Sapien

XXXVII : Nascent

When Daryl Dixon was born, it rained all hours day and night.

After a seventeen-hour labour that woke his mother with a scream of bloody murder, he was delivered mid-afternoon in the ground floor maternity ward of St Annabelle's hospital. The ward was short-staffed and the cocky intern who delivered him, a semi-qualified young woman who thought what she was doing was textbook, almost killed him when she didn't notice the umbilical cord around his neck.

Will Dixon took one look at the distressed purple-faced babe in its mother's arms. Just one look.

"He ain't mine," Will said, and set his heavy hand on his eldest son's skinny shoulder, dragging him away from the bedside with a pinch unseen by all and felt only by the young boy. On the bed, his exhausted wife lay staring at the infant in wonder, almost like she never heard him disown it. She never said a word against it that afternoon, but years later when her cheek smarted red with the print of a large palm, and he hollered it at her over the liquor quickening in his blood, "He ain't my son!" she screamed right back, "I hope yer right, Will! I hope yer fucking right!"

But on the day Daryl was born, his father never screamed even once, just his mother, and when she finally stopped Daryl took over, tiny voice drowned out by the sounds of the rain pelting down on the gazebo roof in the garden and against the window.

That's how Merle told him it happened.

.:.


What the fuck kinda name's 'Rick Grimes'?

Dirty nails, greasy skin, the same clothes he's been wearing a week straight, he looked half a wild thing when he first appeared from the trees. Snarled like one, too. If he had a single fuck to give about first impressions, that might not have been the first one he wanted to make in hindsight. But whatever, it wasn't like it mattered to him at the time. Higher class cannon fodder was still cannon fodder, so what should he care what some new guy thinks of him.

Who the fuck wears a white shirt these days, anyways? That was pretty fucken' stupid, unless you weren't planning on getting your hands dirty. In which case, you're still pretty fucking stupid.

But there he stands across from Daryl, silent as a lamb until he decides it's time to bleat, his white shirt and clean face and hairless chin. He debates a second what he looked like before he got here, but he doesn't really look like the type who liked getting his hands dirty. He probably survived holed up some place, probably ain't killed a geek since this whole thing started.

Then he looked twice - couldn't help himself - and found the other man's gaze hadn't left him even for a second, careful and intrigued, keeping paces away like it's second bloody nature. He circles away as Daryl comes through, but he doesn't drop his head like someone who's afraid of him, not even after his outburst. Who could fucking blame him, anyway? He's been out there two fucking days, getting eaten alive by bugs and tracking a deer that got its hide tanned by a dead man, has a bunch of squirrels and a bone to pick with Merle to show for it. He told Merle not to touch his cigarettes, so of course he'd get halfway out into the woods before he found his last carton was hollow, courtesy of his brother.

Not like he has to answer for his bad mood to nobody.

Whoever this stranger is, maybe he don't look the type at first, but Daryl figures there's more to him than some suburban asshole looking for somewhere to duck and cover. It isn't until the man sidles up to him when Shane's grabbing for his attention; a sway in his hips like there's a gunbelt attached, the bulk of his arms and shoulders flexed in an unintentional alpha-male display; that Daryl's brain screams, oh good lord, another one.

Yeah, 'cause they really needed any more cops around here.

After everything that goes down, after Daryl's tried to gut him like the pig he is, after Shane's pulled him to the ground in a hold that'd have Merle pissing himself in laughter for Daryl's flaming red cheeks and the audience on standby, Rick tells him he's going back. He's going back with Daryl to fetch Merle's stupid ass from Atlanta where he was abandoned a day ago.

Daryl can't promise he wont try to kill him again, or that he'll step in if his brother takes those handcuffs and goes to shove them down the new guy's throat. Surely this dumbass knows he ain't winning no favours.

Well, Rick Grimes, either you are one crazy bastard, or you're just plain fucking stupid.

.:.


His momma was one of those women who got a lot of looks. Good looks, bad ones, Daryl didn't really know; they were all just looks to him.

Braless, chewing obnoxiously on gum during one of her week-long stints without cigarettes, teased hair swished up into a messy bun, tight waist-high jeans cinched a notch too tight with a belt, she'd snapped at him to go put something back when they were already at the register. He was about to take it, run it back to the shelf he was mostly sure it came from, when his mom's hand came to rest on the top of his head, fingers combing into his hair. "The hell you lookin' at?" she'd demanded, stroking over his hair, staring down an older woman in the line behind them. An older woman with pursed red lips and smooth hair, a dress that came up to her neck and made her chest seem endless.

