, and how quick he was to agree once that dynamic had been established. Rick hoped he wouldn’t be starting from scratch.

They cleared the store systematically, if not as quickly and efficiently as they might have had they been willing to separate. Still, the shop was small and easily secured, but disappointingly empty. Rick hadn’t let himself hope for much else, but he could tell that Daryl was frustrated by his body language before he kicked at the counter. 

“We’ll find more elsewhere.”

The archer snorted and tore up the store for anything remaining that resembled useful. Even the fishing line had been taken. “Like hell. Checked a dozen places now. Someone stripped this whole fuckin’ town with a fine-toothed comb. Some food left over, but not one bullet.” 

“How many we got left?” 

“Yer holdin’ ‘em.” Rick cringed and holstered his weapon. It wasn’t just the lack of guns and ammunition that was bothering him, though. It was the thought that if a group had taken their time to so thoroughly excavate the whole town of its weaponry, there was a good chance they were still at it or in the area, and they were heavily armed. That made the group a threat and one that he and Daryl were ill equipped to handle. “Still can’t believe there weren’t nothin’ at Walmart. ‘S like not findin’ booze at a liquor store.”

“Probably why that place was so damn full of Walkers.” Rick shrugged. “Everyone would’ve gone there to stock up. It would have been a bloodbath. Only people walking out of that would have been the ones to clear out the gun section.” It was annoying, but Rick still considered their loot from Walmart impressive. They had enough to feed them for months, some medicine, and they’d plundered the entire baby aisle of everything practical. 

There was a little sneeze that drew both of their attention to the baby, and Rick laid a hand on her head instinctively. He didn’t feel any sort of fever, and she appeared healthy. The last thing they needed now was for their charge to get sick. 

“We should go to my house.” Rick decided. Daryl’s face immediately got pinched, and Rick could tell he was trying to point out the obvious in a way that would be well received. “I know they’re not there. They think I’m dead. There’s no reason they’d go back.” Well, he knew they probably wouldn’t be there, but some small part of him would not accept that as the truth until he saw it for himself. Regardless, it wasn’t why he was suggesting they go. “Last time I was in town, I was in a panic. I wasn’t as thorough as I should have been. I left behind things I could’ve used. Another gun and some ammo, for one.”

“What makes ya think they haven’t picked over your house?”  

“Probably have. But I have home turf advantage. It’ll be worth it to go.” He could also check Shane’s place, while he was at it, for anything left behind. Shane wouldn’t have been negligent enough to leave his spare gun behind, but there were a lot of supplies they still could use. He’d also like to get a look across the street and see if there was any trace of what happened to Morgan and his son. “Then we should get out of town before we run into whoever took all these weapons.”

Daryl chewed on his lip. “Alright. But not tonight. Let’s head back to the station.”

Rick conceded to that, though he wasn’t entirely sure about Daryl’s angle. There was plenty of daylight left to get something else done. Maybe he was concerned about keeping the baby out in the cold. Or maybe he wasn’t convinced that Rick was going to keep it together. Rick wasn’t entirely sure himself. When he let himself drift, he could see images at the corner of his eye or hear muffled words, and he knew instinctively that if he let them in, he might not resurface. 

When they got back to the station, Rick eyed the break room door again. He pressed his hand against the door before retreating back to their collection of bags behind his desk and surveying their supplies. They’d need to find a good location to stash some of it in case of an emergency. Daryl was finishing up with a wooden crate that he’d outfitted into a proper crib, so Rick spent his time ransacking every desk for anything of use. 

“It was a Walker.” Daryl finally said when the baby was fed and laying in the crib. 

“What?”

“The car horn? It was a Walker.”

Daryl watched him cautiously, like he was ready to snag the box and run if Rick made the wrong move. He wondered if the attitude was warranted and how many other details he was missing. ‘The devil’s in the details.’ It was a saying his own father had been fond of misusing but it had never felt more apt. He forced himself to concentrate on Daryl’s words, knowing he was subconsciously avoiding them and their meaning. It was a Walker that pressed the car horn. His first image was comical, a corpse groaning and moaning while it was stuck in traffic hitting heavily on the steering wheel in front of it. But then the actual memory surfaced and any hint of humor disappeared. 

A blasting car horn had drawn them out of Walmart. Its drone had echoed around the parking lot and went on and on, long after one might expect from a brief plea for help, long after any living person would have dared these days. Rick and Daryl had made it to the asphalt only to see a set of adult sized combat boots working their way in through the driver’s side door, a broad hip butting up against the steering wheel and keeping the horn going as the Walker struggled to get further inside with only one arm attached to its torso. Already, a second and third Walker were pressing against the glass on the opposite side of the van and more were heading their way. They shouted to redirect attention onto them, but the Walkers all seemed intent on getting inside the vehicle and reaching the source of the wailing cries.

Without discussion, Daryl darted forward, grabbing the ankles of the beast working its way inside. He struggled with the weight and the flailing body that was half draped over the back of the driver’s seat, but Rick left him to it. He had his own mission: keep the Walkers off Daryl and away from their van. Centering himself, he picked off the immediate threats and then started in on the Walkers that were closest until his gun clicked empty, trying to block out the crying of the baby and more alarmingly, the way it cut off abruptly and how his heart demanded to do the same. He drew his knives, prepared to fight by whatever means necessary until Daryl had secured their getaway. He had a few more bullets tucked into his pocket, but there wasn’t time to reload.

Walkers were pouring in from every direction. Dozens streamed out of the building, and a thick herd came from the opposite direction, already more than halfway across the blacktop, drawn by the car horn long before Rick started popping off shots. They didn’t have long before there’d be no way out. 

“Tyler?” Daryl’s voice filtered in through the rushing of blood in his ears, growing louder until he was actively shouting. He took a few steps out until he was beside Rick. “Tyler?” 

Rick spun in a circle, looking for any signs of the child. “Tyler!” He joined in, terror-struck that the boy had clearly not been in the van as he’d assumed. 

There wasn’t any sign of him, just face after face after face of the dead closing in. Rick grit his teeth. There was no way he was giving up on the kid. He didn’t care if he had to take down the entire herd by himself, he was going to find the boy, and he was going to be alright. There wasn’t any other option. 

Daryl pulled on his arm, but Rick shook off his hold and drove his knife into one Walker and another as they approached him. His ears were ringing, and he couldn’t hear anything that Daryl said even as he shouted to be heard over the growls of the massive crowd. Rick pushed harder, faster, taking the Walkers down two by two like it was no more challenging than swatting flies. It didn’t matter. There were too many of them. If Daryl wasn’t right behind him, he’d have been overwhelmed by now. 

There was a small gap in the flow, and Rick went to charge forward, only to be caught within a set of strong arms, pinning his arms to his sides and dragging him bodily backwards. He wiggled an elbow lose and whacked it against Daryl’s head, uncaring of the consequences in his need to get loose. A Walker followed them straight into the opening of the side door, and Rick brought his legs up and kicked out hard. He landed in a sprawl on top of Daryl who dragged his feet into the van and slammed the sliding door shut with finality. 

“What the hell?” Rick shouted angrily. “Tyler’s out there!”

“An’ the baby’s in here!” Daryl gasped. It was only then that Rick processed that the crying had picked up again and the baby was, indeed, alive. “We gotta move the van ‘fore we can’t.” The hunter scrambled over the seat into the driver’s spot, turning it over. The engine spluttered to life, but the car wouldn’t budge. Rick could hear the wheels spinning over something. The mass of bodies had already completely surrounded the van. It wouldn’t take long for them to break through the glass. 

“Fuck!” Daryl exclaimed. “Quiet her down.” The hunter didn’t hesitate from one move to the next, drawing his knife and plunging it into the back of the Walker that was currently wedged between the front seats. It was the same Walker that had nearly reached the baby and by some miracle had gotten stuck long enough for rescue to arrive. The rotten smell instantly filled the car, and Rick clued in to his plan to cover their scent before the Walkers smashed through the windows. It wouldn’t take long at the rate they were pounding at them. Rick reached forward to help, but Daryl pushed him away. “Ain’t puttin’ this on her. I’ll get the walls instead.” 

As the hunter worked on exactly that, Rick hurriedly fished around their supplies for a pacifier. He was sure Daryl’s plan couldn’t work as long as the baby kept shrieking and the gentle rocking wasn’t doing anything to stop that noise. It was already a bit of a stretch trying to camouflage this way instead of the direct application he and Glenn had used to get out of Atlanta. Finally, he located one and ended the wails within the car. 

First one, then a second window cracked, the windshield following suit, and Rick hoped it wasn’t too late. He shifted the child away from the most dangerous spots, angling his body over the infant protectively, not sure what else could be done if this plan didn’t work. But the release of air seemed to appease the herd outside the vehicle, possibly sending out the new powerful smell of death that was masking their own. The pressure against the van eased as fewer of the dead tried to get inside. 

Rick met Daryl’s eyes. They didn’t dare speak, but he knew that the same questions were floating around in his head. What the hell happened? How did the door get open and where was Tyler? He rocked the baby in his arms to keep her quiet and contemplated the possibilities. He tried to think about it from the perspective of a police officer and analyzed the probable events based on the available evidence instead of letting his emotions overpower him. There were several important factors that he outlined silently. 

One, there was no external damage to the vehicle that he had seen prior to their arrival. This meant that no Walker or person had forced their way inside. Two, the car alarm began as one continuous blare and went on until Daryl stopped the Walker from pressing against it, meaning Tyler didn’t or couldn’t hit it before the Walker got into the vehicle. Three, the driver’s side door was open but undamaged, suggesting Tyler had most likely left through it but not closed it behind him. And four, there were no immediately apparent visual or audio clues of Tyler’s presence, no tracks and no response to their screaming. 

All of this information added up pretty clearly. Rick could discredit any idea that a Walker had broken into the car with them. It was unlikely, though not strictly impossible, that someone could have come by and taken Tyler. He wasn’t sure for what purpose or why they’d take Tyler and leave the baby, but it was possible. However, the most likely scenario was that a little boy left alone in a van with a baby had panicked upon seeing or attracting the attention of a Walker and instead of trying to get help or sitting tight in relative safety, he’d taken off in a blind run. 

He blamed himself for not considering the possibility earlier. They’d been successful with this same operational strategy for days now, Rick hadn’t even realized he had the lack of Walkers to thank for it. He’d talked with Tyler, had known he couldn’t handle himself against the threat and was scared to death of them, but he hadn’t factored in the blind panic of a child that might cause him to run away from safety. He’d been so stupid, and every second they wasted inside that van decreased their chances of finding the kid alive.

He might be dead already.

It felt like being torn open and having his intestines spilled onto the floorboards. Daryl seemed to sense his mental shift and took the baby from his lifeless hands before he could drop her. He needed Tyler like he needed air. He was both Rick’s redemption for losing track of his own son and his hope that Carl might still be alive, might have made it out there even in the chaos and destruction of this new world. If Tyler was dead, bit or lost, what did Rick have left to cling to?  

There was no more Claire with her pregnant belly that reminded him of his wife and the child that was most likely not his own. Some living, breathing, humans had raped her for weeks and then killed her, maybe even eaten her, for the crime of protecting her baby.. Would Lori fall victim to a similar fate that Rick would be equally unable to prevent? Or was she already dead? She wouldn’t have the luxury of proper medical care for when the baby came. Even if the rest of the group got out together, who was there that would be capable of protecting his family against these sorts of monsters? 

Had Shane been right this whole time? Maybe he wasn’t strong enough to keep his family safe. He hadn’t managed to protect his surrogate family, who’s to say he’d have done any better with Carl and Lori? Had he sentenced them to death when he’d tried to save them from Shane? As crazy as he was, he would have taken care of Lori, and now she was surely dead, and it was his fault. It didn’t even matter that Shane had been unstable and might have gotten others in the group killed. The odds of any of them still being alive without him or Rick or Daryl to keep them safe seemed astronomical. 

It was no longer a question of if his family was alive, but how and when they died. Was it quick, and was there anyone left alive to tell him about it? A chasm opened beneath him and swallowed him whole. Rick wasn’t even aware of crumbling to the floor of the van or the keening wails he was making. He didn’t process anything at all until some indeterminable time later when he roused to find his face buried in his friend’s neck as he attempted to muffle the sounds of despair. Daryl was muttering in his ear over and over that they’d find Tyler. He might have been doing it for an hour before Rick perceived the words. At some point, he’d bitten down in anger or anguish, he didn’t know, but Daryl still didn’t push him away despite the bleeding wound in the juncture of his shoulder. 

Some time later, Daryl’s words changed, and he outlined a plan that Rick wasn’t coherent enough to catch. He felt more like he was in a trance than either awake or asleep, but he did perceive Daryl moving towards the door and instructing him to stay put. Rick’s hand whipped out lightning fast to grab hold of his arm as it reached the door handle, tearing it away. “No!” He declared loudly. “We’re not separating!” 

“Shut up!” Daryl hissed back, eyeing the way the Walkers in the thinned herd around the vehicle started to take an interest again. There were still plenty left to break through the glass or muck up an attempt to leave. 

“We’re not separating!” Rick insisted, unsure if he’d even managed to lower his voice at all in his desperation. The pounding on the filthy windows started up again. It didn’t matter. Nothing was more important than sticking together.

Daryl threw his hands up in the air and growled in frustration. “Get her buckled.” He finangled himself over the remnants of the dead body and slipped into the driver’s seat, turning the van back on and hitting the gas. There was a brief protest before it lurched forward, and several solid thumps resounded under their tires, but then they were moving. 

Rick latched the buckles of the carseat, nearly falling to the floor himself from the rocky movement of the vehicle. It didn’t stop him from protesting. “We can’t leave without Tyler.” 

“Like I said, we’ll loop ‘round. Just need to draw them off so’s we can search.” Daryl agreed, slowing the vehicle a bit now that they were away from the worst of the herd and honking the horn twice to draw the Walkers in the right direction. He inched forward to keep out of reach. “Was gonna take my bike.” Daryl sounded annoyed but Rick wasn’t even a little sorry at keeping him inside the van. They were lucky they’d managed to get it moving, but now that they had, it was definitely the safer option. Mostly, Rick just didn’t want to let him out of his sight. He was a afraid he might spontaneously disappear just from taking too long to blink. “We’re gonna find him.” Daryl’s tone was set and steady, and Rick let himself fall into the comfort of his surety. 

Rick stood in the center of the Sheriff's Office feeling lost. Daryl had sounded so certain of the outcome, yet he couldn’t recall seeing Tyler again, alive or dead. There was nothing left but fuzzy swathes of time spent wandering the woods. He marched to the door of the break room and took hold of the handle. He could feel Daryl’s eyes on him, but he made no attempt to stop the action. 

He opened the door, facing no resistance from it. He didn’t encounter a Walker version of the young boy as part of him had been dreading, nor did he find the boy’s body. Instead, he was nearly bowled over by the scent of death and rot. He gagged as he looked over the carnage. There were four bodies in total, if one went by the number of skulls and not the extraneous appendages. Two of the faces were recognizable to him as former colleagues. He wondered what it said about him that he barely cared at all. It was simply more confirmation of what he knew: everyone he’d ever known was dead. 

Rick closed the door, his primary question still unanswered. “Where’s Tyler?”

“Gettin’ late.” Daryl commented, though the sun was still clearly visible. “You hungry?”

Rick frowned at the evasion, taking a step forward, but Daryl didn’t seem interested in meeting his gaze. Everything about this situation seemed wrong. Where was Tyler? Why couldn’t he remember? He shook his head slowly, though his stomach immediately rumbled, disputing his claim. 

“I’ll fix ya somethin’.” Daryl turned and started rifling through their bags.

“You didn’t answer my question. Where’s Tyler?”

“I did. First couple times ya asked. Didn’t go over so well.”

Rick sucked in a breath, heart clenching so tight in his chest that he thought he might just drop dead right then and there, leaving behind a mindless monster for Daryl to put down before it hurt the baby. That could only mean one thing. He tried to steel himself for the upcoming declaration. “He’s dead?”

Daryl glared at the desk in front of him. Rick wondered how many times he’d been forced to recount this story, how many times Rick had asked for something he apparently couldn’t handle, before the archer surprised him with a different account. “Otis must’ve found her that mornin’ while we were lookin’ ‘long the creek. Saw her nest in that farmhouse an’ her doll not far from there. Means she made it the night an’ some time the mornin’ after got bit, turned, an’ was dragged back to the barn, all ‘fore noon, more than likely. An’ we only know all that ‘cuz we got lucky an’ found some folks who still thought the dead were just sick.”

Contemplatively, Rick lowered himself into the chair across the desk. There was an anger starting to swell inside him that he wasn’t sure he could control, and he knew Daryl could see it from the look he was sending his way. “You’re saying we shouldn’t look for our people anymore?”

“Hell, no. We keep lookin’ best as we can, long as we can.” Daryl contradicted, and Rick relaxed a little. He wasn’t sure what he would have done if Daryl admitted to giving up hope. He didn’t think he could make it without his unshakeable persistence. “But we might never get an answer, an’ dyin’ for an answer we might never get don’t make no sense.”

“Where’s Tyler?” This time, Rick knew what the response was going to be, but he still had to hear it, and it still burned when he heard it.

“I don’t know.” Daryl didn’t go through with making him something to eat, which was fine because Rick didn’t think he could stomach it. He wanted to lay down and sleep. Anything was better than reality. But sleep evaded him even after tucking into the pile of blankets and begging the sandman to take him away. Daryl came in with the wooden crib a minute later, placing it gently on the ground beside their mat. Rick waited until he’d settled down under the blankets, both staring at the ceiling. “Don’t go disappearin’ on me ‘gain.” The hunter said gruffly.

Rick barely heard him. His skin itched everywhere and everything felt both too big and too small at the same time. He sat back up. “I never even told him my real name. I kept thinking I should, but kids can have loose lips. And then when we weren’t with them, it sort of felt like taking the rug from under him.”

“Ya looked out for him. Cared for him. What’s a name matter?”

“Why’d we leave him?” Rick pressed, struggling to get the words out around the sudden block in his throat. 

Daryl sighed and sat up as well, drawing his knees to his chest and resting his arms on them. “We looked everywhere.” Rick knew that to be true, even if he’d been in too much of an emotional state to retain many of his memories. He knew they would have. He vaguely recalled circling around the building, through the forest and checking nearby houses, few though they were. They’d checked every car and possible landmark. “But with all them Walkers tramplin’ through the area, there was no way to track him. Even searched Walmart again to see if he’d slipped past us into the store, an’ took down several groups of Walkers to make sure he wasn’t with them.”

There were long days of following Daryl around, baby strapped to him, ironically at Rick’s insistence because Rick refused to allow them to separate and risk never reuniting. At night, Rick gave up any pretense of self-sufficiency and glued himself to Daryl’s back as they slept, waking any time the archer tried to shift away. 

“But we couldn’t keep at it forever, ‘specially not with a baby. Couple herds merged into one an’ was headin’ our way, so we took what we could fit in the van an’ left.” 

That wasn’t the entire truth, Rick knew, because he remembered the brutal arguments that resulted in a brief fistfight and some spectacular bruises before either of them were able to walk away from the search. He knew Daryl had tried to take his bike to cool off, and resolutely forbade him from it, knowing it was a surefire way to start another fight but unwilling to separate even briefly. He’d been so set on it, he made plans to slash the tires if the archer didn’t budge.

“I’m not leavin’ it.” Daryl folded his arms over his chest and glared. 

Rick tried his hardest to be reasonable despite everything inside him screaming to just grab Daryl and throw him in the van, willing or not. They didn’t need a discussion, Daryl just needed to listen to him. “We can come back for it. It’s not safe to use in winter, anyway.”

“Someone might take it.” 

Rick rubbed his forehead. It was so hard to think after so many busy days and sleepless nights. He didn’t care if they fought again, he almost wanted it. He wanted to vent his frustrations and there were no Walkers around to kill. “Nobody wants your brother’s Nazi bike.” 

“Fuck you. I want it. Last thing of his I got.”

“He’s gone!” Rick shouted, knowing but unable to care that it was ill advised, not just for the noise, but for the content. He tried to reel himself back in. “He’s gone. Maybe dead, maybe not, but gone. Like Tyler. Like my family. Like the others. It’s just us, and I need you.”

Daryl shifted his weight from foot to foot as he grappled with his emotions, eyeing Rick and the bike in turn. “Fine. We’ll come back for it. Can’t trust ya to drive ‘round without any sleep anyway. Got a baby to keep alive.” He tinkered around with the motorcycle for a few minutes, Rick wasn’t sure if he was booby trapping it or disabling it or something else entirely, before leaving it right where it was. 

In the end, they’d had to leave without the boy, and Rick had no idea how he was supposed to live with that knowledge. Peripherally, Rick knew he was trembling. It was accompanied by the sensation that he was about to shake apart, burst at the seams and drop to the ground in pieces. He couldn’t catch his breath. He tried to force the memories back down, to make the world right itself again.

Then, Daryl wrapped an arm around his shoulders and tugged him into his solid chest. His grip was firm, but not painfully so, just enough to help ease the shaking. Daryl brought his other hand up and splayed it over Rick’s heart. He knew Daryl wasn’t one for comfort like this, but he’d recognized Rick’s more tactile nature early on and was trying to accommodate him. Rick doubted Daryl would deny him anything he asked then, and, in turn, Rick wouldn’t ask for anything he didn’t need. But Rick wasn’t sure what he needed. “I need…” 

“I got you, man.”

Rick slipped his fingers along the back of Daryl’s head, curling them tightly into the hair that was just now long enough to grip properly, dragging him forward until their foreheads pressed together. “I need…” He huffed in frustration, blowing the air out directly into his friend’s face.

“It’s okay.” Daryl agreed blindly. 

Rick had no idea if the hunter knew what was coming because Rick wasn’t thinking about it at all when he pressed their lips together. It was hard to tell what was going through his head when Daryl didn’t pull back but hesitated for what felt like an eternity before engaging. And when Daryl began to respond properly, Rick knew why his subconscious had driven him towards this. It felt right, like he didn’t need Daryl holding him together any longer, like this feeling would be enough to sustain him if he could just figure out how to keep it going when they weren’t kissing.

Once he was sure that Daryl wasn’t about to shove him off and make use of their last two bullets, Rick kissed like a man possessed, reveling in the burn of stubble against his face. It wasn’t just a matter of wanting that connection, but needing it. He needed to push hard against something that wasn’t going to give, something that was going to hold him up. He tightened his hold in Daryl’s hair to the point where it probably hurt and clutched into the cloth of his shirt as he pulled them even closer, sliding his tongue into the warmth of his mouth.

Daryl kissed back tentatively, almost shyly, though Rick knew better than to vocalize such a description. His lips were chapped and his mouth a little dry and there was an underlying presence of tobacco obstructing the milder natural taste, but none of that bothered Rick at all. He figured he wasn’t doing much better on any of those grounds. Instead, it felt perfect. It was fulfilling that driving need inside him to feel a connection to another human being. And maybe Daryl wouldn’t have been his first choice before all of this, but Rick was fiercely proud and excited that it was him there now. He felt strangely certain that if he’d been stuck with someone else in these circumstances, he wouldn’t be kissing them.

Tugging him forward, Rick tried to drive them closer, but the angle was awkward, and he struggled to get onto his knees without breaking the kiss. He shifted his hands to Daryl’s shoulders, swinging a leg over to straddle his thighs, before pushing the hunter onto his back. “Lay down.” He instructed, pleased at the way Daryl’s eyes were slow to open, his pupils dilated. He clearly wasn’t the only one affected by the situation and the thrum of arousal making laps throughout his body. 

A flicker of caution in his eye made Rick hesitate to follow him down, despite a near compulsion to do so. “Say the word, and we stop.” Rick half expected the comment to earn him a flare of the famous Dixon temper, but Daryl simply met his gaze and gave him a jerky nod. Rick wished his increasing ability to read the hunter’s thoughts extended to this new circumstance. The only thing he knew for sure was that trying to talk about it would end whatever was happening between them, and he desperately did not want that. 

Rick leaned forward and eagerly started a new kiss. Daryl raised his head partway with more confidence than before, but otherwise seemed content to let Rick run the show. It sent a shiver through him for an entirely different reason, and he moaned. The kiss was exhilarating and he never wanted it to end, but he craved more. Shuffling to get better balance, Rick slid his hand under Daryl’s shirt, giving in to weeks of temptation to slide his hands along that skin, knocking his vest out of the way and pushing his shirt aside for complete access. He followed his hands with a string of kisses. Daryl sucked  in a deep breath, and Rick felt victorious. 

Sitting back long enough to strip off his own shirt, Rick returned to his project, revelling in the play of warm skin beneath his fingers and palms while he restarted his path of kisses all over Daryl’s stomach and chest, making his way across the whole expanse until he reached a nipple. He brushed a thumb over it first, testing the reaction, and felt more than heard the sharp inhale. Encouraged, he closed his mouth over the nub and sucked on it. Daryl cursed under his breath, hips jerking up as he threw his head back, and Rick could feel the press of his erection. He shifted his own hips. He was already painfully hard, a transition he’d hardly noticed at all, and it wasn’t going to take much to tip him over the edge, but he refused to take enjoyment without giving back to Daryl. 

“Touch me.” Rick commanded, lowering his head to work the other nipple. He bit it gently, and Daryl’s hands flew up to comply, like he’d been waiting for permission or simply forgotten he had a way to instigate touch himself. He slid one hand into Rick’s hair and the other halfway down his back to stroke lazily along the skin there. Rick groaned into Daryl’s chest. He didn’t know how such a simple contact could feel so overwhelming and peaceful at the same time. 

Pulling back impatiently to adjust their position, Rick met Daryl’s lips again, diving roughly into the kiss as he lined up their bodies. He sighed in relief of the skin on skin contact between their abdomens and the pressure finally where he needed it as their hips met. Daryl spread his legs so Rick could properly seat himself between them, and he rocked downward while he worked at thoroughly exploring Daryl’s mouth with his tongue. The rhythmic rubbing had him ready to go off like a teenager in minutes despite a growing desire to spend all night making out.   

Rick was disappointed to break off the kiss, but he was so close, and his body was screaming at him to jump over the last hurdle. He didn’t think at all, just let instinct take over and thrust into the warmth of the solid body beneath him. He wanted more of that skin on skin contact, wanted to strip them both of their pants and underwear, but he didn’t need it, and he was only prepared to take from Daryl what he needed. It didn’t take long before he was tumbling over the edge. He barely refrained from vocalizing the pleasure, and very nearly bit right back down on the red, not-quite-healing bite on Daryl’s shoulder. There was something about Daryl walking around with a mark from him, a reminder of what they’d done, that was deeply satisfying.

Panting heavily, Rick rolled over to get his weight back onto the mattress, listening to Daryl come down next to him. He was glad that they’d both had the opportunity to orgasm because he’d have felt like shit being the only one and awkward as hell trying to figure out how to fix the problem in a way Daryl would accept. 

A cloth landed on his head a moment later which Rick belatedly determined was his shirt. He didn’t think he had the energy to sit up to put it on, so he just used it to clean some of the mess he’d made before tossing it off to the side and pulling the covers up to his neck. Daryl snorted and rolled onto his side. He didn’t protest when Rick tugged him closer, and Rick didn’t bother pretending it was strictly for warmth anymore. He liked having Daryl there. He wanted him there. 

He needed him.

Rick buried his face in Daryl’s hair, already drifting off to sleep when a thought traveled unbidden into his head. Daryl’s reaction to Rick’s sudden interest in him was… out of character. Complacent was the only appropriate term, like this was something else he’d expected. It was as if this wasn’t the first time it’d come up, but that couldn’t be right. Loose-limbed and exhausted, Rick set the problem aside for the morning. Daryl wasn’t pushing him away, and that was enough for now. 

 

============

Chapter Text

It was immediately apparent that Rick had lost it. 

There was only one treatment option that Daryl could realistically attempt, and that was finding Tyler. The first day, it was a no-brainer. A kid goes missing, and you look for them. Rick was positively docile as he paced along behind him, a far cry from the manic, fearless, blood-lust of a few hours previous when he’d been single-handedly tearing his way through a massive herd. But Rick wasn’t interested in fighting him on anything so long as he didn’t deviate from two objectives: look for Tyler and stick together. It was that second one that forced Daryl to strap a newborn to his chest and carry her around as they searched since he couldn’t leave her in the car without splitting up. 

A quick circling of the parking lot confirmed several notions Daryl had, and simultaneously sent Tyler’s chances plummeting. There were actually three sizable groups of Walkers that had converged on the van. One was easily traced back into Walmart, lingering in a semi-dormant state probably since the initial outbreak. Another had been traveling along the main highway and had probably only shifted direction due to the noise of the horn. The third, a smaller group, had come out of the woods at the edge of the parking lot. There was absolutely no way to confirm that any one set of footprints in the trampled area belonged to Tyler and there were no tracks suggesting he’d gone off separately. The conclusion was obvious. He’d either run straight into a herd or a group had followed him. It was possible that he’d outrun them, climbed a tree or found a shelter to hide in, but a kid running from his current shelter in a blind state of panic wasn’t likely to be making good decisions. Still, Sophia had been panicked and still made it into that deserted farmhouse for protection. It was possible.

Rick occasionally muttered to himself, berating one action or another, but he was mostly silent, so it was hard to say how much he actually took in. Daryl hoped it wasn’t much because he didn’t think the cop was going to be able to withstand more strain without breaking completely. They searched well past what was practical, staying out until it was truly dark and difficult to move. It was a challenge to turn around, knowing that Tyler’s chances were significantly worse the second day than the first. 

It was hard to sleep that night and for once it had nothing at all to do with the emptiness of his stomach or the potent smell of Walker guts still strewn about the van. Daryl was certain that Rick wasn’t sleeping, either. Every slight movement was rewarded with Rick creeping closer and tightening his hold, like he wasn’t already plastered against him and clutching for dear life. Daryl didn’t mention it or try to get away. There was little else he could do for his friend now. The baby was just above their heads, tucked away in her carseat and the only one of them getting any sleep.

The next morning, Rick seemed almost normal. He got up early and fed the baby some time in the early hours while Daryl must have dozed off. He had removed some of the entrails lining the walls and made vague motions towards cleaning up. He even smiled a little as he finished off his breakfast and passed the half-empty can to Daryl. Daryl forced it down, ignoring the way nothing in his system wanted to eat. The normalcy lasted right up until they left the van and Rick asked, calm as could be, “Where’s Tyler?”

Daryl grew to hate that question, made worse by the innocence with which Rick said it. He hated that he kept bringing it up, kept mentioning the name that hurt to simply think about. He hated the reminder of his own failures and the fate that had most likely befallen the boy. He hated the despair that Rick fell into every time he reminded him of what was going on, how the other man always looked like he’d been living in a snow globe that’d been thrown to the ground and broken open and all that remained were shards of glass and cold reality. Most of all, he hated that Rick could forget so easily, the information wiped clean off his mind. Daryl wanted that so badly it hurt. He wanted to not feel any of this, and the only way he could determine to do that was to forget like Rick kept doing. 

On the third day, they drove to a nearby apartment complex that was in what they believed the proper direction and searched every building. They collected some useful items, few and far between, but there wasn’t enough room in their van to be as dedicated as normal and still have room to sleep at night, so they mostly concentrated on their original objective. The apartments were disappointingly empty of anyone alive, as were all the buildings they’d located within easy distance in every direction stretching out from Walmart. 

Daryl found Tyler’s journal tucked under the passenger’s seat while stashing their supplies, and tortured himself by reading through as much as he could make out in the fading light when they finally packed it in for the day. The kid had written a lot more than he’d expected, cramming in line after line while he waited for Rick and Daryl to do their routines and clear houses. It was surprisingly coherent and analytical for the depressed recollections of a traumatized pre-teen. Of course, everyone deals in different ways.

He skimmed over thoughts on Judith, Rachel and Claire, not wanting to intrude too deeply into the boy’s psyche, but slowed down to read over the intriguing paragraphs that caught his eye in the pages that followed. 

‘It was all stupid. None of them had to die. Grandma shouldn’t have died. Wouldn’t have died if she weren’t trying to protect me. But Rachel is the worst to think about. She might have made it if she hadn’t charged back in. Daryl said she was bit, but I don’t know why he thinks that’s a death sentence. They all do, but Grandma knew better. She was always talking about some small percentage of people being naturally immune or resistant to virtually every plague in the history of medicine, how this one would be no different. Rachel could have been one of them. Now we’ll never know.’

It was dangerous talk that spoke of the disturbing lack of understanding the kid had about Walkers. He hadn’t understood them at all, simultaneously excusing them and terrified of them in equal measure. Daryl wished he’d realized more quickly how disjointed and unreliable Tyler’s thought process was in regards to the undead. Maybe he could have saved the kid’s life if he’d set him straight sooner.

The thought of a natural immunity was inherently appealing, but he knew that was a fantasy. Maybe Judith was right and some small percentage of people wouldn’t turn if bit, or even turn when they died, but they’d still die. If they managed to get bit without getting torn to shreds, the fever would burn them out, anyway. Dr. Jenner had been pretty clear on the hopelessness of that situation. It wasn’t worth that sort of risk to keep them around only to have them die from something else and put everyone in danger. 

Shaking his head, Daryl flipped further in the journal. Tyler’s words stretched on and on. He came to a page that was labelled ‘Baby Names’ on the header and smiled down at the list of suggestions he’d written. One was circled. Dog-earing the page, Daryl set the book aside to show Rick when he was completely with it again, and headed to bed. 

By the fourth day, Daryl couldn’t take it anymore. He dragged Rick with him into the Walmart under the guise of seeing if Tyler had slipped past them and back into the store somehow. It was a stupid, ridiculous premise, but Rick didn’t call him on it. He didn’t comment about Daryl collecting up some food and drinks or that most of the drinks were actually better suited to clean wounds than consume. When they got back to the van, Daryl drank. And when Rick finally did comment that they should go back out for Tyler while there was still some daylight, he made Rick drink, too. But while the booze eased his tension and frustration, and let Daryl forget about everything for a moment, it seemed to have the opposite effect on Rick. It had apparently broken down whatever barrier he kept reinstalling to keep the memories at bay, and he was shaking violently. 

Most of what Rick was saying was lost in the normal murmur that he’d been using when berating himself, but the lip loosening effect of the alcohol had taken hold and he was slowly increasing in volume. “... and if we can’t protect them, we can’t protect them, what’s Glenn or T-Dog or Hershel going to do?”

Daryl cursed. He grabbed hold of Rick’s shoulders and turned him bodily until they were facing each other. “What happened to Tyler don’t mean somethin’ happened to yer family.” He frowned at the way his tipsy tongue tripped over the words. “One ain’t got nothin’ to do with the other.”

“How could any of them even still be alive? I was a cop, and you’re Mr. Survivalist, and we can’t even keep one kid safe. How the hell are they supposed to make it?” 

Daryl bit back his initial response that they did, in fact, keep one kid safe, deciding that it would not be well received. “Fuckin’ pigs always arrogant as hell. Thinkin’ yer the only ones who can handle shit.” Daryl snorted, but Rick didn’t take the bait. “‘Member Glenn an’ his plan to get the guns? Smart kid, there. T-Dog’s got the muscle. Andrea’s a damn good shot.” He rubbed the side of his head where the sharp sting of a bullet had passed him by months ago. And that was before she’d gotten good. “An’ they got a doc, or close ‘nough. Way I figure, they’re better off than us. Bigger group, better chances.” Rick met his eyes now, and there was less of the edge of insanity creeping in anymore. Daryl tried to reinforce it, tried to keep dragging him away from that precipice. “We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout Tyler, neither.”

Daryl didn’t even see it coming. One second, he was holding Rick up and together, trying to find the words that might make this awful situation one bit better, the next second, Rick kissed him. It felt like his brain had short-circuited. He wasn’t sure if it was because he was a little drunk or the act was so bizarre, but his reaction time was abysmal. If Rick had been a Walker, he’d have eaten through his face by the time he came to his senses. Then, Daryl had his own moment of panic. He pushed Rick away and swung out, blindly striking, before scrambling backwards toward the door of the van. Everything felt too small, and he needed space so he could breathe. 

The feeling got worse rather than better.  Rick had knocked him over before he even got the door open, recovering quickly from the blow and diving on top of him. They grappled for a few thoughtless moments before Rick’s initial surprise and his police training saw the advantage and he had Daryl pinned beneath him. What was Rick doing? Why was he ruining everything? 

It took several minutes for Daryl to wear himself down, trying to buck Rick off of his waist and wrestle his arms loose from a firm, unyielding grip around his wrists, even when Daryl’s movements made him bump into just about everything in the back of the van. The baby was woken up by their antics and started wailing. “Should probably get her.” Daryl panted when he finally gave up freeing himself.

“No.” Rick shook his head. He was practically shouting to be heard over the ruckus and they were risking drawing in Walkers, if they hadn’t already. “I’m sorry I kissed you. I won’t do it again, I promise. I won’t even touch you anymore if you don’t want. But you can’t leave. I need you.”

“Wasn’t gonna leave.” Daryl grunted, but Rick obviously didn’t believe him. He wasn’t sure he was telling the truth. He hadn’t been thinking at all. He couldn’t leave Rick. He couldn’t leave the baby. Especially not over something so stupid. “I won’t leave.” He revised, meeting Rick’s eye. Rick watched him for an uncomfortable moment, only stopping at a thunk on their window. 

His arms were suddenly free and they both jerked into action. Rick grabbed hold of the baby, soothing the cries and shushing her. Daryl quickly examined the outside, determining that it was just a stray Walker, and they were probably fine. He inched the door open, stabbed it, and then resealed the door before the body had even dropped. Rick was watching him again when he turned back inward. “I am sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Forget ‘bout it.”

Daryl didn’t expect Rick to follow his instruction so thoroughly, but he seemed to genuinely forget he’d ever done it over the course of the next few days, probably helped by the fact that he hadn’t slept for the better part of a week. It was also incredibly irritating because Daryl couldn’t figure out why he’d done it in the first place. Was it just grief coupled with misplaced affection? Did Rick even like guys? He was married, so that seemed like a pretty clear no to Daryl, but he didn’t claim to know how these things worked. That stupid kiss was distracting him from concentrating on the task at hand, on finding Tyler. It shouldn’t have mattered at all, but he couldn’t deny that it did. 

The entire following day was completed as if by automation. There was little left to do and nowhere reasonable left to look. Rick found a map of the area in one of the cars. It was less thorough than what Hershel had provided when they were searching for Sophia, more of a road map than anything else, but he laid it out with a pen and started creating grids nevertheless. Daryl didn’t point out that there was little chance of finding a trail that wasn’t already decimated by the herd of Walkers. Instead, he just helped Rick mark down where they’d searched and watched his fingers move along the map and the way he bit his lower lip in concentration.

Daryl had been called a fag a lot in his life. More when he was younger and largely by Merle, but occasionally by others. A couple of the women he’d tried to sleep with had deemed it accurate when he couldn’t get it up for them. A couple guys, too, when they were trying to provoke a fight. It never got the desired reaction because he knew he wasn’t. He wasn’t interested in fucking men, never had been. He just also wasn’t interested in fucking random women, like Merle considered a crowning achievement. People generally were confusing and distasteful, and he found it easier to avoid the whole lot of them. 

Merle was the worst culprit for calling him names, laying it on thickly as he passed through and eventually out of his teens and into his twenties without ‘popping his cherry’ as his brother so delicately put it. He had the good sense not to do it in front of their pa, who would have taken him seriously and beaten Daryl within an inch of his life for the mere notion being put in his head, but any other time was fair game. He knew Merle was trying to protect him in his own dumb-ass way. He wanted Daryl to know he wasn’t fitting in, and it sent the wrong message. Daryl already knew that. He couldn’t say for certain if the few of Merle’s buddies that hit on him were set-ups, but he’d never been inclined to take them up on their offers anyway. Eventually, he caved as a form of self-preservation and went on dates on the rare occasion that a woman expressed an interest in him and kept it up until they called him emotionally unavailable and left. Some of them he cared about, most of them he didn’t, but the end result was always the same.  

Despite his upbringing, Daryl didn’t think there was anything wrong with being that way. He’d never cared who people wanted to fuck. It hadn’t even bothered him when they kissed in public, though Merle had made it uproariously known that he didn’t approve and would shortly be beating the shit out of them given half the opportunity. Daryl didn’t care because he felt far removed from any sort of desire to find the action appealing or objectionable. It was just uncomfortable, like all intimate touches. Until Rick. 

Maybe it was the sheer repetition, but somewhere along the line, Rick’s touch had moved away from a necessary evil and into a new category of surprisingly pleasant. The kiss had fallen straight into that category as well, which caught him off guard. He’d kissed maybe a dozen people before, and only a few of those kisses had struck him as anything more than perfunctory. Yet, here he was, distracted by the memory of that brief contact. A touch against skin he’d never thought of as particularly sensitive, and all he could think about was doing it again to see if it was as enjoyable as his memory was painting it. If the dry, warm, ten seconds of pressure were worth all the fanfare going on in his head. 

Maybe he was a fag.

On the sixth day, they completed their search grid with an unsurprising result of nothing. Tyler was gone, and they both knew it, but Daryl didn’t know what else there was to do. At some point, they needed to get moving, find a more secure location that wasn’t likely to attract humans or Walkers and could withstand more intense cold weather. At some point, they had to do that, if not for themselves, then for the baby. But he didn’t have anything to offer Rick in return for giving up the hope that the search brought. He was clinging to his sanity because of that hope, as miniscule as it was, but Daryl would have to replace it with something else he could cling to. 

That night, Daryl planned to get plastered, but only ended up just past tipsy. He drank until that voice in the back of his head that told him sleeping with other men was wrong finally shut up. It wasn’t even just his brother’s voice, or his father’s voice, it was like the sound of the whole world condemning him for even contemplating it.  But the whole world was dead now, and it was just him and Rick and a baby. That voice should be dead, too. 

Finishing off a bottle, Daryl set it down on the floor and turned to face Rick. The cop was watching him intently, like he knew every detail of his thoughts, and it was unjust that he should be able to keep up that demeanor when he couldn’t remember most of anything that happened these days. Still, he set the sleeping baby into her carseat and moved across the back of the van like he knew exactly what was on Daryl’s mind. 

When they were close enough to feel each other’s breath, Rick paused and spoke. “You don’t have to-”

Daryl leaned forward and cut him off by initiating another kiss, grabbing hold of the back of his head to bring him in closer, but Rick was already leaning in eagerly. His lips were just as soft and full as they looked, and aside from the burn of stubble it didn’t really feel any different than kissing a woman, the physical sensations were the same, anyway. But it was different from all the kisses he’d had before because just the gentle press lit a fire inside that he wasn’t sure he’d even had, and he wanted more. 

He let instinct drive him where experience hadn’t taught him well, and slid his hands beneath Rick’s jacket and shirt until he felt the warmth of his skin and caressed his back and his sides. He bit gently on the thick lower lip pressed against his own, swiping his tongue across the soft flesh before diving in to explore Rick’s mouth.

The judgement in his own head was blessedly silent in the face of his drunken buzz and body-wide human contact overload. He wasn’t sure what it was about Rick that made his body sit up and take notice, but Daryl couldn’t deny that he wanted the man currently trying to strip off his shirt and crawl into his lap at the same time, banging his arms against the low ceiling. Daryl swallowed hard, bringing his hands up to assist Rick in removing his shirt and hesitating long enough on touching the newly exposed chest that Rick mercifully guided his hands to where he wanted them.

Rick was the first guy he’d found attractive, and he certainly hadn’t thought so when he met him. When they met, he was just another frail looking, generic face giving him bad news. It didn’t matter that he could see the remorse in his eyes and hear the compassion in his voice. That just made him look weaker. But Rick proved him wrong on all counts, and the initial apathy had morphed into trust and eventually into reliance. Rick needed him, had plainly stated it on more than one occasion, and Daryl’s never had anyone need or rely on him for anything before. It’s empowering, and he’s been revelling in his newfound purpose ever since. 

Somewhere along the line, he started to enjoy the look of Rick’s face, deceptively soft at times, but fierce underneath. He drew satisfaction in seeing it every morning when he woke up because that meant Rick was still alive and still with him. And somehow that had evolved, too, and the cop stripping off his shirt was just the beginning of what he wanted to see. 

Daryl pulled him back in for another kiss, harder and more demanding than the last. He set about familiarizing himself with the taste of Rick, at once known and foreign to him from living in close proximity to each other. There was nothing in it that he identified that should be particularly enjoyable, but altogether, it formed something that was simply Rick and thus practically addictive in its quality. Rick braced his hands on his shoulders, and the kiss went on, alternating between soft and slow and demanding and fast, until Daryl picked up an intrusion. 

He broke away panting, and immediately locked in on the sound of a discontented baby working her way up to a tantrum. Daryl huffed at her, obediently pulling her from her carseat to quiet her despite the mounting frustration. Of course the kid would be a major cock-block. He wasn’t sure how long he and Rick had been kissing, but he figured from the swelling of his lips and the numb tingling in his legs that they were late on one of her feedings. Rick appeared at his side a moment later with a bottle prepared. 

