Author's Note: Written for TWD kinkmeme. Contains violence. AU for the ending of "Pretty Much Dead Already"

Disclaimer: The Walking Dead is not mine.

Silence fell over the farm, the last echoes of gunshots fading away in the distance. The survivors remained where they were, the impromptu firing squad keeping their eyes on the door of the barn. Daryl glanced back at Rick, who was staring numbly at the bodies piled in front of the barn doors. The former sheriff finally looked up at him, shocked. Daryl pressed his lips into a tight line and looked away, guilt turning in his gut. He pointedly looked out at the field he'd nearly died in, wiping at the sweat on his brow.

Andrea gasped behind him, and he heard someone murmur "Oh my god". He looked back at the assembled group, but they were all staring at the barn. When he finally looked at the barn, his breath caught in his throat.

"Merle..." He whispered to himself.

His older brother was standing in the doorway of the barn, blinking in the bright sunlight. His right arm ended at the wrist, dirty bandages soaked with old blood wrapped around the stump. But when Daryl's eyes fell on Merle's left thigh, he tasted bile in the back of his throat.

Merle's jeans were torn, and beneath that was an unmistakable bite. The walker had torn a chunk out of his brother's leg, and judging by the amount of blood that stained his pants, turning them a dark brown, the bite had hit the femoral artery.

Daryl's brother had bled out in seconds.

He swallowed a sob that rose in his throat. "Merle," Daryl felt his gun slip from his hands to the dirt, and he took a step forward. Merle looked at him, and smiled. His brother wasn't dead. He was alive. Of course he was. If anybody could survive being trapped in a barn with walkers, it was Merle.

"Merle!" Daryl lunged at his brother. He distantly heard the others screaming at him to stop, but he didn't care. They'd left him chained to a roof like an animal. They didn't care about Merle, and they didn't care about him.

Nobody cared about him except Merle.

Strong arms suddenly encircled his waist from behind, pulling him back from his brother. "No!" Daryl screamed, throwing his limbs in an attempt to break free. The weight on his back pulled them both down to sit on the ground, but the grip didn't loosen around him. "Lemme go! Merle!"

One arm moved across his chest, pinning him against the body holding him down.

"That's not Merle, Daryl." Rick murmured into his ear, voice gentle and firm. "Not anymore."

Daryl fell still, panting heavily. His side was on fire, everything in his body aching. He wanted to crawl into a hole and cry.

"Merle." Daryl whispered, so quietly only Rick could hear the small whimper. The older man half curled around him, pressing his mouth against Daryl's ear.

"I'm sorry, Daryl. I'm so sorry."

Daryl couldn't tear his eyes away from Merle. The spell had broken, and he saw the film over his brother's blue eyes, the red stains on his teeth and around his mouth, the way his grin, normally manic anyway, was now a gnashing of teeth. He saw the feral, hungry expression on Merle's face as his former big brother looked at him, and Daryl wanted nothing more than to die. He felt a sob rise in his chest, suffocating and overwhelming. Rick's grip tightened comfortingly when he began to shake.

Merle took unsteady, stumbling steps towards Daryl and Rick, hand grasping greedily at the air. The two men instinctively drew closer together, Rick subtly twisting so Daryl was partially hidden by his shoulder. Daryl grasped at Rick's shirt, suddenly eight and being protected from his drunken father by his big brother. One of the few times Merle had actually been there when the younger man needed him.

Shane broke from the line, striding forward confidently with his hands tight on his shotgun. He stopped at the edge of the pile of bodies and raised his gun, pressing the stock against his shoulder. Daryl's eyes widened and he tried to lunge forward once more, reaching toward his brother desperately.

"Merle!" Daryl screamed, the word tearing through his throat.

The echoes of his voice were drowned out by a single gunshot, sharp and unmistakable. Daryl jerked as if he'd been shot along with his brother. Merle dropped bonelessly into a heap, and was finally terribly still. Rick watched the blood drain from Daryl's already pale face and his blue eyes go glassy with unshed tears.

"No..." Daryl whispered breathlessly, all the strength gone from his voice.

"Daryl, I-"

"NO!" Daryl tried to lunge forward, break free from Rick's grasp, but the former sheriff held fast. The hunter fell forward in Rick's arms, forehead meeting the dirt, teeth grit so hard his jaw ached. "No, no, no." He murmured like a broken record, tears sliding freely down his cheeks.

"I'm so sorry." Rick whispered around the lump in his throat, his head bowing, forehead pressing between Daryl's shoulder blades. Guilt roiled in his gut, knowing that he was responsible for Merle's fate.

"It had to be done," Rick looked up at Shane, mouth agape. "He would've killed us all. It's better this way."

"What is wrong with you?" Rick finally found his words. Shane blinked, taken aback by the venom in his best friend's voice. "That was his damn brother, show some respect."

Shane snorted. "Please. Merle Dixon? I did the world a favor."

Lori suddenly stood and walked up to Shane, slapping him across the face. He took a step back, eyes widening briefly before his expression went hard with anger.

"What the hell-"

"You need to leave, Shane. Right this minute. I won't ask again."

Something dark crossed the former deputy's face, and for a brief, horrible moment, Rick thought he was going to hit her. Instead the man just turned on his heel and stomped off toward his car. He saw Lori's shoulders sag in something like relief. She glanced back at Rick, a tight smile on her face, before moving to the assembled group, shepherding them back toward the camp.

Daryl had fallen silent during the exchange, but Rick felt occasional sobs hitch in the body in his arms. He bowed his head over Daryl's back.

"I'm sorry, Daryl. I can't..." He drew the younger man closer, hugging him now rather than holding him back from suicide. "I'd give anything to make this okay."

"You can't, Rick." The hunter whispered, so quietly Rick would have missed it had he not been so close. "You can't make this okay. There's nothing in the goddamn world that will ever make this okay." His voice held no venom, just a dull resignation that scared Rick.

The former sheriff buried his face against the back of Daryl's shoulder. "I know," Rick replied, chest aching for his grieving friend. "I know."