The woman had glanced between him and his mom before kicking off to go stand in a different line. Daryl remembers his mom always smelled like smoke, even when she tried to quit; it clung to her clothes, mint to her breath, and when she bent down to smack a hard kiss to the apple of his cheek he smelled it. Ruffling his hair and rubbing her lipstick from his cheek, she smiled at him.

"Be a good boy an' get yer ass back 'ere pronto."

It wasn't the first or last time it happened, but Daryl was so used to it he didn't even think it out of the ordinary when his mom called someone out for looking at her. He was used to them looking at him, too.

The whole town knew the sordid truth. They called his mom a tramp, said it was bad enough she had Merle so young, 'milkman' comments he never really understood until he was old enough that it brought heat to his cheeks in embarrassment. Other kids' moms said stuff just in his earshot about how she dressed, how she always wobbled around like she was drunk, that she let her kids run amuck, that she wasn't fit to be a mother. Toward the end, they talked about the split in her lip or the bruise on her cheek with spite, calling her a stupid little girl who should've known better, how she was selfish for not taking the kids and getting out of there. He heard all the talk because that's what the other kids used to tell him their parents said.

They said Protective Services should've taken her kids away from her the moment they were born – they would've been better off.

But he'd go home and his mom would kiss his cheek, a kiss sticky with bourbon and bitter with smoke, and she'd let him curl up on the bed or the couch next to her and comb his hair back from his face. "Where's yer brother," she'd ask him sometimes, voice rough and skin cold, and Daryl would shrug or tell her he's setting things on fire in the yard. On those days, she'd push him off her hip and stalk from the room to set her eldest son straight. She wouldn't always come back to him.

She hit him once. Just once.

He doesn't really remember what happened, just that his parents started fighting during dinner, that he and Merle were side by side trying to pretend the yelling didn't upset them, their mom to one side and their dad to the other. Whatever happened, whatever was said, it was too much. A full plate went flying to the vinyl ground, splicing the air with a symphony of broken ceramic, an ensuing silence where Daryl and Merle sat like wide-eyed owlets, turning their heads between their parents and too unsure whether or not they should leave the kitchen table.

Finally, their dad slouched back in his chair and took a swig of his beer, and their mom slid off her chair onto the floor to start picking up the pieces of her shattered dinner plate, a splash of mashed potato like vomit smearing onto her knees. Merle tried to grab him when he followed her onto the ground, tried to keep him planted on his chair, but he shrugged his brother off and crouched down in front of his mom, reaching for a jagged segment the size of a watermelon slice. Before he even touched the floral painted edge of the plate piece, he was struck.

He'd never been slapped before.

It didn't send him sprawling the way his dad's fists would later in life, when he was bigger and stronger and more prepared for it, but he froze, trying not to draw attention to himself, trying to avoid getting hit again. He waited, expecting another blow to come and expecting another thing entirely, for his mom to wrap her tiny arms around him and to tell him she was sorry. She does neither.

Later that night she comes into his and Merle's room, persists even when he turns his back, tells him he can't do things like that. She's sorry, but he can't do things like that. He can't take her side, not ever. She was protecting him.

She doesn't get to protect him for much longer. When he thinks of how she left him, a storm cloud of flames and sirens that wailed in his head even now, he doesn't try to forget that slap, that harsh sting that impressed the inside of his cheek with the shapes of his baby teeth.

Nobody could help him without hurting him. Not his mother, not his brother...nobody.

.:.


Some time between taking a fistful of damp soil and brittle leaves where he'd thought his brother's hand would be, and taking the gun from Rick's hand and aiming it at Dale – sorry brother, but it's gotta be the brain – he had a very clear change of heart.

He wasn't leaving these people.

They'll all die without me here to feed their sorry asses.

That's what he told himself.

.:.


Charlie used to call him 'Pretty Boy'.

Daryl was hard-pressed to think of one friend of Merle's that hadn't called him that at least once, but it was Charlie who said it first, who would bring it up time and time again.

First time he heard it he was in their room, his and Merle's, minding his own business when he heard the older boy holler, "Get yer pretty boy brotha out 'ere, man!"