“You look good with her.” Rick complimented, lingering closer to his ear than was necessary before bending in further and kissing his neck. A shiver travelled down his spine, but he didn’t pull away. Part of him craved the contact, like Rick was patching up a pothole on a road he frequented. “Would’ve made a great father.” Daryl wondered if that was a normal sort of statement to hear in such a husky, aroused tone, or if Rick in particular found it worthy because of some subconscious desire to be with someone who’d protect his kids. 

Daryl snorted. “Dixon blood ain’t the sort people line up for.”

A bright, fresh pain in his neck had him sucking in a sharp breath, and this time he did shift out of his grip. Rick followed him, but kept his touch light as he licked a strip on Daryl’s neck. “Tastes pretty good to me.” 

 It shouldn’t have been hot. It should have been borderline disturbing that Rick had just intentionally bit right over the spot he’d unintentionally bitten a few days ago just to taste his blood, yet Daryl made no effort to move away or stop him as he snaked a hand around his waist and the other crept toward the bulge in his pants. The cop may be getting frequent flyer miles to crazy town, but he was confident that Rick didn’t want to hurt him. And his stupid dick was apparently one hundred percent on board with whatever Rick wanted to do.

Rick apparently wanted to rub him through his pants while he fed the baby. It was a struggle to stay upright under his ministrations, and Daryl accepted the press of Rick’s chest against his back, encouraging him to lean back. He flopped his head back onto Rick’s shoulder. He was hard as fuck and already jerking his hips up in an effort to get more friction against the cop’s teasing grip. Rick kept easing off, and Daryl was about ready to sock him in the face again, this time for an entirely different reason. 

They shouldn’t be doing this. Daryl wasn’t some fairy, and he definitely wasn’t sober enough to be changing his mind on that one. Rick had a wife he wanted to get back to, and wasn’t in his right mind. Tyler was out there, certainly dead, but not yet mourned. And there was a baby in his arms that should absolutely not be privy to the sort of noises being made, even if she was mostly asleep already. 

Sliding his other hand down, Rick tried for the button on his pants. Daryl could hear the heavy breaths in his ear. “Hold up.” Daryl grunted, wiggling to move out of the enclosure of his arms. “Not doin’ that.”

“She can’t see.” Rick said, his hands stilling despite his defense. “And she’s way too young to remember anything anyway.”

“Ain’t that.” Daryl shrugged, shifting the baby upwards to burp her properly as Rick’s hands reluctantly departed. “It’s just…”

“Too much?”

“I guess.”

“All right.” Rick conceded, backing off until the heat at his back disappeared completely. He sounded frustrated and uncomfortable, and Daryl didn’t blame him. He felt the same way. He wanted to scream at Rick to come back and finish. “You don’t mind if I…” Rick was probably making a lewd gesture, but Daryl was finishing up with the baby and couldn’t see much of anything in the darkness. 

“Hang on.” Settling the baby down to sleep, Daryl shifted around until he was back in their make-shift bed, a nest of blankets and mats. He pulled Rick in for another kiss, briefly, but not chastely. “Weren’t plannin’ to leave ya high an’ dry. Just wanna keep my pants on.” It wasn’t the most logical way of getting off, but it felt like a compromise he could live with. 

Rick smiled into the following kiss, deepening it until they were straight back to the sort of desperate exploration they started with, but this time, Daryl twisted them until he was mostly on top and inserted his knee between Rick’s legs, carefully positioning it until either of them could shift and be rewarded with pressure and friction and heat right where it was needed. Rick let out a groan.

They didn’t last long after that, Daryl already worked up thoroughly from Rick’s hand earlier, and Rick not faring much better as he writhed around against the solid presence of the knee between his legs. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before Daryl let go, with a shuddery, gasping release. Rick rocked himself against Daryl while the hunter worked to gather back his breath and calm down. He shifted around to provide more for Rick, rocking at an angle and contemplating if the fumbling learning curve of using his hand on another man’s dick would be worth the return. It proved unnecessary as Rick was already finishing. 

Daryl watched in fascination as the expressions played out over Rick’s face, something between overwhelmed, blissed out, and constipated shifting his features before everything smoothed out and he sucked in air like it was going out of style. Maybe that had been a terrible idea brought on by sexual frustration and too much to drink, but Daryl thought it could also be a solution. Maybe he could be the thing that Rick clung to, the hope he needed to keep himself together, and maybe when things reached their inevitable conclusion with the search for Tyler, Rick could still come back from the edge. 

 Rick opened his eyes, and Daryl finally realized he was staring and had been stroking a hand through the cop’s sweaty curls without thinking about it. He averted his eyes and jerked back to find something to clean up with. Any cloth would do, there was tons of it left in the store. Rick accepted the cloth when Daryl was finished with it, and made a half hazard clean up attempt himself before curling right around him, skin flush with his own. Daryl drifted off seconds later.

In the morning, they argued, but it didn’t have anything to do with sleeping together. Rick didn’t even seem to notice that he was half naked and sticky, starting in with his blasted memory-wipe routine just like every day that came before, and Daryl had to once again deliver the bad news. Eventually, the fire burned down enough that they could have a decent conversation. 

“Ain’t a safe place to stay.” Daryl pointed out. “Place like this gonna see all sorts of folks. We ain’t got the people or the firepower to hold it.” That much was obvious to Rick, even in his less than logical state, because he’d been the first to suggest staying in the van for quick getaways. “We can’t go on like this an’ take proper care of that baby. Bad storm comes through an’ we’re all in trouble.”

“We can’t just walk away. We can’t give up without any sort of answer. What if he’s out there waiting on us, counting on us to find him?”

“We can come back. We can keep comin’ back. But we need a real set-up somewhere.”

“We’ve only been looking a few days.”

“A week.” Daryl corrected. Rick looked surprised and dismayed, but he didn’t change his argument. 

“We’ll give it another week, okay? Then we’ll stop, no complaints, and set up a real camp.”

“All right. ‘Less there’s a herd comes through. Or people. Or bad weather. We’ll stay the week.”

Daryl tried to keep his mind on the important tasks, the things that would keep them alive and possibly locate their missing person, but he kept finding his thoughts drifting back to Rick’s body pressed close against his. Logically, he knew Rick wasn’t some sort of sex god, particularly with the short, mostly clothed encounter they’d had, which would have been downright embarassing if they weren’t both so into it, but his mind wouldn’t stop obsessing over those heated kisses and confident hands. For the first time in his life, sex wasn’t just a mildly pleasant endeavor that always left him feeling a little unsettled afterwards. It had felt like a connection. His sex drive flared to life, burning hotter than he could remember since being a teenager, and demanding a repeat performance. 

For all Rick seemed to forget the previous evening with alacrity, he also managed to jump onto Daryl’s train of thought with ease when Daryl silently made the offer again that night. It was like he’d shut down any conscious awareness of their situation but was still subconsciously responding to the proper cues. Daryl made sure to get just the far side of drunk before they got started, but Rick didn’t have much of anything to drink, and it was doubtful he was even buzzed before his tongue was in Daryl’s mouth. 

It was an agonizing wait for the hammer to drop as Rick slowly came back around to himself over the following few days, sleeping more and calming down. And then they spotted the massive herd heading their way and staying put was no longer an option. Rick fought him on leaving anyway, barely participating as they stocked up before heading out, and immediately reverting back to incoherence once they were on the road. He wasn’t sleeping again, and Daryl watched all the progress they’d made slip away. Part of him was even glad Rick had forced his hand over the bike because Rick rarely seemed lucid enough to be driving. He turned into a liability. He would defend them all in a state of autopilot, but his behavior and movements were erratic, and Daryl could never be sure when he might charge into some borderline suicidal situation. Between him and the baby, clearing buildings was an exercise in evading a heart attack.

They needed to find some place more permanent, or at least secure enough to buckle down for a few weeks, but no obvious solution presented itself. Rick was no help at deciding their next move, but Daryl wasn’t sure how long they could keep going as they were. He needed to find Rick in the maze of his own mind, so Daryl took him home, or the closest he knew of, hoping the familiarity might rouse him a bit. 

When Rick put down two uniformed corpses without so much as a blink, Daryl worried first that he’d gone to the wrong Sheriff’s Department, and then that Rick might be too far gone to bring back. He stowed the bodies away in a room that would have made a good sleeping space if it weren’t already covered in limbs and gore, and started the tricky process of scavenging around town. 

Two days later, Rick passed out from exhaustion and slept for thirty hours. When he woke up, it was with a light of sanity that Daryl had started to give up hope on, and he desperately wished there was some way to avoid bringing up Tyler at all. He wished he could distinguish the loss of their co-captives from the loss of Rick’s family. He wished he could at least give Rick a straight answer instead of the open-ended feeling of abandonment that sat in his stomach like the bouquet of dandelions he’d once eaten as a child to stave off the hunger pains. 

It wasn’t a surprise when Rick ended up kissing him again, like Rick couldn’t help but fall into the same groove once he was given the facts, but it was the first time Daryl participated without his drunken safety net. He didn’t know what to do with himself, anymore, and he struggled to adapt. The return was worth it though, in how much clearer and stronger the sensations came through. Rick seemed bound and determined to drive him wild with just his mouth and hands coasting along his skin, sending streams of fire through his system. His gaze was fervent with desire and excitement, and Daryl found he didn’t mind handing the reins over to him if he was getting that worked up over it.

In the morning, Daryl knew there would be a conversation just by the concerned and remorseful look in Rick’s eyes. He hated the expression and nearly flinched, instead forcing himself up into the chill of the room to take care of the baby. Of course Rick was going to start remembering things. It was a good thing, even if it didn’t feel that way. Rick opened his mouth and took a breath, but Daryl was already cutting him off. 

“We don’t gotta talk ‘bout it.” 

“I think we do.” 

“Ain’t nothin’ to talk ‘bout.” Daryl insisted.  

“I think there is.” Rick contradicted. “I get the feeling that you felt… obliged-”

“You didn’t make me, if that’s what yer tryin’ to say.” Daryl snapped. There was no good way for this conversation to end. Inevitably, Rick would say it was a mistake because that’s what it was. He had a family out there somewhere. “Ain’t no pussy.”

“I… I just want to be on the same page here.” 

Daryl scowled, finally turning to face him, deciding that he wouldn’t be able to run away from this conversation, not with that stupid look of determination Rick was wearing. “You weren’t all there, an’ you were grieving. It was a mistake. You don’t want me like that. We good now?”

Rick licked his lips. “I was grieving, and it may have been a mistake.” 

Daryl turned away, not entirely sure why that answer hurt so much when he’d already known it was coming. “Like I said. We don’t gotta talk ‘bout it.” It’s not like he expected any different, not like he wanted any different. He’d just been helping Rick out, and hadn’t planned on it being enjoyable for himself, too. “Wanna get over to yer old place today, yeah?”

Rick sighed, probably relieved that he didn’t have to spell it out for Daryl. “All right.”

Despite Rick’s antsy trepidation of going to his house, it took hours to get on the road. They both wanted to keep the sturdy brick building as a back-up since it had proved secure enough for their stay. There weren’t a lot of places they’d visited that had much going for them. The question was how many defences to build.

More defences against Walkers could protect their gear and keep the building intact, but it was also a good way to attract attention from people who would assume the extra effort was to protect something valuable. In the end, Daryl pointed out that the police station would likely end up with visitors hoping to loot the armory regardless of what they did, so they only bothered setting up minimal protection and insulation.

It was easy to agree to leave some supplies stashed away in case of an emergency, so they both set about finding a hiding spot, landing on some ceiling tiles in one of the back storage rooms. They lifted one aside, stacked some canned goods, baby formula and medicine, then carefully removed any trace of their presence from the rest of the building.

Rick didn’t put up a fuss about being relegated to navigator, which cut out the argument Daryl had been trying to piece together in his head, and finally they were on the road, creeping down the main drag. It was still passable, despite the frequent rubble and broken cars, and was in surprisingly good condition as they neared the more suburban areas. 

“What’s that?” Rick asked, peering out the window and gesturing to the side street where a series of wooden pikes were braced up inside barrels and along barbed wire. The traps were obviously designed to prevent Walkers from going down that street and were clearly effective, if the struggling Walker pierced on a stick was anything to go by. 

Daryl had seen the contraptions earlier, but if the people who’d set them up were still around, the hunter hadn’t seen or heard them. He clenched the wheel a little tighter. “Trouble.”

“It’s not far. Few more blocks.”

Daryl wasn’t surprised that Rick’s neighborhood was the white-picket fence sort, clean cut with a homeowners association, no doubt. It was the sort he’d have scoffed at before, people who cared too much about the length of their grass and adorned matching Christmas lights. But now he only spared Rick frequent concerned glances. This was either a horrible plan or a stroke of brilliance. There was no way Rick’s family was waiting for him at home, but being surrounded by the familiar might recenter him, help him regain something of himself.

 “Turn right here.” 

Daryl slowed down even further as he made the turn, a lump settling in the pit of his stomach as he took in the condition of the houses. There’d been a fire, obviously, that had taken down half the street. He couldn’t be sure what had started it or what had gone up first, but it wasn’t surprising to see. It could have been a lightning strike or squatters, but without a fire department and human intervention, one fire could have easily taken down all these buildings. Most of them were reduced to rubble. 

It was possible none of these houses were Rick’s, but Daryl doubted they were that lucky, especially from the way Rick had stiffened up next to him and was looking over the houses. Another hundred feet and he was unbuckled and working on the door before Daryl even put the van into park. Sighing, he quickly turned off the engine and followed a few paces behind his friend. The remains he’d selected were some of the worst hit, a few support beams still standing, and a few more walls partway intact, but everything else was charred black mysteries and clumps of ash. Rick stood in what used to be his doorway and took in the destruction of what was once his home in stony silence.

Daryl gave him time, calculating how long he should wait before the baby might get cold, how long Rick would need to check things over. And then Rick abruptly turned and walked past him down the double set of stairs towards their van. “Let’s go.”

Trailing behind, Daryl wondered at the dismissive response. He’d expected more after losing another tangible connection to his family. Rick was sentimental like that. Still, he stoically got into the vehicle and waited until they were both buckled before announcing that they’d try Shane’s place next. 

“That’s a terrible idea.” 

Rick turned to him, having the gall to look confused. “It’s fine. He probably didn’t leave much behind, but I’ve got a line on a couple other guns we can try for after.” Daryl opened his mouth to protest, but found that there wasn’t a single sentence he wanted to release. What was he going to say? ‘Rick, we probably shouldn’t go to your friend’s house because you killed him and you’re already going nuts’ or ‘Rick, your wife definitely didn’t take her kid to her dead lover’s house’ just didn’t seem helpful. “There’s a few places out on Main Street: bars, a liquor store. Owners had a gun or two behind the counter that people didn’t know about. I did. I signed the permits. They might still be there.”

It appeared that Rick was planning to ignore what he’d seen today and push forward. That was something he understood enough about. “Which way?”

Shane’s place was a spacious apartment in a small building, taking up the entirety of the third floor. It was the very definition of a bachelor pad. The walls were bare, the TV was huge, the bathroom was filthy, and the bed in the single bedroom was obviously designed for company. He wondered if Shane and Lori had shared the bed before or if that relationship really only started after everything ended. Daryl had no idea if the barren look was intentional or if someone had already been through to clean house and been particularly inconspicuous about it. He doubted the empty cupboards and fridge were anything out of the ordinary for its primary resident. Rick didn’t comment one way or the other, but the lock was still intact when they busted in. They swept the place before touching anything, finding it devoid of anything alive or dead. 

Setting down his crossbow, Daryl sat on the couch and played with the baby while keeping an eye on Rick as he wandered, picking things up and putting them back down again. After a while, Rick threw a cloth bag at him, and he took the hint to start scavenging from the apartment. He was sure that Rick would stop him at some point, demand he put something back or take something else. He was sure he’d talk about the storm that was clearly muffled inside his head. Instead, they finished their tasks, breaked for food, and set up for an evening camped there without speaking a single word.

“Didn’t see any photos.” Daryl finally prodded, hours into the silence and perched on the arm of the couch with Rick on the opposite cushion. He hadn’t seen any guns, either, but he hadn’t expected Shane to leave one of those behind.

Rick shrugged. “He wasn’t the photo type. He never saw the point in putting up pictures of people he’d see the next day. Lori could’ve filled a whole house with them, though.”

“Sorta figured that was why ya wanted to come. To get photos.”

Rick suddenly seemed with it, focussing on Daryl with a look that made him want to squirm and inch away. He licked his lips. “You do have the photos I took from the farm, right?”

Frowning, Daryl shook his head slowly. He’d taken them from Rick’s pocket when he was still unconscious, but he hadn’t expected Daryl to somehow hold onto them this whole time, had he? “Couldn’t risk The Living havin’ ‘em, knowin’ their faces. I burnt them.”

Rick dragged in a deep, ragged breath that seemed to go on forever as the tension built in the air. It was one he was familiar with, raw anger. “My family is most likely dead. And if by some miracle, they’re still alive, I will probably never get to see them again. And you burned the last pictures I had of them.”

“Was protectin’ us, protectin’ them.” 

Rick stood, and Daryl jumped to his feet a second later, too in tune with dangerous mood swings to keep himself at a disadvantage. The cop took a few steps forward, and Daryl stepped back in turn, hyper aware of the infant strapped to his chest. “You’re not protecting anyone! You stopped me from looking for them, stopped me from looking for Tyler. When’s the last time you even thought about looking for your brother?”

Daryl’s face heated up, and his fists clenched. “Wouldn’t have to look for him if ya hadn’t chained him to a roof an’ left him to die!” 

“That’s what protecting people actually looks like! You stop the bad guys. It just so happens that your brother was a bad guy.”

Daryl wanted to shout, but mostly he wanted throw another punch and lay Rick out on his back. But he couldn’t do any of that with a baby tucked into his heaving chest. Rick’s eyes were wild, and it was entirely possible he’d lost him back to that forgetful, irresponsible insanity. He could barely look Rick in the face as the anger simmered around inside of him. He had to protect the baby, and that left one option. 

Swinging his crossbow over his shoulder, he let the front door slam behind him. A quick scan of the area showed that they were still in the clear, and he made his way down the staircase to their van. Buckling the baby down, he took one last look up to Shane’s apartment. Rick wasn’t waiting for him, wasn’t waving him down or apologizing. He backed the van up into the street and took off down the road. 

 

============

Chapter Text

 

Rick awoke shivering, the full light of day streaming through the apartment’s windows. He was alone, which explained the cold. With winter in full swing, night without another person for warmth was nearly intolerable. It had taken significant ingenuity and a whole lot of sewing to create a sleeping situation for the baby that they felt was safe after Daryl admitted that his fear of squishing the baby was keeping him from sleeping properly. 

“Daryl?” As Rick sat up, the events of the previous evening flooded back to him in a wave of regret. “Daryl?!” 

Rubbing his hands together to bring some warmth into his fingers, Rick hurriedly searched the apartment to confirm his worst fear. Daryl was gone, and he’d taken the baby. He cursed and smacked himself in the head, trying to push down the rising panic. Daryl couldn’t leave. He wouldn’t. They’d gone through too much together. Pacing over to the window, Rick peaked through the blinds. The van wasn’t where they left it. He threw open the front door, leaning over the railing to get a better look at the small parking lot. Outside, the chill bit into his face and hands all the worse, and there was no sign of their vehicle. 

That didn’t mean the hunter was gone, Rick reminded himself as he piled his belongings into his bag and guzzled half a bottle of water in hopes of quelling his rising headache. He slipped on a long-sleeved turtle-neck and a soft navy sweater looted from Shane’s closet before donning his coat, barely processing the sordid memories it aroused in his preoccupation. Daryl must have headed back to the station to let Rick cool off. That seemed very reasonable, except that he’d have expected the hunter to return as soon as the sun did. 

Out in the parking lot, it took Rick several cars and five Walkers before he found one that would turn on, although the gas gauge clocked in just a hair over empty. He made a beeline for the Sheriff’s Department, driving a little faster than sensible considering the debris on the road. As he pulled into the station, it took all his will to hold panic at bay. The van wasn’t there, either. A rapid search of the building confirmed what he already knew. Daryl wasn’t there. 

Rick sat in his newly acquired clunker but didn’t start it. He gripped the wheel tightly, took several deep breaths and tried to hold himself together by sheer force of will. Daryl had left him. He’d taken the baby, and he’d left, and Rick had no one to thank but himself. Daryl may have responded to his advances, but that didn’t mean he wanted them. He may have considered it his duty in an effort to keep Rick from losing it. And while Daryl might have forgiven him for that, or at least been willing to pretend it hadn’t happened, Rick had followed it up by yelling at him and making accusations. Last night was a blur, but he could remember Daryl backing away, his hand up to shield the infant in his arms. 

Rick let his head drop forward onto the top of the wheel with a thunk. He couldn’t pretend for a minute that he didn’t know what that was about. He’d seen his friend’s back, recognized his skittish behaviors, and heard the occasional story from the horse’s mouth. Rick’s aggressive behavior had been alarming enough to bring back unpleasant memories, he was sure of it. Daryl was concerned for the baby’s safety and had left to protect her. Rick drew in a deep breath, but it felt like breathing through a straw. Even at his most tired, most angry, most desperate, he’d never once raised a hand against Carl or Lori, and he’d never have hurt the baby. But he couldn’t blame Daryl for questioning that. And he’d lost them both. They could be anywhere by now, like his wife and son. 

Just as despair was about to fill Rick’s chest, he jerked upright in his seat. Daryl would go back for his brother’s bike. It was sitting in the Walmart parking lot, incidentally where he’d also find more supplies to start out on his own. He couldn’t be sure when Daryl had left, but traveling at night was ill-advised, so they most likely departed in the morning. It should still be possible to catch him. 

He turned the car on and eased back onto the road, eyeing the glowing low fuel signal on his dashboard. There was no way he could make the trip without finding more gas. As he rumbled down the street, he looked for likely sources. He stopped twice to try to siphon some from abandoned cars but came up with little more than droplets. Not ten minutes later, Rick was down to walking, red fuel can in hand. It was eerily reminiscent of the day he first headed into Atlanta. He was on his way to find his family then, and now he supposed he couldn’t consider Daryl and that baby anything less. 

A short walk later, he reached the intersection where he and Daryl spotted the barrels of spears the other day. There were a few cars to check, but there was another reason to stop here, too. Tyrell Debbs had a shotgun and two handguns licensed to him. Rick would feel a lot better with more than two bullets to his name. They might even make a good peace offering when he found Daryl. He spared a thought for the defenses around the buildings, but he couldn’t be certain that the people who set those up were still around. He could be sure that he’d need those guns.

There were a few Walkers pierced on the spears of the barricade that he made his way past. They feebly attempted to reach him, but were too stupid to remove themselves from the poles impaling their chests. Rick spared a thought towards putting them down, but that could alert people in the area that he’d passed by. If possible, he wanted to complete his objectives and retreat before anyone found out he was there. 

He entered Debbs’ building cautiously, on the lookout for both man-made traps and stray Walkers, and once again wished Daryl was there for back-up. Anyone who could watch his back would have been a significant improvement over his current position, but few people could match the confidence he felt when Daryl had him covered. There were no threats inside, which only served to make him feel more on edge. There was also no sign of the weapons he’d hoped to find behind the counter or in the back. 

Disappointed but not surprised, Rick made his way to the front door, looked around as best he could through the dirty glass, and stepped onto the street, nearly tripping over a squealing pig as it scurried past him. The cop hardly had a moment to process the sight before the pig’s pursuit slammed into him, a snarling, snapping dead woman who hadn’t needed the thinking time to change targets. Rick kept his feet and held her away with a grip low on her neck as he fumbled for his knife. Two more Walkers stumbled into view. All three, Rick noted as he gathered his wits and stabbed the first in the eye, looked a little abnormal. There was a substance that might have been blood if not for how tar-black it looked running in long rivulets from their eyes, ears, and noses. Their eyes were much more yellow in hue than the white filmy look he’d come to associate with the dead. Regardless, they all still behaved as Walkers, intent on ripping into his flesh, and Rick didn’t hesitate to take down the others with two more decisive slashes. One nearly scratched him from how close he had to get to use his knife and Rick decided that he’d keep the next longer blade he came upon.

Double checking to make sure there were no more surprises, Rick looked around for the pig, wondering if it’d been nothing more than a manifestation of his admittedly unstable mind. He spotted it in the distance and sighed, knowing that he wasn’t likely to catch up. He wasn’t sure where the pig had come from, but instinct suggested he catch it if possible. He could eat it, trade it, or breed it if he found more. Hell, right then, he’d take the companionship. He didn’t know what the future might hold but domesticated animals struck him as a good find. Shaking his head, Rick dismissed the pig. He had a job to do.

Rick was especially alert as he checked the cars along the street for gas, knowing now that the barricade was penetrable and was rewarded for his diligence with enough warning to prepare before the next duo of Walkers reached his side of the car. They, too, had the odd tar-like substance on their faces. He stabbed the first cleanly and moved for the second when it toppled over from a clean shot to the head. 

Instinctively, Rick ducked down, tucking behind a nearby barrel and wiggling into the space between two cars, just as another couple shots rang out, hitting the metal of the car he’d just been beside. He scanned the area and spotted the shooter on the roof of the building across the street. He crept a few steps backward until he was mostly covered by the vehicle. 

“You don’t need to shoot!” Rick shouted, hoping he wasn’t inviting more Walkers to the party. “I’m leaving! I didn’t take anything of yours!” He didn’t hold out much hope for the plea to be effective. He checked his gun. Still only two bullets.

“I can’t let you leave.” Was the ominous response, carrying in a deep, booming voice. “You’re infected.”

“I’m not!” Rick shouted back. “I wasn’t bit!” 

The answer came in the form of another shot towards him. Rick cursed and ducked lower, shifting around until he reached a more shielded spot. If he went back the same way he came in, there was a lot of ground to cover with almost no cover. If he went out the other way, he was heading towards the source of the Walkers he’d encountered so far and may run into a lot more. Both options seemed equally bad so he aimed for the direction he’d entered, choosing the devil he knew. 

Taking a deep breath, Rick leaned around the car’s bumper and tried to make his last shots count. The first went wide. He was simply too far away and at a terrible angle to make that shot without exposing himself. He used the distraction to dart over towards the last car in the row, leaning his back against the protective surface. There was only one bullet left, and no realistic expectation that he could hit his attacker with it, nor that he’d manage to make the rest of the trip around the street corner without getting taken down. The shooter was obviously well positioned. Still, there was no way Rick could stay where he was. He’d make a run for the barrel, use his last shot and then run like hell and hope for the best. There was no alternative. 

The sound of a distinctly different gun going off cracked through the air, and Rick poked his head out to see what was going on, praying that his would-be murderer hadn’t brought along accomplices. He hadn’t heard the ricochet off the car, so he hoped that the second gun was good news. He couldn’t see anything more on the roof until a familiar figure approached the ledge. 

“Rick?”

Rick shot to his feet, unable to believe his luck. “Daryl!” He sped across the street, paying far less attention to his surroundings than he should in his glee, but he also knew that Daryl was covering him and there was no safer place to be. He circled around to the side of the building and pounded up the stairs, making it to the roof in under a minute. Daryl had picked up the sniper rifle, and there was a body at his feet that Rick ignored in favor of dragging his friend into an unsolicited hug. “You came back. I’m sorry about last night. I wasn’t-”

“‘S fine.” Daryl interrupted, stiff in his hold until Rick backed off. 

The cop ran a hand through his overgrown curls, trying to sublimate the urge to drag Daryl back into his awkward grip. “The baby?” 

“She’s fine.” Daryl dismissed. “What should we do ‘bout him?”

Rick reluctantly looked away from Daryl to the body between them. “He ain’t dead?”

Daryl shrugged, using his foot to roughly roll the shooter onto his back. “Got a vest on. Seems fine.” 

Squatting, Rick confirmed Daryl’s assessment before pulling off the large goggles and thick mask over the man’s face. Morgan’s face beneath the mask was a shock, like part of him had dismissed every person he’d ever known or met as dead the moment he could no longer personally verify their health. Yet, here he was, alive and having nearly killed Rick moments ago. 

“Ya know him?” Daryl seemed to pick up the shift in the air. 

“Yeah, I know him.” Rick nodded, struggling to comprehend how this could have happened.. “Name’s Morgan. He saved my life when this whole mess began. He’s a good man.”

The archer scoffed. “Maybe he was, but he damn near killed ya.” 

“He thought I was infected.” Daryl gave him the side eye, so Rick continued before he could ask. “I wasn’t bit.”

Nodding, Daryl passed the rifle over. “Don’t let yer guard down. People change.” 

Rick sat on the edge of the roof several feet away from Morgan, periodically leaning over the lip to watch Daryl putter around through the buildings below. It didn’t take him long to find what was presumably Morgan’s stash, and he carted box after box out of the building and around the corner. His heart felt like it stopped every time Daryl disappeared from view, and he very nearly lost his balance trying to keep him in sight. A part of him felt like Daryl hadn’t actually returned, and that even if this wasn’t a dream he’d just leave again the moment he was out of sight. He tried to concentrate on the steady rise and fall of Morgan’s chest. He had so many questions to ask. 

“I wasn’t leavin’.” Daryl announced as he rejoined Rick on the roof, baby tucked snug against his chest. “Went back to Hershel’s. Planned to be back ‘fore mornin’, but ran into some trouble.” 

Rick wanted to condemn him for taking the baby on such a dangerous mission, but he squashed the comment. The alternative would have been leaving the child in his care, and he hadn’t been acting particularly trustworthy at the time. “Why?”

“Photo albums. It was a waste of time, though. Water damage destroyed what was left.” 

Rick gaped, the message of the photos being lost forever buried underneath Daryl going all that way and risking his life to get them, and how genuinely remorseful he appeared for having failed. They were just pictures, and it was awful that they were gone, but they weren’t worth Daryl’s life. Anger sparked in him, taking him from calm to furious in a second. “How could you be so careless?”

“Wasn’t sure if I could keep pullin’ ya back from the edge.” Daryl responded, glaring. 

“You know what would make me go over the edge?” Rick threw back. “Losing you. Don’t you ever fucking do that again.” Rick could see the negative effect the commanding tone had on his friend and pivoted before Daryl could get angrier. “I thought you left.” 

Daryl deflated and shuffled around like he always did when struggling to take a compliment. “Told ya. I ain’t leavin’ ya.”

“Good.” Rick proclaimed. “Because I believe that any two people can survive in this world, provided that one of them is you, Daryl. I need you.”

“Fuck off, man.” 

Rick raised his hands out and wide. “I’m serious. I still don’t know why you and Merle were at the quarry in the first place...” he paused for half a second before adding, “not that I don’t appreciate it, but it seems like you two would have been better off on your own.” 

The hunter didn’t respond more than giving a dismissive grunt, and Rick wished for the easy familiarity they’d had before he chased him away the previous night. He needed to do something to make things right between them, and he needed to be more careful to look after Daryl’s needs and not take him for granted any more. He wasn’t going to forget the terror he’d faced waking up alone any time soon.

“We should take some time to look for your brother. Do you know any place he might have gone?”

Daryl gave him an unreadable look and shrugged. “Don’t matter.”

“Of course it does. He’s your brother. It’s not just my family we’re looking for.” Rick swallowed, ignoring that the evidence was against his statement. He’d mostly disregarded Daryl’s personal search, and was internally relieved that he wasn’t travelling with both the Dixon brothers. Although, that option was still somehow the best case scenario of finding Merle. It seemed much more likely that Merle would try to kill him or leave with Daryl. Probably both. “I told you I’d help you find him.”

“He didn’t wait for me ‘fore cuttin’ off his own hand.” Daryl’s tone was a little too passive, and betrayed how much he still thought about the incident. Rick knew him well enough to read between the lines. Cutting off his hand meant that Merle had been certain no one was coming for him. But that door swung both ways and seemed to smack Daryl in both directions. If he was certain that Daryl wasn’t coming for him, then he’d have left Daryl behind if their roles were reversed. “And then, he had our truck an’ knew where the camp was. He wasn’t able to come back fer me or he chose not to. Either way, it don’t seem like meetin’ up somewhere else is gonna be any use.” 

Rick frowned as he contemplated the response. It answered a question he hadn’t dared to ask, which was why Daryl bothered to stick with the group after Merle was gone, and even began to explain why he’d stick around Rick with the group gone. Daryl didn’t feel like he had anyone else. Merle had, to some extent, left his brother behind, and it was highly doubtful that it was the first time. But as distasteful as he was, Merle was Daryl’s only family, and Daryl clearly cared and worried about him. 

“Maybe not, but I’m not exactly drowning in leads on my end. It’s worth a shot, right? There’s gotta be places you’d both know.” 

“Lots of places we both know, just nothin’ worth goin’ back to.” 

“Daryl-”

“He’s awake.” 

Rick’s gaze whipped over to the body on the ground that he’d nearly forgotten about. He wasn’t sure how Daryl had determined that he was conscious, but it was quickly proven correct when Morgan rolled over and backed up into the corner in a crouch, eyes darting between the two of them suspiciously. Despite being very thorough, Rick was suddenly concerned that he might have missed a weapon and the wild look in Morgan’s eyes suggested he’d be sure to use anything against them. With a sinking heart, Rick realized that there hadn’t been a mistake and his first friend in the apocalypse clearly did not remember him. “Do you know who I am?” He asked anyway, hoping to trigger the memories. “Do you see who I am?”
“People wearing dead people’s faces.” 

“Morgan, listen to me-”

“No! I don’t know you!”

“You do know me!” Rick insisted, desperately. “My name is Rick Grimes. You know me.” 

“I don’t!” Morgan bounced to his feet and barreled across the few yards that separated them, as if he could physically force his words to be true. Rick braced for impact. He feared that Morgan might knock him straight over the edge, but he didn’t dare move out of the way lest the crazed man flew over the ledge instead. 

“Stop.” There was a sharp click of a gun cocking that halted Morgan midstep. He’d apparently forgotten that they weren’t alone. Daryl’s handgun was raised and pointed at the side of Morgan’s head, and Rick nodded his thanks. 

Morgan blinked heavily and took a couple of hurried steps backward. His eyes widened. “You’re infected.”  

“I’m not.” Rick repeated, wondering why he was so insistent. Did Morgan believe fighting Walkers up close was infectious?

“Everyone turns.” 

Rick took a couple steps forward, but Morgan backed away, nearly tripping over the mask and goggles he’d been wearing. He picked the mask up and strapped it back on with an almost desperate look on his face, barely acknowledging Rick’s words. “You found me last year in my front yard, Morgan. You and Duane, you found me. You fed me. You told me what’s happening. You saved me.”

“I have to clear.” Morgan responded, like nothing Rick said had even permeated, like he wasn’t even talking to him. “I have to stop the infection.” And then Morgan met his gaze, and Rick could see the moment where his two threads of thought connected and returned to Plan A of killing him. Daryl had his gun back up before anyone else made a move, and Morgan turned to him slowly. “Go ahead.” He suggested blandly. “Kill me. Please.”

“No.” Rick took a couple steps to the side and manually lowered the muzzle of Daryl’s weapon again while the hunter seemed to be mulling it over. “Let’s just go.”

“He tried to kill ya.” Daryl protested, like Rick had somehow forgotten. “Still plans on it. He ain’t safe to have ‘round. ‘Specially not with the baby.” Daryl’s free arm was wrapped protectively around the bundle he was carrying, and Rick could see how unsettled he was to have been carting around the child with the unpredictable and violent newcomer. 

Rick had put him in that situation by insisting they stay to talk to Morgan. He wouldn’t hesitate to follow through in order to protect her. Rick didn’t want to see Morgan die, and he didn’t want Daryl to have to kill someone. “He saved my life. I’m sparing his. Besides, he’s unarmed, and we won’t be around long.” 

Daryl practically oozed skepticism, but didn’t argue. He backed his way towards the staircase after threatening Morgan not to follow. Rick kept a careful eye out as they descended, for Walkers and any unforeseen move on Morgan’s part, but he seemed intent on keeping his distance from Rick. It was bizarre to see how deeply he’d fallen into insanity, and how relatively stable Rick felt in response. 

Daryl led him around to a station wagon that was banged up on one side and missing a mirror but otherwise in good condition. The door opened with a loud creak, and Daryl transferred the baby into the carseat. 

“What happened to our van?” He’d liked their van right up until it’d been splattered with Walker guts on the inside. The smell hadn’t ever gone away. Rick hoped he’d pry more information about Daryl’s excursion from the comment, but wasn’t surprised that he remained somewhat close-lipped. 

“Casualty of the trip.” 

Rick nodded like that was more information than he’d already had and settled into the passenger seat. In the back were the boxes loaded with guns and ammo taken from Morgan. Part of him felt bad for leaving him practically defenseless, but most of him was relieved that he wouldn’t have access to that arsenal in pursuit of ‘clearing’ his ‘infection’. 

“Who’s Duane?”

“Morgan’s son. Hit me with a shovel when we first met.”

“He turned.” Daryl stated matter-of-factly. “Was written on the walls inside.”

“Yeah.” Rick wasn’t surprised. Part of him had already put that together from Morgan’s behavior, but he’d hoped he was wrong. “Everyone turns.”

 

=============

 

Michonne wasn’t sure about any of these people. Andrea may have vouched for them, but she could feel a subtle lingering distrust from events that predated her arrival but somehow seemed to affect her reception anyway. No one spoke about them, but their ghosts were coloring the way the group interacted. Lori seemed both exasperated and apologetic, while Maggie was clearly attempting to suppress a rekindled anger. Hershel’s gaze was on them frequently in appraisal, but Michonne wasn’t sure what he was seeing.

It was hard to sleep surrounded by them, even with Andrea’s familiar warmth at her back, so she mostly avoided sleeping entirely. She took as many watches as she could manage and spent that time evaluating the new group and debating the merits of sticking it out. 

They were weak, underfed, and ill equipped for the new world. She’d done well on her own, and would surely survive without them. On the other hand, her instincts told her that they had no intention of doing her harm, and there was a certain degree of safety in numbers. Still, Carol’s vigilant watch was unsettling, like the woman was capable of absolutely anything, and they all were giving Michonne a wide berth. The unease was palpable. If she left, would Andrea follow?

In the end, it was Carl that tipped the scales. She hadn’t had many opportunities to speak with him alone, but he was by himself when she spotted him organizing a few candy bars, and she couldn’t help but chuckle as she approached. 

“Deciding which ones to eat first?” Michonne asked, crouching down beside Carl who eyed her cautiously, but unafraid. 

“I’m deciding which ones to keep.” Carl replied. “My mom’s pregnant, and I don’t want my brother or sister to never get to eat a candy bar. Except we move around too much, so I can only save a couple.” He was trying so hard to grow up quickly enough to keep pace with the ever increasing demands of the world around him, not for his own survival, but from some deep seated need to protect those he loved. That was something worth fighting for.

“My favorite’s the Big Cat.”

“I bet the baby will like them, too.” He handed her one unprompted and with a crooked smile. “There’s two of those.” From then on, Michonne found herself stuffing comic books and candy into her bag to sneak under his pillow every time she went out on a run.

“We need to relocate.” Michonne finally declared as the decision to stay solidified into a desire to keep them all alive. “Some place with better sight lines, higher ground… I have a few ideas.”

Glenn turned to face her, cocking his head to the side. Michonne hoped they weren’t the sort that considered their current good fortune a sign of having the best strategy. The Walmart haul had been fantastic, and they were slowly regaining lost weight, but there were still large herds of Walkers roaming the area, and they desperately needed to step up their game if they were going to survive the winter. She held her breath. Would Glenn back down entirely if she pushed? He seemed like he wasn’t thrilled with his own leadership role, yet something in her gut told her that there was an underlying grit to him that she’d yet to face. “Let’s hear it.” Glenn, it seemed, wasn’t prepared to relinquish one inch of the control to her, but was smart enough to listen and heed her advice. That was something she could live with.

Over the next few weeks, she and Andrea helped transform Glenn’s group from a fight-or-flight reactive mechanism to a well-oiled machine, the insertion of two skilled survivalists shifting the balance. They stopped looking to patch holes and talk turned to finding a more permanent location, one with enough enclosed land to garden and raise any animals they managed to catch. More importantly, they needed to find a place where Lori could safely have her baby. It was still months away, but the sooner they settled in, the better off they’d be. 

“You’re sleeping again.” Andrea commented as she passed a bowl of soup over and sat beside her friend. T-Dog was the one most often to join them, but he was on watch, so it was just the two of them sitting several paces away from the rest. 

“Hmm.” Michonne agreed passively as she ate. In truth, it was mostly that Carol didn’t seem to be watching her as closely that had allowed her to finally relax into deep slumber that lasted the whole night. It had taken a while, but she’d finally figured the short-haired widow out. The undercurrent of violence and anger was just as dangerous as she’d first estimated, but it was only directed outside of the group. Now that Michonne had been accepted as one of them, Carol posed her no threat. 

“I’ve been thinking,” Andrea continued, “about those two men you met at the end of that first week.” Michonne had thought about them from time to time as well. The more horrors she saw other groups inflict, the more she regretted not having some sort of conversation with them, but dwelling on the past didn’t help anyone. “If they were from Randall’s group, or the group that nabbed that pregnant woman and the girl with her, they wouldn’t have let you walk away. It was the right place, the right timing, one of them could have been Daryl. Did either of them have a crossbow?”

Michonne inched her head slightly in response, frowning at the way Andrea’s face lit up like only one person could possibly be carrying a crossbow in the whole State. “And the other? The rest of your group is accounted for.” 

“Maybe someone like you, someone he met after he got off the farm. Or hell, Carl seems pretty sure his dad made it. Maybe he’s right, and that was Rick and Daryl you met. We should tell the others.”

Michonne grabbed her arm before she could stand in her excitement, tugging her back down as she forced the swell of unease in her stomach down as well. She couldn’t help but wonder who this Daryl had been to Andrea that she was so moved by the notion of getting him back. She felt her face heating up at the idea but focused on the facts that Andrea was clearly ignoring. “Think about what you’re saying. We tell the others, we tell Carl, that we think we may have seen his father and your friend after they left the farm? It was months ago, and we have no idea where they might have gone.”

“So?” Andrea protested. “It’s something.”

“And at what point do I tell them that the guy who may or may not have been Rick was almost certainly too sick to survive another week?” 

Andrea slumped back against the wall in defeat. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Michonne hated the downtrodden expression on her friend’s face, and gave her the only comfort she had. “The motorcycle is a better clue. If he’s still out there, he’ll come back for it.” 

Smiling slightly, Andrea bumped her shoulder against Michonne’s. “Thanks.” 

Michonne nodded along, but she couldn’t help the feeling that they’d be better off if Daryl never did show up. As much as she trusted Andrea, she had noticed a trend towards poor judgement of people’s character. If the haggard, rough, dismissive redneck she’d come across in that building really was Daryl, she preferred if he wasn’t found, not that she was going to tell Andrea that.

   

=============

 

As Daryl drove around the surrounding blocks they debated on where they should sleep that night. Or rather, Rick used Daryl as a sounding board as he considered whether or not they should return to the Sheriff’s Department before heading out of town. They didn’t have a destination in mind and it was well into the afternoon, but with Morgan around and inclined to violence, Rick wasn’t sure what the best course of action was. The Police Station would be easy to secure, but Morgan already knew where it was and would associate it with Rick. It would be safer to avoid the place entirely.

“Hey, stop here.” Rick suddenly decided as they drove past a small, familiar building a couple blocks away. 

Daryl slowed to a stop and gave him a skeptical glance. “Awful close to Morgan’s place.”

“Park around back, then. This shouldn’t take long.” 

Daryl followed instructions, but he stopped Rick before he could leave the car with a grip on his arm. “What’re we doin’ here?”

 “This place was Carl’s favorite restaurant in town. Every year for his birthday we’d let him pick where we’d go, and every year, he’d pick this place. There’s a photo hanging up in there of us celebrating. Might be the last photo in existence of the two of them.”

It was all the convincing needed, and Daryl quickly joined him on the other side of the vehicle to ready a few weapons. Rick refilled his Python and pocketed an extra box of ammo. He rifled through the boxes before selecting another handgun that he shoved in the back of his pants before strapping Morgan’s rifle over his shoulder. He was about to head in when he spotted a pale handled machete. Unsheathing it, he checked to confirm that the blade was intact and was pleased to note that it was sharp and in good condition. 

“Somethin’ ya wanna tell me ‘bout this cafe? Or are ya just makin’ up for lost time in the weapons department?” 

Rick shrugged, not feeling the least bit self-conscious when Daryl was also stowing weapons all over his person. It felt good to be fully prepared again, even if it was certainly overkill for their current task. Cafes wouldn’t exactly be a hub of activity during or after everything fell apart. There was nothing particularly useful inside and the building wasn’t very defensible. “You know how it is. Everyone grabbing their coffee before they can run from the next herd. High traffic area.”

The baby was asleep, having somehow managed to drift off in the few minutes the car was running, and they silently agreed to leave her where she was. It was the second time in one day that Daryl had managed to tear himself away from her which Rick took as a sign that they were both in a healthier place mentally. He didn’t want to force the issue, but the baby would be safer for brief stints locked in the car than entering unexplored buildings with them. Ironically, he’d arrested more than one person for leaving their child unattended in a vehicle back when freezing or overheating were people’s biggest fears for children.