"Yer gon' be a lady killer when ya grow up, kid," he was often told, in various many ways, by various many people, and like many of his compliments it usually came from Merle's pack first. They squeezed him between them in the couch, let him take mouthfuls of their beers and poked fun at Merle for getting dunked in the shallower end of the gene pool.

When Merle was in lock-up Daryl made some of his own friends, but his brother's buddies were always around and he didn't really have a problem with 'em. They were old enough to buy beer and stuff some of 'em were, so on the days they drove him home, or gave him a couch to crash on when his old man was around, he got to spend it buzzed at least.

Charlie wasn't there That Night, the night Merle got taken away. He never had anything to do with things like that. He still did other stupid shit, drugs and alcohol and drag racing without a licence, trashed a science lab at school and jumped into fights when his friends got in over their heads - "They asked for it," people would tell him, but Charlie would grin with bloodied teeth, "I said they're my friend, I didn't say they were smart."

By the time Charlie turned seventeen, everyone knew he was gay. Even his ma, who'd divorced his old man when he was still a kid and didn't have anyone else in the world. Daryl remembers she was quite adamant about showing off her 'wood-chopping' in the front yard whenever the word 'FAGS' was spray-painted on their garage door or scratched into the side of her car. It wasn't that Charlie did the 'locker room' thing, or got caught sneaking around with a boyfriend – as far as Daryl knew, there were none to get caught sneaking around with – it was just that he told the wrong person, and that person told someone else.

Daryl was always so confused about the whole situation.

He liked Charlie, more than Merle's other friends. He was the only one Daryl trusted to look after him if he sneaked a few too many beers and wound up unconscious in the bushes, which happened more often than not seeing as he was still a fucking kid. He was in no short supply of bad influences, and it wasn't that Charlie wasn't one of them – he was just as fucked up as the next kid in their puny town, and just as prone to driving himself up the walls with boredom and doing something insane to cure it – it was just that of all the people between That Night and the day Merle was released from juvie, Charlie was the one who acted most like a brother.

Then the rumour got out.

That was all Daryl thought it was. Just another rumour.

They were devouring the leftovers from the more promising depths of Charlie's fridge after school one day, or at least Daryl was trying to, but the older boy wouldn't stop staring at him. "What?" It was a gross half-mumble around a mouthful of cold pizza, and if Charlie's ma was around she'd have flicked him in the ear for it, but he and Charlie were alone.

"I don't know what ya might'a heard 'bout me, but people been sayin' stuff," he'd whispered.

"I don't care," Daryl mumbled, then finally swallowed the ball of now bland-tasting pizza down.

Charlie sagged in relief. "Shit, you been so quiet, I was so sure. Ya grew up with Merle, man-" he stopped when he saw Daryl pause around his next mouthful.

It was collective.

Oh.

Daryl meant he didn't care about the rumours, things like that never bothered him anyway, but they weren't really rumours after all. He...didn't feel anything about it. No anger, no disgust, no betrayal. Just really fucking hungry, seeing as he ain't been getting much food at home lately. Deliberately he kept on eating, both boys silent and wary, but Daryl wasn't thinking about it at the time.

It was just one of those things they never talked about. As far as he knew, nobody talked about it, not unless it was to say they weren't going near Charlie's house again, "did you see that crazy bitch hackin' firewood? Fuck off, I ain't goin' near that place, don't care if he is a faggot."

Daryl never could fight the idea that maybe Charlie wanted to talk about it. He never could fight the idea that it wasn't all Charlie wanted to talk about. He stopped calling Daryl 'pretty boy' around the same time the rumour spread, but Daryl never could shake the thought that it wasn't an attempt to save face – fuck, he doesn't actually think I'm pretty, does he?

He didn't really know what 'pretty' was. He gravitated between thoughts of 'you are one ugly bastard' and no thoughts at all. He didn't even have an opinion on himself, one way or the other. The difference was it kinda mattered if Charlie had an opinion on his face, didn't it? Did he really want to know?

It didn't help when his old man started up on it, prying for why exactly either son of his had anything to do with that "faggot". He found ways around the question just as he did every other conversation, made excuses about how Charlie drove him home from school and owed him money and empty promises to kick the guy's ass if he ever made a move.

His old man crushed his hand in his fingers and sneered. "If he does, I'll kill 'im. No son of mine's gonna take it up tha ass like a little bitch."