When they were both situated, Rick used his new blade to unlatch the lock on the back door, a sliding mechanism that was far more of a deterrent than any actual protection, and led the way into the small building. There were three Walkers in the kitchen area that eagerly greeted them just as soon as they entered. Rick’s hand went to his gun before he switched to the silent machete and swept through the first two. A few steps behind, Daryl looped around and took down the last one with a knife before quirking an eyebrow at him. 

Rick shrugged. They’d seen Walkers in stranger places. He nodded his head toward the main room and carefully opened the swinging doors before peeking over the divider. There were at least a dozen bodies in the front, several slumped over in chairs, but if they were Walkers or corpses, Rick couldn’t immediately tell since no one was moving. He signalled the way they came and Daryl followed a few paces behind him out the back door. 

“I did not expect that.” Rick admitted once they were clear of the building, flabbergasted. “Who the hell goes to a cafe when the world is falling apart? Never seen a Walker sitting at a table like that, either.”

“Unless they died that way. Found this in the kitchen.” Daryl held out a sheet of paper. It was a hand-written confession by the bartender, Liam Boyd. Apparently, as the depth of the problem was beginning to become clear through the news, people kept meeting up in the cafe to discuss possible strategies. One day, amidst instructions to head to Atlanta and army personnel arriving, he decided that there was no way back for society, that everyone was doomed to die a horrific death, and he would spare them that pain. He poisoned them all with the help of the kitchen staff. 

Rick let out a long sigh. He’d known Liam. Not well, but more than a passing familiarity. He’d been a good man, and Rick wouldn’t have thought he was capable of such an act. Of course, he’d probably thought it was the most humane thing he could do. “Couldn’t just have one easy errand.”

“Easy enough.” Daryl commented, already working to push the dumpster in front of the back door. Rick joined him in barricading the exit, cluing into his plan. Daryl would drag their attention to the back with some loud noises while Rick snuck in through the front to grab the picture. 

The front doors were absolutely filthy, and Rick had to scrub away circles of grime before he could track the movement inside as the Walkers shifted, stood, and lumbered toward the sound of Daryl pounding on the back. He hoped the archer wouldn’t attract too many to control, either inside or out. 

Padding along the side of the shop, eyes peeled for any danger, Rick made his way to the bar. He had to stand on a metal step to get enough height that he could pull the framed photograph from the wall. As he was working, Liam lurched to his feet and took a swipe at Rick’s chest, snarling into his face. Rick ripped the nail straight from the wall so he could jerk backward without losing his prize. He used his other hand to slash his weapon through the bartender’s forehead before dashing back through the front door. A few Walkers had heard the commotion and trailed him back to the entrance, but the glass doors were surprisingly solid and held behind him. He was definitely not telling Daryl how close of a call that had been. 

Daryl let up on the knocking when he spotted Rick and they both hopped back into the vehicle and took off. “Where next?”

“Back to Shane’s.” Rick decided. “Higher ground, and Morgan shouldn’t know that spot. We can make a plan and head out in the morning.” 

They ate dinner in a silence that was edging back to its normal comfortable stage before sorting through the weapons, deciding which they’d keep and which they’d store. Daryl even managed to find a crossbow that was apparently an upgrade if the way he fondled it was any indication. They had guns and ammo to spare now, and it made him ache for his family and their group all over again because the excess would surely make a significant impact in keeping them alive. He wished he could share it.

  That night, until the light faded away, Rick ran his fingers over the photo he’d saved from the cafe while Daryl fed the baby and put her to sleep. When Daryl finally crawled under the blankets with him, Rick set it down on the bedside table. “Our marriage was falling apart long before I got shot, but I never forgave Lori for sleeping with Shane. Not to her face and not in my head.” He was angled away from Daryl and staring at the photo of his wife who was, more than likely, already dead. Daryl didn’t respond, but it didn’t matter. He needed to get this off his chest. “I wanted to. I tried to, especially when it was such a miracle to wake up from that coma and find her again. I wanted to make it work, but it hurt to see how quickly she’d moved on when she thought I was dead. Guess that makes me an asshole and a hypocrite.”

 

=============

 

“Rick!” 

Rick jerked awake, coming to a sitting position and coughing profusely. His eyes burned, his mouth was dry, and his chest ached as he struggled to breathe. It was still dark out, but the smell of smoke was heavy in the air and wavering light bled in from nowhere and everywhere at once. Leaping to his feet, he started shoving belongings into his bag. “What’s going on?” 

Daryl had his new crossbow slung over his shoulder and was already cradling the baby against his chest. “The building’s on fire.” 

Even his sleep addled brain decided that all the clues lined up too perfectly. “Son of a bitch.”

Rick ran for the front door, keeping himself hunched over as the smoke became thicker outside the bedroom. He threw open the door, nearly burning himself in the process and ushered Daryl and the baby out behind him, feeling an attack before he even heard a gunshot. Instinctively, he ducked down and drew his weapon, scanning the area before he locked onto Morgan crouched near the base of the flaming apartment building. He fired a few shots in the man’s direction who withdrew several yards. It was enough leeway to start down the stairs. 

They exchanged fire twice more before they reached the base of the stairs, sometimes interrupted to eliminate the Walkers drawn in by the fire. More would come. They needed to get out of there and quickly. Morgan was struggling with a few too many Walkers and was forced to start retreating at a run. 

Daryl raised his gun to the man’s back, but Rick knocked his arm off course. “What the hell, man? He’s dangerous.”

“He’s not an immediate threat. We don’t need him on our conscience when we can just take better precautions to avoid him.”

Daryl gave him a look like he’d lost his mind all over again. “I get that he saved your life, but he’s tried to kill ya twice now. That math just don’t add up.”

“He’s unstable because he just lost his son. He can come back from that. I need to believe that he can come back from that.”

“Fine. Let’s just get outta here ‘fore we get overrun.” Daryl begrudgingly twisted his weapon around, sweeping the area and shooting two Walkers in quick succession as they neared their position. They both turned to head to where they’d left their car, only to find it absent. In its place was the carseat and nothing else. It looked like they’d be leaving on foot. “I hate your friends.”

 

============

Chapter Text

 

Rick was breathing hard, wheezing, even though they’d only been jogging briefly. Daryl scanned the area, spinning in a circle before gripping Rick’s arm to slow them to a walk. The cop glanced around, like he wasn’t sure about the cause of their change in pace and gave his companion a curious look. 

“Need a car to get out of dodge.”

Rick shook his head, wincing as he did so. “Nothing left from here to the station.” They hadn’t needed to confer over where they should go as they hurried away from Shane’s burning apartment. They both knew that the only supplies they had left were the ones stowed in the ceiling at Rick’s old work place and what they carried in their bags. Daryl considered himself lucky that they’d brought in as much as they had or they’d be back to desperately scavenging for formula and bullets again. 

“Maybe we shouldn’t’ve stayed in town where the guy who tried to kill ya could steal our shit,” snapped Daryl.

“To be fair,” Rick rasped. “We stole it first.” 

Daryl frowned, taking in Rick’s reddened cheeks and how the corners of his eyes were scrunched up in pain. Worse, he couldn’t be sure his friend would be of any use in another attack, if the way he swayed unsteadily on his feet was anything to go by. He looked like the added weight of his bag and the carseat might topple him any minute.

Guilt crawled up Daryl’s throat, but he didn’t apologize. Apologies were a lazy way of making amends and never worked besides. Instead, Daryl rearranged his load, properly seating the baby in the sling around his chest to free up his other hand. He took the car seat off of Rick and readied his handgun again. His tantalizing new crossbow was completely inaccessible now, but he wouldn’t be able to use it with the baby, anyway. “Whatever. I ain’t givin’ him another chance. We leave tonight.” 

Daryl deposited Rick and the baby at the police station with strict instructions to rest while he hunted around the next several blocks for any vehicle that could get them far enough away that the delusional Morgan would no longer be a threat. He wished he could simply eliminate the man and hated himself for it. He wasn’t sure when murder became one of his first considerations. Was he losing his way or finding it? He wouldn’t have any qualms about killing The Living now, knowing how it all turned out. He didn’t even doubt that killing Morgan was the better option, not after he’d tried to set fire to the only people Daryl had left. 

None of the cars were ideal, but he eventually settled on a truck that started up easily and wasn’t entirely devoid of gas. It had probably been overlooked because of its position, still sitting in a head-on collision with another car, but the damage was mostly superficial. There wasn’t even a Walker inside, likely the original driver abandoned it to try their luck on foot rather than navigate the congested and rubble strewn roads. Idiot.

By the time Daryl made it back to the station, Rick had upgraded from the occasional cough to full blown fits which shook his whole frame. He was trying to muffle them into a pillow lest the sound attract unwanted guests but was only partially successful with the way he struggled to catch his breath with or without the obstruction. Sweat poured down his face, his entire body shivering all over. His head jerked up at Daryl’s entrance, revealing that the sclera in his eyes had begun to turn yellow. 

“Jesus.” Daryl frowned, taking in the scene. The baby was in the car seat, sound asleep despite the noises Rick kept making, while Rick had cocooned himself inside every blanket they owned. The barricade Daryl had instructed him to make was absent, but that wasn’t a surprise given how quickly his condition had worsened. “Ya look like shit.”

“Feel like shit.” Rick mumbled, punctuating his response with another coughing fit. 

“Can ya stand?” 

Rick nodded before gripping the edge of a desk and trying to hoist himself up. “I’ll help load so we can get moving.” Daryl watched as he barely made it upright and immediately leaned against the wall for support. He couldn’t tell if Rick was being stubborn or if he was so far gone that he thought he was making sense. “Just give me a minute.”

 Passing a bottle of water over with instructions to finish it, Daryl went to the back by himself and took down their secret stash of supplies, stuffing it all into a bag and carrying it to the front where Rick had crumpled back onto the floor again. There was enough food and water to last them a week, and they could stretch it to two if needed. The baby formula would last quite a bit longer. 

The thing he was most interested in, however, was what they had the least amount of: medicine. They had a generic over the counter fever reducer, so he read the dosing and handed a few pills to Rick who struggled to get them down. Another bottle was antibiotics prescribed to someone by the name of Haley Nikolas. 

“Antibiotics? What planet you on, boy?” Merle once said while trying to convince him that it was a waste of their money to see a doctor for an infected cut.  “Fuckers only work half the time, an’ only if they guess the right one. Snake oil will do ya ‘bout the same.” Of course, Merle didn’t hesitate to take his own antibiotics and just about anything else he could get his hands on.

Daryl hesitated over the medication. Would it help Rick? Was it even the right kind? Judith had talked to him over Rick’s infection during his vigils in the early days with The Living, but most of it had gone over his head. He knew that there were infections caused by viruses and infections caused by bacteria, and antibiotics would only work on one of them, but he couldn’t remember which one. It was just as well because he couldn’t remember how to tell them apart. 

Daryl clasped the bottle in his grip, watching Rick cough. It had come on so quickly. Would his immune system be able to fight this off without help? Could the antibiotics make it worse? “Don’t suppose ya know much ‘bout antibiotics?”

“‘M tired a this stupid dress. Wanna be a knight in sunshiney guns now.”

“Okay.” Daryl acknowledged that Rick might be worse off than he’d thought, crouching in front of his friend and placing his hand against the sweltering forehead. He chewed on his lip. This was a risk they needed to take.  The bottle said two pills every twelve hours for five days. Judith had been quite clear that the full duration was necessary to ensure the infection didn’t come back, but there were already a couple pills missing, and Daryl knew that prescriptions were often administered by weight. Did this Haley weigh less than Rick? How much did it matter? Knocking three pills into his palm, he passed them along to Rick. “Take these. They’ll make ya feel better.”

Rick struggled; it took a few tries for each pill. Daryl started to wonder if they would be effective ground down before Rick managed to swallow them all. He reached out blindly, and Daryl took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. 

“Thanks.”

When his friend was down for the count, Daryl knotted some rope around the front door and barricaded the door to their inner room. He left a window clear in case they needed to make a hasty exit. When he was all finished, he fed the baby and himself and settled back to keep watch. He hadn’t forgotten that Morgan knew about this place. He was just thankful that the brick building would be a whole lot harder to burn down. 

Had Morgan been responsible for the destruction of Rick’s house? It wasn’t a stretch with his erratic behavior and affinity for flames that he might have set fire to the whole street. And Daryl was starting to get a very bad feeling about why. 

Morgan kept insisting Rick was infected, even though he hadn’t been bit or scratched. They’d assumed he was off his rocker, but here Rick was, wheezing and sweating like Jim had in his last few hours without a mark on him. Jenner hadn’t even known enough about Walkers to tell them much more than they’d turn if they died regardless of being bit, and he’d been researching for months. Maybe there were other ways to turn that they didn’t know about. For the first time since his momma died, Daryl prayed. 

Rick slept for several hours, but his fever was still there. The only noticeable improvement was that the rattling cough had died down enough that he was sleeping more soundly. At the twelve hour mark, Daryl woke him up, fed him some soup that didn’t stay down and forced him to take another three pills. There were six left. If he brought it down to two at a time, that would stretch it into the third day, but he still wasn’t sure they’d even work.

Scrubbing his hands over his face, Daryl wished for someone who knew what they were doing. Judith had taken the previous problem out of his hands with a professional tone like a calming balm to his nerves, but a miracle like that wouldn’t happen again. He’d take Hershel in a heartbeat, even just a ten minute consult. Hell, he’d even be happy to get advice from Merle who at least had experience sorting through pharmaceutical names. Instead, he was stuck with a baby and Rick, who’d previously admitted to knowing little more than first aid, and was possibly delirious to boot. 

But Rick wasn’t getting better, and he didn’t dare give him more of their only antibiotic. At best, it would reduce the number of doses left and allow the sickness to reemerge. At worst, it could kill him. 

Finally, Daryl could take it no longer. He scooped up the baby and the car seat and installed them inside the new truck before double checking on Rick and heading out. The baby had to stay with him, even if he was taking her on another dangerous mission, because the alternative was leaving her with an ill man who might be turning or might be dying. Either way, she’d be snack food if anything happened to Rick. Instead, he parked a street over, locked the baby in the cab of the truck and jogged the now familiar route to where this whole mess began. 

This was idiotic, borderline suicidal. Morgan had all of his guns back and had proven a willingness to kill them already. Whatever friend he’d been to Rick once was gone. But Morgan was the only other person alive he knew where to find and the nutcase might know or have something useful. 

As Daryl slowed down to find a good vantage point, a blaze of pain burned across the corner of his ear, the gunshot echoing in the still afternoon. Daryl threw himself behind the closest car, feeling around at the injury. It hurt like a bitch, and his hand came away bloody, but he recognized how lucky he’d been. 

Cursing, Daryl wished he could fight this out or even turn tail and run, but neither of those options would get him to his objective. It was down to his least favorite course of action; he’d have to talk his way through this. “Hold up, I just wanna talk.” He shouted.

“Nothing to talk about. You’re infected, and you’re gonna spread it, just like the rest.” 

Daryl aborted his response that he wasn’t infected. Rick had tried that the day before with no luck. Rick had been close to the Walkers, and Daryl had been close to Rick. Morgan might even be right about him. He was certainly starting to feel overheated and uncomfortable. His forehead was dripping sweat as steadily as the blood from his ear. Shaking his head, he tried to concentrate. He needed to connect some other way and get Morgan to answer questions. “Rick’s sick. He needs yer help or he’s gonna die.”

“That ain’t Rick!” Morgan insisted. “Just a dying man wearing a dead man’s face.”

A Walker lurched around the corner, drawn to them by the sound of their shouts as they attempted to communicate across the distance. Daryl kept his position and took his first shot with the new crossbow. It went wide and the bolt broke against the brick building instead. He reloaded quickly and adjusted for the differences between his old familiar bow and the new weapon before he fired again. Bullseye. 

“Ya left the car seat,” Daryl yelled, an idea striking him. “Ya know we got that baby. Who will look after her if me an’ Rick die?” 

“She’ll die too.” Morgan insisted grimly.

“She don’t have to.” 

“What do you want from me?” Morgan’s voice was tight, almost panicky, but Daryl thought he might have found his opening, and he wedged it wider. 

“Help me save her!” Daryl declared, daring to inch over the edge of the car. Morgan was stationed at a second floor window across the street. His gun was still at the ready, but it was no longer pointed at him. Daryl followed suit, keeping his gun out but the muzzle lowered to the ground. He crossed the street so that their voices wouldn’t carry as much, hoping that Rick was right about this man, and he wouldn’t be shot down on his way.

“It spreads too easily, and it kills too quickly. And then the dead rise and spread it more. That’s why I have to clear, so no one else has to die.”

So it wasn’t a new way of turning into a Walker. It was the same old story, die and turn, it was just happening faster because of an illness. “Medication, then, in exchange for the food ya stole.”

“Don’t have any to give, even if I thought I owed you something.”

“All that supply an’ ya ain’t got any meds?”

“Gave the last of it to a group that came through. They all died, anyway. Everyone dies.” Morgan’s voice had dropped again, and it was hard to make out, but he was much more alert than Daryl gave him credit for and snapped to attention, bringing his gun up at a moment’s notice. Daryl was a second behind him, but the man wasn’t pointing it at him. He took down the stray Walker that was ambling toward them, and Daryl cautiously nodded his thanks. Morgan lowered his gun. “Do me a favor, though. When the time comes, stay in town and lock yourself in a house somewhere.”

Daryl didn’t have to ask why. It was obvious that Morgan was trying to curb the exposure of Rick’s infection, and all told, he might not be as crazy as Daryl had first assumed. It was a good enough guarantee that he wouldn’t come after them again, but Daryl was still angry at the defeatist approach. He spat on the ground. “That it? Ain’t gonna try nothin’?” Daryl waited a beat before turning to go. This was a giant waste of a trip, and that was time Rick didn’t have to waste. He halted as another thought occurred to him. “If everyone gets it an’ everyone dies, how come you’re still here?” Morgan was helping those people, or so he said. If it was so contagious, how had he managed to not get infected himself?

Morgan snorted out a laugh. “Good people die, they always die. And the bad people, too. But the people like me, the weak people, we have inherited the Earth.” 

“Think ya could make sense for a minute?” Daryl muttered, rubbing away at his sweaty forehead and trying to piece together the clues. This wasn’t his forte, but he was learning to decode Morgan’s ramblings. He responded to direct questions with straight-forward answers, and he’d wax poetic on some answers, tangenting off into oblivion at the slightest opportunity. “Did ya catch it? Were you sick?”

“Yeah, yeah I caught it, too. But I can’t die. I’m too weak for that.”

“What did you take?”

“Ampicillin.” Morgan replied, surprisingly direct. “But I didn’t have any more when they came to me. All the others we tried, they worked for a bit, and then they crashed hard.”

“Thanks.” Daryl grunted and hurried back toward the truck. Morgan may have called out a “good luck” as he left, but Daryl was already jogging as fast as his wobbly legs would support him.  

He hadn't been shot, not lethally anyway, and while Morgan had been disparaging of his plan and their plight, he'd had enough hope left somewhere inside him to let Daryl try.  

The normally quiet baby was fussing in the truck when Daryl got back. A crowd of five Walkers had gathered, and he used their distraction to dispose of them quickly. It was nerve-wracking to come back to that after such a short excursion. Enough Walkers and they’d break straight through the glass to get at the whining baby. But, as always, his options were limited. 

Shushing the little girl had no effect, so he picked her up from her car seat and rocked her until she quieted, patting her back gently. There was no way he could ignore the sudden increase in her body temperature, and, as much as he wanted to, pretending that he didn’t know the cause wasn’t an option. Morgan was right. This disease was very contagious, and they all had it. He just hoped Morgan wasn’t right about them dying.

Daryl approached the Sheriff's Department with some trepidation. The illness progressed rapidly. It was entirely possible that he’d taken too long, and it was too late for Rick. Still, he didn’t dally. If there was any chance for them, he had to move quickly, before he got any worse.

“There you are! Was just about to call the police.” Rick cracked. He was sitting up in his bedroll looking much better than he had the day before. He still looked sick as hell, but he was alert and diligently working his way through a bottle of water. He cocked his head as soon as Daryl was fully inside the door. “The hell happened to you?”

“Went lookin’ for more medicine.” Daryl replied, dropping down beside Rick with the baby still tucked in her car seat. He sat her between them and leaned heavily against the wall. He wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep, but that would have to wait. 

“Where were you looking?” Rick chided, grabbing a spare shirt and dumping water on it. “A meat grinder?”

“Worse than it looks.” Daryl avoided answering the question, figuring Rick would be pissed if he found out where he’d gone. The cop came around and started carefully pressing the cloth against his shoulder and neck. He didn’t know how it looked, but if Rick was working down there, there was probably a lot more blood than he’d expect from a graze. He watched Rick’s face as he dabbed along his neck and shoulder, about as much dirt and ash coming away as blood. Normally, he would have insisted on cleaning himself up, but he was tired and he didn’t have a mirror. “Ya look better.”

Rick nodded. “Took another dose. Three, right?”

“Right.” There went his plans for stretching them out a little further. Still, he couldn’t help but feel grateful that it had done some measure of good and hope that Morgan’s predicted crash wouldn’t come. 

“You aren’t looking so great, yourself.” Rick eyed him, a frown creasing the space between his eyebrows. He tested Daryl’s temperature with the back of his hand. The archer didn’t have the energy to complain. “Think you’ve got it.” 

Daryl shrugged, allowing himself to relax in Rick’s capable hands. He’d never been much for people trying to touch him, but this was… nice. He closed his eyes and let Rick twist his head about to clean up the side of his neck and his ear. If his friend recognized the source of the wound, he didn’t say. 

After some amount of time that felt altogether too short and probably longer than necessary, Rick sat back on his heels. “Looks okay.” 

“Told ya.” Rick huffed in response and tossed the last of the pills into Daryl’s lap, but the archer just threw them right back. Rick slowly picked himself up and dropped the bottle back into Daryl’s lap with some water. Daryl didn’t have the energy to bicker. “Best shot is to take all the doses. Splittin’ them ain’t gonna be ‘nough for either of us.”

“We don’t even have a full course.” Rick pointed out, reaching out to help Daryl stand. He was grateful for the help because the task felt overwhelming. “We’ll find more. If she’s sick, we need to find something for children anyway. Now, take the goddamn medicine.”

“Think she’s already got it.” Daryl reported morosely. Rick peered into the car seat at the whimpering baby before turning to Daryl with a tight expression. “Look,” Daryl grunted. “You stay here with her an’ take the pills. I’ll keep lookin’.”

“No.” Rick growled, giving Daryl a narrow-eyed glare. “We’re in this together. How long do you think either of us would last on our own? How much worse are those odds trying to keep a baby alive?” He sucked in a deep breath and visibly forced himself to relax. “I need you to trust me.”

Trusting people didn’t come naturally to Daryl. There were far too many people in his life who’d abused any faith he put in them, so he stopped doing it entirely. He expected the worst, and that’s usually what he got. But he was far past that point with Rick. He’d earned Daryl’s respect and his trust. He relented, and downed the last three pills they had along with half a bottle of water. “Now what?”

“Now, we go back to where this whole mess started.”

 

============

 

“This place is perfect.” Glenn declared as he circled the spacious open floor. They were on the second story of what used to be a factory. Below was unused machinery that Glenn couldn’t begin to identify, but upstairs had obviously been closer to an attic used for storage. Before, it was a place Glenn would have avoided and squatters would have revelled in. Now, he was practically salivating. 

Michonne had shown it to him as a possible new base, and Glenn was hooked as soon as she shared that the only way up was a retractable ladder. They’d want to build a spare, in case anything happened to it, but Glenn had an immense fondness for ladders ever since he discovered that Walkers couldn’t follow. There were a few broken windows that would need to be sealed off, and the space was too large to keep properly heated, but they could enclose a smaller portion of it just with the supplies left behind by the factory’s previous owners. It was defensible and inconspicuous, and Glenn could already picture a pulley system to bring up supplies to their new home.

Michonne grinned, her white teeth a sharp contrast to the dim lighting of the building. “Wait until you see the roof.” 

The roof was mostly flat, which would eventually lead to leaking, but it was also the home of several large garden beds. They were empty aside from dirt but the possibilities were thrilling. There was even a hose hooked up. He couldn’t be sure if the water source was still viable, but even if it wasn’t it would be easier starting with some infrastructure. Glenn grinned back at Michonne. “Well, that settles it.” 

Michonne headed down first, feet remarkably quiet on the metal ladder. Glenn hadn’t known what to make of the woman at first, cautious of the stranger among them, but there was no denying how valuable she’d become in a short span of time. 

Glenn dropped the rest of the way to the ground. “I’m glad you stayed.” 

Nodding, the swordswoman gestured towards their camp. They walked along for a while in silence until he heard a faint, “me, too.” Glenn hadn’t really expected a response, even though Michonne was opening up to their group more every day. She was still quiet, mournful and hard over some loss that she wouldn’t speak of, but they were all like that these days. 

“The only big problem I can see is that we’ll need to work out some sort of sound proofing for when Lori has the baby.” Glenn continued, mindful of his surroundings as they made their way through the woods. “A few ill-timed wails could bring enough Walkers to take down the whole building.” 

Michonne shrugged. “It’s a long way off. A lot can change between now and then.”

“She’s going to get better.” Glenn insisted, trying to force the doubt in his mind out of his voice. “It’s just a flu or something. She’ll get over it.”

Michonne let the matter drop, but Glenn didn’t feel any better for the victory. Even if he didn’t dare speak the words aloud, everyone was getting nervous about Lori’s prolonged sickness. Literally anything could be wrong with her and they had few methods of analyzing it and fewer methods of treating it even if they could figure out what was wrong. The only saving grace was that so far, she seemed to be the only one afflicted. They couldn’t afford to be short anyone else. They were fortunate to have Hershel and his medical advice, but he wasn’t a doctor for people. 

Glenn was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he’d outpaced Michonne by several steps before he noticed her quiet footfalls were no longer beside him. He turned to face where she’d stopped and instinctively reached for his weapon, searching the trees for any sign of danger. “What’s wrong?” He whispered.

“You still got that map on you?” Taking it from his outstretched grip eagerly enough to nearly rip the paper, Michonne unfolded the map and scanned the area with her finger. “I thought that building looked familiar the first time I scouted it. Before all this happened, I went to a meeting up the road a ways. I stopped right here on the way back.”

Glenn followed her pointing finger on the map. He recognized it as just a couple miles out of their way back to the group, and he recognized the street names around them, but it was a road map and didn’t include any sort of buildings. On the map, it was nothing but a clearing beside a road. “And what’s there?”

“A Big Spot.”

“It’s worth a shot.” Glenn glanced upward to see how much daylight they had remaining. “Let’s go take a look. Never hurts to stock up.”

The Big Spot was overrun, which was hardly a surprise. Glenn was surprised to see that it was also an aid station run by the military out front. He’d known that there were other refugee centers beside the one in Atlanta, but he hadn’t known where any of them were located. This choice seemed downright peculiar. 

“Think there’s still much inside?” Michonne asked.

Glenn shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We can’t get to it.” He chewed on his lips as he surveyed the area. That was a lot of Walkers. Far more than he wanted to waste ammo on.  “Not without some big risks.” Michonne seemed to come to the same conclusion, or at least was unwilling to challenge his decision, and they both slipped away back into the forest. 

They’d taken places like that before, but never so thoroughly overrun. He could try to lure them away, but it was quite the risk for whoever was working on that project. Someone would have to open up a path for them to leave without getting caught up in the herd themselves. Someone would have to set up something, perhaps music, to draw them in. It would have to be close enough to be heard, but far enough that they wouldn’t wander back while their group cleared the store. 

 Lori was vomiting when they returned. There were about a hundred possible causes for a sick person to vomit, but it was also perfectly normal for a pregnant woman. The heavy sweating, reddened cheeks and shivering, however, was not. Glenn tried to keep his concern off his face.

Maggie was on him right away, pulling him into a lingering kiss that practically erased all his concerns. Glenn relaxed as he pulled away, rubbing his girlfriend’s shoulder and revelling in being reunited, neither of them the worse for wear. Maggie continued checking him over, like she wasn’t entirely sure that he’d made it back in one piece, no matter how simple they’d promised the mission was. “Everything went okay?”

“Yeah. I think we found a good place.”

“Did you find it?” Beth asked, appearing suddenly at their side, a hopeful expression on her face. 

Michonne drew out a long roll of clear plastic tubing from her bag. “Think this’ll work?” Beth beat her fist in the air and let out a quiet cheer. For a second, Glenn thought she would pounce Michonne to give her a hug, but the blonde hurried off to her own bedroll to rifle through her bag. 

“Should I ask?” 

“I didn’t. She just gave me a list.” Michonne pulled out a small piece of paper, each item now crossed through but still legible. Rubber tubing. Foam. Balloon. 

“Where’d you find a balloon?”

“I gave her a condom.” Maggie supplied, straight-faced. 

Glenn wished he wasn’t so prone to blushing.

“Glenn?” Hershel interrupted with impeccable timing. “Could you come here a minute?” Glenn knew what it was about. Lori was getting worse, and they had no medicine left. Knowing that didn’t stop it from hurting as Hershel went through his most recent observations. Glenn listened, anyway. It often felt like listening was all he could do for the people that he’d come to love and rely on. 

“If it keeps up at this rate, and her body can’t fight it off, I think we’re looking at a matter of days. We need medicine. Antibiotics, not Tylenol.”

“What do you want me to do?” Glenn demanded, instantly regretting the biting words and lowering his voice so everyone would stop staring. “We always look for food and medicine, but it’s hard to come by.”

“We haven’t checked everywhere. There are hospitals, nursing homes, medical schools…”

“Those places are too dangerous.”

“Then Lori and that baby will die.” Hershel said, voice even. There was no hint of condemnation in his comment, but Glenn had enough of that inside his own head to go around. He had to balance risking the group against the needs of one of their own. It would be so much easier if either option were a certainty, but making these judgement calls were always the hardest for him. 

“Okay.” Glenn acknowledged. He took a deep breath. The aid station outside the Big Spot was their best option. They could have all sorts of medical supplies out front, even if the store itself was mostly picked over. It was close and a smaller area to cover. They could manage it. For Lori. “It’s going to take all of us.”

A commotion over by the bedrolls made Glenn’s heart speed up as he searched the area for threats. Belatedly, he realized that the noises were those of happiness, something he hadn’t heard in too long. He passed a look to Hershel and they wordlessly decided to table the discussion. Making his way over, Glenn realized the gadget Beth was holding against Maggie’s chest was a rudimentary stethoscope. It was a hodgepodge of garbage, plastic bottle, wire hanger, and long strips of inelegant tape, but it appeared to be working.

“We made something like this in science class last year.” Beth informed the growing audience with a grin. “I thought it would cheer us all up to hear the baby’s heartbeat.”

Maggie beamed at her sister, bumping into her shoulder. “We just tested it out, and it works.”

Hershel took the proffered instrument and tested it out on Lori’s chest. He nodded and then moved it down against her stomach. She looked nervous, hands bracing on either side of the small protrusion. Carl inched forward, the request to hear already on his lips as they all waited with bated breath. Finally, Hershel returned the stethoscope to Beth with a tight smile. “It might still be too early for a heartbeat.” 

 

============

“This is batshit.” Daryl declared as they pulled up in front of the hospital, enunciating properly so that there was no way Rick could misunderstand his disapproval. The hospital wasn’t very large, but that wouldn’t matter. Daryl heard stories of them renting refrigerated trucks to house all the dead once the morgues were overflowing, but these were regular flatbeds heaped up with carcasses. In fact, the whole parking lot was full of decaying corpses wrapped in sheets and left to rot. “Hospitals are always overrun. Fuckin’ epicenter of the outbreak in every town.”

“Which is why the medicine will still be there.”

Daryl pinched the bridge of his nose. Unfortunately, Rick was right. If there was any place in the whole town that people wouldn’t have dared loot, it was the hospital, and by the time someone was desperate enough to try for it, they wouldn’t stand a chance against the Walkers within. There was no doubt in his mind that Morgan had spent the last few months stripping every building of medication, and if he was out, which Daryl was oddly inclined to take him at his word, that meant the whole town was out. 

They’d discussed heading back to Walmart. They hadn’t been thorough in picking through the pharmacy, primarily because neither of them knew what might be useful or, more importantly, how to use it. But even if they had taken everything in sight, there hadn’t been much to begin with. Others had picked it over before them. And even if they did, by some miracle, have what they were looking for at Walmart, it would take at least a day to get there, assuming nothing went wrong. That was a terrible assumption these days. Daryl couldn’t be sure how quickly the illness progressed, but he was already feeling sluggish, and had no idea how it would affect a baby. 

Which led them full circle back to the hospital they were parked in front of. There were military tents and supplies all around them, but they’d all been thoroughly ransacked. There were even two helicopters, which looked like they’d seen better days. People had disassembled large chunks of them, and Daryl gave it a zero percent chance of finding any fuel left in their lines. They weren’t good for anything else without a pilot or place to go.

“Can’t bring her with us.” Daryl pointed out, hoping it was as obvious to Rick as it seemed to him. “An’ this truck won’t keep her safe if we’re in there long.”

“Got it covered.” Rick assured, unbuckling the car seat and taking the baby along with them. He wobbled a little with the added weight, betraying that he likely wasn’t feeling half as well as he claimed, but quickly righted himself. 

It only took Daryl a moment to realize where Rick was headed. “A tank?” Daryl asked incredulously before his mind caught up with him. A tank actually wasn’t a bad idea. The baby was calm, for now, having just been fed and sleeping with a pacifier in her mouth, but it was doubtful she would stay that way for long. Sick babies were not quiet babies. She needed to be somewhere that she could scream her head off for hours and the Walkers couldn’t reach her. 

“A tank.” Rick confirmed proudly. “Wish we could keep it, but I guess there’s a reason it’s still here. Don’t suppose driving one of these is in your repertoire?” 

Daryl shook his head. “I bet yer kickin’ yourself for cuffin’ Merle on that rooftop now.”

Rick looked over in surprise. “Merle knows how to drive a tank?”

Daryl shrugged, circling around the armored vehicle to check for damage or Walkers. “Near as I can figure, ’s half the reason he joined the army.” The other half, Daryl knew, was to get away from their father. Daryl had dreamt of following in his footsteps when he was old enough to get in, but he never did. He needed a faster escape, so he chose the woods. 

He contemplated getting on his hands and knees to look underneath for any dangers, but the mere thought unsettled his stomach. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to get back up. Instead, Daryl used all of his limbs to slowly make his way up the tire and unlatch the hatch. He prepped his knife and swung it open. When he didn’t hear anything, he peaked over the edge. “Clear.” The lower hatch was still closed, and there were no corners for a Walker to hide in. 

Rick handed him the carrier, and then accepted his hand up to get on top of the tank as well. He climbed inside, accepted the baby and set her on the ground while Daryl kept a lookout. When Rick didn’t immediately come back up, Daryl checked over the lip again. He was surveying the controls thoughtfully.

“Hurry up.” Honestly, he was starting to wonder how much longer he could keep functioning. He was tired and achy all over. This crazy plan would have to happen now or never.

“Sorry.” Rick climbed back out and closed the hatch. “Was just thinking that if Merle could learn that stuff, can’t be that hard. One of us could probably get the hang of it.” 

Daryl snorted. It was the first time anyone had made a joke about his brother since they’d failed to bring him back to camp, and he was surprised to find that it didn’t hurt as much as he expected. Rick’s little smirk showed he meant it in a light-hearted way, and it almost felt like they were sharing the loss together, like Rick missed Merle in his own way. It was absurd, but it felt right. 

"And for the record, I regretted cuffing your brother the moment I realized he wasn't with us in the truck out of Atlanta."

Daryl didn't respond. His throat was tight, and his eyes prickled. New symptoms, no doubt. If the statement had come from someone else, he wouldn't have believed them. He had no delusions about how his brother could be, especially when he was on something. And to risk your life for someone acting like that… most people wouldn't have bothered. Rick had, twice really. It was why Daryl had gone to check on Rick beneath that pile of walkers back at the farm, and why Daryl was sure he could trust him. Rick was a man with integrity. A man of honor. 

Even if this plan of his was batshit.

============

Chapter Text

Hershel brushed his hair out of his face and worried his hands over the steering wheel. His hair was getting too long. Soon he’d either need to cut it or find something to tie it back with. He’d probably just find something to keep it out of his eyes to avoid the time investment of upkeep. 

The truck he sat idling in was older, but still in good condition. They had traded off cabin space for a larger bed, and he hoped they’d be needing it. It was hard to tell how much dread was escaping from the impassive facade he was trying to keep up, but he knew Glenn was planning for the worst, Lori was housing a great deal of terror, and none of them wanted Carl to see any of it. 

It had taken a while to cajole Lori into sharing how far along she thought she was, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out why. She couldn’t be sure of the exact timeframe because she’d slept with another man while her husband was presumed dead. Hershel had heard the story of Rick’s return and had an inkling of who the other possible father was.  He was put in the unfortunate position where he needed to ask, but truthfully he considered it none of his business. 

“If it’s further along than we thought and Beth’s stethoscope just wasn’t up for such fine measurements, that’s wonderful.” Hershel patiently coaxed the night before when they had a few minutes of privacy. “But if it’s still too early for movement and we can’t detect a heartbeat, there’s another explanation that we can’t ignore.”

They tried to pin down the most likely date, but in the end they couldn’t definitively solve the issue. “But wouldn’t I be dead by now?” Lori asked. “If the baby had- had… turned. I’d be dead, right?”

“We don’t know that. The placenta prevents your blood from mixing with that of the fetus, but it does allow some things to pass through. There’s a lot we don’t know about this disease and what effect it might have on you. We do know that if it’s not alive and your body doesn’t expel it, it will make you sick.” It went without saying that Lori’s current pervasive illness could be a clear indication that Beth’s stethoscope was not the problem.  

Andrea and Glenn drove by, waving a green flag out the window as they went. They’d volunteered for the most dangerous task, leading the herd away by painting a giant target on themselves. If another herd came down from a different direction, it would be nearly impossible to escape. In the passenger seat beside him, Carl waved back. A few minutes ticked by and then the blasting of music could clearly be heard echoing through the forest.

To be fair, none of their positions were particularly safe. Glenn had wanted to hook speakers up to a car battery and leave for a few days until the battery ran out and the herd dispersed. He wanted to do more planning and more scouting, but Hershel hadn’t been able to keep the objection from his face. Lori might not have a couple days. So instead of securing their new, safer location, Glenn was leading them straight into the lion’s den with only an outline of a plan and the wholehearted belief that they were all in this together. 

The green flag meant that everything had gone well thus far. T-Dog was to cut through the gate with Maggie covering him while Beth and Lori shouted to distract the enclosed herd from the opposite side. Michonne and Carol were on lookout. He just had to wait until the herd passed by in its entirety, then drive the last leg of the journey and use T-Dog’s radio to confirm that they were in the clear. 

“Is my mom okay?” Carl asked, voice barely louder than the groaning of the herd stumbling away from them. Hershel considered for a moment, trying to balance out a statement that would be in the right parts comforting and honest. Statements like that seemed harder and harder to come by these days. But Carl didn’t give him the time to compose it. “Please don’t lie to me. I know she’s sick, and that’s why we’re doing this, right? Is it the baby?”

Hershel sighed. It was important for Carl to have hope, but he also deserved to be prepared for what might come. By the end of this, there was a good chance Carl would lose both his sibling and his mother. “Before modern medicine, it could be dangerous for women to have babies. We’re all in danger now, but your mom and that baby are at a greater risk than the rest of us.”

“Is she gonna live?”

Hershel opened his mouth, but again, he wasn’t sure what to say. It was highly unlikely that the partially formed fetus, if turned as he suspected might be the case, would be able to do any intentional damage. It didn’t have the strength or any sort of claws or teeth to rip out of her abdomen like the monster in Alien , though knowing that did nothing to stop him from picturing the nightmarish scenario. That was certainly an image he would not share with the boy looking to him for guidance.

But at the same time, signs pointed to the baby having already died, probably of malnutrition for those first months, and Lori would follow suit if he didn’t find a way to help her. Either she would turn directly or the sickness would take her with the same result, but without medical intervention, Hershel saw no other outcome. It was why he’d reluctantly broached the subject of keeping Lori separated at night with someone to watch over her. The only greater tragedy than the one they faced now was a snowball effect if they did not take proper precautions.

“Your mother’s very fortunate.” Hershel said instead, ignoring all the details inside his head for the ones Carl’s concerned desperation begged for. “I know a thing or two about medicine, and our group is full of people dedicated to helping her through this. If it can be done, we’re going to do it.”

Carl nodded and turned a determined gaze to the windshield. “I think that’s the last one.” 

Hershel started the engine. The last Walker didn’t seem to hear it over the blaring music, so Hershel crept forward and then pulled onto the road that would take them to Big Spot. His first priority was to account for everyone. Michonne and Maggie helped him back the truck bed up into the fenced off area while T-Dog updated their status over the radio. Beth climbed onto the roof of a military truck to keep watch, while Carol stood protectively over Lori. 

The pregnant woman was sitting at a picnic table by the far fences, leaning heavily on her thighs, her head nearly tucked between her knees. He couldn’t tell if she was vomiting, but she looked every bit as ill as she had this morning. He would have preferred to leave her somewhere safe to rest, but she’d insisted on helping. Despite his improvement in leadership, Glenn had relented with surprising ease, but there were, quite frankly, not enough of them to leave anyone behind. 

“We already swept the tents,” Maggie informed him, “so feel free to start there.”

“Is the building cleared?” 

“A couple came to the door to great us, but we took care of them.” T-Dog responded. 

Hershel started with the tent out front with the large red cross symbol on its flap. Inside, there was more than he expected but less than he’d hoped to find. Anesthetic would have been preferable, but seeing mostly full bottles of painkillers and sterile gauze was uplifting. He sifted through several boxes and consolidated the most useful items. Each loaded box he passed off to Carl or Maggie to deliver to the truck. 

Lori almost certainly needed surgery. They’d be heading straight over to their new base after this trip, and while Hershel had yet to see it, he sincerely doubted it would be any more sterile than the old one. Glenn had described it as unused and more secure, but he’d gotten a funny scrunched up look when Hershel mentioned the need to operate. 

“Shouldn’t we try to… I don’t know, clear a hospital for that?” Glenn had asked, pitching his voice low so he wouldn’t alarm any of the others. He still was terrible at keeping secrets or lying, particularly when confronted, but he’d gotten better about planning out how to present new facts or plans. 

“Most of them are likely still bursting to the gills with Walkers. I’m not sure that’s something we could handle, even if we wanted to try it. Besides, they’re a hotbed for disease and infection. I couldn’t think of a less sanitary place to try to do an operation these days.” 

Instead, they’d have to make due with whatever supplies they could find. The store appeared relatively well stocked, so Hershel had some hope that he could find the gear to make it happen. Gloves, masks, antiseptic, scalpels, tarps… he’d compiled a long list in his head of things to keep an eye out for. He just hoped he’d find enough that cutting Lori open was less risky than continuing to hope her body would reject what was making her sick. 

Once the tent was fully emptied of everything of use, Hershel looped a proper stethoscope around his neck, praying that it would prove all this effort unnecessary, and started scanning through the rest of the tents. By the time he finished, the truck bed was completely hidden beneath boxes he’d found and the food and supplies Michonne and T-Dog were hauling from inside the store. 

He made his way over to Lori. “I can check again for that heartbeat now.” He announced carefully. 

“Can we…” Lori looked up with a pained grimace. “Is it alright if we just check it after?”

Hershel wasn’t inclined to do anything about his findings here anyway, so he nodded. “As soon as we get back.” 

“Listen.” Carol said, cocking her head to the side. “The music stopped.”

“Maybe they’re too far away?” Carl suggested.

“I don’t like it.” 

Hershel was in agreement. “Get her into the truck, then head over to the meet-up location. We’ll finish here quickly and follow in the van.”

No one protested the instruction, though Hershel was rarely one to give them these days. If something had gone wrong, they should get what they could and leave without waiting to hear what the bad news was. The truck was mostly full, and it would be better to get out while the going was good. 

Michonne and T-Dog appeared at the entrance again, Michonne talking over the radio. “- and Hershel hasn’t had a chance to do a sweep inside, either. Any way you can buy us some more time?”

“They’ve run into some trouble with their battery, and without the music, the herd’s loose. Seems like the whole lot of them are heading back this way. Just our luck after we find a haul like that. There’s a whole shelf of wine untouched in there.” T-Dog explained as he approached. “Figure that’d be good for all sorts of things.”

“Go ahead and finish.” Andrea’s voice crackled over the device. “Glenn says he has an idea.”

Hershel waved at the truck to hold on and followed Michonne and T-Dog inside. They were right about it being an excellent haul. Walmart had been bigger and had more food available, but this place had the army out front to prevent looting. Most everything was still stocked and in good condition. The most obvious had already been picked clean, but there were numerous other things they could use. 

 They started with loading up the wine and continued down the aisles, Beth and Maggie carrying out their supplies. Hershel prioritized food and medicine, then he looked through practical substitutes and gear, before moving to the farming equipment. They’d need seeds and tools if Glenn was right about the garden beds on the roof of their new home. He’d have to prioritize what he selected. Maybe they could make a second trip, if they found a way to keep the herd from returning. He tried to concentrate. They couldn’t afford to dally. 

In the distance, something burst like a bomb going off, not close enough to rock the ground where they were but loud enough that they all flinched and recoiled, looking around in alarm. 