About the only time his dad laid claim to him was when he talked big about what Daryl was gonna grow up like.

He came home one day, later than usual since he'd had to walk, to find his life turned upside down. The screen door hadn't even clicked shut behind him before his old man sneered, "didn't yer boyfriend pick ya worthless ass up?"

He would've ignored the man if he felt it'd do any good. He knew which moods came with bloodshed and this wasn't one of them. No, this was somehow darker, the kind that followed him through the house and poked at his wounds. This was the kind of mood that said his dad was looking to get under his skin, not break through it completely. Sometimes he hated those days even worse.

"You should go find yer brother, 'fore the pigs start squealin'," his dad prodded once, just once, sounding simply like he'd lost interest in tormenting his youngest son. But no, no this was the greatest torment of all. My brother?

"Merle's back?"

His dad didn't say anything, turning up the volume on the television and plainly ignoring him.

The one time he didn't want to be ignored.

He found Merle eventually, stalking around by the old skate park, bloodied knuckles and muttering desperately at a lighter that wouldn't ignite. Eventually, before Daryl reaches him, he snaps the cigarette in half and tosses the empty lighter with a throw far too strong for the short distance away it landed. Merle doesn't even greet Daryl before he's dragging him close, spitting out threats not to him but to Charlie. Charlie, who apparently had something to do with the blood on Merle's knuckles.

Just like his father had something to do with it.

Because nobody can help him without hurting him, right?

.:.


The time between the Farm and the Prison was a lineal progression of days and weeks and months, so blurred that by the end there was a certain weariness to his ageing spirit, one so solemn that he could almost say "it feels like we've been out there for years" and believe it with every creak and ache his body gave. He couldn't remember what came first, or how close certain things happened in succession, the pulses in his memory out of rhythm and flat-lining in areas that he barely considered necessary to recall.

He knows he had a fight with Glenn about two months on the road, something stupid he can't remember but the kid probably does. He knows he took Carol's hands from around his shoulders some time around five months, making his way out under the pretense of a hunt. Maggie confided a pregnancy scare in him one night on watch, but he can't really remember when that happened, just that there was enough time between then and the prison that she sorted her shit out. Some of the memories he held onto were really stupid, like Rick pulling a thick quilt over him and taking watch at his side rather than chewing him out for dozing off during his turn, not realising Daryl's eyes were open almost the whole time.

Seven, almost eight months of endless contact with these people, and he forgot most of what they said and did in that time.

He didn't forget Rick so easily as the others. It was so natural to hang onto the threads of company among the few he'd known the longest, but Rick wasn't just a mere thread. Threads you could unweave, pick at, break, pull free of the tapestry. Rick wasn't one thread, he was a hundred. A thousand.

Some how, some-fucking-how, Rick was at the core of everything, and he didn't even know it. Carl's looking more despondent than usual? Give him something to do. Lori's looking a bit too sharp in the cheekbones? What's one more night going hungry. Rick's starting to pace the length of his cage? Get him the hell out of there before he snaps.

He didn't even notice how far out of his way he went for Rick's sake until the day Rick came over just to compliment him.

"You're good at that," Rick told him once, squatting down beside him with a look of morbid curiosity, watching Daryl jerk the knife downwards along the belly of a small doe. "Have you been hunting for a long time?"

Daryl was still reeling from the compliment murmured quietly beside him, turning his head in his shock to see the other man crouching far too close, Rick not exactly glad with what he was witnessing but oddly undisturbed. "Yeah," he mumbles, an afterthought.

Rick's lips twitch in a shallow smile, "Thank god for that," he said, clapping Daryl on the round of his shoulder, pausing again when he finds and then softly squeezes the firm muscle there, blinking twice and holding on a moment too long. Daryl's pulse kicks up violently at first, uncomfortable with being touched he'd thought, but there was no urge to lean away and shake Rick's hand off. He thought Rick was going to say something else, but the other man gives his shoulder a short, friendly shake and pushes up from his crouch, wandering off without another word.

Daryl's shoulder burned a little too pleasantly until it didn't anymore, like Rick's touch didn't fade for several minutes after he let go, like he was still squeezing Daryl's shoulder even as he was scooping the innards out of the doe's carcass. He did it unseeingly, barely paying an ounce of attention to the mechanics of gutting the deer.

If it was Merle who'd snuck up behind him and watched over his shoulder, there would've been something wrong with how he was doing it. His brother would've taken the knife, "do I gotta show you how it's done yet again, dumbass," and gone about doing it the exact same way as Daryl. Merle wouldn't have complimented him. There would've been some kind of bullshit fault in it.

He wasn't entirely sure Merle knew how to acknowledge anyone's skills but his own. It was a habit Daryl had a hard time trying to break, as well.

His mind taunts him with the knowledge that Rick knew next to nothing about skinning and gutting a deer, but for the larger part, the reluctant pride swelling inside, he didn't care. He lets himself notice that night for the very first time the way everyone's eyes light up on him, laughing over their full plates of venison, smiling stupidly at him, knowing he doesn't want to be thanked but unable to keep from doing it anyway. They didn't even have to say it aloud for Daryl to see they were grateful.

It was worth more that night than it might've been any of the times before. Any gratefulness he received at the start of all this bullshit, on the rare occasion he received thanks at all, was for the meat he brought them and the protection he provided. He saw, and he understood – they weren't just glad for the success of his hunt, they were glad for him. They were glad he was with them, and for more than the threat of starvation.

That wasn't something he was used to, and he didn't know how to respond to it. It was one among the many scattered memories of those months on the road that followed him into the quiet, lonely watches, the nights where he had nothing to occupy him and so his mind was free to roam.

It didn't escape him how many of these memories featured only Rick.

By the time they reached the prison he wasn't even sure which memories came first. By the time he realised there was a reason he was so focused on Rick, it was with less disbelief at himself and more so toward Rick – what reasons would someone like Rick have for wanting someone like him?

.:.


Two months after his twentieth birthday, Daryl wakes up in a hospital room. The first thing he sees is the ceiling. It's a mural, more or less, though really it's just a piss poor attempt at replicating a sky, turquoise blue dappled with sponged white, an anatomically incorrect seagull flying overhead with a neck too long and its feet sticking out its ass. It's already pissing him off, and he's only been conscious for half a minute, give or take. If it's supposed to be calming, it's having the total opposite effect.

There's something lodged up his nose, his finger's stuck in something plastic and heavy, his arm's strapped at his side – he probably has enough tubes and wires hanging out of him to pass as a Terminator prototype. With the wheezing and beeping of the machinery next to his bed, he doesn't doubt they'll have something plugged into him that'll have the nurses running to see if he's really awake.

He's probably on some kick-ass morphine drip, considering that not only does he not feel any pain but he doesn't really feel that much of anything, particularly in his face, except it's pretty damn tight up there.

"Daryl?" he hears someone call his name, a voice he didn't think he'd hear for a long time – if ever. He breaks a sweat turning his head, but he doesn't think he could move another limb if the walls came tumbling down around them. He feels like he's been grafted to this bed. "You with me, little brother?"

I'm with you. Thanks for the painkillers. You didn't get the generic shit this time.

"Can ya hear me? Daryl!"

"Don' yell 'n m' fuck'n ear…" he mumbles, or he thinks he does - hard to tell if anything really came out. He realises somewhat belatedly as he's dropping off back into unconsciousness that he's only seeing through one eye, and some of the tightness around his head isn't actually his skull trying to wrestle his brain but a bandage.

He finds out later - since he couldn't remember nothing - he fell asleep at the wheel, and he's been asleep for five days since, that they had to operate on shattered bone in one side of his face, and that this was gonna suck whatever insurance he had bone dry. But before that he found out something else. He was supposed to be asleep, 'playing dead' a finely tuned skill after a childhood of trying to attract as little attention as possible, but this time he was avoiding talking to his brother. Two years ago he ran away and he wasn't planning on going back, not even returning into his own head to relive the night.

"You know, I didn't think the first time I saw you, you'd be half-dead in a paper dress," Merle says into the room, empty for all but themselves and the eager machines doing what they do best. Daryl can't help but listen in, even though he knows his brother would kill him if he ever found out. "Seems that's where I keep puttin' people, inta places like this. They asked about the bullet I gave you, 'cause, ya know, they found it in yer pocket, an' they think they got a right to stick their noses in other people's business. I told 'em, I said my brother ain't no coward, he ain't gonna kill himself…I found out our old man wasn't even gonna call me, and he wasn't comin' here for you…I could'a killed him. I know I ain't been there much for you over the years, little brother, but I'm here now."