“Are you guys alright?” T-Dog demanded into his radio. “Come in!”

“So, the good news is that the herd is definitely following us again.” Glenn responded cheerfully, sounding a little out of breath. “The bad news is that I may have set our car on fire and it may have exploded. We’ll probably be a bit late to our rendez-vous.”

“Stay safe.” T-Dog immediately commanded. “And check in, like, every ten minutes.”

“Will do.”

Without the crackling voices over the radio, Hershel noticed a new sound. He wasn’t sure what it was and only belatedly identified it as coming from above him. He looked up just as a few bits of plaster fell on his head. The ceiling seemed to be growling at him. 

“Oh, shit!”

“Let’s get out of here!” 

Hershel still wasn’t sure what he was looking at, but leaving sounded like great advice. He took a few steps backward before turning and stumbling toward the door. 

“Look out!”

Hershel didn’t even know T-Dog was shouting at him until the man barreled into his side, propelling him forward until he fell and slid along the tiles. There were people screaming all around. A metallic screech rent the air, stabbing into his eardrums. With a massive thunk, the floor shuddered beneath him, dust filling the air and his lungs. His eyes watered as he coughed. 

His head hurt something fierce, but he knew he had to get to his feet, had to keep moving. Only, his leg was caught on something. He yanked and yanked, but it wasn’t coming loose. And then he felt the piercing of his own flesh and knew that he’d been bit. He yowled in pain, completely unable to quell the cry that burst out of him. A part of him wanted to give up, knowing that one bite was lethal, but he would rather make it out to swallow a bullet than be torn apart. He kicked the beast in the head and dragged himself a few paces further. 

It was only then that he recognized that among all the noise was gunfire, his family taking action to protect him. Something grabbed hold of his arm, and he instinctively fought it, yanking back before he could get bit a second time. 

“Daddy! It’s me!”

Hershel looked up at Beth who was trying her hardest to get him up. He couldn’t disappoint her, not when she had risked her life to come for him. He wanted to tell her to go, get to safety, but he knew she’d refuse, and he knew there was no safety in this world. So, he did the only thing he could, he dragged himself up with her help and hobbled away. 

He reached the door without one extra ounce of strength and collapsed against it. The fighting was all but finished now, and he could see from his new vantage point what had happened. The ceiling had caved under the weight of a helicopter and all the remaining Walkers on the roof fell through as well. Everyone had joined in the fight, even Lori, guns steadily taking down the last few Walkers that managed to move forward. 

Everyone except T-Dog. Hershel couldn’t see him anywhere. He hadn’t seen him since he’d shoved him out of the way as the helicopter came crashing down. He… couldn’t be under all that, could he? 

The gunfire stopped, and Carol cautiously approached the wreckage, Carl watching her back. Hershel wished he were already dead so he wouldn’t have to know that he cost T-Dog his life and couldn’t even save his own. Maggie and Beth were both beside him crying. He needed to say something meaningful. He needed to say goodbye, but he didn’t want to. He didn’t ever want to say goodbye to his two angels. 

Hershel wrapped a hand around each of them and gave a brief squeeze. “I love you.”

Michonne approached, her eyes hard and footsteps purposeful. She held his gaze before thoroughly cleaning off her blade. Hershel was never more thankful for her presence. He wasn’t sure anyone else would be able to do this. 

“No!” Beth shouted, getting between them. 

“It’s the only way.” 

Maggie grabbed hold of her sister and tugged her away, despite the way Beth protested and struggled in her grip. Hershel nodded and Michonne swung her blade. 

 

============

 

“Huh.” Daryl responded after Rick finished outlining what he knew about the hospital’s layout and state of disrepair. He’d woken up in the South Wing Recovery Ward and left using the first stairwell he came across. The Walkers had all been trapped in the cafeteria which seemed pretty secure, so they might have some luck if they were quiet and stayed on that floor. 

“What?” Rick asked, gratefully accepting the cough drops Daryl found in the dashboard of their latest vehicle. This mission was going to be hard enough without attracting attention from the sort of coughing fits he’d been having the last couple days. 

Daryl popped one into his own mouth. He wasn’t coughing as much as Rick had during that first day, but he wasn’t looking any better. The truth was that neither of them were fit to be going on a run, but they had no better options. Rick was recovering but primed for a relapse and Daryl was getting worse as the day wore on. “Nothin’.” 

“It’s not nothing.”

Daryl shrugged, scoping out the courtyard as they approached and not looking at his companion. Rick kept his gaze on the ground and the bodies they were creeping around. It was damn unlikely that any of those laying out here in rows for months would spontaneously turn, but there was no way to leave your ankles exposed these days without feeling uneasy. “Jus’ figured your coma story was talk, is all.”

“Why’s that?” Rick was barely paying attention to the conversation. Half under a body but clearly visible, was a fire axe. He picked it up, feeling the heft of it and sliding his machete back into its holster. It looked clean, sturdy, and had a long handle.

“Ya got three days tops in Georgia heat without water. Even if ya ain’t movin’, can’t see anyone livin’ a couple weeks without it, but ya got to the quarry more than a month after Lori an’ Carl.”

That gave Rick pause. Daryl had better observational skills than most. He’d have made an incredible detective if he and the police didn’t have a mutual loathing. But if Shane had left him for dead more than a month before he regained consciousness, he wasn’t at all sure how he’d managed to get up and walk out of the hospital on his own. “Must have to do with the coma.” Rick surmised. “Maybe your body uses water differently.”

Daryl shrugged. “Beats me.”

As they reached the door, Daryl passed him a look that asked if he was ready. Rick nodded, prepping the axe and his flashlight. The stairwell was dark, even with sunlight streaming in behind, and it threw them into complete blackness when the door swung shut. Rick flicked on his flashlight and ran the beam up and down the stairs. It was quiet and looked clear, but he’d learned a lot since the last time he traveled these steps. He got lucky that there wasn’t a Walker waiting in the stairwell when he stumbled down these steps half-starved, unarmed and with only a match to guide his way. He’d been so damn lucky.

The second floor was blissfully empty and in largely the same condition Rick remembered it. Some of the lights were flickering, but there was no sign of any Walkers. Rick let his breath out slowly. He’d been half afraid that the cafeteria lock would have busted open and the hallway would be flooded with undead. “Come on.” Rick whispered, already eyeing a few doors that looked promising. 

Daryl was staring at the ceiling and didn’t immediately follow his lead. Rick looked up as well, but didn’t see what had garnered that look of concentration. Sure, there were tiles dislodged and wires draping down, stray bullet holes and streaks of old blood, but that was commonplace these days. And then it clicked right as Daryl said, “Lights shouldn’t be on.”

The power grid had gone down within the first few weeks. “Must be a back-up generator.” Daryl gave him a skeptical look. A back-up generator would have run out of juice months ago. Rick’s instincts were screaming at him that they should leave, but that wasn’t an option. They had a baby to look after and their clock was running down. “Let’s be quick.” 

Rick led them away from the cafeteria. Hopefully the chains were still keeping the dead sealed away, but there was no need to risk riling them up. They worked their way down the hallway, sweeping each room swiftly, avoiding debris on the ground and trying to keep their footsteps silent. Most of the rooms were small, windowless recovery areas with plain wooden doors and numbers tacked on the wall beside them. Perhaps a third of them stood open, which they swept but left alone in case they needed to quickly get out of the hall. The others were mostly unlocked and unoccupied, but they checked them anyway, hoping to stumble on a room with supplies. 

There were a few locked windowless rooms that looked promising, but it was hard to tell what might be inside. It could be a janitor's closet as easily as medical storage, so they marked them with a star drawn in blue ink above the number plate. If they couldn’t find what they were searching for, they’d loop around and try to pry these doors open. Rick wasn’t even sure what exactly they were looking for. The medication Daryl had given him seemed to be doing something, but there was no proof that it could clear his infection. Even assuming it did, he wouldn’t have the first clue what dosage they should use for themselves or the baby. He needed to get lucky one more time and find a guide or textbook that could tell them what to do. Glancing at Daryl, he wondered if it was obvious how out of his depth he felt. The archer was stoic, as always, and Rick tried to emulate his confidence and concentration. They’d find what they were looking for because they had to. There was no other option.

After trying a few more doors, they stumbled upon a room with the sign ‘Hospital Personnel Only.’ It was entirely possible that they were looking at a staff lounge and not the treasure trove they desperately needed, but it was situated directly beside an open counter with empty shelving units lining the back wall. Rick hadn’t spent much time in hospitals, at least not conscious, but if television was anything to go by, this looked like the sort of hospital pharmacy where doctors could pick up their prescriptions in house. 

The bottles and bags of prepared medications had all been ransacked, probably before the hospital was even abandoned, but there was a possibility that the locked room beside it, with its proximity and intact door, still housed the medication they needed to survive. Neither he nor Daryl could bust open the thick wooden door with their shoulders and trying just gave him an even worse headache than before. He gave up on the idea almost immediately and instead tried to wedge his axe into the crack of the door and work it open. Using the axe for its intended purpose and chopping the door down would certainly be faster, but he was afraid of the amount of noise it would make. They had yet to confirm that the hospital was actually empty.

“Why do people even lock things anymore?” Daryl asked, leaning against the wall tiredly as he kept watch. He looked like he should be making use of one of the many recovery beds they’d passed.

“If there’s anything left inside, we’ll have that lock to thank.” Rick pointed out, nearly cutting himself as the blade slid.

“Chop it down. Rather be quick than quiet.”

“I’d rather be both.” Rick replied, frowning at the door and looking around. “Maybe we can go through the window or something.” They were on the second floor, but there might be enough of a ledge to make the few feet from one window to the next. 

Daryl didn’t put up any fuss at the change of plans, either because he thought it was an acceptable compromise or because he was too exhausted to care. He just readied himself and flung open the nearest hospital room door. Rick had his gun at his hip, but it was only as a last resort. Instead, he kept the axe poised as he glanced around and headed for the window. The glass was locked and sealed shut. He wasn’t sure if this was a protective measure for the hospital or if it had been done later, but the end result was the same. He wouldn’t be going through that window without making a whole lot of noise. 

Rick turned at the twang of Daryl’s crossbow accompanied by the now common thud of a body dropping to the floor. The corpse of a child long since dead and rotted lay at his feet just inside the doorway. He pulled the bolt from the dead Walker’s head and wiped it carelessly off on his pants. It had to have come from the bathroom as there was no other place to hide. Rick nodded his thanks. 

“Back to Plan A, I guess.” 

Just as Rick was about to bring the axe down and splinter the wood that separated them from their prize, he considered that the keys might not be far off. After all, people weren’t exactly interested in locking up in the final days as they ran for their lives. It was certainly worth the small detour to check if they could accomplish their task without announcing their presence to the entire hospital. 

“There was a nurse’s desk near my room. It can’t be far,” Rick said. “We could check there for keys.”  

They crossed a few halls before reaching one Rick thought looked vaguely familiar. He wasn’t sure that it was the one he’d woken up in a few months ago, couldn’t recall the number on his door or any of the signs, but it felt right. 

About halfway down, he could see the outline of a desk coming into view and slowed his steps. Approaching the desk, Rick saw one of the oddest sights he’d been exposed to since waking up in this very hospital. There was a sense of déjà vu when he spotted a middle-aged woman in scrubs sitting in the rolling chair with a lamp flicked on and illuminating the work space as she scribbled in a notepad. Wavy, strawberry blond hair was pulled back into a messy bun. She had no gun, at least none that he saw, but she stood and clutched a metal pipe in her hand when she saw them moving toward her. 

Daryl raised his crossbow in preparation, and the woman took a few shakey steps back, eyes wide. Rick played the diplomacy card, keeping his axe pointed at the ground and his other hand out in a gesture of peace. “Easy now. No one wants to hurt you.”

“Grimes?” The woman asked hesitantly, stepping cautiously forward to get a closer look at him. “Officer Rick Grimes?” 

Rick cocked his head. He couldn't recall seeing this woman before, but she clearly knew him. “Do I know you?”

“Uh, no. No, you wouldn’t.” The woman chuckled, rubbing the back of her head and biting her lip awkwardly. “I’m Ashley. I was your nurse.”

“It looks like I’m in your debt, then.” Rick gave a look to Daryl which he correctly interpreted and lowered his weapon. “Is it just you here?”

“I’m the only staff left.” Ashley replied, relaxing in their presence. Rick suspected it had something to do with the way she’d referred to him as an officer, like the police were still a thing. It made sense coming from a woman who apparently still believed that nurses were a thing. “There’s two other patients. They were in a coma, like you. My sister was here, too. We hid so we could take care of the coma patients.”
“Your sister still here?” Daryl interrupted, checking over his shoulder like she might be sneaking up behind them. 

“She didn’t make it.” The nurse’s voice wavered and she closed her eyes for a moment. Rick wondered if she was seeing the same body he was, gnawed up in a nearby hallway. They’d had the same hair, similar facial features. He wouldn't have been surprised at all to find that the half-mangled female corpse he’d seen on the ground that first day had been her sister’s body. The corpse had looked fresh in a way he couldn’t have known to find odd at the time. 

Rick quickly stepped in to divert her attention away from the loss. “It sounds like I have a great deal to thank you for.”

“It was no trouble.” Ashley blushed, looking down shyly under the praise. “I was already here for my niece. I only did the basic care I’d do for any of my patients.” He wasn’t sure what basic care entailed, but he’d been mobile since day one and it’d only just occurred to him how remarkable that was. She’d kept him hydrated and free of bed sores. She’d kept him from developing an infection and prevented him from stewing in his own waste. How he’d ever considered that possible without aid when it was now glaringly obvious was beyond him. Daryl had picked up on it just as soon as he’d heard the coma story.

“Still,” Rick continued, “I’m not sure I’d be alive without your help.”

Daryl snorted behind him. “Medicine first. Ya can propose later.”

“You’re sick?” Ashley asked, gaze switching between them. Rick felt the sudden urge to cough as if to prove his point, but held it back. She nodded. “You don’t look well.” 

“Best keep your distance,” warned Daryl. “It’s contagious.”

“We’re looking for antibiotics.” Rick informed her. 

“Broad-spectrum.” Daryl tagged on. “Ampicillin if you’ve got it.”

The nurse nodded slowly. “I can do that.” She went behind her desk and fished out a set of keys. 

Rick wasn’t sure where Daryl got the specifics, but there was a lot about Daryl that he didn’t know. He didn’t need specifics to trust him. The nurse, on the other hand, he wished he had a whole lot more specifics about. He supposed he’d have to take her at face value because he didn’t have any other source of information. “You should come with us. It’s safer in a group.”

“Leave the hospital? I couldn’t possibly. My niece isn’t well enough to travel. And I’ve grown fond of Mr. Richards as well, as odd as that is to say about a coma patient.” Ashley turned them down quickly, and although Rick suspected it was coming, he was still disappointed. These days anyone with medical knowledge was worth whatever baggage they came with. “But you’re welcome to stay here with us.”

“I’m afraid we’ve got people we’re looking for. We’ll be leaving as soon as we’re well enough to travel.” Rick sighed. Sooner if Morgan dropped in for a third visit. “But if we could ask you for one more favor…”

“Name it.”

“We’ve got an infant in our group. She’s about a month old. She’s sick, too.”

“Most antibiotics are approved for children, you just have to watch the dosage.” Ashley replied, sitting back down in her chair and angling the lamp over her desk better. She slid out a book and started thumbing through the pages. “I’m not a doctor, so I have to look it up.” She mumbled self-consciously. 

“It’s alright. We understand.” Rick reassured her as she wrote down the instructions and handed them over in an act so incredibly mundane it was foreign all over again. “We can’t thank you enough for your help.”

Ashley turned off the light, picked the keys back up and started down the hallway. Rick’s mind buzzed with a thousand different questions as he kept pace with her, Daryl lagging behind to cover their backs. How had she survived here? Were all the Walkers in the cafeteria or were there others? How had she kept him alive? As if reading his mind, Ashley offered him a tight smile. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Go ahead.”

“Where were you the day I woke up?”

“Bad timing, I suppose.” The nurse replied, keeping her voice low enough that it barely carried and Rick found himself leaning in to hear. “I went to collect fuel to keep the back-up generators going. I have to do that every few weeks, even though we consolidated everything into a couple storage areas, and I keep the power off in most of the building. Some of the food and medication has to be kept cold or it won’t be good anymore I’d have probably run out of food long before now if not for the generators.” Ashley stepped over a pile of debris like she barely noticed its existence anymore. “When I got back, you’d disappeared. I feared the worst, like the day one of them got my sister, but I prayed you’d somehow managed to survive.” 

“Luckiest sumbitch I ever met.” Daryl grumbled behind them. He sounded a bit out of breath from even their slow pace, and Rick passed him a concerned look.

Ashley smiled over her shoulder at the hunter before turning her eyes back to Rick. “He’s right. You being alive right now, it’s a miracle. It just proves that all my work was worth it. Some day, my niece will be okay, too.”

Rick’s instinct was to protest their presumption that he was lucky. He’d been shot, separated from his family twice, almost murdered by two of his friends, and there was no end in sight. But he’d also lived through all of that. He’d been abandoned in the hospital and left for dead, but taken care of by this nurse who kept him in good enough health that he was able to run for his life the very next day. He’d almost died in Atlanta, but been saved by a complete stranger who led him back to his family. He should have died when the farm fell, but Daryl had rescued him and had kept him alive ever since. Maybe he’d be lucky enough to find his wife and kid, too.

Ashley rounded the corner with them and halted abruptly. She stared in frozen horror before diving towards the open door of the room with the frustratingly sealed window. “Nicky!” She dropped to her knees beside the small body on the floor, shaking it a couple times. “Nicky, wake up!”

Rick exchanged a shocked glance with Daryl, both stunned by the sudden change in demeanor. For half a second, Rick wondered if Daryl might have accidentally killed a living kid, but then he remembered the look of the body, too decayed to be anything but long dead. The child had to have died at least a month prior. Ashley must have been caring for the rotting corpse as a result of some kind of mental breakdown. It wasn’t all that surprising. Loss and grief could make people act in all kinds of outrageous ways. The only question that remained was how Ashley would react and if there was anything they could do for her. 

“You’ve killed my baby!” Ashley growled, turning toward them and regaining her feet. Her eyes swam with tears but she looked to be working herself into a rage. Rick wasn’t sure which would win out. 

“Listen, Ashley, you have to know what really happened here.” Rick started, lowering and finally releasing his axe as she just stood there with wide eyes. If he could pull her back from this, she’d be useful. She could help them, and she didn’t actually have anything tying her to the hospital itself. They just needed to get through to her. “Deep down, you know the truth.”

“You killed my baby!” Ashley wailed, taking a few steps forward before leaping into action with surprising speed and agility. She shoved her shoulder into Rick’s chest, knocking him off balance and he stumbled back before tripping unceremoniously over some hunks of ceiling tile. He landed heavily on his ass. Ashley pivoted and tackled Daryl who toppled from the unexpected weight, his crossbow skittering away. 

Seemingly in an instant Daryl’s knife made it into her hand. Ashley pushed it down toward his heart while Daryl struggled to hold her arms away. Rick pulled himself up and grabbed his gun. “Let him go!” He ordered, but the nurse ignored him. He didn’t dare hesitate any longer. Ashley’s whole body jerked from the force of the bullet which tore cleanly through her head, and she crumpled to the side. 

Panting, Rick pulled himself to his feet and pushed the body off of Daryl with his foot before offering him a hand up. Daryl accepted, and Rick found himself doing most of the work as he helped to heave his friend off the floor. “Let’s keep this one to ourselves, yeah?”

“What? That we both got our asses handed to us by a girl?” Rick leaned over and picked up Daryl’s crossbow. As much as his head was pounding, he wasn’t sure Daryl would be able to manage it at all. His sweaty, pale face was all pinched up and he was panting and shaking. “I think being deathly ill exempts us from judgement.”

“Ah, shit.” Rick didn’t have to ask what caught Daryl’s attention. A great pounding was picking up down the hallway, echoing throughout the whole building. The banging was fierce, the dead riled up from the sound of a gunshot. Rick shuffled around the floor for a moment, hunting the keys down before finally finding them much farther from his search radius than he expected. Crazy nurse must have thrown them or something. 

He stuffed one key in the lock just as he heard a very loud commotion down the hall and then the sounds of dozens of pounding feet. He had no idea how many were coming for them, but he was certain that they were in no condition to fight them off. The key didn’t turn. Rick tried the next as Daryl reloaded his crossbow with some difficulty. The third key was also wrong, and Rick started to worry that he’d maybe missed the right one and would have to try them all over again or come up with another plan. 

The fourth and final key was successful and the door swung open just as the fastest Walker rounded the corner. Rick grabbed Daryl’s shirt and dove inside, dragging him along behind him and slamming the door shut just before a body thudded hard against it. 

 There hadn’t been time to see if they’d dived into a safe location. There was no window, so his earlier plot to get in that way would have been fruitless. Instead, they stood, backs against the door in complete darkness listening to the sounds of dozens of growling Walkers. Rick fumbled around in the dark for his flashlight and turned it on. In some manner of mercy, they were alone and the space looked secure. 

They worked together to wedge one of the shelves at an angle and braced between two walls so that the door wouldn’t be able to open without some serious force behind it. They’d blocked the only entrance so they wouldn’t be eaten, but they’d also blocked the only exit so they wouldn’t be able to get out. 

Daryl didn’t seem concerned. Instead, he shoved bottles by the armload into his oversized backpack. Rick had no idea if he was even reading any of their labels, but it didn’t look like it. There weren’t many left, so he supposed it made the most sense to take everything and sort it later. Rick followed his lead and cleared off the opposing shelf. 

The room seemed secure enough, even with all the Walkers pounding on the door. They wouldn’t be able to open it without a tremendous amount of force, and the thick wood would be hard to penetrate without an axe… Rick cursed. He’d dropped his axe out there. The long handle, sharp blade and wedge shape had really started growing on him. At least he still had his machete. 

They could sort through the medication and take what they needed, wait to feel a bit better and then take on the Walkers outside after some wandered off. Except, the baby was sick, too, certainly scared and possibly surrounded by Walkers out there in her tank. She needed medicine as much as they did. More, really, because her immune system wasn’t as developed as their own. 

Rick banged his head against the shelf and leaned back. His eyes landed on the ceiling and that was when it hit him. He started climbing the shelves, kneeling on the top and adjusting the drop-down tile out of his way. He poked his head up and shined the flashlight around the crawl space. Many of the tiles were missing, but as he suspected the support frame was still intact. 

“Rick?” Daryl asked, frowning up at him. “Those tiles ain’t gonna support our weight.”

“No, but the frame will. Just be sure to keep to the support beams, and we’ll be able to sneak right past them. We can get down on the opposite side of the hospital.” Rick tried to sound as confident as he could. Daryl nodded and followed him up, climbing the metal shelf beside him and crawling into the space Rick had just vacated. He moved slowly, but he was still moving. It was a tight fit to get through, and the approach might not have worked at all, had large sections of pipes, wires, and fixtures not already fallen down all over the hallways and cleared enough space for them to crawl past on hands and knees. 

It was slow going, but neither of them were up for much exertion. Rick was just thankful for the steady progress as they crept along above the herd. Just as Rick was starting to think that they might make it out of there alive, the metal, weakened by stray bullet holes, gave way beneath him, and he went tumbling to the ground. The wind was knocked right out of him, and he struggled to stay conscious. Ears ringing, everything floated in and out of focus for what felt like hours before his brain caught up and he forced himself back to his feet. 

It was then that he heard Daryl yelling. “Run!” He kept repeating. “Run! Run!” He was still above Rick, and the ringing he’d been hearing was Daryl firing shots into the crowd of undead quickly closing the distance toward him. He was still struggling to get his breath back, but he turned and pushed himself to run anyway. His legs felt like jello, and everything ached in a distant fashion that told him he wasn’t even processing half of the pain, and he’d be feeling it twice as bad the following day.

“Look out!” Daryl’s voice was further away now, but Rick twisted at the warning as if he was breathing in his ear, spinning, drawing his gun, and taking down the Walker that had nearly grabbed him. It stumbled from the shot and tripped the Walker behind it. Rick raced the last few meters and slammed the door to the stairwell shut. It was pitch dark again, and he prayed it was as empty as it’d been on the way up. Was this even the same staircase? He was so disoriented. 

He held out his machete as he hunted for his flashlight. He couldn’t find it. He must have lost it in the fall. He could hear growling all around him, echoing in the stairwell, but it was impossible to say if it was from the herd pressing against the door behind him, or some other Walkers on the stairs. 

It would only get worse the longer he waited, so Rick took off his backpack, used it to create a buffer and charged as quickly down the steps as he could in the dark with his weapon at the ready. The lower door flew open, and Rick was immediately glad to have armed himself. Two Walkers were shambling toward him, obviously drawn by the noise, and were uncomfortably close to the doorway. Taking them down, Rick whirled in time to stab a third one emerging from the darkness of the stairs he’d just been on. Daryl was right. He was possibly the luckiest man alive. 

There was no way Daryl was going to be heading down that particular staircase, so Rick made his way around the building towards the front. There were a few other exits he might choose, and Rick had no way of knowing how he was doing up there. Had he also fallen through the tiles? Had he gotten stuck somewhere? Had he jumped down and gotten overwhelmed in an effort to help Rick? Had he passed out from the sickness? Worse, since he had no idea where Daryl might be or what he might need help with inside, going back in wasn’t an option. The best he could do was try to divert the Walkers’ attention somewhere else, but even that might end up leading them closer to Daryl. 

There were several other Walkers approaching, drawn to the gunshots inside, and Rick took down another before moving towards the tank. He couldn’t help Daryl right then, but there was a baby that he could. He had the medicine in his bag and the instructions in his pocket. He was going to give the baby her medicine, get Daryl to take his, and then they were all going to take a good, long nap inside that tank. 

Rick eyed the tank as he approached. There were no Walkers nearby, so he crawled up onto the wheel and opened up the hatch, leaving it open since it was his primary source of light. The baby was quiet, and he hoped she’d fallen asleep in the duration. Rick climbed down the ladder and sat beside the car seat.

She was still, so very still she didn’t even seem to be breathing. Rick’s heart thudded hard in his chest. No. Was he too late? 

 

============

Chapter Text

=====.o0o.=====

 

Daryl awoke in a fit of coughing. His throat and eyes burned, and he had no idea how long he’d been asleep. The swell of hungry groans filtered into his consciousness, and he jerked his arm back from where it dangled through an opening in the ceiling, hovering over the grasping hands of the Walkers below like a baited fishing line. 

He must have passed out after Rick escaped down the stairwell. The cubby was sweltering, even with the airflow from missing tiles, but he couldn’t be sure how much of that was the illness talking. He wiped sweat away with the back of his hand as his coughing eased, but his head continued to pound. Fishing around for the flashlight, he flicked it on and scoped out the area. 

Going forward was not an option. He’d fall through where Rick had or on one of the other bullet-weakened supports. Besides, he wasn’t sure he had the strength left to keep crawling the rest of the way. His arms felt more wobbly than his legs had, and he knew he had to turn around and try for the opposing stairwell at the far end of the hospital or contend with the lingering Walkers crowded around the door Rick used. Sleep called to him, demanding he close his eyes for just a few minutes, but Daryl had the presence of mind to know that time was his enemy. If he was following the same timeline as Rick, he’d be delusional with fever soon. 

Instead of continuing above the hallway, Daryl shuffled sideways, working toward the outer edge of the building. It was an even tighter fit, but more secure. Most of the Walkers had stumbled toward where he lay while he was unconscious, drawn by the crowd already reaching for the live human just out of reach, but there were still a few prowling the facility and a handful pounding on the exit. He hoped if he stayed quiet enough, they wouldn’t track him along the new route. 

Tottering forward and panting heavily, Daryl eyed the distance in front of him with trepidation. The only other option he could see was to break a window in one of the rooms below. It’d make a hell of a noise, but no worse than the gun he’d been firing earlier. 

It felt like he was moving glacially slow as he plodded along trying to suppress the coughs tickling his throat. Levering up one of the tiles, Daryl realized that he’d lost the daylight sometime when he was out of it, but the flashlight illuminated enough to confirm that it was an empty recovery room. Perfect. There were blankets and sheets on the bed he could use to lower himself out the window. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than the task began to sound insurmountable. There was no way he was going to be able scale down the side of a building in his current condition. Hell, he wasn’t even sure how he’d get into the room without falling. He needed a ladder. 

‘Fuck you gonna do with a ladder, boy? Drag it through the ceiling? Shit plan if I ever heard one.’ 

“Ain’t hearin’ it now,” Daryl grumbled at the voice of his brother. Maybe he was further along towards hallucinating than he thought.

He kept going, wishing Rick was there to come up with the next best step but glad that he wasn’t stuck with him. The cop had made it out, Daryl told himself. He could tend to the baby while Daryl slept. Except that Daryl couldn’t sleep. It might kill him. And Rick might not even have the medicine the baby needed. 

As soon as he reached a room that looked like a small storage area and spotted a large metal shelf close to the ceiling, he slid down. It was less of a slide and more of a fall, if he was being honest, but he was just glad that he hadn’t knocked everything over and drawn the crowd of Walkers to his new location. 

Not bothering to get all the way down to the ground when he had so little energy left, Daryl pulled out some of the bottles from his bag and started searching for the right one. Several rows later, he came to the conclusion that either his illness was affecting his ability to read or he didn’t have any of the correct antibiotic. 

Resting his head against the wall, Daryl dragged in a deep breath. What he really wanted to do was scream and curse, but he couldn’t afford to draw attention to himself. Was the medicine in Rick’s bag or had it never been there at all? He sucked in a breath and searched the bottles again. There were a few that ended in -illin, and he supposed those were probably antibiotics as well. Morgan said several kinds worked for a bit before the people had crashed hard. It wouldn’t save him, but it might keep him on his feet for a while longer. Choosing a bottle at random, he knocked three into his hand and dry-swallowed them, struggling to get them down but lacking a better option. 

Daryl packed up his bag and shifted to his knees to crawl back into the ceiling but couldn’t pull himself inside. He didn’t have any energy left. Even if he did manage to force himself forward and somehow made it out of the building, he didn’t have the right medicine. He couldn’t do anything at all for Rick and the baby. 

Laying down on his side at the top of the long metal shelf, too tired to crawl up or down, Daryl closed his eyes.

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Merle knelt in the truck bed, gun at the ready. Martinez crouched beside him, keeping low so that they could provide back-up while the Governor and Shumpert pretended to be unarmed and nonthreatening. There were only two of them, fully alive and booking it down the road, but that didn’t mean there weren’t others nearby waiting to ambush.

They’d been following the billowing smoke to the source of a loud explosion. It had been faint enough that had they not already been out on a run, they might have missed the smoke entirely, and dismissed the noise for gunfire. An explosion, on the other hand, was bound to be something interesting. It also meant they’d have to keep a close eye out for Biters drawn in by the previous ruckus just as they were.

Merle couldn’t see the strangers well from his angle, but he was confident that he could adjust in time if things went south. 

“You armed?” 

“We’re alive, aren’t we?” The voice belonged to a woman, and something tickled in the back of Merle’s mind, and not just because of the snarky attitude.

The lady was probably good-looking. Merle could practically hear the smile in the Governor’s voice as he rolled out a welcome mat with his tongue. It wasn’t surprising. If these two were on their own, they’d fall in line, possibly even fall at their feet in gratitude. “Awfully brave to hitchhike these days.”

“It’s an emergency,” a man responded, his tone pathetic and honest. “We’ve got some people in need of medical-”

“Fuck! I know that voice!” Merle declared, bracing his stub on the side of the truck and leaping from the bed, gun in hand. Sure enough, it was that damn Chinese kid and Blondie, Glenn and Andrea if he remembered right. 

“Friends of yours?”

“Fuck, no!” Merle immediately contradicted. There was no way he’d let the Governor keep these two for anything but interrogating when he had a good thing going for him at Woodbury. He’d use them to find his brother, and that was it. Maybe he’d go kill that stupid cop, too. “These are two of the assholes who left me handcuffed to that roof to die. What y’all did? People wouldn’t do that to an animal.”

“We went back!” Glenn insisted, eyes wide but hard. He’d grown a hell of a lot since they’d last met. “Me, Rick, and T-Dog, we went back with Daryl, but you were already gone.” 

“Rick?” Merle sneered. “The same prick who handcuffed me in the first place? Whatever happened to Officer Friendly?” 

“He’s dead,” Andrea stepped in, trying to divert some of Merle’s wrath, but her voice was a bit unsteady. “T-Dog, too.” Merle shifted to look at the blonde. That wound was fresh. They must have lost him recently. 

“Better world without ‘em,” he scoffed. They’d deserved what they got. “An’ how ‘bout my baby brother? He still alive?”

“We got separated. Months ago.”

“Yeah? An’ did his hands stay with him or y’all?”

“Enough.” The Governor interrupted, tone sharp. Merle passed him a look, but the man with a politician’s smile was facing the other way, signally Shumpert and Martinez to take out the Biters trickling in from the treeline. “You said you had a medical emergency?” 

Andrea nodded. “One of our people, she’s pregnant. There’s been some complications. Another’s been bit.”

“Not a lot to do for a bite.”

“We need to get there quickly,” Andrea continued urgently. “And, as you can see, our car’s on fire.”

“We’ll give you a lift and take your people back to our place. We have doctors and medical supplies. We’ll patch you up and then decide what to do from there.” 

“What?” Merle couldn’t keep the words from spilling out of his mouth. “These people took my hand! They leave people behind!”

“You’re still alive, and that’s more than most can say these days,” the leader responded calmly, ushering them towards the truck and giving Merle a look that said he was on thin ice. “We’ll handle the details later.” 

Merle knew it was a lost cause to try and change his mind. He didn’t have that kind of pull. The Governor already had these people pinned for the desperate, sad fuckers they were. Their group was probably down to a handful with no leaders to speak of and were sure to fit right in with the meek puppets at Woodbury. If they weren’t, the Governor wouldn’t hesitate to gun them down, pregnant and injured or not. 

Andrea was thanking the Governor profusely as he helped her into the truck, already going doe-eyed in the face of his hero act. Merle almost felt sorry for them.

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Daryl woke to the sound of an explosion. It was near enough that he could feel the faint trembling of the building. Sitting up, Daryl took stock of his situation. It was the second time he’d woken up in this room. The first time, he hadn’t been able to muster more energy than it took to swallow down another couple of pills and go back to sleep. This time, he felt like he might be able to get up and move again, provided he wasn’t asked to do anything strenuous, like jog. 

It was dim in the room, light filtering in from the half-blocked window bright enough to signal that it was day, but there was no telling how long he’d been asleep. His eyes landed on the shelf parked in front of the window and noticed that there was a box of Pop Tarts on top of it. His stomach rumbled. Stuffing the medicine back into his bag, Daryl made his way carefully down the shelf to the floor instead of back into the ceiling. 

The box was not a mirage and still had two unopened packages, which he ripped open and ate quickly as he looked around the room. He must have found where Ashley had stored her food. There wasn’t a lot left, but it was a decent find. There were even a few packaged foods left in the fridge and freezer in addition to a couple boxes of medication. 

Cramming his bag full of the goods that would last the longest, Daryl hefted the pack over his shoulder, stumbling from the additional weight on his ill body. He needed to get moving, even if he was leaving behind another valuable load of food. He readied his bow with difficulty and got his knife out. 

The explosion had been at the far side of the hospital and should have attracted the Walkers that way, which would give him an opportunity. He listened at the door, unable to tell if the hallway was silent or if the door was too thick, before cracking it open and scanning the area. The coast was clear, not a single Walker was in the hall as he headed down the last leg. Crossbow at the ready, Daryl rounded a corner and nearly smacked into Rick. He jerked back on instinct before registering that the body moving toward him was, in fact, alive. 

“Thank god,” Rick breathed. He still looked sick, but Daryl suspected that it would be at least a week before either of them would shake the deathly pallor.

“Come on.” Daryl jerked his head backward. If they went quickly, they could still grab the rest of the food and load Rick’s pack. Rick followed him unquestioning into the storage room. Turning, Daryl gestured to the remaining packages and cans, but before he could get anything out, Rick was pressed against him, mouth swallowing his words.

Rick’s hands were holding his head in place, weight pressing Daryl into the shelves and knocking several boxes over, and the hunter brought his hands up to grip around Rick’s shoulders. He should be pushing the other man away, but instead, he just held on and met his kiss with enthusiasm. 

“Sorry,” apologized Rick as he finally pulled away a minute later. “I know - You were gone so long. I thought you might not have made it.”

Daryl cleared his throat, unsure of what to say in response to a greeting like that. “Let’s get the food an’ get outta here ‘fore the Walkers get wise.”

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Woodbury had two doctors, Dr. Caleb Subramanian, more commonly known as Dr. S, and Dr. Stevens, not to be confused with Dr. S. Although they’d never met before the outbreak, they got along well with a mutual understanding of the difficult situation they were faced with. Dr. Stevens had a particular order she liked to keep, and Dr. S was content to let her rule the roost so long as those rules were reasonable and they took turns on the more dangerous tasks, like leaving town when necessary, and on the more distasteful tasks, like ensuring a dead patient did not return. 

Woodbury had two doctors, but only one Milton. It was about as close to a job title as it was a name in town, and particularly the way that the Governor used it. He considered himself something of a scientist, and although his qualifications hardly extended beyond book-worm, no one ever called him on it. He’d made himself invaluable with one little phrase, ‘she might still be in there somewhere,’ and he’d been thriving under the Governor’s protection ever since. 

Both doctors and one Milton were present in the medical building when the newest group arrived, having received a radio warning of incoming wounded. Milton wasn’t surprised that the Governor had chosen to let this group in, despite being a little larger than those he normally accepted. There were five women, two children, one old man, and a physically unimposing young man. 

Milton kept out of the doctors’ way as they worked, concentrating on interviewing the rest of the group. Carol, an older woman, appeared to be the most clear-headed of them all, as she gave out pertinent information. Her hands and shirt were covered in blood. “He was bit. Michonne cut off his leg to keep him from turning. We’d mostly stopped the bleeding by the time your people arrived.”

“Fascinating,” Milton replied, jotting down notes to himself in absence of a tape recorder. “We’ve never successfully completed an amputation in order to avert the disease progression. Where was he bit and how long before the leg was removed?”

There was a squeak from the blonde girl seated nearby, and several nasty looks were directed at him. Carol grabbed his arm, unconcerned that she was getting blood over his white button-down and dragged him away from the rest of the group. “That’s their father you’re talking about. Watch it.”

“My apologies,” Milton replied, regretfully. “I’m not very good with… people.”

“I can see that.” 

“I do think it’s necessary to get all the details. They may be important for him, or for others.”

Carol accepted the apology and continued answering his questions. She was surprisingly assertive for all that she was informative, redirecting any time Milton wavered away from medically relevant data, and he could respect her for that. When he finished asking about both Hershel and Lori’s cases, he scrubbed himself thoroughly and joined the doctors in the back rooms where Dr. S was already conducting Lori’s operation.

“The fetus was no longer viable,” Caleb informed Milton when he entered without looking up. 

Milton nodded. It had been everyone’s suspicion, but what interested him more was that the patient, Lori, had managed to survive while carrying it around. “Do we know how long?”

“Impossible to tell for certain,” Dr. Stevens replied. 

Milton wondered if that assessment was simply due to the unprecedented nature of their situation, or if Dr. Stevens was already taking that into account and unable to factor in the unknowns. They couldn’t even be certain the approximate rate of decay for a Biter under controlled circumstances. Milton made a note to review the entire process at length with both doctors. 

“Well,” Caleb said stiffly, “It was a girl.”

Milton shifted to get a better look at the bundle in Caleb’s open palms. It barely looked human at all, with the overly developed head and twig-like appendages. Its limbs moved erratically and with no coordination, lacking proper muscle tissue and muscle control. Milton stepped closer still, leaning in to examine the miniscule Biter as it chomped its toothless jaws around nothing, hypnotized by the sight. “Fascinating. May I keep it?” Dr. Stevens and Dr. S both looked at him aghast. “For research.”

“Need to close.” Caleb pivoted and released the body into his gloved hands before switching out his own medical gloves to minimize contamination. Milton held its head up, staring at the creature that was doomed to death. Almost certainly, he and Caleb were the only ones to have ever held a being like this. He ran his thumb over the jaw where it latched on with completely ineffectual gums. 

“Why don’t you get out of here with that thing?” Dr. Stevens suggested, peeking at him over her glasses. 

Milton left out the back to find a proper place to house his newest research project. He may not be good with people, but even he knew that bringing the fetus out among the rest of Lori’s group was not a good idea. 

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Carl shook off Maggie’s offer of comfort and sat morosely on a flowered armchair at the far side of the room. She bit her lip and let him go. She wanted to remind him that he wasn’t alone, that they were all family now, but he’d been unresponsive to anyone’s attempts. He’d barely been mobile since they arrived two days ago, pushing away any food he was given like a child. He was a child. And he’d lost his dad and unborn sibling, and his mom lay in a coma. The doctors had no idea if she’d ever wake up. There was no kind way to say that to a child. 

Glenn took hold of her arm and tugged until she was facing the rest of the group, so small and getting smaller. Maggie leaned into his familiar touch. Andrea had just returned from a meal with the Governor that sounded closer to a date than the information gathering session she’d tried to paint it as. Maggie wasn’t sure how to feel about the leader of Woodbury. He was generous, and they owed him a lot, but she wasn’t prepared to trust anyone they’d just met, particularly if they employed Merle.

“Should take the newer houses on the far side of town. Easier to sneak out if need be,” Michonne suggested, unrepentant for her suspicions. 

“I’d rather stay closer to the clinic where Lori and my dad are,” Maggie disagreed. “Not to mention electricity.”

“We shouldn’t split the group.” Glenn shook his head, standing up straight. “We need to stick together, and we need to plan in case this place isn’t what it appears to be. We can head back to that factory Michonne and I found-”

“Guys, I think we need to really give this place a chance,” Andrea cut in. “I don’t know if you noticed, but we were not doing well out there. They’ve built something here, and the Governor is letting us become a part of it. The least we can do is try.”

“I’m not leaving!” Carl shouted, standing up and stomping over to the group. “I won’t leave her.”

“No one is suggesting leaving your mom behind,” Carol stepped in. “In fact, no one is suggesting leaving at all, right now. But we need to play it safe. Michonne and Andrea can take one of the houses further away, just in case. The rest of us can stay here, blend in and figure out what we’re dealing with.” Carl slumped back onto a couch and looked out a window. Maggie wasn’t sure if the despondence was better or worse than the anger. 

“I’m still not sure about splitting the group.” 

“Let’s be real, Glenn. If the Governor wants us dead, it won’t make a difference if we’re in the same building or not. We should concentrate on making ourselves useful here. And more than just for the supplies we brought in from Big Spot.”

“Can we just…” Beth interrupted, voice trembling. “I know that we’re lucky that Daddy woke up, that he might be okay. We’re lucky to have found people who can help Lori. But T-Dog is still dead, and nobody is even talking about it.” 

Maggie wanted to wrap her in a big hug. She looped an arm around her sister’s waist. “He saved Daddy’s life.”

“He saved all of us, one time or another,” Carol pointed out. 

Beth retrieved a candle from her bag and lit it, holding it out in both hands toward the center of their circle. “I think he’d like it if we said a prayer for him.”

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Rick supplied him with the ampicillin which had mercifully been in the other bag, and they stayed at the Sheriff’s Department for another week recovering. Neither of them were happy about staying in town for long, but the illness had kicked the snot out of them both. It took three days before Daryl could drag his sweaty self out from beneath the blankets and walk around a little, and days more until he felt like his legs wouldn’t wobble right out from under him.

Rick recovered faster than him, staying ahead of him on the curve, either because he got sick first or got the right antibiotics first, and the baby slept for just over 24 hours before showing them both up and bouncing back like nothing had ever happened to her. By the second day, the infant was chittering happily as she slobbered over a rattle, and Rick kept whining after something to do while Daryl shivered under his blankets. 

“Read a book,” Daryl grunted, turning to face away from his complaining bedmate.

“I’d rather count ceiling tiles than read The Quick and The Dead one more time.”

He wasn’t sure how many times Rick had already read the one book in their possession, but he’d been trapped in a room for six weeks with nothing else of interest when his leg was infected. Somehow, there did not appear to be any reading material worthy of Rick’s attention in his old workspace, which was a joke that wrote itself, but Daryl didn’t have the energy to make fun of him. “Sounds like ya solved your own damn problem, then.” 

The next time Daryl woke up, Rick made him eat something and showed him a list he’d been working on to keep busy. Daryl wasn’t sure if he would be any more likely to decipher the chicken scratch without the vicious headache and after squinting for a moment, he tossed it back. 

“Do you like any of them?”
“Read ‘em to me.”

“Angela, Marie, Penelope…”

“She got a name,” Daryl interrupted, if only to stop the recitation. There was something so… disingenuous about those names. They belonged to the old world, and that baby they’d fought and bled for, she was something different entirely.

Rick shook his head. “Lil’ Asskicker is not a name.” 

Daryl glanced over at his companion. He looked better, fully recovered mentally and his body well on its way. Still, looks could be deceiving, and he decided to tread carefully. “Tyler wanted to call her Judith. Only fair, seein’ as how she saved your life.” 

“Judith,” repeated Rick, thoughtfully. “Judy. It’s a fine name.”

 

=====.o0o.=======

Chapter Text

=====.o0o.=====

 

After three days of marinating in sweat, Daryl felt well enough, or at least frustrated enough, to do something about it. Rick warned him the showers would be ice cold without fuel, but Daryl knew that a sponge bath was not going to cut it. He’d fallen into more than one icy lake, and while it wouldn’t be pleasant, a quick spritz wasn’t going to kill him. If nothing else, it’d help him wake up and clear his head. Maybe it would even do something for the fever that refused to die. 

Rick stayed by the door holding Judith against his chest and watching as Daryl disrobed. The hunter tried not to feel self-conscious about the whole affair. Rick didn’t need to be there, but telling him to get lost felt too much like showing his hand. Instead, Daryl ignored him, like he’d been ignoring Merle’s taunting voice kicking around in the background, either a holdover from his delusional state or a permanent new addition to his psyche. Daryl was banking on the former.

The water was every bit as cold as predicted, which helped alleviate the heat burning his cheeks. He did not back off the instant it touched his skin or shriek in surprised displeasure, which felt like a victory on its own. Daryl took possibly the fastest shower of his life and then dove for a towel. 

He slid on the wet floor, reflexes still shot from the illness, and dropped gracelessly onto the tile. It was made even more embarrassing by the way Rick struggled to voice his concern between bursts of laughter. Daryl’s ass hurt, his head was still pounding, and if he wasn’t so fucking cold, he’d probably just stay where he was and take a nap.

“Here,” Rick extended the hand not occupied by the baby and helped Daryl to his feet. If it weren’t for the kid, Daryl would have yanked him down into the puddle for laughing. The hunter wrapped the towel around his waist and carefully reached for his dirty clothes. “Leave ‘em,” Rick instructed, “for both our sakes.”

Daryl contemplated ignoring him and putting more protection on, but bending over sounded dangerous, and the clothes were filthy and wet. He let Rick hold onto his arm as they made their way out of the room if only because everything was spinning, and he didn’t want to fall with an audience a second time.

“Was thinking I could use a good shave,” Rick commented as they sat back down, returning Judy to her carseat and running his hand over the thick scruff on his chin. Neither of them had been able to keep up with their old routines, but Daryl’s facial hair never came in thick, and he hadn’t thought much about it. “And a haircut. Think you could cut my hair?” 

Daryl squinted, trying to figure out if he was serious. He’d never gone to a barber in his life, and he sure as shit didn’t know how to cut hair properly. He mostly just let it grow until Merle threatened to hack it off in his sleep. Then he’d make some half-assed attempt, often straight down to the scalp. Rinse and repeat. “Only if ya wanna look like ya did it to yourself without a mirror. Might be better to let Judy do it.”

Rick laughed. “You’re the only one that needs to look at it. I’m just done with the tangles. Hard to run your hand through your hair when it keeps getting stuck.” 

“Don't say I didn't warn ya.”

“How’re you feeling?” Rick slid closer to tug one of the cleaner blankets over them, completely disregarding personal space and the fact that Daryl was wearing nothing but a towel. Daryl wondered at Rick's behavior. Everything felt more… just more than it had before the hospital. The comfort level might not have changed since they’d already been living in each other’s pockets, but Rick was making use of it in a substantially different way, and Daryl didn't know what to make of it. He knew the cause, though. They’d come so close to losing each other that Rick was doing a much saner rendition of his post-Tyler desperate clinging. Hell, the whole haircut might only be a ruse to that end. 

This would normally be the point in time that he complained over all the unwarranted attention and, maybe it was just the illness talking, but it was not unwanted. He closed his eyes and felt the oddest urge to stretch and bury himself in the warmth of the blankets and Rick’s body heat. 

“‘M fine,” Daryl croaked, belatedly answering the question. “Little sore is all. Just gonna sleep it off.”

“I should check you over first. Make sure you didn’t hurt yourself.”

‘One little cold an’ ya act like a fuckin’ damsel in distress.’

Sighing, Daryl ignored them both and shifted until he could lie comfortably on his side with his nose tucked into Rick’s shoulder. He was done with today and wanted to sleep. 

He dozed, drifting in and out consciousness with Rick occasionally prodding him but mostly leaving him alone to work on writing something. Or maybe he was just doodling at this point. Daryl didn’t care. His solid, warm presence was soothing, and he wanted more. He wanted Rick to stroke his hair like he’d done when they were with The Living. He wanted Rick to kiss him like he’d done at the hospital. He wanted Rick to touch him like he’d done in the van between searches for Tyler.

Daryl stiffened as he realized what the train of thought was doing and flipped himself over with an annoyed grunt. He didn’t apologize although it was hard to imagine that Rick had missed his reaction. It was common enough of an occurrence for both of them by this point that the protocol was firmly established: shift away and don’t mention it. It was simply a natural reaction to close contact and sharing body heat. Neither of them ought to feel embarrassed by it. 

Except, Rick wasn’t following any of the rules. He set aside his pen and paper and rolled with Daryl, pressing his chest up against Daryl’s back and placing a hand on his hip, as if testing the waters. Or maybe he’d simply missed the proper cues.  

Rick slid his hand down until it rested on top of the bulge between Daryl’s legs, touch firm and unmistakable in its intent. Daryl gripped his wrist in an instant, fingers digging into skin. They’d already been down this road once, but it felt entirely new, anyway. There wasn’t the crushing weight of Tyler’s disappearance and Rick’s breakdown, or a distinct lack of sobriety.

He could turn Rick down flat. Sock him, even, like he did for the first unsolicited kiss. He could tell him he wasn’t some fairy and remind Rick of his wife. They’d never speak of the incident again. It would be awkward as hell, but Daryl knew with unwavering certainty that Rick wasn’t going to leave him regardless of how this played out. If he accepted, there’d be nothing to blame it on. It would be a confession. 

“It doesn’t have to mean anything. It can just be relief,” Rick breathed in his ear.  Daryl wasn’t at all sure that the assurance made anything better. If anything, it made his chest ache in a way he didn’t understand. “Trust me.”

Daryl was tense and uncertain for a moment longer, debating whether this was a time to flee or if he was going to trust Rick one step further, but the decision somehow felt like a foregone conclusion. Where Rick led, Daryl would follow. So, after several lengthy breaths to reset the boundaries and accommodate this change to their new normal, Daryl let go of Rick’s wrist.  

Rick’s hand on Daryl’s cock was not nearly as shocking as either of them probably expected, even when Rick undid the towel and made contact with flesh. Daryl sucked in a breath, and Rick nestled a kiss onto his neck, adjusting his grip and working him over with well practiced movements. The angle couldn’t be much different from taking care of himself. The groan of pleasure escaped before Daryl even knew it was coming, and Rick let out a rumbling chuckle into his back. 

‘Well, lookie here. Didn’t know you was a Nancy-boy, spreadin’ yer legs and moaning for this pig like a common whore. Gonna bend over for him, too? Pa always said you was a pillow-biter, didn’t help none when ya kept turnin’ down them dates I gotchew.’

“Weren’t dates.”

“Daryl?”

Daryl squeezed his eyes shut. He just wanted to enjoy it, feel something good for once with someone he trusted to do it. “’M good.” 

Rick pulled on his shoulder, rolling the archer onto his back. Straddling his hips, Rick leaned in to press their lips together, and Daryl responded. He threw an arm around Rick’s neck and let himself give into his baser instincts. Maybe it had been wrong before, maybe it was still wrong, but there was no denying that he wanted it. Here and now, it was just them. He could have this.

“I want…” After a moment, Rick broke the kiss, panting and licking his lips and trailing Daryl’s body with his eyes. Daryl felt even more exposed since the cop was still fully clothed. “Ain’t ever given head before.”

Daryl’s dick twitched at the words, and he swallowed hard. It wasn’t just the temptation of a blowjob. Rick had already admitted to not knowing what he was doing and it wouldn’t be his first, but somehow Rick offering made it so much better. He had no idea what to say in response, so he simply nodded his head in a jerky motion.

Rick slid down, reverently brushing his hands along exposed skin as he went. When he reached his target, he paused just long enough to let a feeling of self-consciousness slip in before gripping the base of his cock and licking a stripe along the rest. Daryl sucked in a surprised breath, barely remembering to keep his hips still, and Rick passed him a smirk before taking him into his mouth. His movements were clumsy, taking first too much and then too little, but the warm, wet heat of his mouth more than made up for it. As Rick found a rhythm, Daryl threw his head back and tried to keep any sounds from escaping.  

‘So this is how it’s gonna be? I know it’s the end of the world an’ options are limited and all, but yer takin’ it from the guy who cuffed me to that roof an’ forced me to cut my own hand off.’

“Ain’t like that.”

Rick paused, and this time Daryl wanted to groan in frustration, particularly when he was released and Rick moved up to lay beside him again. “Daryl, you don’t have to do this, we don’t. Doesn’t seem like you’re up for it.”

“Don’t wanna stop.”

“Look at me.” Daryl complied, twisting his neck to get a proper look, and Rick searched his eyes for something. What he saw, Daryl couldn’t say. “Whatever you’re holding onto, just let it go. It’s okay to feel good.”

Daryl held his gaze as he ruminated on the changing relationship between him and Rick. He’d liked the cop by the end of that first day, despite everything, because he’d looked him in the eyes and not down his nose like Shane had, and made promises to help no matter who Merle was, following through as best he could. Rick had done alright by him over and over. And what’s more, he believed in Daryl, trusted him like no one besides Merle ever had. Hell, Rick trusted him a whole lot more than Merle did because his brother never allowed himself to completely trust anyone at all. Daryl couldn’t help but revel in it, how Rick cared for him, got concerned about him, appreciated him, praised his skills and enjoyed his company. It was the best friendship he’d ever had, and he wanted to please Rick and keep that smile coming his way. 

There was something wrong with him for liking this so much, for wanting this with Rick. He knew what Merle would think, call him a bitch, say he was just rolling over and begging some cop to rub his belly. He’d ask if Daryl was bending over for him, too, but the thought wasn’t nearly as disturbing as every other time Merle had made the lewd suggestion. It was how he tried to end every friendship Daryl made, even when his brother wasn’t around to say the words, and it was horribly effective. Or at least, it had been.

At the same time, he didn’t want anyone to see him with Rick, Merle above all. It was easy to dismiss accusations against him when they weren’t true, but he was enjoying himself. He was apparently what they’d accused him of being, and he couldn’t help but feel ashamed for wanting this. That’s all he’d ever heard his whole life, it was dirty and wrong to want it from other men. There were a lot of things wrong with him. 

“Just let it go,” Rick repeated, stroking his cheek. 

Daryl nodded, concentrating on the pleasant sensation of Rick’s touch and putting Merle out of his mind, barring the gate behind him. Fucker had never been allowed near his bedroom before, Daryl wasn’t sure why his hallucination should be any different. He kissed Rick defiantly and then pushed him back down so he could finish his earlier task. Rick’s face split into a grin, and Daryl returned it.

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Rick's hair was a greasy mess. He'd obviously opted for the sponge bath and was still suffering the after effects of a long fever. Without much thought, Daryl heated up a bucket of water and arranged Rick so his head was over it. It wasn't strictly necessary, particularly for the quality of haircut Daryl anticipated giving, but they might as well use their downtime on hygiene since they weren’t able to do anything productive. 

Rick was compliant to his every suggestion, relaxing completely as Daryl used a cup to get his hair wet and work some soap from the shower room into suds. He took his time to be thorough. “Should do ‘nother bath for Judy today, too. She loves the water.” 

“Should really do one every week, at least.”

“Have to keep track of the weeks for that.”

After washing his hair, Daryl was at a loss for what to do until Rick produced a comb. Instead of working it through his own hair, Rick passed it off and made himself comfortable with his head on the hunter’s knees. It took a moment to process that this was apparently acceptable behavior between them now and then Daryl started in on combing out the hair. It was a long operation. Rick wasn't kidding about the tangles. He supposed that curly hair was more prone to that curse. 

“I could cut your hair after, if you want. Can't promise it would be any good.”

“Nah. 'S fine.” Daryl shook his head even though Rick’s eyes were still closed. It didn't feel right, somehow, to cut his hair without Merle’s instigation. He'd just let it go. Maybe Merle would come back just to tell him off for it. Daryl snorted. Merle would probably have more words to say about letting Rick drape himself all over him like this than letting his hair grow out. 

“What’s so funny?” Rick asked, cocking his head, smile coming easier than usual. 

“Nothin’. Get up. Can’t do the back like this.” Rick sat up properly, and Daryl finished combing his hair. “Scissors?”

Rick handed him a pair. He’d probably gotten them before he’d even asked after the haircut, though Daryl wasn’t sure from where. Daryl generally preferred his knife over most other blades for just about anything he wanted to do, but he knew from personal experience that scissors were the way to go when it came to cutting hair. He hesitated only a moment before diving in, trying to shorten everything at once and hope the curls would hide the uneven hack job. 

“I was thinking of places we could look. Maybe Lori’s parents’ house. Or her sister’s.”

“Could do that,” Daryl acknowledged. He wasn’t sure if Rick’s motivation was to seek a place Lori would have checked or to see if her folks had made it. Either way, he predicted a hell of a lot of disappointment in their future. “Lots of places the group coulda gone.”

“I know. Any one of them might have suggested somewhere, but I only know where Lori might go. Evie lived in a gated community. They might have held out.”

“T-Dog was from Atlanta, so that’s a bust. Glenn’s family was up in Michigan, too far. Andrea lived in Florida, too big of a target, even if she knew some place to take them.”

“How’d you know all that?” Rick asked, keeping still so Daryl could work while they talked. 

“Listened.” Daryl shrugged. “‘Fore you came ‘long, used to talk ‘bout things that weren’t Walkers an’ findin’ Sophia.” Maybe they didn’t talk to him much after Merle had made a nuisance of himself from the very first night, but they were loud, and he overheard their conversations anyway. 

“What about Carol? Where was she from?” 

“Same shitty nowhere town as me, just a different county.” Carol was quiet as a mouse with that overbearing husband of hers breathing down her neck. Women like that didn’t get that way from just one bad relationship, either. Probably spent her whole life in a nothing town with a whole lot of people treating her like dirt. “No place she’d think was safe for anyone.”

“So, we’re back to checking out Lori’s family.”

“Seems like.”

“After we check Walmart to see if Tyler came back.”

Daryl froze. They couldn’t go back there. Rick had only just recovered. He might go off the rails when faced with the vivid reminder of Tyler’s loss. The kid may have only been with them for a short time, but he’d been theirs to take care of. Unlike Carl who had a whole group to look after him, Tyler was entirely on his own, and he wasn’t the sort to keep a level head. The odds of his survival were so abysmal, Daryl would never utter them aloud. Sophia’s odds had been substantially better, and she’d still wound up in a barn full of Walkers. 

“Daryl?”

“Finished.” Or close enough. It didn’t look terrible, dark, wavy hair forgave a lot of sins. 

Rick turned around, and Daryl regretted giving up his diversion. “You still believe we can find him, right?”

“We keep lookin’,” Daryl assured him, thinking quickly. He had to delay that trip and the inevitable realization that Tyler wasn’t there or Rick would spiral again. “But there’s a place I wanna check out on the way. Small town with a nice rehab facility Merle used to frequent. Ain’t home, but one of the few places he liked. Surefire way to find something recreational, anyways.”

‘Kind of ya to finally start lookin’ for me,’ Merle broke in. Daryl was starting to wonder why he wanted to look for his brother at all when he was only ever one concussion or deathly illness shy of a reunion. ‘Oh, but that’s just a diversion, ain’t it? Care more about protectin’ Rick’s feelings than doin’ a real search. Ain’tchew a peach.’

Rick nodded slowly. “Alright. We’ll go there first.”

“In the morning.”

“No, I think we could both use another day or two to rest,” Rick sighed, like the admission hurt him. “You’re barely on your feet. I was afraid you’d fall in the shower yesterday. I was right.”

“An’ here I thought you was just ogling my ass.”

“Well, that too.” Rick chortled before his face eased into seriousness. “I almost lost you. Again.” Rick rubbed his hands through his hair, working easily through the crop. “The thing is, I- I need you.”

 

=====.o0o.=====

Chapter Text

=====.o0o.=====

 

When Tyler came to his senses, it was because he stumbled over a root and planted face first into the snow. A shock of cold went straight through his body, rebooting his brain so that he was no longer functioning on pure panic. He had no idea how long he’d been running or where he was except that it was in the forest. 

Looking around, he noted that there weren’t any monsters in sight, but he could hear them in the cracking of sticks underneath the snow and the groaning emanating from their miserable throats. It sounded like they were all around, and he felt his chest constricting as panic threatened to overtake him once more. Tyler gasped in several deep breaths of air. He was too sore and out of breath to run any further, and he had no way of knowing which way would be free of monsters. That only left one option: hide. 

Tyler surveyed his surroundings again, trying to force himself to think through the haze of fear. There was nowhere to go, no buildings, no streets, no caves, no bushes, just trees. Tyler looked up and turned in a circle. A few of them appeared sturdy enough to hold his weight. They might not protect him from being found by the monsters, but they wouldn’t be able to climb up after him. He hoped.

When the first tree proved impossible to ascend, Tyler switched to the next, resisting the urge to bolt. His legs were wobbly from the last run and there was a distant horn resounding in his head, possibly from the fall. He knew that concussions could have strange effects on a person’s perceptions, and the foggy way things were coming back to him suggested he was injured. 

‘First things first,’ Tyler told himself as he tried the second tree, struggling to find a proper grip without all of the fingers on his left hand. He could do this. He’d climbed trees before, many trees. It was, in fact, his primary method of evading bullies back when he attended school, and he’d had to do it quickly before they spotted him. Of course, the bullies hadn’t planned to eat him. 

A moment later, he was perched on the lowest branch, and from there it was a simple task to lever himself upwards and out of sight. Finally, when he felt like he was well above anyone’s eyeline, Tyler leaned against the tree’s trunk and folded himself up underneath his oversized coat. He’d taken it because it was the warmest option even though Andy suggested they find one in his size. Now he was appreciating the way he could burrow into its warmth and tuck his arms around his chest. It helped ease his panic and block out the chill. He didn’t have a hat, but between the trees and the hood, the wind was mostly blocked.

It was then that Tyler noticed the horn had stopped, and he belatedly identified it as a car horn. That was good. If it had been a car horn, the monsters would be drawn to it and might pass him entirely. Tyler tucked his head deeper into his coat and closed his eyes so he could rest for a few minutes, but that was when the images hit him. He remembered what he’d done.

There had been monsters in the parking lot. He wasn’t sure what had drawn them to the van. The baby was quiet, cooing happily in the seat beside him, and their smell should have been trapped. He’d tried to tell himself that they’d pass the car by, that there was nothing to fear, that the van could protect them, but as they got closer and closer, it was harder to believe any of that. 

Swallowing hard, Tyler crawled into the driver’s seat, ready to press the horn and get help. Daryl and Andy would protect them. And then a monster thudded against the opposite side of the van, right against the window that looked over the car seat, and Tyler threw open the driver’s side door and sprinted as fast as his legs could carry him. 

He couldn’t remember anything after that, but his cheeks stung like he’d raked low hanging twigs against them, and his feet were damp beneath his socks from running through snow. He took them off, drying his feet on his shirt tail and setting his shoes aside to dry. He wasn’t sure how realistic that was in this weather, but it was better than letting his toes get frost-bite. He didn’t think he could handle losing them, too. Tyler stuffed his feet firmly beneath the coat and found that he was surprisingly warm once he eliminated all the exits where body heat could escape. 

The crunch of approaching footsteps in the snow was unmistakable, but Tyler didn’t look. He didn’t want to see what was below him in some odd certainty that if he couldn’t see it, it couldn’t see him. It was the same trick he’d used when he was much younger and afraid of the dark corners of his room, insisting that he wasn’t too old for a nightlight when his mom tried to put him to bed. The growling was a little harder to ignore in the sudden silence of the woods, but the boy made a valiant effort to do so. He tucked himself in even tighter and didn’t make a peep. 

He wasn’t sure how much time passed, but it didn’t feel long at all before there were a few bursts from a car horn again. Tyler wasn’t sure what that meant, but he was immensely grateful to hear the sounds of the monster below him stumbling away. He relaxed until his joints and muscles no longer hurt from tensing up and took a steadying breath.

Now that he had a moment and his brain wasn’t winding him up like an unending alarm clock, the magnitude of what he’d done set in. He’d left the car door open and that baby strapped to a car seat with literal, flesh-eating monsters just outside. He’d murdered a baby. 

Tyler muffled his sobs into his knees but let the tears flow. He was supposed to take care of the baby, and she was dead because of him. He’d lost everything, now. His parents and his grandma were gone. All of his other friends and family were surely wiped out. Claire and Rachel, who’d always been so nice to him, they were dead too. And now the baby was gone, and Andy and Daryl would never forgive him. He was alone.

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there; time no longer carried any meaning to him. Tyler had no interest in doing anything other than sitting and crying. Finally, he heard some voices calling to him, familiar ones. 

“Tyler!” Daryl shouted.

“Where are you?!” Andy yelled after.

Tyler lifted up the hood of his coat enough to see the daylight starting to wane. They’d come looking for him! He opened his mouth to answer, but snapped it shut as the full reality of his situation hit home. The baby was dead, and if they were looking for him, it was because they wanted revenge. If he responded, they’d find him, and then he’d be dead. He slowly breathed out. Maybe dead wasn’t so bad, after all. They weren’t so cruel as to let him turn into a monster, were they? He hesitated. He couldn’t. He just couldn’t set himself up like that. 

‘But what if they don’t want revenge?’ Tyler couldn’t help but wonder. What if, even after the terrible, unforgivable thing he’d done, they still planned to keep him? Daryl had told him they’d stick together, but that was before . Running his hands through his hair, Tyler grasped the roots and tugged. The hope taunted him, that Daryl and Andy might take him back, but this wasn’t the world for hope any more. The baby had been what remained of hope, and he’d murdered it. 

‘And,’ Tyler reminded himself, ‘I’ve got nothing to offer besides what grandma taught me. I’m a liability, someone they have to protect all the time. I can’t stop the monsters. I don’t even have the courage to stay put. I got scared and someone died because of it. If I stay with them, I’ll end up getting someone else killed, too.’

Tucking the hood back into his cocoon, Tyler let himself slip away, ignoring the voices as they drifted a little closer, then a little farther, then disappeared altogether. 

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Tyler didn’t keep track of the time. He didn’t keep track of anything outside of the bike he’d pulled off of the back of someone’s car and was still a little too small for, and the satchel he internally called his MacGyver bag stuffed full of the essentials. He was always running out of essentials, so it was usually only a knife and a spare change of clothes inside.  He’d found a hat and some good gloves to go with the coat that doubled as his sleeping bag, and while he wasn’t always warm, he hadn’t frozen to death, either.

The bike was the boy’s most genius move. At first, he took it because he wanted to get some distance from Walmart, and he didn’t know how to drive. He didn’t like riding in the snow, but it was rarely so thick that it was dangerous. After a while, he decided that everyone should use them. They were quiet, easy to repair, didn’t require any fuel and, most importantly, faster than the monsters.

Sometimes Tyler still lost himself in the panic, threw his bike to the ground, and took off running when he spotted one of them. He didn’t kill them. He wasn’t sure he could kill them. He just ran and hid. He was patient enough that eventually the monsters would find something else and wander off, and he could come out again and track down his abandoned vehicle. 

Other times, he managed to keep his head, and used the bike to get more distance, to put the monster further away. Those were the days when he almost felt proud of himself. 

Mostly, he hid and read. Reading was the one thing that held any appeal to him anymore. Finding out what happened on the next page was often his only motivation to keep breathing. He spent whole days up in a tree or in a cabin or a random house reading whatever he found on the shelves and waiting for his pot of snow to melt so he’d have something to drink. The hunger pangs eventually joined his appetite and went away, never to be seen again. Still, he’d eat anything he came across to keep the weakness from overtaking him. Usually, it was canned goods, but those were hard to find. He’d tried berries, leaves and bark, and even once managed to dig up a shrew or groundhog that had burrowed in for the winter when the desperation overrode his distaste.

Tyler didn’t know a lot about surviving. Daryl had been teaching him, but he didn’t have much of a knack for it and they had little time to get down more than some basics. Still, he had a few tidbits stored away, and compiled that knowledge with every book he could find on the topic. He liked nonfiction and preferred medical journals over everything else, but they were a rare find. He read science textbooks cover to cover, but even though he knew more than ever what habitats animals preferred or what minerals were conducive to growing vegetables or how to dissect a cadaver, it was hard for him to apply any of that knowledge to the real world.

It always came back to food. He knew he was starving, could visibly see how his body had wasted away, but he didn’t know how to fix it. In the end, there was only one viable option. Tyler knew he needed to find people if he was going to make it. Even if they were terrible people, like The Living had been, he could trade his knowledge and medical skills for protection and food. 

Tyler didn’t know where anyone was. He doubted that Andy and Daryl had stayed at Walmart, or if he’d be welcome there, but he didn’t know where else to go. He’d start his search for someone there and hope his starved body could keep him going until he found someone to help him. And if he didn’t, well, he supposed that he didn’t have anything left to live for anyway.

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

It was completely unsurprising that Andy and Daryl were no longer at Walmart.  It was surprising to see Daryl’s motorcycle out front, surprising enough that what Tyler planned to be a quick peek turned into a thorough examination. The van was gone, and there were still half decayed corpses piled in the parking lot, but the area was clear of monsters. 

Cautiously, Tyler rode his bike around the lot and the building to see if there were any signs of where they might have gone or perhaps even messages. He considered that they might be inside, but that seemed unlikely. He couldn’t make out any forms or light through the windows and wasn’t brave enough to try opening the front doors or shouting. Instead, he returned to Daryl’s motorcycle and sat down to stare at it. 

Why would Daryl leave his bike? The man had been tight-lipped about everything, but he hadn’t bothered to hide how much he loved that bike. It had belonged to his brother, and he hadn’t left it behind even when the weather got really lousy the first couple days of travelling together. It seemed that either the archer was dead or he had plans to return. 

Daryl had been alive when he went out in the woods hunting for him, and it seemed absurd to consider that he wasn’t alive any longer. A man like that could survive anything, Tyler was sure of it. So, assuming that Daryl was alive, and he was coming back for his bike, Tyler ought to stay put. Daryl would find him, and maybe he’d look after him, or maybe he’d just put him out of his misery. 

Except it’d been weeks since he’d last seen him, and the bike was still there. Was Daryl checking for him or had he been held up? Tyler frowned. He could stay on the roof and wait, but he wouldn’t be comfortable long in this weather. He needed to leave a note so Daryl knew where to find him. 

Tyler went into his MacGyver bag and pulled out a book, ripping out a preface page and scribbling down some information onto the back. He then opened the compartment on the motorcycle, surprised to find a radio and another little sheet of paper tumble out. 

‘You still have friends. Use this to find us. Good luck, wherever you are.’

Tyler’s heart beat rapidly in his chest with excitement. They hadn’t given up on him. They’d never given up on him. Tears stinging his eyes, Tyler clicked the radio on and brought it up to his mouth. “Hello?” His voice was scratchy from disuse, and he cleared his throat before trying again. “Hello? Daryl? Are you there?” It took him a belated second to realize he’d left his thumb on the button and to move it so he could hear a response. 

“-again.” The voice was garbled, and it was impossible to tell who he was talking to. 

“It’s Tyler,” he responded urgently. “I’m at Walmart. Where are you?”

“-there… with... to do...” 

The voice was cutting in and out so badly, Tyler was suddenly afraid they might give up. “Hang on, I’ll get higher.” He hooked the radio to his pack, leaving it running, the voice coming in and out in spurts, and hurried over to the nearest tree that he thought might support his weight. He’d refreshed his skills with climbing trees a lot lately and heaved himself up, climbing upward until the branches started to creak under his weight. “Hello?” He tried again. “Hello? Are you still there? I need help.”

“Slow down.” The person on the other end wasn’t anyone he knew, and it certainly wasn’t Daryl. The woman continued, “Tell me your name.”

“I’m Tyler.”

“My name’s Andrea.” He didn’t recognize the name or the voice, but he still wanted to cry in relief at hearing another human. “Are you somewhere safe, Tyler?” 

“I’m in a tree.” Tyler replied, rubbing at his eyes and wishing he didn’t sound like he was sobbing. He wasn’t a baby, and there wasn’t anything to cry about. 

“Do you have people looking after you?”

“No.” Tyler answered simply. “Not anymore.”

“Okay,” Andrea said evenly, “We’re coming to get you.” There was a long pause after that, and Tyler waited anxiously. Was Andrea’s group arguing with her about it? He held his breath until she finally asked, “Where are you?”

“I’m at Walmart.” 

There was another pause, long enough that Tyler nearly said more, but he wasn’t sure what else to say. Maybe, he could find a map somewhere and give them better directions, but he couldn’t get down out of the tree without losing his reception. “And where’d you find the radio?”

“Inside Daryl’s bike.”

There was some talking behind Andrea now as she responded, but it was all overlapping, and Tyler couldn’t make any of it out. “How do you know Daryl?”

“He was looking after me. He’s gone now.”

“Dead?” A new voice asked urgently, male this time, and gruff. 

“No,” Tyler responded, shaking his head even though he couldn’t be seen. “At least, I don’t think so. I don’t know where he went.” 

“Stay where you are,” the man instructed. “We’re coming to get you.”

Tyler wasn’t sure if he should be more relieved or concerned, but he shuffled down until he was seated comfortably on a sturdier branch, legs dangling from either side as he tried not to let his nerves chase him away. This group was his last chance. If he ran from them, he would almost certainly die. 

His resolve was tested as one of the monsters came around the side of the building and ambled toward him. They didn’t always spot him in the trees, but this one must have caught his scent or something, because it shuffled straight over. The tree wasn’t well sheltered and it was too cold of a day to spend the night outside again, even if he ignored his hunger and thirst. Tyler fought with himself until the monster was directly below his feet, and he no longer had another option. He’d have to wait it out, no matter what was coming. 

Tucking his legs up and wedging himself between two branches, Tyler packed himself back into a protective ball. He hitched the hood over his head until it blocked out the light and waited. He was very good at waiting. 

The first sound that hit him was a car pulling into the lot. It grew closer and closer, but Tyler was too afraid of what he might see and refused to look up. A moment later, a loud squeak came from a car door opening and then a sudden squelching noise.

“Tyler?” Andrea called. “Is that you?” 

Taking a deep breath, Tyler lifted his head. There was a blond woman at the foot of the tree, beckoning him down. Beside her was a woman with dreads silently observing him. Another person, a man, was keeping watch the other direction, gun in hand but pointed at the ground. The last person was a broad-shouldered fellow with a blade instead of a hand. The blade was dripping blood and the monster lay dead at his feet. 

“Come on down, kid.” The bladed man coaxed. “We ain’t gonna bite.” Tyler was shaking so hard that climbing was a real chore, and he nearly slipped. When he reached the ground, the man took a step closer. Tyler contemplated running in terror of this brute. “Go’on an’ tell ol’ Merle when ya last saw Daryl.” 

“For god’s sake, Merle. Give him a moment. Let’s get him somewhere safe, first.” Andrea interrupted. 

“First sign o’ my baby brother an’ y’all just want me to wait?” Merle growled. Tyler gaped. This was Daryl’s brother? He was so mean and scary. “That ain’t happenin’. Tell me, an’ we’ll get ya somewhere safe with some food in yer belly. Sure look like ya could use it.”

“There were....” Tyler started, licking his lips and looking around at all the adults. He wouldn’t tell them about the baby. He couldn’t risk losing his safety. “There were monsters everywhere. We got split up.”

“How long ago?”

“I’m not sure. A couple weeks?”

“Weeks?” Merle huffed, kicking the corpse at his feet with enough force that it flopped over. “Fucking shit!”

Tyler flinched and hopped back a step towards the women. “I’m - I’m sorry!” He stammered. 

“Hey, it’s okay,” the black woman comforted. “Not your fault.” 

“Let’s get going.” 

“Martinez, keep the motor runnin’. Gonna grab my bike if it starts.” 

At Andrea’s encouragement, Tyler crawled into the back seat with her as the other two adults sat in the front, turning the car around and waiting near the motorcycle. Daryl’s brother fiddled with it for a few minutes, and then the engine roared to life, terrifyingly loud, louder even than the whoop of victory the man let out. 

“He ain’t dead!” Merle shouted over the roar of his engine, swinging a leg over the bike and walking it to the window of the car. “Used a trick I showed him to make it look like it ain’t gonna start.”

Tyler thought Merle must be right, but he didn’t see how that proved Daryl was alive now, only that he was alive weeks ago. He also wasn’t sure how Merle was going to drive it with only one hand, but he had better sense than to ask either of those questions. 

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Entering Woodbury was like waking up from the nightmare that had been life for the last six months. A shiver ran down his spine as he watched the tall gates open up. On top, he spotted two guards pacing the perimeter. It didn’t matter what it took, Tyler would make this place his home.

“You can stay with us,” Andrea offered with a genuine smile, like she was thrilled by the idea, even though she didn’t know him at all. “Michonne and I have our own place in one of the newer buildings. Well, they’re not new, exactly, but they’re part of the land that was brought in with the latest expansion. This place really is something else.”

“Yeah,” Tyler agreed as the car came to a stop inside the walls, Merle’s bike finally cutting out. The gates closed behind them, and he inspected the wide expanse of street bustling with activity. There were people, clean and healthy, walking along the sidewalks and laughing with each other. There were even children among them. “It’s paradise.”

Andrea looked sympathetic. “Must have been out there a long time.”

“Long enough.” 

As they stepped out of the car, Merle frowned at him again, and Tyler wished he could hide. He wasn’t sure what he’d done to get on the man’s bad side, or if the biker simply didn’t have a good side. Whatever it was Merle didn’t share, instead directing his words to Andrea. “Get him checked out with the doc an’ cleaned up. I’ll let the Governor know what we got.”

The two women led him over to a brick building a few houses down. Tyler tried to peek into the alleys to determine how the walls looked on the opposite side. Was it as secure as everyone acted? 

As if she could read his mind, Andrea rested a hand on his shoulder. “You’re safe here.”

They were seated on some puffy chairs in a waiting room that was as plain and bland as the one in the dentist office he used to visit back home. He felt like he was getting everything he touched dirty. 

“This him?”

Tyler jerked his head up to see who had just come from the back rooms. A boy roughly his age with straight brown hair had asked the question, eyes red rimmed and cautious. Tyler wondered if he was a nurse and felt a pang of concern that the place he’d internally slotted himself into was already taken. 

“Carl,” Michonne interrupted, standing up. “I told you I’d ask him after he rests.”

“No. No, I need to know now.” Carl pushed away her outstretched hand. “Was Daryl with someone else when you were with him?”

“Yeah,” Tyler replied cautiously, “a man named Andy.” He left off all mention of the baby. If they didn’t know, he wasn’t going to fill them in.

Carl froze, his expression unreadable. “No one else?”

Tyler opened his mouth, afraid that they were going to force his hand. Could he lie to this boy? Maybe he didn’t have to. “We were with a larger group at first. They brought me and my grandma from Virginia. Then they brought in Claire and Rachel. Andy and Daryl came later.”

“That’s it?” Carl squeaked. “No one named Rick? Rick Grimes?”

Tyler shook his head. He couldn’t recall anyone by that name. “I’m sorry.” Tyler didn’t know what he was apologizing for, but Carl looked devastated. 

Michonne moved to comfort him, but the boy took a step back, his face suddenly blank of any expression. “I have to check on my mom.”

“It’s not your fault.” Andrea sighed as Michonne reclaimed her seat. “Rick was Carl’s dad. He kept hoping- we all were hoping- that Daryl had managed to rescue him.” 

Tyler thought back to the morning his grandma died. He tried so hard to push those memories down, but they always crept back up unbidden. He couldn’t help but settle on the image of his grandma shouting for him to get out of there seconds before she was shot. “He came back for me.” Twice, if one counted him searching the trees around Walmart. “But you can’t save everyone. Not even Daryl can do that.” 

Andrea wrapped an arm around his shoulders and gave him a sideways hug. He leaned into the contact, glad for the warmth and the understanding. It had been so long since he felt safe.

A moment later, the door reopened, but this time, it wasn’t Carl. A black woman with red glasses and her hair pulled into a tight bun introduced herself as Helen Stevens and invited him into the back. There were several rooms, one he was sure housed Carl and his mom, but she led him to the end of the hall to a room barely larger than a closet. She took his temperature, checked his blood pressure and asked after bites, but she didn’t seem overly concerned by any of his responses.

“If I’m to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s been a while since you’ve eaten.”

“Yes, ma’am.” 

“Don’t try to rush into it. Small, frequent meals for a few days or you’ll upset your stomach.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“That’s a good boy,” Helen praised, patting his head and walking him back to the waiting room. She sent him outside while she spoke with Andrea and Michonne.

“Hey.” Tyler froze at suddenly being addressed, wondering if he’d done something wrong and then recognizing the voice of a child. He turned to see two blond girls. “You’re new here.”

“Yeah.” 

“I’m Lizzie. That’s Mika. We live over there,” the taller girl declared, pointing across and up the street. “What’s your name?”

“Tyler. I’m not sure where I live yet.” 

“Wanna come play? We were just gonna do hide-and-seek.”

Tyler’s eyes went wide. Hide-and-seek? Were they crazy? What if they stumbled into some monsters? What if they didn’t find each other again? Was this place just that safe? Nowhere was that safe. “M-Maybe later.” 

Lizzie looked disappointed and trounced off without so much as a goodbye. Mika stayed and smiled “It’s okay. Our mom runs the school here, so I’m sure we’ll see each other soon. Bye, Tyler!”

“Making friends already,” Andrea said, announcing her presence and making Tyler jump. She didn’t look anything but happy, but Michonne looked concerned. She always looked concerned, though, so Tyler wasn’t sure if there was anything to worry about. 

He followed his new guardians up the street until it turned into a crossroad. All three directions were clearly closed off further along with the same high barricades that they’d used at the main entrance, but one area looked like it had been pushed further back. Andrea led him that way and came to a rather narrow apartment. There was a door off to the left, but they headed up the staircase without entering it. They lived on the second floor, and Tyler couldn’t help thinking that Daryl would approve.

Only the central buildings had running water, but Tyler was in no position to complain. Andrea generously provided him with a bottle to drink and a bucket of luke-warm water to wash himself. When he was finished, he switched into his spare outfit and felt clean for the first time since staying at the hotel with The Living. He sucked in a deep breath at the thought and tried not to cry. He’d shed enough tears and today was a happy day. These people didn’t seem like bad people.

“You can leave your bag here,” Andrea instructed. Tyler slowly took it off and set it by the door. It had been a long time since he’d gone without it, and it felt wrong leaving it behind, but he didn’t want to do anything that might upset his new hosts. It wasn’t like there was anything irreplaceable inside, anyway. He didn’t have anything to his name in the whole world. Then he frowned. He’d left his bike behind, and that was about as much of a defense from danger as he had. It was certainly more useful than the knife he kept inside his bag but didn’t know how to use properly. Tyler hoped he’d find another bike soon. “You shouldn’t need anything. I figured you could join us for dinner. We’ve got an invite from the Governor, and I’m sure he’ll want to meet you.”

“Count me out,” Michonne said from behind him, surprising him with her sudden appearance and silent approach. 

Andrea sighed. “I wish you’d just give him a chance. He’s done nothing but help us.”

Michonne didn’t seem interested in keeping up the conversation. Instead, she plopped onto the couch and pulled out a magazine, her leisure looking at odds with the katana poking out from her back. “Going to check on Carl, anyway.”

“Come on.” 

Tyler nodded, and followed Andrea out. They went down the stairwell and back to the main street where they found a large, ornate building near the center of town and climbed up another set of stairs to a smaller dwelling beside it. While they walked, Andrea chatted about Michonne. She was a good person, Andrea inisted, but it took her time to warm up to people. Tyler kept his mouth shut.

He had no doubt that both of his parents had loved him, but his father was the sort of man who tended to think his way was the only way and everyone had better get on board with it. Tyler didn’t see much of his fiery temper once he learned to do as he was told without complaint, even if there was an easier way of doing things. His father never hit him, or anyone to Tyler’s knowledge, but he could be terrifying when he was angry, and it wasn’t worth risking having that sort of venom directed at him just to save a few minutes. 

The Governor was about the same age as Tyler’s dad had been when he died. He also struck him as somewhat like his father as he demanded that Tyler give his name and sit down at the table without doing either of those things himself. Tyler could see why Michonne didn’t care for him. He could also see why it didn’t matter. 

“And how old are you, Tyler?” The imposing man with a politician’s smile asked as he laid down a tray laiden with the largest feast for such a small gathering Tyler had seen in months. There was a large pot of oatmeal, a bowl of peaches, barbequed meat, and freshly cooked bread. 

Tyler licked his lips but kept his hands clenched tightly in his lap. He was going to impress the Governor. He was going to make himself indispensable. “Thirteen.” At least, he’d been thirteen last time he checked. He wondered if he’d missed a birthday somewhere. It had been a while since the dead started walking, and keeping track of the calendar was somewhere between impossible and unimportant. He might have turned fourteen. He’d have to find out the date. Woodbury seemed like the sort of place that would keep track of the days.

“Hmm…” was the Governor’s only comment. Tyler didn’t need him to say more. He could read between the lines. He thought that Tyler was scrawny for thirteen, and just like his father, was disappointed. “Children under twelve are only required to attend schooling and some basic defense training. Everyone else must help provide for the community in some way.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Tyler assured him.

“We could put you on the wall. It’s easy enough work.” The Governor dished out some of the oatmeal and peaches onto his own plate and gestured for them to help themselves. Tyler tried to balance what the appropriate amount was in his head. If he took too much, it might look bad and could make him sick. If he took too little, he might seem unappreciative, or worse, not get offered much next time. “I assume you know how to use a gun given how long you were out there.” 

Tyler swallowed hard around a large mouthful of oatmeal. “I think that guns can be more dangerous than they’re worth. The noise draws them in.” He responded slowly before redirecting the man’s attention. “My grandma was a doctor and taught me a lot. I could help as an aid or a nurse.” 

“You’ll still need to learn to use firearms.” 

“Yes, sir.”

“I’d say we’re fortunate to have found you.”

“Not as fortunate as I was to be found,” Tyler responded quickly.

The Governor laughed and turned to Andrea. “I’ll take ten more just like him.” Tyler blushed hard under the praise, his heart speeding up. Maybe everything could be better now. “Introduce him to Milton tomorrow, after he’s had a long sleep.” 

The rest of the meal was spent with the Governor and Andrea chatting about the plans they had for expansions and far-off goals of making electricity available in all the buildings. It sounded like fantasy, so Tyler wasn’t sure how much of it was realistic. He didn’t add anything to the conversation unless he was addressed, but aside from an occasional attempt to be inclusive from the blonde, there was little he had to contribute. 

He’d expected more questions about his time on his own or about Daryl or what he’d done before all this, but none came. He was relieved. There wasn’t anything he wanted to share that he hadn’t already. 

The relief was short-lived because Merle caught him outside the house as they returned to the street and started towards Andrea’s home. Andrea sighed. “Not now. Let the poor kid get some sleep.”

 “Chill, blondie!” Merle put up his arms in surrender, but it only managed to look threatening with the sharp blade attached to the right one. “Was just gonna thank him.”

“Thank him?” Andrea’s voice was dripping in skepticism. Tyler tried to inch backward without being noticed.

Merle nodded, dropping his hands and giving Tyler a smile that looked genuine and incredibly out of place on the rough features of his face. “For my bike. Ya think of anythin’ else, remember where my brother was headin’ or somethin’, ya let me know right quick. Deal?”

Tyler jerked his head up and down a few times. He didn’t know where they’d gone, and for that he was grateful because if Daryl and Andy were there, everyone would know he’d killed that baby. 

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Even though he was living with Andrea and Michonne and working most days with Helen, Tyler still managed to spend the most time with Milton. He couldn’t help it. The guy was everything he wanted to be when he grew up. Tyler decided immediately that he was brilliant; he seemed to know the answer to every question that popped into Tyler’s head. His experiments were fascinating, and, best of all, he always made time for Tyler. 

Milton appeared just as thrilled to have an assistant and someone interested in learning as Tyler was to have a mentor willing to teach him. He thought he wanted to become a doctor, and he did find his lessons with Helen useful, if a bit repetitive, but Milton taught him something better. He taught him that the animated corpses weren’t monsters at all, but something new to be investigated. 

Soon, Tyler found little desire to escape into books, and instead wanted to meet the next day so he could find out what else Milton knew and what else they could learn together. The only compulsion to tuck his nose into a book came when recording their findings and journaling about the things he’d learned. Andrea showed him how to use a gun, but it was Milton that taught him not to fear the walking dead. He wasn’t just living anymore, Tyler was starting to thrive.

Within two weeks, Tyler knew everyone at Woodbury. He stayed away from Merle and the other soldiers as much as he could, but they were sometimes involved in Milton’s projects, and at times unavoidable. 