It was the kindest thing Merle ever said to him, and he wasn't even supposed to be awake to hear it.

"You'll be glad to know I saved one of those milk cartons with yer face on it," Merle went on to say straight after, a crackle in his laughter that was far from amused, then fell silent once more.

.:.


Falling in love with Rick was a dream that kept on going even when he woke from it. It happened silently at first, fragments of things remembered and the ghostly feeling of something living in his head and yet still so lost. The maze of his mind was his own, he built most of it with his bare hands, but he knew not the way neither in nor out, and chasing phantoms in his head was something he gave up doing a long time ago. Better to let them come find him instead. He tried to ignore the signs, not that he knew what they were but he ignored them all the same. He turned his head at the mere suggestion of Rick feeling for him, and his heart retreated as far into his blackened chest as it could, burying itself in the cave walls where his affection could germinate undisturbed and forgotten about.

And then he woke from that dream.

He no longer just wanted to touch Rick, he was touching him. There was a thrill in getting so close to Rick's side that he could feel the other man's very life, the beacon glowing hot and bright and dangerous, and he was starting to feel that endangerment far more than ever before. Rick started looking at him like they knew a secret nobody else would share, the kind of secret they sculpted together, a knowing glance they shared yet Daryl didn't feel a part of it, like he was the secret rather than the source. Whatever was going on, the dreaming became more vivid, more lucid, and touch by touch he started to piece it together.

Starting with the sly grab at his hand up in the watch tower.

Rick stood so close to him sometimes, and it was okay. It was completely fine. Anyone else, anyone at all, and he'd be putting space between them in a heartbeat – there's enough room in this god damn watch tower for the both of us, he thought, though surprisingly without conviction, why's he gotta stand so close to me – but Rick was hard to pull away from.

Why wont you just fucking ask me, he thinks, eyes on Rick no matter where he goes, quick to look away before he's caught. Oh he saw it, the pure want, Rick's inability to look or move away, how he pinned each movement of Daryl's body. He was aware of himself like never before, how each sway or stance could be some kind of unintentional seduction. He thought it was his own fault, that he'd mislead Rick into believing there was something going on here that wasn't and never would.

But Rick didn't look at Daryl like he expected reciprocation. He just looked, and Daryl wasn't used to being admired, he wasn't comfortable with being silently lusted after. It should've made him feel out of place, wondering whether Rick pictured him or Lori when he took a hand to himself. He started catching himself before putting anything near his mouth, and avoiding standing too close, but these were half-efforts to convince himself he didn't like it, not even just a little bit.

It was hard to refrain from testing the man, just to make sure he wasn't imagining the attention lingering on him as he walked away. It was hard, because Rick didn't deserve to be played with, but neither did Daryl, and Rick was playing with him.

Rick knows what he wants. As long as Daryl's known him he's been like that, strong-willed and driven, so if he wants Daryl what's holding him back from declaring that?

A few days later Daryl realises Rick was baiting him. He was hoping for an answer without needing to ask a question, he was trying to goad Daryl into making the first move.

A move Daryl would never make.

.:.


What's wrong with me?

He's a strip mine. He's an ugly abandoned gash in the earth, robbed of all his jewels and minerals, a pitted-out place of bedrock and soil. He's hollowed out, swaying in the breeze, and everyone else can see it. Everyone knows that whatever good was in his life has been taken from him. He's bruises and bones, a fluted chest and festering mind, a plagued corpse that walks among them. They avoid his vileness with scorn, see his scars and tattoos and sneering face and they whisper to their children, "People like that are no good, y'hear? Stay away from 'em."

"We don't want troublesome folk like yourself 'round here," he was told at nineteen, oily-skinned and crazy-eyed from being awake thirty-odd hours straight. All he was looking for was a motel room to wash up in and sleep. The clerk's nose turned up at his fouled appearance, at his cut-off sleeves and ripped jeans, like he belonged on a park bench with the drugged and the homeless. "You best be movin' on boy."