Sometimes, Milton wasn’t available, and Tyler would have to find something else to do with his spare time. Andrea was rarely free, keeping herself busy all day long with chores either assigned or made up, and squeezing in meals with the Governor who was either courting her as a First Lady or a Lieutenant, Tyler wasn’t sure which. While Michonne was less standoffish than Andrea claimed, she couldn’t contain her wanderlust and rarely stayed inside the walls. She never used the gate, either, so Tyler wasn’t even sure if this was a secret. When she was able to be found inside, she spent all of her time in the back rooms of the hospital with an older man named Hershel and his family or with Carl and his mom. 

It was during these times that he played with the other children. He was pretty sure that he was the oldest, but none of them seemed to care. Most of their games were simple, and he found that he liked Lizzie. He couldn’t put his finger on what, but she was different from other kids. She also seemed to have a fascination with the undead, but that wasn’t exactly odd given their situation. Tyler figured she’d probably enjoy Milton’s work, but she obviously knew little about it. The Governor had explained at length that he was not to tell everyone what happened inside the lab. Some people might misunderstand their purpose, and it would frighten them. Of everyone, Tyler wished he could tell Lizzie. He thought maybe she’d understand.

It was one such afternoon when he’d finished all the tasks Helen set aside for him, and Milton was not in his workshop, that Tyler went to find Lizzie and instead found Carl. Carl didn’t seem to care for him much, and Tyler had no idea why. 

“Hi,” he said cautiously, trying to decide if he should just leave the other boy be. He was sitting underneath a tree with a comic book in his lap, but it didn’t look like he was reading it. “What’s that?” 

“Green Lantern,” Carl replied in a monotone. He closed the book, and Tyler almost fled before Carl hefted it out towards him. “You can have it. I don’t feel like reading.”

Tyler took it and sat beneath the tree as well. He didn’t really care for comic books himself, but he’d read just about anything. “I can’t imagine not wanting to read.” 

Carl snorted. “It’s pointless. How am I supposed to read when my mom is lying there in a coma?”

“Why aren’t you with her then?”

“Michonne kicked me out. She said I needed at least an hour somewhere else every day or I was going to go crazy.” 

“I’m sorry,” Tyler said for lack of a better response. He tucked his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on them. “I lost my parents, too.”

“She’s not dead!” Carl yelled. “She could still wake up.”

“I know. I didn’t mean to say she won’t. I just meant that I know what it feels like to be alone.”

“I guess a lot of people do these days.” Carl turned to look him over, like he was seeing him for the first time before nodding slowly. “Nothing could stop my dad. He got shot, went into a coma, and we thought he’d died, then. I was so sure he’d make it this time, too.” He let out a sigh and leaned back against the tree. “Daryl stopped for him. I saw him stop. I guess I thought that if Daryl made it out, then he’d have gotten my dad out, too.”

“Daryl was good to me, Andy too. I think if it was possible, he’d have saved your father.”

“I’m not sure what I’ll do if Mom doesn’t wake up.” Tyler let the silence reign as he fiddled with his pant leg and tried to think of something comforting to say. It was clear to him now that Carl didn’t dislike him but rather had been struggling through his own troubles. He was almost certainly depressed and had every right to be. It was a diagnosis that he belatedly realized would have applied to himself since losing his family, but ironically no longer applied now.

 “Well, I suppose you can’t disappear into the wild and do nothing but read for a month,” Tyler commented dryly. “You don’t even like comic books, not to mention the real deal.”

“You seem… together.” Carl ignored the pathetic joke entirely. “How’d you manage that?” 

“Not all of me.” Tyler lifted up his hand, wiggling the three remaining fingers. “But I guess I am better. I guess I just needed to find a reason to keep going.”

“What happened to your hand?”

“The group I was with wanted my grandma to stay because she was a doctor. She needed some persuading.” 

Carl gaped, mouth hanging open before he slammed it shut and his eyebrows came together in a furious expression. “That- That’s awful!”

“It’s far from the worst thing they did.” 

Carl stared at him for another long stretch before nodding to himself, his jaw set and tight. “That’ll be my reason, then. If I give up, people like that will be all that’s left. My dad was a cop, he protected people. I’m gonna be like my dad.”

 

=====.o0o.=====

Chapter Text

=====.o0o.=====

 

The town that Daryl drove them to was a small one, not all that far from the Police Station. Rick had been there a number of times, though he couldn’t recall a specific reason for any of the visits, and as promised, it was on the way back to Walmart. He’d wanted to take another day or two to rest as Daryl was still on the pale side, but he couldn’t excuse wasting a good day of travelling weather in the midst of winter.

Pulling alongside the curb in the middle of a residential block, Daryl cut the engine and stared at the large Victorian style house. It was decrepit, though not irredeemable, and the appearance spoke of poor maintenance even when it was inhabited. Plenty of these grand estates got converted into rehab facilities or halfway houses to give them an upscale air, but they ended up trashed more often than not. 

For a moment, Daryl didn’t move, and Rick cautiously placed his hand on top of the hunter’s. Daryl ripped his arm away and popped open the car door as if that had been his intention the whole time before getting out and slinging his crossbow over his shoulder. 

Rick sighed and got out the other side, making sure that Judith was both asleep and secure in her carseat before locking her in. He was still learning the rules of what Daryl deemed appropriate contact. It was not unlike handling a cat. They loved closeness, but only on their terms. Fortunately, Daryl was easier to read than a finicky cat, and the rules were broadly that any and all affection was strictly forbidden in anything that resembled public space, regardless that there were only the dead around to observe. It was okay, though, because Rick happened to know that Daryl loved his touch in private, and that was enough.

The house was large, but devoid of any Walkers or people. They swept through it quickly, pausing briefly at each room and shutting it behind them to be on the safe side. The place was a mess, and Rick had no doubt that Daryl was correct in his assertion that there had been drugs around. He’d be shocked if there were any left. 

Once the initial check was complete, Rick returned to the truck and collected Judith, strapping her to his chest as Daryl watched. He wasn’t sure if it was simply habit to keep each other within sight at all times or if Daryl was being overly protective, but Rick didn’t mind the extra set of eyes as he fumbled with the carrier. 

The second lap through the building was glacially slow, and if Rick didn’t know better, he might have considered it a stalling tactic. Daryl examined bookshelves and checked drawers and crawled into closets. Merle was obviously not there. It was unclear if he ever had been, and incredibly unlikely that they’d find confirmation one way or the other. Still, Rick wasn’t about to deny him such a small request, and patiently tagged along behind the archer until there was nowhere left to look. 

Glancing out the window, Rick was dismayed to find that the majority of daylight had already passed them by. It wouldn’t be practical to head over to Walmart that evening. “We can sleep here tonight.” 

Daryl nodded, like this was expected, and gestured with his head toward the stairs. “Third floor.”

They grabbed their bags from the truck and tucked themselves away on the top floor in a room that looked more secure than the others. The twin mattress was sliced down the side like all of the others, but the damage was minor as most of the stuffing had remained inside. Daryl propped a chair in front of the door and set their supplies on top of it while Rick unloaded Judith into her carseat, careful not to jostle her. She’d been smiling up at him and giggling at the faces he made while they searched the house, but got tuckered out after a few hours. 

“For what it’s worth-”

“Don’t,” Daryl cut him off. “Just don’t.”

Tentatively, Rick placed a hand on Daryl’s shoulder, and when he was met with no resistance, gave a tug so that they were facing each other, then took a step forward until they were crowded into the same space. Daryl let out a breath but didn’t pull away, eyes averted in a position he seemed to maintain by force of habit, no matter how often Rick tried to catch them. 

Rick hated that Daryl was either ashamed or embarrassed by what they’d found in each other, afraid of the same touches that made Rick feel tethered and sane. He hated it, but he understood it. Rural, conservative, Georgia wasn’t exactly the best place to be caught with hands down another man’s pants. And even knowing that those rules didn’t matter before and didn’t apply now couldn’t undo a lifetime of learned behavior. The cop had no doubt that if Daryl had been interested in men before, keeping that attraction a secret would have been nothing short of self-preservation. 

What little Rick knew about Daryl’s childhood suggested that warm, comforting contact might have been rare, if it existed at all, and his behavior showed that the trend had continued on well into adulthood. The need and desire was there, just buried beneath an overwhelming amount of caution. 

Leaning in, Rick gave a slow, lingering kiss. It was the apology and optimism he hadn’t been allowed to voice. Daryl responded in kind, chasing the contact as Rick pulled away. Daryl clearly wanted more, but that wasn’t the sort of thing he knew how to ask for. 

There was something he could do to ease the hardship of swimming in uncharted waters. “I’m going to tell you what I want you to do, and you’re going to tell me if that doesn’t work for you.” Rick swallowed hard, unsure of how the archer might react to the commanding tone. It was true that Daryl followed most of his orders unflinchingly, but he was keenly aware that he was overstepping. 

Daryl bristled immediately. “Don’t need no fuckin’ kid gloves. Just-”

“No,” Rick interrupted, keeping his tone authoritative. “You’re going to tell me yes, no, stop and go. That’s it.” 

Daryl gaped, and Rick tried desperately to look confident in his statements. He’d never have attempted this with Lori. She’d have found it constraining, denigrating, and tyrannical. But Lori didn’t have trouble with initiating intimacy, she didn’t struggle with knowing what to do or shame for wanting to do it. Daryl would retain complete control; Rick was just going to set out a path for him, make it so he didn’t have to be proactive. 

“You can always slug me, but I’d rather do it this way.” Rick could read Daryl well enough at this point that he’d know if the man wasn’t on board, but this was too important to risk doing improperly. “Okay?”

“Get off on that?” Daryl bit back, and this time Rick was sure he was stalling. A heavy blush had crept onto his cheeks, and his voice was abnormally strained. “Bossin’ people ‘round?”

Rick ignored the words. “I need you to say it.”

Another beat of silence and then, “Yeah, okay.”

Nodding, Rick took a step back and tried not to think about how hard his heart was pounding. “Get on your knees.” 

Daryl remained upright out of pure stubbornness for a moment before lowering himself to the floor, sitting on his heels and staring at the wooden planks below him. 

“This okay?”

“Jesus,” Daryl grumbled in an explosive breath, nerves causing him to lash out. “Why the hell d'ya make such a fuss over me agreein’ if you’re just gonna keep askin’ the whole time?”

“Yes or no, Daryl.” 

“Yes.”

Rick unzipped his jeans and took himself out and maybe Daryl was onto something about him enjoying being in charge. He liked that Daryl listened to him and he liked Daryl sitting on the ground in front of him staring at the erection that was very quickly plumping up to full mast. 

Slipping his hand into Daryl’s slowly darkening crop of hair, Rick applied just enough pressure to get him moving. He couldn’t imagine there was a way to misconstrue his intent, but he gave instructions anyway. “Watch the teeth.”

Rick let out a sigh as warm, wet heat enveloped him, and his eyes slipped closed at the sensations. Daryl struggled to get the hang of the motions, clumsily trying to take more in and repeatedly having to back off. It was far from the best blowjob Rick had ever had, but he was trying so damn hard to do it properly. The enthusiasm alone was incredibly arousing.

Opening his eyes so he wouldn’t miss the spectacle, Rick quietly coached Daryl through the process. “Don’t need to go down so far, just put your hand around the base. Keep it all real wet.” 

Daryl took his advice to heart, changing his technique to form an O-shaped seal around the head of his dick and bobbing in a rhythm. His hands were calloused and rough enough to feel an extra tug against the sensitive skin. After a frustrated minute, he spat into his hand before returning to the motion, the slide smoother and sending a pleasurable tingle down Rick’s spine. 

Unprompted, he began to swirl his tongue, and Rick groaned. He was quickly approaching climax. Daryl followed the next instruction to cup his balls immediately, like he hadn’t stopped to think about it at all, and that was nearly as hot as the action itself. 

“Gonna-” Rick warned vaguely, taking his hand away so Daryl was free to pull off. He did so, pushing himself back and onto his feet. Face flushed and lips red, Daryl’s eyes flickered to the door, and Rick could tell he was seriously contemplating leaving. Rick snagged his wrist and pushed him against a wall, barring his escape. He brought their mouths back together in a heated kiss. “You planning to leave me hanging?”

  “Nah,” Daryl replied breathlessly, eyes closed as he leaned against the wall. “Just tryin’ to give ya some privacy is all.”

Rick snorted out a surprised laugh, loud enough that he glanced over his shoulder to make sure Judith hadn’t stirred. “We’ve had each other’s dicks in our mouths. I think we’re beyond privacy.”

“Shut up.” Daryl threw a half-hearted punch at Rick’s shoulder, and Rick took hold of his extended hand, bringing it down to his still throbbing cock. He wrapped it around, guiding the first few strokes before letting go, resting his arms against the wall. It didn’t take long before he slipped over the edge, leaning into Daryl and letting him take his weight while sucking in deep breaths. Daryl ran his free hand through his hair, and Rick revelled in the embrace. This thing between them? It did work.

=====.o0o.=====

 

“Merle has to die.”

Carol looked up in surprise at Michonne’s entrance. She glanced around despite knowing that they were alone in the building. Michonne was answering the question Carol had posed two nights ago. If the Governor were gone, who else would have to go to ensure that Woodbury didn’t continue its morally bankrupt pursuits outside the walls and behind closed doors. 

Carol had put a lot of thought into the problem herself. Milton would fold under the slightest pressure. Martinez, Shumpert, Merle and Crowley were the most trusted and competent of the Governor’s soldiers, and presumably involved in all of the Governor’s terrible deeds. She watched them from afar, brought them cookies and chatted with them up close, and assessed the men to see if they would become a problem. Were they power-hungry? Erratic? Immoral? Deceitful? No, Carol decided, they were weak. They were simply following orders because they were too weak to make it on their own. The only wild card was Merle.

She frowned. She didn’t like Merle; no one liked Merle, but she did owe his brother an awful lot. “No. He just can’t be here anymore.”

“Next you’re going to tell me the Governor just needs to leave and everything will be fine.” Michonne folded her arms across her chest, leaning back against the window frame. Her eyes were sharp as she looked Carol over. She was perceptive and intuitive; she’d picked up on the strange duality of Woodbury from the moment they entered and followed it up with frequent stealth missions. When Glenn declared that they would try to make the place work, Michonne had locked eyes with Carol and made silent plans to take care of the problem themselves even as they nodded their assent. 

“The Governor has followers, the whole town is either loyal to him or afraid of him. As long as he’s alive, Woodbury will never be safe for our people,” Carol stated, kindly leaving out that Andrea was one of the Governor’s followers now and would be heartbroken if they succeeded in their plans. “Merle doesn’t. They view him as a wild animal that the Governor keeps leashed for their protection. No one will miss him if he goes, and no one will follow him if he comes back.”

“Alright. How do you propose we get rid of him, then?”

“Two birds, one stone,” Carol replied, detaching her knife from her belt and holding it out so that Michonne could see the name carved into the handle.

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Daryl tapped his fingers along his crossbow and eyed their truck while Rick reinstalled the car seat. It didn’t matter how often he practiced, what type of car seat he used or which car he attempted to attach it to, hooking the damn thing in was always a pain in the ass. “We’ll need a new vehicle.” 

Rick bonked his head on the doorway as he stood and pulled back. Cringing, he rubbed at the sore spot. “Couldn’t tell me that before I got Judith settled?”

Daryl shrugged. “Need one with an enclosed back. In case there ain’t proper shelter.”

Eying the spacious open bed, Rick frowned. “We’ve made due in the cab before.”

“Doesn’t make for good sleep. If we’re gonna spend time on the road, should get a van.”

“Saw a delivery truck on the way here. I’ll drive.” Daryl threw him the keys, and Rick retraced their path a few blocks before veering down a side road. He hadn’t gotten a good look at it, but it appeared to be in decent condition from a distance. If it was salvageable, Daryl could probably get it running. He’d proved himself more than once in that arena and although Rick was itching to know if that had been his profession prior to the outbreak, he didn’t ask. It was a lifetime ago and people left it behind for different reasons. They’d been together for months now, and he hadn’t brought it up. Daryl obviously didn’t want to share, and Rick respected him enough not to pry.

They stopped behind a large, white Gorbelli food truck and hopped out, leaving the engine running in case they needed to beat a hasty retreat. Rick passed a glance toward the hunter, gesturing slightly with his head, and Daryl circled around the other side to scan the surrounding area for anything dangerous. There was one Walker ambling towards them when they met at the front of the food truck, which Daryl took down with his crossbow. 

“I’ll check the back, you check under the hood?” Rick suggested as Daryl retrieved his bolt. He was already halfway there, knowing that there would be an objection if one was warranted. The back hatch slid upward, and while it wasn’t incredibly loud, the metal rolling over metal was jarring in the still, cold morning. There was nothing inside, which was unsurprising, but movement out of the corner of his eye had him stepping backward and drawing his weapon in one swift movement. 

In a window, up on the second floor, a young blond girl stared down at him. Rick lowered his weapon before holstering it and waving his hands. “Hey!” he called up. The girl scampered away from the window. “Shit.”

Daryl came around the side a moment later, eyes roaming the area for danger, crossbow already loaded and at the ready. Rick returned to the back of the van where they crouched for cover. “Someone there?”

“A little girl,” Rick replied, peeking out around the truck. “There was a little girl in the window.”

Daryl immediately switched his gaze to their own vehicle. “Then there’s others. Gotta get Judy outta here.”

“But what if she’s alone?” Rick hesitated. It wasn’t likely, but could they walk away from her if she were? She’d looked clean, cared for. She probably wasn’t alone. Still, his feet refused to budge.

“An’ what if she ain’t?” 

Rick knew what Daryl was trying to say because it was the same thought that first crossed his mind. People were dangerous, more than they’d ever been when he wore a uniform and chased down criminals. The Living were too fresh a nightmare to shake off and greet strangers easily. Hell, even old friends like Morgan were no longer safe. But they had a bigger problem on their hands. “Then they know how to keep children alive.”

Whatever he might have wanted to say, Daryl didn’t bother voicing. Of course it was a dangerous move, but they no longer lived in a world where one or two people could care for a baby. They needed help; someone to look after Judith while they resupplied, someone to quiet her while they drove herds away. What they were doing just wasn’t sustainable. They had to at least try.

Rick collected Judith from the carseat, quickly bundling her against his chest, as the hunter gave him a pained look. “Only thing stupider than goin’ in there is takin’ the baby,” he grumbled. 

“Can’t leave her out here,” Rick explained. “We don’t know how many people are around or their motives. She stays with us.”

“Hope ya know what you’re doin’.” Rick hoped so, too. They quieted as they approached the building, watching the windows of the second floor for movement and finding none. It looked to be an apartment building or possibly a hotel. Daryl took the lead, crossbow raised, while Rick kept his grip firm on his gun and Judith. They nodded to confirm that they were ready before tossing open the main entrance.  

The hallway grew dark as the door shut behind them. Daryl flicked on a flashlight and aimed it first down the empty hall and then across each of the doorways. The place was trashed, garbage and furniture strewn about, and most of the doors were firmly closed. It would be a good place for an ambush.

They crossed the length of the hall and crept up the stairs. Daryl’s footsteps were inaudible, and Rick did his best to mimic him, but it didn’t matter with the way Judith was gurgling happily. Visibility was better on the second floor, sunlight streaming in through a window and making its way past laundry hung up to dry. There were four doors excluding the stairwell, and only one was open. 

Daryl angled his body and raised his bow, cautiously approaching the open doorway. Rick used him as a shield, keeping Judith between them as they always did, and readied his handgun. He could see a woman over Daryl’s shoulder now, baseball bat raised, the young blond girl peeking curiously over her elbow. 

Then the door swung abruptly wider and a second woman appeared, cocking her gun and taking a protective stance in front of the other. “Drop your weapons.” 

Rick holstered his gun, and then took a step forward so he was clearly visible and pushed down on Daryl’s crossbow until he lowered it. If these two women with one gun between them were the best defense this building had to offer, it would probably be safe to let them run the show. He had no doubt that there were plenty of women who were far more dangerous than they first appeared, but these two didn’t seem like they’d seen much of Walkers and even less of people. They were somehow clinging on to the last vestiges of society. 

“Hands where I can see-” The woman with the gun cut herself off, eyes widening. “Holy, shit! Is that a baby?”

“Language, Tara,” the other woman muttered, as if by reflex, before adding, “Oh my god, that’s a baby.”

“Dude. Baby.”

Rick raised his eyebrows at the still threatening posturing before him. “Gun?”

“Let’s get one thing straight. You mess with me or my family, I swear to Christ, I will not hesitate to put you down. I’m Atlanta City Police, and I have enough artillery in here to kill you every day for the next ten years.” Rick doubted that Tara was part of Atlanta Police before this went down because she was young and poorly trained, if at all, and even further doubted she had nearly as much weaponry as she claimed. More likely, she’d gotten the standard issue weapon from a cop and there were no others on premises. Still, there was no point in antagonizing her, particularly while she had a clear shot on him. He raised his hands.

“We have no intention of hurting you or your family. I was a cop myself.” Tara’s eyes went a little wide at the proclamation, and Rick could barely make out Daryl’s muttered, “a real one, too” from behind him. He kept up his placating smile and aura of authority. If these people were as isolated from everyone else as it seemed, it would be more reassuring than scary. “We saw your girl in the window, thought we’d check in on you.”

The other woman nodded, lowering her bat and setting it beside the door. “Come in. We’ve been holed up in here waiting for the National Guard since-”

“The shit hit the fan.”

“Tara.” 

Rick followed the family back inside where his eyes trailed after the little girl who darted away and hid behind the chair where an old man sat, watching them warily, oxygen tube conspicuous on his face. It was clearly an apartment they’d been sharing for some time, probably even the same place they’d lived before the outbreak. 

“Gonna be waitin’ a long time,” Daryl closed the door behind them and lingered in the entryway, crossbow dangling from his grip. It was reassuring to have him at his back, and he hoped that this new group wouldn’t take offense to him guarding the door. “Anyone else in the building?”

“It’s just us. I’m Lilly, by the way.” Rick took her extended hand and briefly shook it, the simple gesture feeling foreign after all this time. She and her sister seemed to have mostly let their guard down already, which just spoke of how much help they actually needed. They were fortunate that it wasn’t The Living that had found them or some other detestable group. “This is my sister, Tara, our father, David, and my daughter, Meghan.”

Rick supplied their introductions as he took the offered seat at the kitchen table. Tara and Lilly joined him, leaning in to catch a look at Judith. “We were part of a larger group, but we got separated a few months ago. We’ve been looking for them ever since.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t suppose you’ll be staying in the building, then?” 

“We were thinking we might, for the time being. There aren’t a lot of people out there anymore and fewer that you’d want to run into.” Rick picked through his words. They couldn’t stay forever, but they could make the spot a base-camp while they searched surrounding areas for their people. “If you don’t mind, we’d like to take one of the other apartments. We can help each other out.”

Lilly nodded along. “Miss Wilhelm’s apartment is across the way, in 203. Tara ransacked the place after she took off to Florida, but it’s in good condition.” 

“You’re going to trust two strange men staying so close to you?” Rick responded, wondering if he should start in on the lectures early about their self-preservation skills. They needed to know what was out there and take better precautions. 

“No, I’m going to trust two men and a baby.” Chuckling, Lilly gave him a smile that Rick was starting to think might be flirtatious. Tara rolled her eyes and moved to the kitchen, muttering something about being hungry. “How old is she?”

Rick glanced over his shoulder, wondering how bad it was that he’d completely lost track of the days. “‘Bout six weeks,” Daryl supplied.

Lilly’s eyes flickered between them before landing on the hunter leaning against the door. “She’s yours?”

“In every way that counts.”

“We lost her mother,” Rick filled in. His heart warmed at Daryl’s admission and the cavalier way in which he’d made it. It was true, too. Judith was Daryl’s child in every way that mattered. He’d protect her to his last breath, and he loved her, even if he couldn’t admit that much. “We’ve been taking care of her ever since.”

David said something at the same time, and Rick couldn’t make it out. Lilly obviously did and took up scolding him immediately. “Dad. Your oxygen tank. Do you not see that red sticker? I’ll be damned if a Merit Ultra Menthol is going to blow this place up after all the work we’ve done to stay alive up here.”

“It’s all the same, Lilly. You can stop that talk right there. It’s just a cigarette.” The old man was petulant, but Rick doubted he would have lit up beside his tank even if Daryl had parted with one of his cigarettes. He obviously knew better than that, would protect his family, even if he had little regard for his personal wellbeing. 

Tara picked up the conversation, ignoring her father with practiced ease. “Hungry?” Tara asked, offering a bowl out as she munched on something herself. Meghan was tucked away behind her, trying to stay hidden from the strangers but simultaneously eager to see the baby swaddled against Rick’s chest. “We’ve got roni sticks for days. Years, probably. You know that Gorbelli food truck parked outside?”

“Dad drove for them, even with the tank,” Lilly cut in. “Day they closed down 75, he grabbed Meghan from school, picked me up at the hospital.” 

“She stole a bunch of oxygen tanks from that dump.” Tara added with a grin as they took turns telling the story. 

“Then, the three of us rushed over to get Tara.” 

“I was at the station. Working booking.” 

“With everything going on, the attacks, the army going into Atlanta, he wasn’t about to let us out of his sight.”

 “Lucky for us, the old man’s truck was pretty much stacked floor to ceiling with sketti rings, turkey chili, and these little suckers.” 

Daryl stepped forward to take advantage of the offered free food, even as he commented, “Should keep stuff like this to yourselves. People know what ya got an’ they’ll try an’ take it.”

“As far as I’m concerned, they can have the roni sticks. I’ve eaten a lifetime’s supply already,” Tara scoffed. 

“Daryl’s right,” Rick reinforced, trying not to blame Tara for her ignorance about what real hunger felt like. “People run out of food, they get desperate, and they do crazy things. Awful things.” Tracing a hand along the lump of cloth where the baby was seated, Rick remembered how close they’d come to losing her to cannibals. “You got anything worth keeping, you keep it secret and hidden.”

Lilly cocked her head. “Even from you?”

“We aren’t about to take anything from you,” Rick assured her, “but most people out there aren’t like us.” Shifting around so Meghan could get a better look as she inched closer, Rick felt inordinately proud to show off his baby girl. The blond backed up when she noticed that she was the center of attention and skittered away.

Lilly watched her retreating form. “She hasn’t been speaking for some time. Poor thing is terrified.”

David began a coughing fit that lasted long and hard and whatever else Lilly might have said was lost to her concern as she hovered nervously over her father. It was a loud rattling cough, and Rick was glad that they’d shut the door behind them. By the end, he laid his head against the cushion in exhaustion. “Could use a nap.”

“Let’s get you into your room,” Lilly suggested. 

Tara set down her bowl of roni sticks and headed over to his seat. “You wanna make yourself useful, now’s the time,” she threw over her shoulder.

Daryl waved him off since Rick was still strapped to the baby and bodily carried the old man into his room. Rick followed closely behind without waiting for an invitation. He didn’t think these people posed a threat to him, but he wasn’t willing to let his guard down. It was still entirely possible that the ambush lay in those back rooms. As they crowded into a bedroom, there was a distinct creaking from upstairs. All three of them looked at the ceiling. For a moment, Rick gripped his gun, wondering if he’d misread the situation entirely. 

“Tara’s been up there a bunch of times, blasting them bastards to pieces. She says they just keep getting back up. I told her, no more. Can’t afford to waste her bullets.”

“Need to shoot ‘em in the head.” Daryl helped David to lift his legs onto the mattress, then turned to give Rick a look. “What they teachin’ y’all in cop school, anyway?”

“That center mass is an easier target?” Rick smiled and nodded at David before moving to leave. “We’ll let you get some rest.”

“Look, I know you understand what with that baby girl of yours,” David continued. “When my girls were born, that’s when I finally figured out what it was to be a man. You know, a real man. You protect them, keep them safe. Just try to make them stronger until they can look out for themselves. But this here, I- I never counted on this.” 

“Think it took us all by surprise,” Rick commented, not sure where the conversation was going. 

“I got a buddy, Bill Jenkins, he lives up in 303. He’s got a real nice backgammon set. He won’t mind, and he keeps it under his bed there. It might be something that’ll make my Meghan talk again. Just… please. Y’all have been out there in the world, and know how to handle those things. Please.”

Rick nodded. It was an easy enough task, if everything was as they said it was. A few Walkers on the floor above wouldn’t pose much of a threat, and they’d need to make sure the whole building was secure before deciding to stay, anyway. Rick looked out the window. They’d have to make it quick if they wanted to get to Walmart and back before they lost the light. He and Daryl shuffled out, closing the door behind them. 

“Oh, leave it open,” Lilly instructed. “I want to be able to hear him.”

Rick ignored the demand, guiding her towards the kitchen, away from where Tara and Meghan were playing a game. When they had relative privacy, Rick dropped his volume. “Look, I don’t want to make assumptions here, but it’s clear your father isn’t well.”

“He’s got lung cancer. We never really expected him to make it this long.” 

“Then you’ve been lucky,” Rick surmised. “There’s no good way to say this, so I’ll just say it. Everyone turns when they die, no matter how they die. He’s a threat to you, and it’s imperative you keep that door shut when he’s resting. You call to him, and you don’t go in that room until he replies. Most importantly, you don’t leave Meghan alone with him.”

Lilly nodded, but it was clear from her expression that she was still in shock from the assessment. She didn’t deny it, though, and didn’t reject his advice, so that was a start. 

“Daryl and I are going to sweep the building, make sure there aren’t any surprises. Then, we need to make a stop, but we should be back by nightfall.”

Lilly was too preoccupied to reply, so they did as promised. They started with the other apartments on that floor, noting that they were already well cleared, before repeating the process on the first floor and then the third. There were five Walkers in all that they disposed of silently, including one legless veteran laying in a bathtub. 

“We really stayin’ here?” Daryl asked once the place was empty. 

“Got a problem with that?” Rick’s eyes slid down to Daryl’s mouth involuntarily, mind supplying helpful images of what Daryl looked like on his knees. He shook it off, trying to concentrate on the task at hand.

Daryl shrugged. “Ain’t close to the farm or your house.”

“These people. They’re here now, alive, and they need our help as much as we need theirs. If it weren’t for David, we could try to convince them to change location, but for right now...” Rick sighed. “We’ll get them trained up, and maybe we can leave Judy with them so we can go out further. This can work.”

Rick could see that Daryl had reservations about the idea, but he didn’t voice them. He just grabbed the backgammon set from under the bed and blew the dust off of it. “Alright.”

When they returned to the family, Lilly handed Rick a pair of keys in exchange for the backgammon set. “For the Gorbelli truck. I heard you looking it over.”

“Awfully big gift in return for backgammon,” Rick replied, but he suspected that this had less to do with Lilly being overly trusting and more to do with her wanting to believe in him in particular.

“Well, you’re just borrowing it. You’ll bring it back.” 

Rick swallowed. He needed to nip this in the bud if they intended to stay with the group. He needed Daryl in a way that Lilly didn’t appeal, even if she was pretty and kind. “I have a wife. She’s one of the ones we’re looking for.”

Lilly nodded, but didn’t accept the keys back. “You can still use the truck.”

 

=====.o0o.=====

Chapter Text

=====.o0o.=====

 

“It’s gross.” 

Daryl didn’t sigh, but he let out a heavy breath through his nose. Tara was smart and competent; she’d make a good hunter if she ever learned to shut her mouth. For some odd reason, she’d taken to him like they were old friends and never seemed put off no matter how little effort he put into making her feel welcome. He wiped the snow off a log and sat down heavily. They could use a break, and it wasn’t like there was much around to catch. “What’s gross?”

“Lilly fawning over Rick like that. Blegh,” Tara made retching sounds and clamped her hands around her neck in an exaggerated fashion. “Like, I get that it’s been a while, and even I can tell that he’s a catch, but the man said no. Ironic that the reason she’s most attracted to him is the exact reason he won’t sleep with her: devotion to his wife.”

Daryl grunted. That wasn’t an entirely accurate assessment, but he wasn’t about to fill Tara in on the missing pieces. He’d been wondering a lot about Lilly and Rick, had even backed off to give it the opportunity to sprout if that’s what Rick wanted. After all, odds were against them finding Lori, and he obviously didn’t mind seeking companionship elsewhere. Lilly was attractive, capable, and had the right equipment. Daryl was far more jealous than he was prepared to admit. 

During their first few days staying at the apartment, Rick began coaching the sisters on self-defense, and after a week, Daryl started taking Tara out with him to work on hunting and survival skills. It was painfully reminiscent of spending time with Claire and Rachel. He was sure that Meghan was younger than Tyler and David wasn’t a doctor, but he periodically felt himself being pulled back into that time and mindset.

“Must be especially awful for you,” Tara continued, fishing around in her bag for their lunches. Two weeks with the Chamblers, and Daryl was already sick of ‘roni sticks. He accepted them anyway and took a big bite.

“Why’s that?”

“Oh, come on. You’re not fooling me. I’ve been there, chasing after someone who loves you but not in the right way.”

“Ya don’t know what you’re talkin’ ‘bout,” Daryl responded tightly. Was it that obvious that he wanted Rick? 

“Fine. Chill in the closet. I’m not gonna tell.” Tara sat, kicking at the snow with her boot a couple times and looking distinctly guilty. “I’m not really a cop. I mean, it’s not a total lie. I was in the Academy when everything went down. I’m sorry I lied.” 

“Don’t matter what ya were before.” Daryl stood and picked up his bow. “All that matters is keepin’ the people you care ‘bout alive. So ya better be ready to lie and worse to keep them safe. An’ ya don’t feel guilty ‘bout that.”

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Daryl had been sleeping on the couch since they took up residence in their new apartment. There were enough extra blankets in the building that it wasn’t chilly, but he struggled to fall asleep the first night without the now familiar comfort of Rick’s presence beside him. It was just as well because Lilly had come in unannounced the following morning with two bowls of breakfast. He’d nearly shot her in surprise, and she learned to knock. 

Sitting down on the couch that doubled as his bed, Daryl kicked off his shoes and wrapped himself in the entire army of blankets he used at night. The day was particularly cold, and Daryl had called off the hunt early to avoid frostbite. Rick came into the room, depositing Judith in Daryl’s arms so that he could keep her warm before disappearing somewhere behind the couch. Daryl didn’t have the energy to follow. 

He heard the scraping of metal on wood and finally the distinct scent of gas, which was just enough motivation to drag himself from the couch and figure out what Rick was doing. 

“Obviously can’t run it for long, but it should be enough to warm this place up to bearable levels.” Rick looked over with a half-smile. He’d insulated the windows and started a small kerosene heater in the bedroom. 

Daryl set Judith down in the car seat tucked beside the bed, folding a blanket over her.  “Gonna need the fuel later.” 

“It’s just for a few hours.” Rick said it like it was already decided, and Daryl had no inclination to fight him on something that would so clearly benefit Judith. “Lilly wasn’t happy with you taking Tara out in this kind of cold.” 

Shrugging, Daryl turned to leave. The couch was warm enough with the blankets, and he didn’t want to hear any more about what Lilly did or did not like. He was stopped by a grip on his wrist. He gave it a pointed look, but that did nothing to dissuade Rick. 

“Sit,” Rick instructed, gesturing to the bed as the only place to sit down. It was warm in the room, so Daryl sat. “Look, you may be the one on the couch, but I realize I’m the one in the dog house.” 

Daryl tried to piece that together but quickly gave up. “Got no idea what you’re on about.”

“I’m sorry that Tyler wasn’t there, and I’m sorry that we lost your brother’s bike. ”

“Didn’t lose it, it was taken.” Daryl cut in, ignoring the Tyler issue because, frankly, he was amazed by how well Rick handled his continued absence and didn’t want to push his luck. “An’ there ain’t nothin’ to do ‘bout it.” It was frustrating that it had been targeted, someone bypassing his miniature security system, but it gave him a vague, most likely futile hope that Merle had been the one to take it. 

“Then why have you been icing me out since we got back?”

“‘M not.” He stood and took a step forward, but Rick rested a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down.

 “You are! You’re spending most of your time hunting. You won’t sleep in here. Hell, you can hardly look at me.” 

Daryl looked up at that and met his eyes, if only to prove him wrong. “We’re in a group now. Things gotta go back to normal. Ya still got that itch, I’m sure Lilly would jump at the chance to scratch it for ya. Spend plenty enough time over there to make it happen.”

Rick started laughing, and Daryl was sure he ought to feel insulted. “So that’s what this is about? You’re jealous of Lilly?”

“Ain’t jealous,” Daryl denied. “We ain’t alone now. Ya got options.”

“So what then? I settle down with Lilly, and you settle down with Tara?”

Daryl snorted. “Might be new to this whole sleepin’ with guys thing, but I’m pretty sure she don’t.”

Rick paused at that, cocked his head to the side like it hadn’t occurred to him, then nodded in acceptance. He took a seat beside Daryl on the bed. Rick’s tone was sedate, like he was trying to keep a heated discussion down. “I told Lilly I wasn’t interested. I spend extra time over there to play games with Meghan.”

“You told her ya were married, not that ya weren’t interested.” Daryl wasn’t angry; it was just a statement of fact. 

“I’ll be sure to clarify if it comes up again.” Rick rested a hand on Daryl’s thigh and suddenly it was hard to think about anything, particularly when it started to move upward. Daryl forced himself to sit still, marvelling at how effective the space heater was that he suddenly felt sweltering beneath his blankets. “So she knows I’m not interested in her.”

Daryl nodded even though he’d lost track of the conversation. Rick had this uncanny ability to make his brain short-circuit with one touch, his whole body going haywire as a result. It felt like there was a rushing in his ears of a thousand voices talking over each other. He couldn’t understand any of it, but the swell of emotions that came with were easy enough to discern: desire, weakness, affection, disgust. 

“Lay down.”

Rick’s voice cut through the chorus easily, forcing it into a quiet susurrus in the back of his mind. He complied, most of the blankets sliding to the floor so he could sprawl onto his back. Kicking off his shoes, Rick checked on Judith before crawling onto the mattress. Daryl met his mouth eagerly, part of him trying to make up for the lost time they’d spent on opposite sides of the apartment when all he’d wanted was to do this again. 

Rick set the pace, persistently keeping it slow, lingering on each motion almost to the point of frustration, before speeding up and making it hard and fast and dirty. It was all he could do not to rub himself against Rick’s thigh, but when he snaked his hand down to address the growing problem, Rick stopped him. 

“Strip, and I’ll give you something better than your hand.”

Daryl rolled off the bed and onto his feet in a smooth motion, going straight for his belt. He shifted uncomfortably when he noticed that Rick was openly staring while palming his own crotch. Daryl quirked an eyebrow. “You gonna watch?”

“Hell yeah.”

Daryl hoped that his face wasn’t showing the sudden heat that he felt creeping up his shoulders, covering his neck and making a home for itself on his cheeks. He could tell Rick no. Rick probably wouldn’t even hold it against him, probably would still do whatever he was offering. But part of him liked that Rick wanted to watch him, so he tried not to feel self-conscious as he dropped his pants and stepped out of them. He debated over the shirt before deciding that he was warm enough, and Rick had already seen anything he had to hide, and shucked that as well. 

“You’re supposed to do it slowly.”

“Next you’ll be askin’ me to dance while I’m at it,” Daryl muttered as he climbed back onto the bed. 

Rick grinned. “Now there’s an idea.” Rolling until he was half on top of Daryl, he pressed a chaste kiss to his lips then started making his way downward, landing sporadic kisses across his chest, lingering on a nipple, and moving along his stomach until he reached his goal. He gripped it firmly in one hand and pressed a kiss to the tip before looking up at Daryl’s face. “Is this okay?”

“Gonna fuckin’ kill me like this.”

“Yes or no.”

“Fuck!” Daryl grunted, simultaneously hating and loving the way Rick took it out of his hands. He just needed to say yes, and he wouldn’t have to think at all. “Yes!”

Rick took the majority of the length into his mouth, working his wrist over the base and bobbing up and down without any need for the sort of instruction Daryl had had. Using his other hand, Rick cradled his balls, rolling them around in his palm. Would his second blow job be as perfect as Rick’s already was? Or maybe Rick was far less new to this experience than Daryl has assumed. He felt another swell of jealousy for anyone who’d had this treatment before him and instantly hated himself for it. 

“Jesus,” Daryl praised. 

Rick came up for air, continuing to jack him with one hand. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. There’s a thing of lube in the beside table.”

Furrowing his brow, he grabbed the bottle, finding it easily and handing it off with some hesitance. “What d’ya need that for?”

“I’m-” Rick cut himself off, looking a little unsure of himself for the first time since he took the lead in their activities. He cleared his throat. “I’m gonna use it on your prostate?”

“Hell’s a prostate?” Daryl asked before he could be embarrassed about it. It was quickly followed by a series of questions that he was successful in self-censoring. Why hadn’t he known about it? Why did Rick think it would make a blow job better? More importantly, did it make a blow job better?

Rick sat back on his haunches and fiddled with the bottle in his hands, and Daryl was suddenly feeling awkward, naked with his wet boner cooling off quickly as it dried and flagged. “Okay, well, Lori knew I was into men, too, so we, uh - tried some things out. It was her idea, actually, but -”

“Spit it out, would ya?”

“It’s a… thing in your ass that feels really good when you rub at it.”

“Oh, hell no, you ain’t fuckin’ me.” Daryl protested once his mind made a clear image of what Rick had said. He immediately started to get up, spotting his pants and wondering where he’d dropped his shirt. Rick put a hand on his chest, stopping his escape.

“That’s not - Look, we should have talked about this first, and I went about it the wrong way. I’ll show you what I mean, and we’ll do it on me. You don’t like anything, we’ll stop.” Rick was pitching his head at an angle that looked painful to try to catch his eye, but Daryl didn’t give it to him. He just nodded with a brief jerk of his head and laid back down, trying to force the tension from his body. Rick wouldn’t do something Daryl didn’t want. 

Rick stripped out of his own clothes and scooped up the lube again, squirting a liberal amount onto his first two fingers and then reaching around to his backside. Daryl couldn’t see what he was doing, but his eyes were fixated on the spectacle nonetheless, taking in Rick’s changing expression and the way his mostly flaccid cock was occasionally jerking in growing interest. 

After a few minutes, Rick straddled Daryl’s hips, keeping his weight entirely on his knees, and smiled crookedly down at him. “Give me your hand.” Obediently, his arm extended without conscious thought, and Rick smeared some lube onto his fingers. “Work around the outside first, then go slow, one finger.”

Rick had already gotten the area wet, but he still took his time, strangely enthralled by the soft skin and the way Rick was already panting and sweaty above him. The mild flowery smell of lavender from the lube was at odds with the musky scent they were working up, but that only made it better. When Rick instructed him to put it in, he did so without thought. He liked what they were doing. It wasn’t odd or unnatural. He probably would have even enjoyed it had their roles been reversed and he’d let Rick do what he’d originally intended. 

“Okay, now crook your finger forward and move it around until you feel something of a lump.” Daryl knew he’d hit it because Rick sucked in a deep breath and dropped forward until he was braced on his hands and knees, demanding that Daryl continue. Daryl worked at the newfound prostate systematically, first up and down and then in circles, trying out different techniques and gauging Rick’s pleasure. It didn’t seem to matter, though, because every movement elicited moans of encouragement. Rick instructed him to move up to two fingers, and then three, panting in his ear as they went. “Stop.”

Daryl froze, wondering what he’d done wrong when Rick looked like he’d been falling apart in the best way possible. He slowly retracted his fingers. “Y’alright?”

Rick let out a short burst of laughter. “Just about to blow my load.” He shifted, breath finally coming under control. “But the way I figure, if three fingers are good, a dick’s got to be better. You in?” 

Daryl was painfully hard from what they were doing and how Rick was reacting. He’d even been considering trying it on himself when Rick was finished. But this was an opportunity he wasn’t prepared to pass up. “Not yet, but I reckon we can fix that.”

Rick snorted, awkwardly shifting back to his knees and guiding Daryl’s length into the prepped hole. He gave himself just a moment before straightening and sliding all the way down. Daryl groaned at the sensation of a hot tunnel encasing him, trying to buck his hips up but getting nowhere. “Think you’ll want to give it a try next time?”

“Jesus Christ.”

If Rick had been waiting for a response, that was apparently close enough to one that he started to lift himself up, gripping at Daryl’s hips to keep them steady and picking up a rhythm. He didn’t try for anything fancy, and there was little that Daryl was able to do in his position besides letting the sensations sweep over him. It didn’t last long with Rick already nearly there, and Daryl vicariously on edge from watching. 

Elation set in as Rick slumped forward onto his chest, sucking in air. Daryl rested a hand on Rick’s back, idly tracing meaningless patterns and contemplating the blankets on the floor until Rick finally sat up and shattered that peace.

“Was thinking tomorrow we could head out again. We could leave Judith with Lilly and stop by Lori’s parents’ place. We’ve put off searching too long.”

Daryl nodded numbly, wondering how he’d forgotten that he was “just relief” to Rick and that his priority was his wife. And why did it bother him so much?

=====.o0o.=====

 

Rick parked the large Gorbelli truck in front of a sprawling apartment building and turned off the engine, staring intently. Daryl spared the building a brief glance before turning back to Rick. 

The house that belonged to Lori’s parents had been empty and clearly looted sometime afterward, but there was no sign of foul play involved. It looked like her parents had left peacefully early on, packing their suitcases and taking heirlooms with them. If they’d made a note of where they were going, it couldn’t be found. They devoted an entire day to the search despite the resigned expression Rick carried throughout. 

Today, though, Rick’s expression was far more dangerous. He looked hopeful as he gazed at the apartment in front of them. The whole community appeared relatively untouched and eerily quiet without Walkers roaming the streets. The gate, though powered down and now operated manually, was still standing. The buildings were intact, and this one had boarded up windows for an extra layer of protection. 

“She could be in there,” Rick started slowly. “The whole group could be in there.”

“A lot of things could be in there,” Daryl reminded him gently. The stillness was bothering him, and would be bothering Rick if he was thinking clearly. If this place was so secure, where did all the people go? If the people were still there, why had no one noticed their arrival? This was usually the point in time Daryl expected a gun to be aimed in his direction. 

Rick nodded, undoing his seatbelt and slipping out of the truck. Daryl followed him up the front steps, scanning the area for traps or signs of life. After a brief pause, Rick knocked loudly, deflating when there was no response. He reached above the door frame, sliding his hands along until he’d nearly reached the end before producing a copper house key and inserting it into the lock. 

Rick strained against the door, slowly working it open until it was wide enough to pass through and going straight inside. The house was dark, courtesy of the boarded windows and smelled faintly of mold and rot. Just as Daryl decided this was a dead end, Rick called out, “Evie?” 

Daryl produced a flashlight, running the beam around the place. The living room had been redecorated into a fortress, a couch wedged in the corner half obstructing the door they’d just entered, wardrobes and chairs stacked in front of the boarded windows, and tables with weapons dotted around the room. “Looks like she stayed here.”

“Looks secure, nothing got in here but us.”

“Then where’s Evie?”

Rick took out his own flashlight and stepped toward what looked like the kitchen while Daryl looped around the opposite way. At least Rick was armed and ready. The rest of the apartment was done similarly to the living room, and he moved swiftly through the rooms to gauge their safety. The back door also had a heavy loveseat dragged in front of it, which meant that it was very unlikely Evie, or whoever was inhabiting the house, had left. Feeling uncomfortable so far from Rick and his hopeful expression, Daryl switched his direction to follow the sounds of footsteps on the floor above.

He spotted the beam of Rick’s flashlight as he was opening a door at the end of the hall and as the door was pushed out of the way, the light landed on a face, distorted with the sort of decay that was now so familiar. There was no question that it was dead, but still, Rick didn’t shoot it, hesitating as it charged him. 

“Shit.” Daryl grunted, raising his crossbow and taking aim. There wasn’t a good shot, not with the poor lighting and Rick blocking most of the hallway. 

Rick was knocked into the wall, gripping the beast about the shoulders to keep the mouth away from his flesh. Daryl could make out his swearing as he barreled down the passage, grabbing the Walker and tearing it away from the cop. He’d intended to throw it to the floor, but tripped over something in the darkness of the room and went down, the Walker tumbling on top of him. He could smell its breath and hear its growls as it lunged for him, undeterred by his same impediments. Flinging his crossbow into the way, he heard its teeth smash into the metal frame as he fumbled around for his light. 

For a moment, he was blinded by Rick’s flashlight, and then he saw his hand was perilously close to gnashing teeth and quickly withdrew it. Finally, Rick took the shot, and Daryl felt the weight of a body drop limply on him. He rolled it away and got to his feet, panting from the close call more than the exertion. 

“Oughta kick your ass for that.” He straightened, looked around for his flashlight and finally located it when it flickered on briefly before going out again. Tapping it against his hand, he got the second beam going. He was furious with Rick for putting himself in danger like that, and annoyed with himself that he’d let him wander the house alone. He just hadn’t expected Rick of all people to freeze up. 

Daryl directed the light to the body on the floor, running his eyes over it for what caused her death. She looked so much like her sister, Daryl almost felt bad snapping at Rick. It must have appeared for all the world like Lori was dead and had come back to haunt him. 

“Sorry,” Rick apologized after a long moment. “I just… I just thought Evie would’ve made it. She really knew how to take care of herself. She was always traveling the world to obscure locations to find some plant no one had ever heard of, and to hear her tell it, she was nothing short of Indiana Jones, if he’d been a botanist. Carl loved her stories.”

Daryl spotted a bandage on the Walker’s arm and squatted down to peel it away. “Ain’t a bite.” He declared upon seeing the smoother cut. It was puffy and swollen, misshaping a large part of her arm. He briefly checked over the rest of the skin that was easily accessible and determined there were no other injuries. “Think she died of infection from that cut. Damn shame.”

Rick sat down heavily on the bed, a functional twin mattress that still managed to dominate the small room. “How long since she turned?”

“Not sure,” Daryl admitted, scanning over the rest of the room for anything useful. It was mostly barren besides a couple bottles of painkiller on the beside table. He pocketed them. “Couple weeks?”

“Jesus.” Rick shook his head, his distress palpable. Unsure how he could make it better, Daryl sat down awkwardly on the bed with him. He remembered how Rick always seemed to reach out when he was distressed back at the farm, when things were hitting him hard all at once, and rested his hand over Rick’s. “We should have come here sooner. We could have saved her.”

“When?” Daryl demanded. “While ya were laid up? When we had a good lead? Or were ya thinkin’ we’d take two kids way out here with no supplies an’ without even checkin’ your house?”

“This place is well stocked, and we wouldn’t have lost Tyler if we had.”

“Don’t be stupid. We did the best we could with what we knew. This ain’t on you.” Daryl reached out and rested his hand on Rick’s neck, leaning in for the best comfort he knew how to give. 

Rick turned away. “Just give me a few, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.”

Standing, Daryl shouldered his crossbow before heading downstairs. The house did have a lot of supplies, boxes of food stashed in the cupboards and ammo lying around. There wasn’t a lot of medication, but that wasn’t surprising given how Evie died. Daryl shifted the couch fully away from the front door and loaded everything into their truck. 

Rick arrived just as Daryl was finishing up, and if the air weren’t so somber, Daryl might have cracked a joke about the timing being intentional to skip all the hard labor. “We good?” He asked instead.

Nodding, Rick handed off the keys and sat down in the passenger’s seat. Daryl drove in silence for a long time before Rick broke in. “She cleared most of that community herself.” Rick snorted. “We picked the only apartment in the whole damn place with a Walker in it.”

“How d’ya know that?”

“Found her notebook,” Rick explained as he produced a slim purple composition book. “She took this thing everywhere. Anyway, we should go back some time. She took all the food, but there are other things we could use in some of the apartments. There’s well water and a creek, no major damage to the walls surrounding the complex, and even some solar panels on a couple of the buildings that would give us electricity if we figure out how to run them. It would make a good base camp if we could move David.”

“She kept track of all of that?” 

Rick nodded as he cracked the notebook, running his fingers along the words. “She kept track of everything. She’s got lists of people she knew in here, mostly other botanists she worked or travelled with. Seems like she thought they’d find a cure in one of the plants they were researching.”

“Makes as much sense as anythin’ else these days.” Daryl knew there was no cure coming, doubted there would have been one even if the CDC were still running today. Walkers were unlike anything humanity had ever experienced before, and they’d reshaped the whole world in their wake. There was no going back. He kept these thoughts to himself, though, in case Rick needed that pocket of belief. “You in there?”

“Me, Carl, Lori and their parents. My name’s crossed off.”

“Take it she didn’t like ya much.”

“It was probably the getting shot thing. She must have thought I’d died in the hospital when everything started. Lots of these names are crossed off.” 

“Lori’s?”

“Nothing but a question mark.”

“Was a real shitshow at the start. Bombs goin’ off, military blowin’ through whole towns, evacuation centers in all directions gettin’ set up an’ torn down just as fast.” Daryl wasn’t sure why he said it. In the end, it didn’t matter if Lori had tried to get to Evie’s place and failed or if it was too far out of the way. If Daryl had to guess, he’d wager Shane had put a stop to the idea. That was, of course, assuming that Lori had even considered the option. He supposed he just liked the idea of the only family he knew for Rick trying to come together. 

They pulled into the space in front of Tara and Lilly’s apartment building before Rick had a chance to respond, heading in to check on everyone before unloading. They’d been gone for the better part of two days, which was officially the longest Judith had ever been without them. 

Giggling could be heard from the hallway even before they knocked and let themselves in. Tara was near the door, gun out and ready, but she slipped it in her waistband when she saw them enter. Lilly was playing with Judith’s feet while Meghan and David played backgammon. Rick went straight for the baby and scooped her up. She grabbed at his chin and cooed, like she knew that he needed cheering up.

“Welcome back,” Lilly said with a smile while Tara came in for a hug with Daryl but wisely switched to a fist bump when she saw his expression. “Would you two mind running out to the creek to refill the buckets before it gets dark? We are officially out of disposable diapers, and I had to do a lot of laundry while you were gone.”

“Bless you,” Rick replied, returning Judith to Lilly and accepting the charge of restocking their water supply. The sun had already set and the sky was quickly darkening, but it wouldn’t be right to leave them without water. “I completely forgot we were so low.”

The creek was a couple blocks away and behind a residential house, but it was large and deep enough to still run most days after breaking away the frozen top layer. By the time Rick and Daryl finished filling the buckets with water, any remnants of sunlight had faded, the way only lit by the reflection of the moon off the snowy ground. 

“We’ll have to pick up some more diapers. I can’t believe we already finished off that stash from Walmart.”

“Ain’t that bad. Can use old clothes an’ all these houses are filled with closets.” 

“You hear that?” They both stopped so that the crunch of their steps wouldn’t obscure the sounds. Daryl could now faintly make out a crackling, staticy sound. “Radio.” Rick muttered as they dropped their buckets and crept toward the noise. The poor reception was soon replaced with a voice, male, unrecognizable emerging from a car parked on the curb. 

“Crowley? We finally got the radio signal boosted. You find out where those two guys were camped?” 

Daryl spared a look to gauge Rick’s concern. There was a group that apparently had technology enough for boosting a radio signal, and the resources to send out a car to track them down. It was possible that the group was no larger than their own but unlikely. And they’d been tailed back here. Daryl cursed himself for not noticing, but their vehicle would have been easy to follow. 

They waited, holding their breath, to see what the response was. When none came, the radio repeated itself, and Daryl circled around the back of the car to get on the other side before peering through the window. There was no one inside. He stood and looked around. “Empty,” he announced. Rick stood up as well. 

“You don’t think -”

Rick cut himself off at the sound of gunfire. It was coming from their building.

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

“I tell ya, this is what ya get for lettin’ Crowley in charge of that mission,” Merle declared as they crept through the side streets of a small town he’d visited a number of times before, periodically checking the radio for a response but mostly keeping their eyes peeled for a large, white Gorbelli truck. “He’s a good dog, but he don’t like to hunt much. If they ain’t here, we just gonna follow on down to the ocean?”

“Don’t be a jackass,” Andrea chided, her face scrunching up in disapproval. “Crowley and Hawkins are our people, and we’re not just going to abandon them.”

“Unfortunately, he does have a point,” the Governor stated, turning apologetic eyes to the blonde, and crafting a more palatable version of the truth. Merle wasn’t sure how someone so smart could fall for it every time. Then again, it was easier for her to believe something was true when she wanted it so badly. “We only know where they were during their last check-in. They could have gone anywhere from there, and I will not risk the lives of more people chasing our tails around the entire state of Georgia. Now, let’s keep our thoughts positive. This could be the town.”

Merle could hear Martinez and Shumpert telling lewd jokes in the back of the truck. He’d have preferred to sit there if not for the whipping cold. He wasn’t sure it was any warmer inside the cab with the icy glares Michonne kept throwing his way. Damn if that woman couldn’t speak volumes with her eyes. Currently, they were saying, ‘I’m contemplating the merits of murdering you, and if the witnesses would care.’

It was kind of hot. 

The Governor was testing her out as a replacement for Crowley, not that he’d said as much, but he’d obviously seen the potential with her weapon finesse and survival skills. Crowley was a goner, doomed from the moment Milton boosted the radio and was still unable to get an answer. The real reason they were on this mission was to determine how much of a threat the men in the Gorbelli truck were. How big and close was their camp and were there any supplies they could take. He wondered if Michonne had pieced that together already. She never seemed to buy into anything the Governor sold.

 A brief pounding on the roof of the truck caused the Governor to bring them to a halt, looking over his shoulder to where Martinez pushed aside the sliding glass and leaned in, tugging down the snow speckled scarf so he could be heard, “That’s Crowley’s car on the left there.”

The Governor parked the truck in the center of the street and turned off the engine as they all got out to inspect the vehicle. There was no sign of damage, no blood, body parts or visible traps. Merle lifted the hood and examined the engine before giving the clearance for Shumpert to hop into the driver’s seat and start it up. It came on without a problem.

“Car works, but there’s nothing left in the tank.”

Andrea put a hand up to her forehead to block the glare from the sun and looked around. “They might be somewhere around looking for gas.”

“They were stuck out here overnight. They’d have looked for shelter,” Martinez pointed out.

“That’s a lot of buildings to search,” Andrea sighed. 

“They’ll be in that one,” the Governor cut in confidently, pointing to a three story apartment building at the end of the street. “Good sightlines and higher than most. Stay on your toes, there could be Biters or unfriendlies.”

Merle kept his mouth shut as they walked under the light snowfall. Crowley and Hawkins wouldn’t have picked that place to hunker down for a night. It would take too long to clear properly and wouldn’t be a safe choice for two people. The only way they’d have gone to that building was if they were scouting out another group, but the story was just plausible enough.

They approached cautiously, Merle scoping out the windows and surrounding buildings for snipers. The Governor signalled for Shumpert and Martinez to circle around the back as they reached the front yard. There were bootprints to and from the main entrance, enough to dig out a path towards the left, and Merle examined them closely. The snow was starting to fall heavily, and if they’d have been much later, they might not have seen them at all. “Whole mess of tracks here,” he said, “lotta people moving through very recently.”

“Or a lot of trips.” Michonne’s presence behind him was of little comfort.

Martinez came around the corner of the building with Shumpert following a few steps behind. “Looks clear.”

The Governor left Shumpert and Martinez to keep watch and led the rest of them inside. It was on the second floor that they discovered the bodies of Crowley and Hawkins piled on top of each other just inside the doorway of an apartment, bullethole in one head, possibly an arrow hole in the other’s head. 

“Keep your guard up,” the Governor ordered, “the bastards that did this might still be around. Merle, Michonne, check the third floor.”

Merle headed back to the stairs, inviting Michonne to go first and following her lead as she opened the nearest apartment, arm raised and gripped on the handle of her katana. “This is a waste of time. They’ve cleared out.”

Merle shrugged, opening both bedroom doors and meeting the woman by the entrance. “The Governor likes theatrics sometimes.” 

“He’s a real piece of work.”

“You still agreed to come along.” Taking the lead this time, Merle entered the apartment across the way. The smell of rot was much more pronounced in this one, and he was unsurprised to find a corpse in the bathroom. 

Michonne trailed after him. “I wanted my sword back.”

“Governor said ya took it back yourself ‘fore ya even agreed.” Merle couldn’t be sure if that was true. It sounded like something Michonne would do, but the Governor told so many lies and half-truths that his polygraph would probably break on contact. 

Michonne shrugged. “Wasn’t right to leave it sitting in his trophy case alongside your balls.”

Merle snorted out a laugh at his own expense. “Could learn a thing or two from me, little lady. Ego ain’t worth shit these days. It don’t cover your back from Biters, an’ it don’t put food in yer belly.”

“Found something else in that case that didn’t belong there,” Michonne announced, pulling something from her coat and keeping it hidden within her grip. “I’m not giving it to you because I like you. I just dislike him more.”

Merle accepted the familiar knife still packaged in its sheath into his open palm, unable to move. His father had given it to him on his first hunting trip, Dixon already carved into the handle, and when he couldn’t stand the reminder of the beating he’d taken that evening for ‘making them all go hungry’, he’d passed it along to Daryl. He’d seen Daryl using it the last time they were together, back at the quarry. He licked his lips. “The Governor had this?”

“Yeah. Your name’s Dixon, isn’t it? If it’s not yours, I can put it back.”

Merle tuned Michonne and her abnormal chattiness out. There was no question that this was Daryl’s knife, and it was far too big of a coincidence that he might have used it to kill a Walker and the Governor somehow found it. 

No, Merle knew the Governor, and his mind filled in the gaps of its own accord. The Governor demanded loyalty to him above all else. Merle had been too careless early on, too open about his affection for his brother. Hurting Daryl was a bridge too far for Merle and as long as he was out there, the Governor couldn’t command Merle as a perfect soldier. So he went to kill the only person in the world that Merle gave one fuck about.

It could have been a supply run or a chance encounter, but if the Governor was involved, then Daryl’s death was no accident. Most likely, he’d hunted him down and killed him like an animal, keeping the knife because he was too proud to go without a trophy. 

Daryl was dead.

He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there, but he was on the second floor again and the Governor was approaching him, asking him something, but Merle couldn’t hear him. He couldn’t hear anything at all except a pounding in his ears in time with his heart. The Governor’s expression changed to confusion as he got a couple steps closer than normal talking distance and then shock as Merle slammed Daryl’s knife home in the Governor’s eye. 

Merle’s world jerked into focus as he felt a bullet pierce his side and a second into his shoulder, but the shots were coming from behind the Governor and unable to hit Merle’s most vital areas. All at once, he realized what he’d done and how dangerous his position was. Michonne might not care that he’d attacked the Governor, but Andrea, Martinez, and Shumpert would be a formidable set of opponents on their own. 

He grabbed hold of the meat shield currently keeping him from being shot to death and dragged it backward to the stairwell, releasing it as he hit the doorway and darting down the stairs. Martinez and Shumpert were already inside, but fortunately, they didn’t know what was going on. It bought him enough time to duck out the back door and run towards the cars lining the street. They would provide enough cover to get some distance. With any luck, the steady snowfall would cover his tracks.

Merle would have liked to head back to the truck, take it and leave the others far behind, but he didn’t have the keys to start it, nor the time to hotwire it. They would probably head back that way to look for him, giving him a bigger advantage. He wasn’t going to make it out of town on foot, but he knew his way around the neighborhood. Another couple blocks, and there was an old halfway house he could crash at. 

 

=====.o0o.=====

Chapter Text

=====.o0o.=====

 

Andrea knew it was coming, had seen it even through her grief-stricken turmoil, and she knew she had to nip it in the bud. Martinez was the closest to a second-in-command Woodbury had, especially if one discounted Merle, and he would try to step into Philip’s role the moment they entered town. But Woodbury didn’t need a paramilitary, gun-happy, aggressive leader like Martinez. It needed Philip. Someone who understood the complexity of leadership as an endeavor to bring people together and balance protection and community. 

As they entered through the main gates of town, halted by the concerned citizens that had gathered, Andrea wiped her face with the back of her sleeves, straightened, and exited the vehicle in a firm, confident stance. 

“Listen up, everybody!” Martinez shouted into the crowd of people murmuring and asking questions. 

“The Governor is dead,” Andrea announced without preamble, taking the reins from Martinez before he could continue. He passed her a look of surprise, but didn’t call her out, maybe recognizing that publicly bickering over how this speech went wouldn’t help either of them. There was one thing they could both agree on: the complete truth would do no one any good. “He and Merle died fighting Biters, protecting us, just as he always promised.” 

The talking swelled as people panicked over the connotations. What would happen to Woodbury without their leader? 

“So what do we do?” She raised her voice to make sure everyone could hear her clearly. “We honor him by thriving. And years from now, when they write about this plague in the history books, they will write about Woodbury.” Andrea paused as the clamor petered off and everyone turned to her for leadership. That wasn’t a role she intended to claim, either. “We all know that no one person could hope to fill the Governor’s shoes, so I don’t think we should even try. We’ll make a council, several people, democratically elected, and with any luck, it’ll be enough to fill the hole he’s left behind.”

Andrea didn’t expect any rebuttal to her suggestion, particularly in front of the crowd, but Martinez forged ahead. “That’s all well and dandy for inside our community, but we need decisive leadership when facing what’s out there.”

“That’s why I’m nominating you for the council,” Andrea shot back, daring Martinez to push for authority over democracy in front of their followers. It wasn’t going to work unless he angled to make them all afraid of him. Having him on the council might appease him, and it would also allow them to utilize Martinez’s skills, doubly important without Merle or Philip. “I’m also nominating Milton as one of the Governor’s most trusted and reliable advisors. We’ll put up a list at the town center, and anyone is free to add any names they’d like to vote for.”

The shock was still so pervasive among the group, that there were no distracting questions or demands for her attention as she looped around to the back of the crowd, tugging Tyler into a hug and looking to Carol. “Where is everyone?” Andrea didn’t have to specify who she meant. They’d become deeply entrenched with this place, but she doubted she’d ever stop considering the small group that entered Woodbury with her as family.

“Everyone’s at the clinic. Lori woke up.”

Michonne, who’d been greeting Tyler, turned and headed straight toward the hospital, while Andrea took the extra minute to pull Karen aside from the throng of people. “Can you get the list of nominations started? Lori’s awake, and I’d like to check in on her right away.”

“Of course,” Karen nodded, compassion filling her face and voice. “And if you need to talk…”

“Thanks.” Andrea smiled tightly, finding her composure difficult to maintain. She had to be strong. “Let everyone know that we’re meeting in the town square this evening for the vote. People on guard duty should write their vote down.”

Carol walked beside her as they moved toward the building. “I was starting to wonder if you were coming back at all.”

“We were only gone four days.” The first night had been a blizzard to match her mood as she sat beside Philip’s body. There was no way to track Merle after that, but they still hoped they might find him by chance in one of the neighboring houses. Andrea hoped he might have bled to death, especially when Michonne finally convinced her that they couldn’t leave Woodbury alone indefinitely to search.

“I didn’t mean physically,” Carol commented quietly. She continued, sounding almost guilty, though Andrea couldn’t fathom for what. “That council thing is a good idea. It’ll make us stronger, but you need to be on it, too.”

“Kind of ruins the point of a democracy if I just assign a place for myself,” Andrea reminded, holding the door open for Carol, and following behind. 

“Then I’ll be adding your name to the options.”

Everyone was packed into a small room in the back. Lori was, indeed, sitting up in her bed, pillows piled behind her to keep her upright. Carl clutched at her hand, even as she directed her attention around the room. Hershel sat in a wooden chair at the foot of the bed, crutches propped up beside him, while everyone else stood in a cluster. 

Maggie was the first to approach Andrea when she entered, pulling her into a hug, any trace of lingering tension between them long since vanished. “I’m so sorry.” Andrea felt the urge to melt into her arms, collapse into tears and let herself break apart. But that wasn’t something they had the luxury of doing anymore. So instead, she tightened up her face, returned the hug briefly and separated. Glenn and Beth followed suit; her whole family understanding first-hand the deep loss she was suffering, but none of that made it easier.

“We just finished filling Lori in on what she’s missed,” Hershel declared. “She wanted to stay up until the two of you arrived back safely. Now that you have, I think it’s best if we said our goodnights and let her get some rest.”

“I think I’ve slept enough for this month,” Lori challenged, waving away his assessment. “I’m more interested in this new addition to our group.”

“Tyler, ma’am,” the boy said, stepping forward stiffly. Andrea recognized the routine from when he was first introduced to Philip and made every effort to be both unobtrusive and helpful at the same time. “Pleasure to meet you. You’ve woken up just in time to vote for our council members.”

“What’s this about a council?” Beth asked.

Michonne cut in before Andrea could explain the new situation of transforming Woodbury into a democracy. “I know you don’t want to hear this again, but we should at least consider our other options. There’s nothing stopping us from walking out those gates now.”

“You want to leave?” Andrea turned to face her friend, incredulous. “Just when these people need us the most? You want to give up the protection of this place Philip built? I don’t know if it occurred to you, but we were not doing well out there.”

“We came here to help our friends. We’ve done that. We don’t owe anyone anything.” Michonne’s tone was clipped, and Andrea was reminded that Michonne never had warmed up to Woodbury or the Governor, despite self-indulgent assurances that she would.

“I can’t believe you would even say that,” Andrea exclaimed, barely resisting the urge to grip her friend about the shoulders and shake her. “We’d have lost both Lori and Hershel if not for these people.”

“Michonne has a point.” Glenn raised his hands, stepping forward to grab everyone’s attention. “Everyone has put in effort to make this place work, but now that Lori is awake, let’s have the conversation. Do people still want to leave?”

“Why would anyone want to leave a place with walls and doctors, that’s kept us safe when we were unwell?” Lori demanded, bewildered. 

“This place is fake, full of people who couldn’t protect themselves out there with armored vehicles and unlimited ammo. The people who watch over them would just as soon shoot the living as the dead.” Michonne explained, passionately enough that Andrea could tell she genuinely wanted to leave. “We’re better off on our own.”

Carol picked up where she left off. “The walls need improvement; I don’t know if they’d stand up to a herd, and we make noise, enough to attract all kinds of unwanted attention. 

“There are a lot of old people here, children, and people who need care. Keeping this place running… Well, we’re going to need a whole lot of resources,” Maggie continued. “And maybe if Daddy still had his leg, I’d be on your side, but all we do is run. What other option is there?”

“The factory,” Michonne replied promptly. “It’s a sturdy building with no way for Walkers to get up. It’s perfect for a group our size.”

Andrea could keep her silence no longer. She loved Michonne, but her friend was so hurt that she struggled to let in even a few people. She would have to change enormously in order to accept an entire town as her own. “We can make this place whatever we need to in order for it to survive. In order for all of Woodbury to survive. We are strong, and it’s our duty to help those who cannot help themselves.”

“Okay, we’ve heard the arguments,” Glenn interrupted what could easily have turned into a weeklong discussion. “And we all agree that no matter what, we’re sticking together. So, let’s vote. Who wants to leave?”

Michonne’s hand came up immediately, and then, from the other side of the bed, Carl’s joined. Michonne looked over to Carol and frowned when the older woman kept her silence. “I think we can make it work,” Carol defended, unrepentantly. 

Lori moved to put Carl’s hand down, but he stepped out of her reach. “This place, these walls, they’ll make us weak, and weak people die. We lost the farm because we let our guard down. It’ll happen here, too.”

“We won’t let it,” Maggie promised.

“All in favor of staying here?” Everyone else raised a hand at this, with the exception of Tyler who looked uncomfortably at the floor. Glenn gave him a nudge with his shoulder. “You’ve got a vote, too.”

“Won’t change the outcome,” Tyler shifted from foot to foot. 

“Doesn’t matter,” Andrea chided. “You’re part of our group, now.”

“Then I’ll abstain. Y’all make good points.” 

It was clear to Andrea that the boy didn’t want to offend anyone, particularly when nothing would be gained from it, but she didn’t call him on the behavior. He’d learn to feel more accepted, she’d make sure of it. 

“Then, we stay,” Glenn announced, like there was any need for the formality. Somehow, the victory felt hollow. 

Her gaze raised and locked with Michonne’s. Somewhere, the pebble of doubt that had been lodged in her brain worked its way loose and stumbled to the forefront of her thoughts. Michonne didn’t like Woodbury, Merle, or Philip. Was it possible… could she have somehow been involved in his death? It hurt to even contemplate.

Nodding her head towards the door, she slipped out while Carol outlined the vote that was planned for that evening, Michonne following with a quiet tread. The front room was empty, so Andrea stopped there. “You were the last one to speak to Merle before he went psycho and…” She turned around so she could see Michonne clearly and the words just spilled out. “What set him off? Was there something you saw up there? Did he say something? Did you?”

“I don’t know what set him off.” 

Andrea wanted to believe her. She wanted to take her at her word and forget about the whole thing, but there was no way she could let this go. Philip was important to her, and the steady, deliberate way Michonne made her statement was ringing alarm bells inside her head, a skill honed from her years as a lawyer. At best, it was a half-truth. She could feel her jaw tightening without conscious thought. “Not even a guess?”

“No clue. One minute, we were standing in the living room of a cleared apartment, the next, he was taking off down the stairs.”

“You didn’t follow him?”

“Didn’t think there was a need to.”

“Your backup runs downstairs, and you don’t think there’s a need to follow?”

Michonne’s face pinched up, and her famous glare made an appearance. “Starting to sound an awful lot like an interrogation here. You planning to arrest me?” 

It was a deflection, plain as the sword on her back, and that couldn’t possibly be good. Andrea sucked in a deep breath at the sudden stabbing pain in her chest. She didn’t know if she could force the information out of Michonne if she tried, and doubted further that she’d like what she found. But Andrea knew Michonne, knew she was a good person. The one thing she could rule out was that Michonne had intended for Philip to be killed. Perhaps Merle, but certainly not Philip. With that in mind, Andrea sucked in a deep breath. “No, not an interrogation. Friends help each other.”

“I know.”

“Then, I guess for the time being, I’ll relocate to the center of town. Maybe some space can help us see eye to eye.”

Michonne nodded stiffly and left. Andrea didn’t see her again all that night, even when she went to their place to grab the few belongings she had left and moved the box of her things to an apartment just across from where Philip had been living, or when all of the residents gathered in front of the steps of the town center. Tyler had run into her, however, which was obvious from the way he awkwardly rubbed at his elbow and let her know that he would just stay with Carl and Lori rather than pick one of their houses. She didn’t blame him for wanting to remain neutral.

“Here’s the list,” Karen reported in, handing off a teal poster board. “I’ve also got the votes from people on shift.” 

Andrea had been working closely with the people of the town, concentrating on getting to know them, and none of the faces before her or the names on the list were unfamiliar. She was a little surprised to see so many nominations from her own group. Her name was on there, along with Glenn’s, Maggie’s, and Carol’s. 

There were a few squabbles before the vote began on the proper technique and if people were biased. People debated whether or not it should be anonymous or done by paper. It was simultaneously frustrating and invigorating to see so much investment in hope for the future. 

In the end, the votes were tallied on the posterboard and the council was officially formed of Martinez, Andrea, Dr. Stevens, Milton, and Maggie. 

 

=====.o0o.=====

“Tara!” 

Tara’s world snapped into focus, and she realized she was staring at Rick as he tried to redirect her gun toward the ground. Her heart pounded at a million miles an hour, and it was hard to breathe, but his familiar face chipped away at the panic. He gripped her gun, flicking the safety on and pushing it down, but he didn’t take it away. 

“They tried to come in!” She exclaimed, “I told them they had to stay out, but they tried to come in!”

“Where’s Judith? Is anyone hurt?”

“She’s in the back with Meghan,” Lilly cut in, crouched by the overturned couch which was providing cover for both her and David. She had the spare handgun Rick had given her clutched between both shaking hands. “We’re not hurt.”

Rick nodded. “Was it just the two of them?”

“We only saw two.” Tara swallowed, forcing herself to get it together. 

“Okay. Daryl and I will sweep the building for anyone else. Stay here and stay on your guard.”

Part of Tara wanted to beg Rick to stay or leave Daryl behind, but she couldn’t expect either of them to venture out there alone. She was the one that was supposed to protect her family, and she needed to step up. Rick was already eyeing her like he wasn’t sure whether or not to trust her with the task. “Be careful.”

Once they were gone, Tara helped Lilly shift the couch in front of the door and get their father back into his chair. Lilly slid it down the hallway and out of any line of fire, ignoring David’s protests that he could still shoot. Tara crouched by the door, keeping her mass small and her mind at the ready in case she needed to fire again. 

Fifteen minutes later, her muscles cramping from tension, Tara heard a knock at the door, followed by Rick’s instruction to let them in. Mindful of her previous mistakes, she put the safety back on first and tucked her weapon away before shifting their barricade.

“It looks clear for now,” Rick said as he came inside. Daryl passed him and headed down the hallway. “You’ve got an hour to pack, and then we’re leaving. Only take the essentials, keep personal items to a minimum.” 

“We can’t leave,” Lilly reminded him. “Our father’s too ill.”

“Where would we go, anyway?” Tara added.

“Anywhere but here,” Daryl declared as he came out with the baby, Meghan tailing along behind him before latching onto her mother. “Ain’t safe.”

“We’re going to have to risk moving him.” Rick began to explain. “Those people that came here tonight were a part of a larger group that tailed us. We heard them on a radio out on the street. And if they come here and find out we’ve killed two of their people, we’ll all be dead.” 

Guilt swelled up inside Tara. She’d fired first. She hadn’t hit anyone, but if she hadn’t taken that shot, then those two strangers wouldn’t be lying dead in the hallway, and they wouldn’t be forced on the run with a sick man and two children. She bit down on her instinctive response and instead concentrated on packing.  

Daryl and Rick disappeared into their own apartment while Tara dragged Meghan into the kitchen where packing would be straight-forward. They’d need all the food they had. She helped her niece climb onto the counter so she could hand down the cans from the top shelves and started loading them into a box. 

“Those people that came… they’re dead?”

Tara choked, swallowing hard to clear her throat. Perhaps it hadn’t been the best idea to occupy Meghan while Lilly did the personal packing. “Yeah. They’re dead.”

Meghan was silent for a while as she finished her task. It was too much to hope that she had no more questions. “Were they bad people?”

Tara helped her jump down from the counter and gave her a light box to carry to the door. “I… I don’t know, Meg.”

“But we killed them.” Tara didn’t respond, just went back to the kitchen and packed up the most basic supplies for cooking. A few pots and pans. A canopener. She tried to concentrate on her task. “Are we bad people?”

And wasn’t that the ten million dollar question? It was also definitely a question Tara was prepared to pass off as motherly duties and not something an aunt should address. Still, as she looked down at the large, blue eyes, she knew she had to say something. “You, sweet pea, are the best person I know. We’re all trying to be good people here. It’s just that sometimes good people can do bad things.”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself.” Lilly smiled and handed off a pink rolling suitcase for Meghan and a satchel for Tara. “I’ve already grabbed your essentials. You can finish up with any personal items you want and help Meghan pick out which toy she will bring.”

“Toy?” Meghan asked, flabbergasted, all thoughts of dead bodies in the hallway or gunfire from that morning forgotten. “I can only take one?”

“I’m sorry, but we can only take what we need.”

Tara didn’t have much in the way of personal items left. She hadn’t been living with her sister before the outbreak, and there wasn’t a whole lot of things to accrue being trapped inside one building for months on end. She stuffed a few pens and a notebook into her bag, put on the pride wristband her mom had given her when she’d come out, and watched Meghan from the doorway of her bedroom. There were more toys than floor and Meghan sat in the midst of them all with two stuffies in hand, trying to pick between them. Tara watched, thinking about how unjust the world was to ask a seven year old to decide if she liked the pink lamb or the sequined unicorn more. 

She stepped over, grabbing the unicorn and sticking it into her own bag, squishing it down until it fit with only minor bulging, and then offered Meghan a hand up. “There. Now you have one toy, and I’ll have one, but you can borrow mine.” Meghan beamed up at her. “But let’s keep it as our secret for now.”

Lilly had dragged the remaining oxygen tanks to the door and packed a bag for their dad by the time Tara returned to help, and they took a minute to look over the apartment they’d spent so much time in. They’d probably never see it again. Tara stole a glance at her sister who was determinedly scanning the room for anything else they may not want to leave behind. 

“Can’t believe I almost forgot the first aid kit,” Lilly sighed, heading towards the bathroom. 

There was a knock on the door behind them, and Tara let Rick and Daryl inside. Daryl eyed the pile. “Ya need all that?”

“It’s mostly food,” Tara defended, but Daryl was already picking up a large box and heading back out the door. Tara followed quickly, not wanting to bail on the labor, as Rick found a place to settle Judith. 

The bodies had been cleared out of the hallway, which was a relief, and Tara scurried to catch up to Daryl’s long strides. “It’s my fault we have to leave. If I hadn’t shot at them...”

Daryl dumped his box into the back of the truck, the door rolled all the way up as they loaded their belongings. Their supplies seemed meager compared to what Tara and Lilly had packed, even more if one discounted the mass of blankets. Tara stacked her box on top. 

“I fired first.”

“Good,” Daryl grunted. Tara liked Daryl. He had a sincerity about him that so many people lacked. He said what was on his mind, and he didn’t pretend. And although he tried to hide it behind a tough act, he was an unrepentant softie where his baby was concerned. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t also like that he was most likely gay, and thus could relate to her in a way others couldn’t. That said, she did not understand him at all.

“No, I… I panicked. They could have been good people, just looking for others.”

“Or they coulda wiped out your whole family. They had a warnin’ shot an’ they didn’t leave. ‘S more than most get these days.” Daryl gave her a look and then turned back toward the building, following the same tracks they’d cut into the snow. “Ya did good. Next time ya’ll do better.”

“You killed someone today,” Tara pointed out before he could get much further. Daryl stopped, and she nearly ran into his back. It had come out as an accusation, but all she’d meant by it was a plea for help. “How?”

“Wasn’t about that guy up there. It can’t be. Ya just think ‘bout who you’re protectin’.”

Rick and Lilly joined them in loading the boxes, and they made quick work. Before the hour was up, their task was complete. Daryl carried David downstairs and helped him get settled in the passenger’s seat of the Gorbelli’s truck before climbing into the back with everyone else. Rick took the wheel.

As Rick backed up and pulled onto the street, mindful of the unplowed roads, Lilly brought up an earlier question. “Where are we going to go?”

“We’ll swing by Walmart, and then head to Fort Benning.”

“Benning?” Daryl echoed, looking up from a giggling Judith in surprise. Tara was surprised as well; she’d expected them to already have hashed this out. “Thought ya said it was a dead end.”

Rick didn’t take his eyes off the road. “The Living said it was a dead end, and liars are the best thing I could call them. Maybe the others thought it was a lie, too. At the very least, it will get us some distance from here.” 

Daryl didn’t protest, but Tara felt a little indignant on his behalf. She knew Rick was a good man, but she hated the way he took Daryl for granted. This should have been a discussion, but Rick had turned it into a command. “So glad I was consulted before we set our destination to some place that probably isn’t even standing.”

“Tara!” Lilly chided.

“No, she’s right,” Rick sighed. “I shouldn’t have assumed that you didn’t have an opinion. Is there someplace else you wanted to go?”

Lilly passed her an expectant look, but they both knew she was full of shit. The only question was how long she intended to fuck around before admitting it. “Guess not,” she grudgingly confessed. “Whole world’s gone, isn’t it?”

Tara leaned back against the side of the truck in frustrated impotence and glared at her sister as Lilly tried to smother a knowing smirk. Meghan interrupted the standoff a moment later by insisting they play a road trip game, since they were on a road trip, and Tara agreed without complaint. With some cajoling, everyone else joined in as well, although Daryl claimed not to know any of the games. Tara suspected he was just trying to get out of it, but before she could call him on it, Rick succinctly explained the rules and removed any excuse. 

They traveled slowly through the dark, snowy night and reached their destination as the sun started to peek through the trees. Rick circled the parking lot before pulling up on the far side of the building where it was less visible from the road and close to the treeline. 

Aside from David, everyone piled out of the vehicle, eager to stretch their legs. Tara kept her weapon at the ready, boxing Meghan in between Lilly and herself. Daryl stalked over to a bicycle standing innocuously nearby and kicked it over. He spat on it and then returned to their little group where Rick was struggling to keep the amusement off his face. 

“We’ll do a quick sweep,” Rick decided, gesturing for Daryl to come with him. “Stay inside the truck until we get back.”

 “Nah,” Daryl disagreed. “Think it’s best if I stay here. Take Tara.” 

Tara half expected their leader to protest, but he seemed to understand something that Daryl wasn’t saying, and relented with just a nod. They waited until the rolling back of the truck was shut before drawing their weapons and circling around the building looking for any signs of danger. It didn’t take long for Tara’s curiosity to overcome her reticence. “What’s with the bike?”

“Daryl had a bike. Er… motorcycle. It belonged to his brother. We left it here for a while, and when we came back, it was gone. Someone had left that bicycle in its place,” Rick turned and smiled. “You don’t like me, do you?”

Tara first tripped over her own feet and then over her tongue, feeling an immediate sense of guilt. She knew Rick had done a lot for her family, but she still felt resentment towards him. She didn’t like how he treated Daryl like his personal bodyguard. She especially didn’t like how he’d somehow managed to fall right into the ‘cool uncle’ slot in Meghan’s mind. That had always been her turf and hers alone. Maybe she was just holding him to a higher standard to compensate for Lilly’s rose colored glasses. “I know we’re better off together.” 

Rick’s smile didn’t fade or morph, he just kept it up like he’d known that response was coming when he asked the question. Tara wanted to punch him in that upturned mouth. “There’s not much left inside, but I still want to take a quick look to make sure no one else is here if we’re staying for a bit.”

“Fine.”

Inside Walmart was as empty as Rick promised and even more looted than Tara expected. Some things remained, like electronics, toys and sports gear, but every canned food item had been cleared, and many large shelves stood barren. 

“Nothing’s going on between me and Lilly.”

“I know,” Tara replied dismissively. She hadn’t been completely certain about that, despite her insistence. For all she knew, they’d been going at it while she went on her hunting lessons with Daryl. “Look, I get it. You’re the boss. Are we done?”

Rick looked a little annoyed as they rejoined the others, which Tara took for a win. He looked up at the overcast sky and the snow that was starting to pick up with a frown. “Not a great day for traveling. Let’s see what it does. We may have to tuck in for a day or two.”

“Is it safe to move inside?” Lilly asked, eyeing the main doors. “It’ll be easier to keep warm in there.” 

“I saw a back office,” Tara suggested. “Then we’d have a door, too.”

Everyone liked the idea, particularly with how the snow was falling in thick, puffy waves, and they set up camp in the manager’s office. Tara let them work at it while she scoured the store for anything that was useful. Several people must have already combed through because there was little to find save for a few misplaced items tucked away on lower shelves. She stowed a few batteries and other small finds into her bag then returned to the group with her bounty of chips and marshmallows. 

Meghan saw the prize and cheered. “Can we eat them today?” 

“Well, they’re not getting any less stale.”

Meghan obediently looked to her mom, despite Tara’s proclamation, and Lilly smiled. “I think we could all use some cheering up.”

Daryl swiped the chips, opening the bag to steal the first one before passing them around the circle. They were bordering on stale, but Tara still revelled in eating junk food that had never come within ten feet of a Gorbelli food truck. She would kill for a soda. After finishing their meal, Meghan fell asleep curled around the carseat and Lilly tucked both children in with the same blanket. Their sleep schedule was completely messed up from leaving in the middle of the night, and even Tara was already feeling the call to close her eyes. It didn’t help that the store was mostly windowless which obscured the little daylight.

“Go on an’ lay down,” Daryl invited. “I’ll keep watch.”

“Wake me up in a couple hours.”

Daryl grunted in assent as he shut the door behind him, and Tara made herself comfortable in a sleeping bag beside her niece. Rick and Lilly were whispering, but the room was too small for anything to be strictly confidential. Rick thought their dad needed to be in a separate room while Lilly insisted she’d stay awake to keep an eye on him. 

David put a kibosh on the whole argument, leaning forward in his wheely chair to keep his voice down. “I’m not putting my family in any more risk than I already have. Find me a cot, and I’ll sleep in the closet or something, or you find me some rope.”

 Tara’s heart clenched at the declaration, one more reminder of how little time with their father remained. They’d already been graced with more than any of them had dared hope for, but it didn’t make losing a loved one any easier. Closing her eyes, Tara feigned sleep, her mind too busy to drift off. 

Would her father survive the trip to Fort Benning? If he did, would they even have medical supplies for him there? Tara had no doubt they’d be taken in since they had children and Lilly was a nurse, but there was a long way between them and their destination and winter seemed to go on forever without heated buildings. Daryl and Rick didn’t even know if the place was still running. This could all be for nothing.

A few minutes later, the movement had settled, and Tara contemplated getting up and letting Daryl rest since she still felt wide awake. Then, Rick’s brief whisper of a protest got her attention.

“They’re asleep. Look, I know you’re a good man,” Lilly argued, “It’s what I like about you. But we all have needs, and it’s been a long time. I’m sure it’s been a long time for you. Your wife will understand.”

Tara pinched her eyes shut, wishing she hadn’t been pretending to sleep and silently begging Rick to turn her down. Lilly couldn’t seriously be suggesting they bone right there. Meghan was only three feet away. 

Tara was just about to pointedly cough when Rick saved the day. “I’m sorry, Lilly. I can’t. I just don’t feel that way about you.” When the door closed behind him, Tara flopped onto her back and let out a sigh of relief. 

Lilly sighed in tandem. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you missed that.”

“I’d say I’m sorry you struck out, but there are some things sisters are never meant to hear.”

“I wasn’t going to do it here.”

Tara didn’t believe her, but she let the matter drop for the sake of getting some sleep or at least escaping the awkward conversation. It was completely silent aside from the sounds of wakeful breathing for about twenty minutes before Lilly sat up again. 

“I’m going to go apologize.”

“What? No. Why?” But Lilly wasn’t interested in answering questions, she was already shoving her blankets away and standing, so Tara stood as well, careful not to disturb the sleeping children. Lilly looked determined to right some sort of wrong, but the last time she’d gone after a guy intending to apologize, she came back pregnant with Meghan. Tara had no idea how someone so together always managed to unravel around men she liked. Sucking in a breath, she  decided to try the only tactic she could see remaining. “I’ll do it. He’ll be more open with me since he’s not trying to protect my feelings.”

Lilly hesitated for a moment before sitting back down. “Alright. No monkey business. A genuine apology.”

Tara saluted before leaving the room, closing the door and leaning against it. Lilly wouldn’t even know if she neglected to pass on the message, right? The room behind her was silent and there was no sign of the two men who were supposedly out here keeping watch. She was certain they’d have heard if anything had happened.

As she wandered out into the store, a faint groaning sound reached her ears. She drew her gun, shoulders tensing as she passed by the next few shelves. A Walker must have slipped into the building, but where were Rick and Daryl? Were they also hunting it? She swung her head from side to side to look down each aisle as she continued, cautious about letting it sneak up behind her. She couldn’t even be sure how many were inside. 

The groaning came again, this time very close, and Tara froze as she identified it. That was definitely not a Walker. Her eyes adjusted to the dark, and she instantly regretted chasing down the source as the image before her burned into her retinas. Rick had Daryl pinned against a shelf, hand plunged deep into his pants, and while they were thankfully both fully clothed, there was little doubt about what they were doing. 

Her brain rebooted, and she quickly decided that she did not want to be seen there and hastily took a few steps backwards, promptly tripping over something on the ground in her hurry. The clatter of an empty can rolling off her foot alerted her travel companions to her presence, and they ripped apart. Daryl didn’t so much as glance in her direction before taking off the opposite way, leaving Rick to face her alone. Unable to ignore the situation, Tara let her anger flow instead. “What the hell, man?”

“I didn’t lead your sister on. I’ve never led her on.”

“You think this is about Lilly?” Tara demanded, incredulously. Rick had been clear towards Lilly from day one, whether her sister had been willing to see it or not. “Do you even know what you’re doing to Daryl?”

“It’s none of your business what Daryl and I do,” Rick replied sharply, glaring her down. 

“He’s my friend, and he loves you. And you’re just using him until you get your wife back. It’s not okay to treat people like shit just because they’re gay.”

“That’s not what this is.” 

Rick sounded genuinely angry, and Tara thought she might have struck a chord this time. As she turned back towards the office and her family she snapped, “Sure. You keep telling yourself that.”

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Chapter Text

=====.o0o.=====

 

Before the end of the world, the trip to Fort Benning would have taken Rick well under three hours. Now, they’d be lucky to make it in three days. It wasn’t just the uncooperative weather and snow covered roads. They also had to contend with lack of fuel, dangerous debris, rerouting around unpassable portions of road, avoiding herds of Walkers, and most recently, the ominous clunking of the engine. 

The Gorbelli truck gave out in the middle of a bridge a few hours into their trip. Daryl tucked himself under the hood, looking like an ostrich finally allowed to bury his head in the dirt after facing down a predator for hours on end. Of course, it wasn’t Daryl that Tara kept directing her glares at. Rick felt no remorse for sending her to scout ahead while they attempted to fix the truck. 

The area they’d halted in was relatively secure, despite the permeating groans of Walkers below. There was a cluster underneath the small, wooden bridge that only a back road could get away with, but the sides of the gully were too steep and the dirt too loose for them to climb. Still, he paced the length a few times to confirm his assessment.

David and Daryl discussed the state of the engine, the older man handing out pointers, but something in the way Daryl grunted told Rick they’d likely need another vehicle. The last one they’d passed had been a few miles back, but there was no telling how far ahead the next opportunity might be. 

The hunter already knew what Rick was planning by the time he approached. “Shouldn’t go by yourself. Shouldn’t’ve sent Tara alone, either.”

“If you finish here, you’ll come get me. If I finish first, I’ll come get you. Priority is not getting stranded.”

“We’re stranded now. Priority is stickin’ together,” Daryl contradicted, eyeing the truck with disdain. 

“I’ll be fine.” On a different day, one where Daryl wasn’t studiously avoiding eye contact with anyone, the disagreement might have gone on longer. On a different day, Daryl might have demanded to go with him, to which Rick might have remarked that Daryl wandered the woods alone frequently enough. 

Instead, Rick buried his worry alongside his smothered guilt and headed back the way they came. Daryl was drawn as tight as his cocked crossbow after Tara walked in on them, and Rick had no idea how to improve the situation. The accusation that Daryl loved him was obviously a stranger’s miscontruence. Daryl was far enough in the closet to set foot in Narnia, and the affection Rick tried to show was barely tolerated behind closed doors. Had Tara ruined any chance he had? He needed Daryl, especially when each subsequent day solidified the fact that he was never going to see his wife or son again. 

So consumed with his thoughts and simmering anger, Rick didn’t immediately perceive the writhing mass approaching for what it was. A sizable herd was stumbling towards him up the road, following the path of least resistance in the open roadway, though some were also crashing through the thick wooded area on either side. He couldn’t be sure how many he was looking at, only that there were too many for them to handle.

Spinning on his heel and nearly slipping on the icy pavement below, Rick charged back toward the Gorbelli truck, his mind a flurry. They would have to stay with the truck and hope the herd passed them by. There was no way around it. David couldn’t run, let alone walk, and they couldn’t carry him indefinitely, even if he and Daryl traded off. It wouldn’t be enough to stay ahead of the Walkers. He’d give Judith a bottle right away, make sure her mouth was too full to cry. 

“No chance the truck’s working?” Rick panted as he reached the others, glancing behind him to determine if the herd was within sight yet. They had yet to come around the bend of the road. They still had time.

“Nah,” Daryl replied, eyes following the path of Rick’s gaze. “Walkers?”

He nodded. “They might pass the truck by.”

“What about Tara?”

Rick’s heart dropped, noting her continued absence. It hadn’t been that long, and she was probably fine, but if they hid and the herd did pass them by, she’d turn around and run straight into them. That was on him. “I’ll get her.”

“You won’t make it back in time,” Lilly pointed out, dragging the bag of baby gear from the truck and stuffing essentials into the crevices. “She’s got too much of a head start on you. We all have to go and hope to find something on the way. I can make a stretcher for Dad-”

“We’ll be too slow.” Rick licked his lips, thinking quickly as he reevaluated his surroundings. “We need to divert the herd so it doesn’t reach the truck or Tara. I’ll start a fire-”

“No time for that!” David snapped, craning his head to see the action from his seat. “Get going, the lot of you, before you lose your chance.”

“We’re not leaving you behind!” Lilly snapped.

“You are! For Meghan. You go on ahead.” David contradicted his daughter. Daryl had already taken his advice, strapping two bags across his chest and scooping Judith up before ushering Meghan forward. Rick figured it was the easy job as he was left trying to tug Lilly away from her father. “You can loop around for me later when the Walkers are gone.” 

At that, Lilly finally relented, accepting the luggage Rick pushed her way. She leaned in for a kiss. “I love you, Daddy.”

“Love you too, sweetheart. Now, get out of here.”

David rolled up the manual window as Rick jogged after Lilly. Cresting the hill a few minutes later, Rick looked back to see the Walkers had reached the truck. Most seemed uninterested in it, moving by to continue up the hill. Others smashed their faces against the glass of the truck’s window, while a few strayed, stumbling into the ravine below the bridge, but the wooden structure was wide enough to house most of the herd. 

Some part of Rick knew it was coming, maybe from the way David’s eyes had lingered on his oxygen tanks, but Lilly jumped at the sound of a gunshot, followed by the roar of an explosion. He gripped her around the waist and wrapped a hand over her mouth before she could shout, shuffling them towards the clear road and away from the mass of exploded glass of the truck’s windshield and the flaming vehicle where all of the Walkers were now drawn. 

Lilly dragged his hand away. “We have to help him!”

“There’s nothing we can do for him now.” The words were forced from Rick’s mouth like a physical pain, but he needed to keep his head.

Lilly would have crashed to the ground if not for his arm supporting and pushing her in the right direction. Meghan appeared, clinging onto her mother’s side and blubbering something incoherent and scared into her chest. Lilly barely noticed. “Why would he do that?”

“So we’d have a better chance. He didn’t want us to go back for him; he didn’t want us risking our lives. I’m so sorry, Lilly, but we have to go.” 

Rick wasn’t sure if Meghan understood what had just transpired, but she was thankfully quiet as they trudged away from the noise and smoke. The practical part of him was relieved. David’s presence had made the whole trip more challenging, and there was the constant threat of him passing and turning, so much so that he’d compulsively check to ensure his seat belt was latched every few minutes as they drove. His sense of morality was disgusted by the relief and hoped that there wasn’t enough left of David to come back.

There was also the issue of all the resources they’d collected gone in the blink of an eye. The food from Gorbelli and Evie’s house was particularly hard to stomach when food always seemed so scarce these days. If they reached Fort Benning only to find that it wasn’t standing, they’d be back to square one with nothing to feed themselves.

Daryl’s face was impassive as he transferred Judith into Rick’s arms so he was free to use his crossbow, bending over to reload before they moved on. It was a smart move. If they fired a gun so close to the flaming truck, there was no telling if it could keep the herd’s attention. 

“Let’s pick up the pace,” Rick instructed, wishing he didn’t have to be so callous to a woman who’d just lost her father, and falling to the back of the group so that Lilly and Meghan would be better protected. 

Every minute that ticked by with no sign of Tara, Rick became increasingly worried that something must have happened to her. There was no way she’d gotten far enough to miss the explosion or that she would have ignored the sound. They should have come across her by now. He swallowed hard, praying that Lilly wouldn’t be facing another major loss today.

As he was thinking this, he spotted a commotion in the road ahead. He was too far away to make out the details, but Daryl raised his bow and let loose a bolt. His aim was as true as ever and a body dropped from the fray.

“Tara?” Lilly cried, jogging forward. Rick swore and hurried after her, shifting his burdens so he could support the baby while he ran and reach his gun easily. He still didn’t want to fire if it could be helped. As they got closer, it was clear that they were looking at Tara struggling with a group of four Walkers. There were already three laying at her feet, one with a bolt in its head. Her own gun was still strapped to her hip, but she’d obviously surmised that using it would be more dangerous than helpful at this point. Instead, she was brandishing a tree branch like a baseball bat and swinging it periodically at her foes. 

A second bolt whizzed past and dropped a Walker at about the same time that Lilly reached Tara and stabbed another one in the back of the head. At that point, Tara was able to knock the remaining two down with one strong blow, piercing the end of her stick into the nearest skull. Rick stomped on the other before it could get up. 

“Boy, am I glad to see you guys,” Tara wheezed as she took a few steps out of the pile of corpses, bracing her weight on the stick she was holding. “Heard that explosion. I tried to run back, but I slid on the ice and twisted my ankle.”

“Let me have a look,” Lilly insisted, kneeling down by Tara’s foot. “Meghan, stay close.”

“Where’s Dad?”

Lilly didn’t answer, and that was telling enough. Tara looked around at them, eyes wide, like one of them would explain that he was fine, and he was going to drive up over the hill and down the road towards them any minute. Meghan dropped to her knees and threw her arms around her aunt who caught her by instinct, burying her face into the little girl’s shoulder while Lilly worked her boot loose. 

“Well, it’s not broken,” Lilly stated clinically, compartmentalizing her strong emotions. “Under normal circumstances, I’d say you’ll be fine in a week or two if you stay off it, but I don’t see how that’s possible.” Lilly made quick work of splinting the ankle and helping Tara back to her feet. “At least we don’t have to worry about icing it.”

Rick couldn’t be sure what was going through the injured woman’s head as she gazed backward towards the billowing smoke still visible along the horizon, but she didn’t ask any  more questions. Rick suspected that she wasn’t ready to hear the answers, or perhaps she was waiting for privacy. In any case, when Daryl turned to lead them away, she followed, limping heavily as she tried to keep up.

As the hours dragged on, their pace continued to slow. Tara was grimacing in pain but refused to stop or accept help, resolutely placing one foot in front of the other. Meghan began to complain that all of her limbs were sore and her hands and feet were cold, so Lilly alternated carrying her and letting her walk. 

When the sun started to set, Rick debated if they should stop for the night. They’d be without cover, but if they got a fire going, they’d have enough warmth. It was frustrating that they hadn’t passed any houses or cars, but they’d intentionally taken a less used route to avoid all of the dangers of the main highway. Aside from the herd that was hopefully still clawing at the Gorbelli truck, they’d hardly passed any Walkers.

Meghan abruptly sat on the ground, sobbing. “I can’t walk anymore. I can’t.”

“We need to stop,” Lilly said, looking between her sister and her daughter.

Rick opened his mouth to agree with the sentiment, but Daryl was already moving. Strapping his bow onto his back, he lifted Meghan up. “Don’t sit in the snow. Ya’ll be colder when it melts.” Then, he continued to press forward. 

Rick followed him without comment. If the hunter felt that they’d be better off without stopping, Rick was prepared to take his advice. There were a lot of things he didn’t know about surviving in the elements that he was sure Daryl did. He could imagine that starting a fire out here was going to be a pain in the ass, if only because all the wood was wet. Daryl could probably list another dozen problems, but at some point it was going to become their only option. Eventually, Tara wasn’t going to be able to keep walking, and while Daryl might be able to walk all night, there was no way he’d pull it off while carrying a child. 

 They continued on for the better part of an hour until their main source of light was the moon reflecting off snow. He cleared his throat. “Daryl.”

“There’s somethin’ up ahead.”

Rick squinted into the distance but couldn’t see anything. “Good something or bad something?”

“Might be a car.” A car definitely sounded good. Rick wanted to sit and rest, and he desperately wanted to get out of the crisp night air.

It took a long time to reach the vehicle, long enough that Rick began to question whether Daryl might have made it up to keep them moving, but they did eventually spot it along the side of the road. The front was crumpled from a head-on collision, the second car barely visible within the treeline. Its front hood was similarly smashed. Rick wanted to scream. 

Tara sighed. “Well, so much for our getaway car.”

“We can still use the shelter,” Rick pointed out, trying to smother his disappointment. It was a good find, all things considered. 

Daryl set a sleepy Meghan back on her feet before approaching the Volkswagen, looping around its entirety before wiping away the snow on the driver’s side door. Rick followed a pace behind with his machete drawn, but the precautions were unnecessary as there was nothing living or dead inside. Daryl checked the trunk before inviting the others to enter.  

Next, they cleared out the second vehicle. It was in worse shape, a tree limb had smashed through the back window when it went spinning off the road, and a Walker was still buckled to their seat. The whole car reeked of death, even with the draft. Daryl kicked a tire in frustration before putting the Walker down. 

“You know, I think I’d rather just try to cram in there.” Rick nodded up to the other car. 

Tara and Lilly had used the time to pull down the back seat of the Jetta, creating a sleeping nook where their feet rested in the trunk. They were both tucked in already, Meghan squeezed between them when Rick and Daryl sat down in the front seats. It was a tight fit, but Rick was able to lean back enough that Judith could rest on his chest without having to hold her weight up. He wondered where her bottle had ended up after the last feeding, and if he should wake her up to feed her now or wait until she woke him up. 

“I take it the other one wasn’t salvageable,” Lilly prompted after a few moments of silence. 

“We’ll double check in the morning, make sure they don’t run.”

“And then what?” Tara challenged.

“We’ll have to split up,” Rick sighed, trying to ignore the displeased grunt that emerged from Daryl at the suggestion. It wasn’t like they were teeming with options at this point. “Tara, Meghan and Judith will have to stay here until we can come back with transportation. It’s probably best if you stay as well, Lilly.”

“No,” Lilly immediately contradicted. “I’m going with. One of you should stay here. You’ll be able to keep Judith calm and quiet better than we can.” 

Rick wanted to make a rebuttal, but he couldn’t excuse dragging an infant along in wintery temperatures unnecessarily when there was no assurance of shelter, nor could he demand that someone else look after his child. He also recognized that between the two of them, Daryl would have to be the one to go as he would have a better chance of getting any cars they came across to run, and he knew more about surviving out there. Rick knew more about taking care of children and was better suited to that task. 

“We’ll be alright,” Daryl assured him, clearly coming to the same conclusion, “just a couple days at most.”

  

=====.o0o.=====

 

Carl learned to be a light sleeper over his months on the road. They couldn’t afford to fully relax, even in slumber, when the person on watch might suddenly need their help or announce the need to move before they were overwhelmed. So despite spending several weeks in Woodbury, Carl still roused easily. This night, he was woken by the sliding of his window and quickly sat up in bed. 

“What are you doing?” 

Tyler looked like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar as he tried to explain away his foot on the windowsill of the bedroom they shared. “Fresh air?” he returned with a weak smile.

The exchange was unnecessary. It was clear that his roommate was sneaking out past curfew, but Carl couldn’t fathom why. Despite being more than a year his senior, Tyler was skittish on the best of days and wasn’t the sort inclined to break rules. “For your ankle?”

“Uh…”

“Hurry up!” A feminine voice called from the other side of the window.

“Please don’t tell,” Tyler begged. “I just wanted to show Lizzie the lab.”

“I won’t,” Carl assured, grabbing his shoes and slipping them on as he hopped toward the window. “I’m coming with.”

If Tyler wanted to protest, he didn’t. He just continued to worm his way through the opening. Carl could hear Lizzie’s whispers on the other side as she apologized for dragging along her little sister. “She didn’t give me a choice.”

“It’s fine. Carl’s coming, too. But no one else, and we keep this a secret. Milton would never trust me again if he found out.”

Despite a patrol and internal and external lights, it wasn’t difficult to sneak around the block to Milton’s lab. There was almost no one out this late, and the effort of the guards was directed outward. The streets were so deserted in the earliest morning hours that Carl thought they might have been able to stroll across the lighted street and waltz through the main entrance without being caught, but it was safer to make use of the back door and the coveted key Tyler produced to unlock it.

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected from Milton’s lab. Carl’s mind had painted something from Frankenstein, and he wasn’t sure if what he walked into was better or worse. It was cleaner than expected, coupled with a smell of disinfectant that suggested it was painstakingly maintained. Still, beneath the antiseptic smell was the unmistakable odor of rot. In the corner was something akin to a jail cell, double reinforced with two sets of bars and housing four Walkers in varying stages of decay all growling loudly. A separate cell that was quite possibly a dog cage stood against the wall several feet away, white sheet draped over it. 

Mika sucked in a sharp breath. “We shouldn’t be in here.”

“Don’t be such a baby,” Lizzie chided. “You’re the one that insisted on coming with.”

Tyler rested his hand on Mika’s arm. “It’s okay. They’re all secure.”

Making a face, Mika pointed out, “They’re going to draw attention. We’ll get caught.”

“The whole place is sound-proofed pretty well. They’re here with Milton all day, and I bet you’ve never once heard them from outside.”

Carl had to walk sideways to reach Milton’s desk while keeping the Walkers in his line of sight, but he wanted to know what sorts of things their local scientist had been researching. On the one hand, he’d known it had to do with Walkers. That’s what they need to research. On the other, facing that reality head on was disconcerting. He looked over the open lab notes on the desk and tried to take it in. It was English, but he couldn’t decipher the notes much deeper than that. “What’s he researching?”

“Anything he can find out.” Tyler shrugged, heading for the sheeted cage. “Hopefully a cure, but the more we know, the better we can defend ourselves.”

Lizzie and Mika kept back, but Carl followed Tyler as he moved forward and removed the sheet, revealing a Walker that used to be a small girl. She was surprisingly well-kept, though still rotting like the others. She attempted to charge them, but was stopped by the bars and a straight-jacket. Carl looked over to the other Walkers, realizing that they were also equipped with straight-jackets and rendered almost completely unthreatening. 

“Milton calls her Penny, but I don’t know if that was her name before or something he made up. He brought her in after we lost the Governor.”

Lizzie came right up to the bars, bumping Carl from his spot to get a better look at the Walker in the cage. She grilled Tyler, and Carl quickly lost interest when it became clear that there was nothing remarkable about the Walker. Looking around the rest of the room, he saw a row of rectangular containers covered in sheets, far too small to be housing more Walkers, even child-sized ones. 

He went to examine them more closely before carefully plucking up the edge of a sheet and lifting it away, nearly dropping it when it revealed a disembodied head chomping against the glass of a fishtank in an effort to get at him. He tamped down the instinctive drive to scream, instead, moving along the line of exposed fish tanks and looking at all the heads like that would somehow illuminate the reason for their presence. At the end of the row was a final tank, set further apart from the others and residing on its own table. Carl threw the sheet back to get a better look at the contents. 

He wasn’t at all sure what he was looking at. Obviously not a Walker head, but it had all the tell-tale signs of being a Walker. For a moment, he thought it was some sort of alien, or perhaps an animal version of a Walker. While he was contemplating if it was possible that some animals could contract the virus or Milton’s experiments had made it so, the reality clicked into place. He was staring at a baby, not fully formed enough to have been born. Milton had taken his baby sister to experiment on. 

Some sound choked out of his throat, though he couldn’t say what, and he took a step back. Woodbury was even worse than he’d thought, and he felt a deep dislike for Milton and his obvious duplicity. Who else had known? The Governor? The doctors? Tyler? He didn’t think it was possible for anyone in his group to have known and kept quiet, but Tyler had been in here the entire time helping Milton with this disgusting version of science. 

His hands seemed to move on their own accord, drawing his ever present knife as he leaned forward to reach into the tank and put an end to the miserable existence of his poor sister who never even had a shot at life. 

“What are you doing?” Tyler shrieked, running over and grabbing hold of his arm. He yanked in a vain effort to stop Carl from putting the Walker down, but it was too late. 

Carl spun around, raising his weapon, and Tyler let go to take several steps backwards, eyes wide and hands raised. “That was my sister!”

“What?” Tyler’s response was drowned out by Lizzie’s tears. 

“Why would you kill her? She wasn’t hurting anyone!” Lizzie tore from the lab, rubbing at her eyes as she went. 

“You shouldn’t have brought her here. She doesn’t understand things right sometimes.” Mika scolded Tyler. She turned and gave Carl a brief hug and said,  “I’m sorry about your sister,” before dashing out the door to catch up with Lizzie. 

Carl lowered his weapon when Mika gave him the hug, and Tyler in turn lowered his arms. “I didn’t know. I didn’t even ask where it came from.”

Looking down at the knife in his hand, Carl struggled to pull himself together. He wiped the blade off on his pants before sheathing it. “Milton’s gonna be pissed.”

“Screw him,” Tyler stated in a surprising bout of defiance. “What do you need?”

“We bury the ones we love. She needs a funeral.”

In the end, Carl decided against telling the others what Milton had done. It would only bring more pain, especially to his mom. She didn’t need that, none of them did. The funeral was little more than burying a shoebox coffin at the foot of an oak tree where it would be hard to be spotted by the patrols. They each said a few words which seemed woefully inadequate for the injustice of the loss before leaving. Carl wanted to stay, but they needed to make sure the lab was in order and sneak back into their house before dawn. 

“What are you going to tell Milton? He’s gonna notice that she’s gone,” Carl asked as he took off his shoes and set them beneath his bed.

“Don’t worry about it. Worst he can do is kick me out of his lab.”

“You love his lab.”

Tyler shrugged, shutting the window behind him and sitting down beside Carl instead of on his own bed. “Quite a bit less now, actually,” Tyler commented, bumping his shoulder against Carl’s.

 Carl leaned forward until he could snag his bag from beneath the bed, tugging it out and rummaging inside. Finally he produced two candy bars, the last of the stash he’d been saving for his unborn sibling, and extended them towards Tyler for first pick. 

 

=====.o0o.=====

It was on the fifth day following Daryl and Lilly’s departure, awkwardly crammed into the car’s makeshift bed together to keep warm, that the dam broke. Rick expressed his condolences to Tara the first day, but she continued to give him the cold shoulder, only communicating through their mutual affection for Meghan and Judith. 

During the day, they packed snow around the car to better insulate it and crafted tall walls of snow from the first car to the second for what little protection it could provide. There, they finally managed to start a fire and while Rick cooked some of their rations, Tara melted snow, pouring the cooled water they didn’t drink over their walls to reinforce them as formidable icy barriers. Rick circled the area a few times a day, searching for better shelter, other transportation, or anything to restock their supplies.  It seemed like there was nowhere to go but forward and hope for the best.

During the day, it was easy to ignore one another and keep their minds and bodies busy, but at night, it was harder to fill the void with anything but worry. Tara obviously suffered from the same problem.

“What if they don’t come back?” She finally asked when Meghan’s snoring confirmed that the girl currently snuggled between them was sound asleep.

“They’ll be back,” Rick said, surprised to find that he really believed it, despite how the increasingly long wait tried to chip away at his resolve. The only way Daryl wouldn’t return was if he was dead, and somehow he just knew that wasn’t the case. 

“It’s been days. They should’ve been back by now.”

“Nothing is simple anymore.” Rick shrugged, though it was too dark in the car to see him. “They probably just got held up.”

“I know.” Tara let out a long breath. “That’s all I can think about. What if there was a herd? What if they couldn’t find shelter and froze? What if they got trapped or captured? What could possibly have held them up so long that they couldn’t make it back in five whole days?” 

Rick could think of a thousand other things that Tara hadn’t listed. He tried to calculate out how long it would take them if they were stuck walking all the way to Fort Benning, but that still put them in a bad position. Sooner rather than later, they’d run out of food, and they had to leave before that happened. Rick had been cutting their rations every day to stretch them out, but they wouldn’t last much longer.

“And what’s worse, if Lilly and Daryl don’t make it back, I’m stuck here with you,” Tara added on when Rick didn’t immediately reply. The words were insulting, but Rick could hear the underlying attempt at humor, and he took it as an olive branch. 

“Such a travesty,” he acknowledged, deadpan. Tara snorted out a laugh, which she immediately shushed by covering her mouth. He waited a beat before shifting back to the topic at hand. There was a comfort he could give to them both. “Daryl will make it back. He went back for me through a herd of Walkers when there was no logical reason to believe I was alive, and literally carried me to safety. He patched me up, found me a doctor in the middle of the fucking apocalypse and worked his ass off to keep me safe. He saved me from someone I made the mistake of trusting who first tried to shoot me and then tried to set me on fire. He got me medicine when I was too sick to stand. He nearly got himself killed saving me from a Walker I used to know when I froze up. I owe him my life, more times than I can count.”

“Sounds like your personal guardian angel.” Tara’s tone was still sharp, which Rick decided to ignore in favor of keeping the peace. 

“Just don’t tell him that, or he’ll get angry. That man has no idea how to take a compliment.”

“Is that why you do it? Give him what you think he wants as a thank you?”

Rick fought down his irritation. His sex life was none of Tara’s business, but he couldn’t seem to shake the conversation. “Why are you so sure that I’m trying to hurt him?” he asked instead. “Daryl is the most important person in my life.”

 “So you’re saying that if your wife and son turn out to be at Fort Benning, you wouldn’t drop him like a sack of potatoes?”

“I’m saying that the only reason we’re not open about it is because Daryl isn’t ready for that, and I respect that. I wish you would, too.”

Tara was silent as she mulled it over. “Yeah. I can respect that. But you didn’t answer my question.”

Rick didn’t have an answer. There was no future he could imagine that didn’t feature Daryl prominently in it, but he didn’t know what would happen if he was reunited with his wife. And he had no idea how Carl would react to finding out his father was sleeping with another man. And then there was Judith. Somehow, he’d have to make it work. They were all his family now. 

“We’ll give it two more days,” Rick finally responded. “And then we start walking.”

The following day, Tara looked him in the eye and smiled, extending an arm out for a fistbump that Rick obliged with a bit of confusion. “You’re not entirely off the hook, but maybe I was too quick to judge the situation. I’m sorry. Think we can just start over?”

Rick nodded. “I’d like that.”

“Good because sometimes I just need another adult to talk to.” She leaned in and dropped her voice to a whisper. “Meghan keeps asking when Lilly will get back, and I’m not sure what to tell her anymore.”

 “Seems like she could use a distraction.”

For the next two hours, Rick held Judith close and watched over Tara and Meghan while they built a snowman away from their base where the snow hadn’t been swept up to build their fortress or melted for drinking water. They’d been fortunate as far as Walkers were concerned. Maybe some of them had frozen in the cold temperatures, but there were fewer herds roaming than he was used to. The tail end of the group that attacked the truck had moved past them the first day, and they’d only seen a small cluster of twenty or so since then that swept by without noticing them inside the car. 

It was while Meghan rummaged around for something to decorate their snowman that Rick was faced with a dilemma he hadn’t thought to consider. A sizable vehicle was cruising down the road towards them from the direction of Fort Benning.

“Shit. Should we hide?” Tara demanded, looking nervous.

Rick cursed as well. He couldn’t count on it being Daryl and Lilly. If it was a truck full of strangers, they could be in hot water. There were few kind or generous people left and as much as the prospect of walking on blindly with Tara’s bum leg seemed like a bad idea, risking getting caught by another group like The Living was even worse. “Come on!”

They slid down the embankment by the road and darted behind the trees, hoping the movement wouldn’t attract any more attention to themselves. The cars were already a huge signal, particularly with the icy walls built up around them. He couldn’t imagine a group passing that by and hoped they wouldn’t take the last of their resources stashed away in the front seat of the Jetta.

Rick wasn’t surprised that the Humvee slowed to a stop just short of the cars. Four people emerged, well-armed and wearing camo. They looked like they might actually be military personnel. Or have acquired their gear. Rick had excellent aim and the element of surprise. It was possible he could take them all down, if it came to that, but there could easily be another four men in the back partition of their vehicle, and he didn’t relish the idea of shooting first.

The soldiers were talking, but their masks muffled the conversation. Coupled with the distance, it was impossible to hear what they were saying. Two people checked out the Jetta, rifling through their belongings, while the others walked around to the ice wall and peered over the side. They talked among themselves for a few minutes while Rick watched, before one of them finally turned and pulled off his mask. 

“Rick? Tara?” The man shouted, apparently unconcerned about drawing in Walkers. 

Rick revealed himself, trudging back up the hill with his hands raised to meet the strangers on the road. Daryl had sent them! There was no other explanation to how these people would know their names and location. There was a spark of joy at the notion that they were about to be rescued, which was barely noticeable beneath the overwhelming relief at confirmation of Daryl being alive. “I’m Rick.”

The elation sunk just as quickly as it rose when three of the four soldiers raised their guns at him. “Stay back!” 

Rick halted in his progression, inching to the side to better cover Meghan and Tara behind him, wishing he could somehow protect Judith where she slept swaddled against his chest. He kept his hands up and out. 

“Stand down.” The fourth man said, motioning for the unit to lower their weapons. They complied. “Sorry about that. We will need you to keep your distance, though. Protocol. My name’s Pete Dolgen. This here’s my brother Mitch, and that’s Rusk and Alisha. We work out of Fort Benning. Your friends asked us to pick you up.”

“They’re not with you?” Tara asked in concern. “Are they okay?”

“Touch of frostbite. It was a hell of a long walk for this kind of weather. Afraid that’s our fault. We cleared every working vehicle for miles around Benning.” 

Rick stared at Pete like he was some sort of mirage. Fort Benning was standing, the military was still functioning there, and they were taking in refugees. Pete seemed too reasonable and kind to lead a squad of soldiers, not to mention under such pressures. But if all of that was possible, maybe miracles did happen. “Is there-” Rick cut himself off and cleared his throat. “Is there anyone named Lori or Carl Grimes there?”

“Not that I know of, but we can check the rosters when we get there.” Pete instructed one of the soldiers to move their belongings into the Humvee before turning back around. “Few quick questions, standard procedure. Have any of you been bit or otherwise scratched by the infected?”

“No.”

“Have any of you been in close contact with the infected in the last three days?”

“No.”

“Any signs of fever or illness?” 

“None.”

Pete nodded encouragingly before walking them over to the back of their truck. Aside from a couple benches and their own bags, it was empty. “Okay. You’ll be put in quarantine for 48 hours when we arrive to ensure you don’t have any other illnesses that might be contagious. At which point, the doctor will decide whether you’re fit to enter the general population. Until then, keep your distance.”

The drive to Fort Benning was awkward as hell. The soldiers either didn’t know that the wall separating their groups was not sound-proofed or they didn’t care. Mitch and  Rusk were openly complaining about additional refugees, stating that food was already scarce enough with all the other people they’d taken in. Alisha was on the other side, pointing out that Lilly was a nurse and those skills were hard to come by. Rick almost wished that the trip wasn’t so smooth so they’d be too occupied to argue and he wouldn’t have to wonder if they’d even be allowed in. Eventually, Pete squashed the discontent. 

“I know you’re not suggesting we abandon a baby, a small child and their caretakers to the kind of shit we’ve seen out here, Mitch,” Pete stated evenly. “Besides, it’s not our call. That’s up to the Colonel.”

“He’s still following orders from higher-ups that are dead to deal with a problem they didn’t understand at the time. We need to concentrate on self-preservation.”

“Self-preservation is people, Mitch,” Alisha argued. “Don’t be a dick.” 

“I like her.” Tara declared, leaning in to keep her voice low. “Wonder if she’s into chicks.”

 

=====.o0o.=====

 

Fort Benning wasn’t quite what Rick had imagined. Somehow, with the knowledge that it was still standing, he’d assumed that they’d encounter large, thick walls with spotlights in a surrounding grid to illuminate the area throughout the night. Instead, there were several buildings that probably used to be quarters for the trainees and a perimeter of chain-link fence around a massive training yard that had obviously been erected after things went south. Inside was a shanty-town of tents and campfires, people clustered beneath thick blankets to keep warm. Several watchtowers were scattered around the fence, cobbled together quickly and clearly built for better vantage points than actual protection. 

Rick supposed that there must be some sort of diversion further out or the noise of camp would attract far more Walkers than it currently was. He could see in the distance a much taller construction where they were likely keeping watch for herds and redirecting them as needed. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a hell of a lot safer than any place he’d been yet. 

They were marched into a small building at the edge of the camp, outside the chain-link fence, and stripped of their weapons. “You’ll get them back after you’ve been checked out by the doc and approved by the Colonel,” Pete comforted as he led them to a locker room where they each took a blessedly warm two minute shower. They were given a fresh set of sweats to wear, and by the time they sat in a small room that resembled a college dorm, Rick almost felt at ease.

The doctor came in equipped with a hazmat suit and looked them over one at a time, checking for signs of infection and confirming their overall health. He tutted over Tara’s ankle and advised her to stay off it but said that it would heal without intervention. 

When he was finished and about to leave them alone in the small bedroom barely large enough for all of them to stand, Tara immediately protested. “We need to see our friends. Meghan needs her mother.”

Rick’s heart halted for a moment, realizing that they didn’t intend to put them together, and he wouldn’t be able to confirm Daryl’s health firsthand. Then the doctor shrugged. “They’ll have to start quarantine over again if you make contact.”

“That’s fine.”

Rick wasn’t able to process how sick with worry and fear he’d truly been until he laid eyes on Daryl again. It was like every muscle in his body unclenched at once, and he might have fallen to the floor if not for how cognizant he was of the baby strapped to his chest. He’d been walked all of ten feet to a separate room, where Lilly came out and greeted him with a hug, stroking Judith’s head lovingly before moving with quick, excited steps to see her sister and her daughter. And then Rick saw Daryl, sitting in a chair with his legs propped up on the lower bunk of the bed. His feet and hands were wrapped in bandages, and there was an unhealthy white hue along his cheekbones, but he otherwise looked in good shape. 

Standing, Daryl gave him a crooked grin before immediately redirecting his focus to Judith. He pulled her from the sling and had her cradled in his arms before the door was even shut. 

“Walked the whole way, huh?”

“Not as bad as it sounds.”

Rick was positive it was worse than it sounded, particularly with the frostbite that not even Daryl could deny, but he didn’t call him on it. Instead, he took a step forward, spurred on by the way Daryl was meeting his eyes again. His fingers itched to make contact, to feel the reaffirming warmth with his own hands, but Daryl saw what he was doing and took a step back, eyes drifting to the door behind them. 

Rick tried not to let his annoyance show. He didn’t give a fuck if the entire base was staring at them, he just wanted to feel him. He opened his mouth to assure Daryl that they were in quarantine and no one was going to bother them, but was interrupted before he could make such meaningless assurances by a knock on the door.

“Stand away from the door,” ordered the now familiar voice of Pete Dolgen. Rick took a couple steps back, and it swung open. He set down a bag that Rick hadn’t seen since his shower and straightened up. “They said the baby’s formula is in there.”

“Thanks.”

Pete nodded, pulling a clipboard from beneath his arm. “Full name?”

“Rick Grimes.”

“And the baby?”

“Judith.”

Pete raised an eyebrow. “Does Judith have a last name?”

Rick glanced over at Daryl, but Daryl responded without hesitation, “Grimes.”

Alisha appeared next, and Pete cleared a path so she could drop a few bags in the doorway. “Rations for two days for both of you.” When she bent over, Mitch could be seen behind her watching over the situation, heavy automatic at the ready. No one stepped foot in the room. 

Alisha disappeared out of sight, and Pete looked over his clipboard again. “I’ve got the roster right here. What were those names again?”

“Carl and Lori Grimes.” It only took Pete a moment to confirm what Rick already knew. They weren’t at Fort Benning. 

“‘Bout a Carol Peletier?” Daryl asked while Rick mourned the loss of the tiny sprout of hope he’d allowed himself. Daryl continued through the list of their comrades, only tripping over Andrea’s last name. None of them were present, including Merle. 

After finishing, Pete optimistically suggested that maybe they were the first. “Most everyone around seems to find their way here sooner or later. I hope you’ll stay, anyway.”

Rick sighed and sat heavily on the bunk. “Might as well. There’s nowhere else left to look.”

Pete smiled sympathetically. “For what it’s worth, there’s always room in the scavenger groups. You can keep searching for them with someplace safe to return to at night.”

“Kind of what we were hoping when we decided to come here. We weren’t sure it was still standing, though. I’m glad we were wrong.”

Alisha returned, this time pushing a cot into the increasingly small space of their room. “For the baby. It’s no crib, but she’s probably too young to roll over yet, anyway.”

Rick thanked them and slid the cot against the wall so they still had space to walk around. Pete let them know that while they weren’t allowed to leave the room and would be locked in for the duration of quarantine, there would be a guard that circulated the building and could help them if they had any problems. “Just pound on the door and someone will be here in a few minutes.”

And then they were alone.

Judith had fallen asleep in the comfort of Daryl’s arms, and he transferred her to the cot for a nap before sitting on the mattress of the lower bunk. Rick gave the bags of food and his rumbling stomach a passing thought, but he was too preoccupied with a need to lay hands on Daryl. He wasn’t sure what expression he was wearing, but Daryl appeared flustered as Rick directed his attention to him. 

“Ain’t private.”

“We’re in quarantine. That’s as private as it gets.” Unless there was some sort of video surveillance. Rick fought the urge to check the corners of the ceiling, knowing that the action would only serve to unsettle Daryl. It’s not like they’d have the resources for something like that.

“Been nonstop interruption since I got here.”

Rick snorted, but still moved the chair under the door handle in an exaggerated attempt to signal their security, surreptitiously peeking around for cameras for good measure. This time, when he moved into Daryl’s space, there was no protest. He took the bandaged hands in his own, half-afraid that they might feel cold and dead beneath his grip. “Not gonna lose any fingers or toes, right?”

Daryl wiggled his fingers as if to comfort himself that they were all intact. “Don’t think so. Still kinda numb, but the doc says that’ll go ‘way in a couple days.”

“Any other injur-”

Daryl caught him off guard by kissing him mid sentence. He broke it long enough to tell Rick to shut up before tugging him back in by his shirt. Rick was happy to oblige, pressing in and pushing to lie down, limbs awkwardly banging into everything on the small bunk until they’d somehow maneuvered into a horizontal position without having to break apart.  

When the lack of air finally forced an end to their kiss, Rick got straight to work stripping Daryl, who shifted around to make the task easier. His fumbling bandaged hands began removing Rick’s shirt. “Glad we’ve got two locked doors between us and Tara this time.”

“Thought ya mighta killed each other.”

“The thought was there, but we had Meghan and Judith to consider,” Rick replied with a smile, leaning in to steal another kiss before the sweatshirt was tugged over his head. “We worked things out. She’s a good kid.”

Rick thought that Daryl might have missed him just as fiercely because the hunter was particularly engaged, eagerly touching without any prompting. Despite finally having privacy again, Rick knew he wasn’t going to be able to linger. He was already achingly hard and craved more. 

“One sec.” Grudgingly, he sat up and pulled his bag closer, rifling through the pockets until he found what he was looking for. 

Daryl raised an eyebrow. “Really? Ya saved the lube an’ not another can of food or somethin’?”

“It was already in my bag. I didn’t exactly have time to repack.” Rick slid the bag away with his foot before brazenly working Daryl’s pants off and maneuvering his legs until one dropped off the edge of the bed and the other was bent to the opposite side so he had enough room to plant himself between them. Before the hunter could complain about his sudden exposure, Rick gripped the red-tipped hard length and stroked. “Besides, I for one am glad to have it.”  

The lube Rick dribbed into his hand was cold, so he rubbed it around in his palms for a moment to warm before applying it to Daryl’s skin. He still sucked in a surprised breath at the chill, and Rick apologized with no integrity. He didn’t ask before moving on to the puckered hole, remembering how embarrassed and flustered Daryl had gotten when he stumbled through the request to “try out that prostate thing” the morning after Rick’s own demonstration. As much as he enjoyed watching Daryl self-consciously admit to both pleasure and curiosity in their bedroom activities, he was well aware that pushing him too far would cause Daryl to lash out and isolate. 

Rubbing the surface in gentle circular motions with his thumb, Rick gave plenty of time to protest, but nothing emerged from beneath the arm Daryl had slung over his face. Rick tried to take his time, knowing that done poorly, anal sex could be unpleasant or even painful. They’d done a lot of stretching the last time, and Rick had still felt a mild burning sensation when he first sat down on Daryl’s dick. He wanted Daryl’s experience to be perfect.

“Just get on with it,” Daryl muttered, voice strained. It was hard to tell if the tension was due to nerves or because he was already worked up. Either way, Rick complied, pressing one finger inside little by little and adding more lube into the mix.  As soon as it was fully seated, he quirked his finger around, seeking out that little nub that would make this experience worth all the awkwardness. When Daryl let out a rumbling, satisfied groan, it went straight to his own cock, still trapped inside his pants. 

One finger turned into two and then three as Daryl kept up the quiet moans of encouragement. Rick loved watching him fall apart as he worked to loosen the passage up and targeted the sensitive spot inside. Finally, when he was sure that one or both of them were going to burst, he pulled out. He wanted to give Daryl an opportunity to stop, no matter how much his dick screamed at him to just take and take. If that’s what Daryl actually wanted, Rick could live with it, but it seemed just as likely that he would put an end to it all just to avoid admitting that he liked what they were doing. 

“What?” Rick asked, realizing he’d missed Daryl speaking, so caught up in his thoughts. 

“I said, ‘go’,” Daryl finally lifted his arm from over his face and looked him in the eyes. Glared at him, in fact. Rick’s jaw dropped and his heart hurt inside his chest. Where was he supposed to go? They were in quarantine together, and he’d somehow fucked it up enough that Daryl wanted him to leave. Daryl cleared his throat. “‘S what ya wanted, right? Yes, no, stop, go? ‘M sayin’ go.”

Rick’s face split into a grin, and he didn’t even care how stupid he might look as he extracted himself from his pants and made use of the lube again. “Roll over.” He’d prefer to do it face-to-face, but it was easier this way, and Daryl was hiding his face anyway. Daryl complied, propping himself on his hands and knees, even though Rick knew he must feel uncomfortable exposing both his rear and scarred back. His eyes lingered over the marks, particularly the thick red scar left from the horseshoe, sticking out among the others due to its freshness. He tried not to dwell on Joe and The Living, knowing that the anger would ruin the moment, and staring was a quick route from a self-conscious to a pissed off Daryl.

His first thought was that he hadn’t prepped enough, but with a little more pressure, the head popped in, and they both groaned. Still, Rick was determined to take it slow, working in just a bit before pulling out and repeating the process as he reached deeper. Daryl wasn’t a fan. “Move already.”

Chuckling, Rick slid in the rest of the way. Daryl clenched down in a manner that would only serve to make it more painful. “You alright?”

“Could do without the boulder in my ass,” Daryl muttered. 

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Rick shifted slightly, tugging in such a way that Daryl hissed. “We don’t have to do this.”

“Fuck that. Didn’t get this far for nothin’.”

Rick waited until Daryl signalled that he was ready, and then started thrusting. He kept changing the angle until he hit that sweet spot. It was very clear when he had because Daryl buried his face into his pillow, biting down hard and stifling the noises that seemed to come completely involuntarily. As much as Rick had enjoyed the experience when their roles were reversed, he hadn’t lost it in the way Daryl was falling to pieces. Rick revelled in the privilege and ability to bring him there. 

It wasn’t long before Daryl came, moans muffled in the pillow. Rick thrust a few more times before toppling over the edge himself. Panting heavily, he pulled out and rolled just enough to avoid collapsing onto Daryl’s back. 

Unbidden, thoughts of his missing wife spilled into his mind as they frequently did when things got hot and heavy. Technically, he was cheating on her, if she was still alive to be cheated on, but most of his guilt was centered on the fact that a not insubstantial part of him was glad she wasn’t at Fort Benning because he didn’t have to decide how he’d answer Tara’s question. 

Daryl grunted as he turned over, drawing Rick’s attention. “What?”

“Wet spot.” 

Rick grinned, pulling Daryl in by the back of his neck to plant a wet kiss on his lips. “I call top bunk.”

 

=====.o0o.=====