Thirteen years old, he staggered into the pharmacy in town, his shirt welded to his skin with fresh scabs that segmented his back. Every step, every hunch, every breath, it hurt in the worst ways imaginable. Flesh flayed so wide open he bet his spine was visible, he'd crawled into his brother's empty bed instead of his own – months later, when his brother came home for a while, the older boy would clout him over the back of the head and tell him to have his period on his own sheets – but come morning, the welts cracked open again, and in the end the pain was too unbearable. The pharmacy might be his only hope, maybe he could steal some aspirin or someone would notice his broken wooden movements and help him. Thirteen years old, he drags his feet up the aisle of painkillers, sees boxes and boxes of them. How many would it take to erase everything? Desperate for help, he reached a shaking hand for the first box in sight, uncaring of the name or the brand, just that there were licks of fire across his shoulders and a bundle of red coals nestled at the base of his spine, and maybe this could save him from it.

His fingers almost grazed the cardboard box when a shudder rolls through him, a burly man larger than his father in a security uniform imposing on him slowly, stalking him back away from the pills. For a moment, he feels hope intermingled with his fear. Did he see? Will he help me? For a foolish second, he thought someone looked at him, really looked.

"You got money, kid?" the guard asks, not trusting the look of him, his bare feet and his brother's tattered hand-me-down band shirt that floated on him like a girl's sundress. He doesn't answer, and that's answer enough. "Get out of here."

He shattered upon being directed from the pharmacy. Nobody looked twice.

Nobody really looked at him. They didn't see him even when they bothered to spare a glance – they saw his brother. They saw Merle Dixon being forced into the back of a squad car, hands cuffed behind his back, running his mouth at anyone and everyone. Dixon was a pariah's name. They looked at his dad, then to his brother, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," they say, and when their eyes settle on the youngest of the family, the broken-winged baby bird, they don't see him at all. His brother's ripples spread too wide, his shadow concealed too much, until the whole world seemed to know him not by his own face but one several years older and stolen from the man who was not truly his father. The whole world assumed he was born flightless.

A childhood of neglect and abuse went on uncontested by everyone, even his own brother. Merle, who knew the edge of their father's belt better than anyone, who earned his own battle scars with a courage Daryl could not emulate. The brother he'd believed, even through the years without him there, would save him…well, he turned out to be just one more person who looked at Daryl and saw himself.

He spent their adulthood making up for lost time, not in the way of a true brother but in the way Merle knew how to be one. He spent years trying to make Daryl just like him, tried his damnedest to overcome the opportunities he'd missed to cultivate Daryl into mimicking his path like a vine, to become the sunlight Daryl reached for and would stretch any which way to follow it. Between juvie and abandoning their deadbeat dad, Merle lost out on the crucial years where he could've sculpted his little brother into whatever man he wanted him to be – not like anyone else was gonna raise him – but for the rest of their lives he sure did try.

And the sickest part was that he still loved Merle, even after he was abandoned, even after the years of whatever gaslighting tactic his brother came up with next, even living on their small property bought with their old man's life insurance and struggling to pay the bills around the costs of drug and alcohol habits.

He believed whatever people told him about himself, his brother especially. He didn't know who he was, but who better to know him than Merle?

"You ain't gon' love nobody, li'l brother." Merle said once in answer to his brother's glare, uncaring and unaware of the mess of their living room, of the torn piece of stockings spilling from between the sofa cushions like stuffing and the makeup tube lain on the rug beside his bare toes. His belt buckle snicked as he rethreaded it through the loops in his jeans. Daryl turned his back, holding back a violent shudder when he becomes aware of his brother's eyes on the back of his head, curious, suspicious. "You wouldn't know how." The front door slamming shut behind the girl cut the air in the room down the middle, and Daryl's half was the one that felt unbreathable. "Ain't nobody gon' love you, neither, 'cause you jus' ain't worth it."

.:.


Of course I trust y- what the fuck!

Rick's on the edge of his bed, something dark and familiar in those eyes, a contained fire, gasoline want. That look was the thread for the needle of lust that sews him into the mattress and keeps him still. He doesn't move. He can't.

This is dangerous, he thinks, then a hand rests coaxingly atop his bare foot, you're dangerous.

"I need to show you something, please."

Daryl has a pretty good idea what. The fact he swallows down a throb of anticipation first is what worries him.

"Ya can't just tell me?"

"It ain't that kind of something."

Of course it's fucking not.

.:.


Repulsive, that's what he remembers of that night. Of her.

Merle had his face in some chick's hair last he checked. It fascinated him a little bit, the weird things people do to get laid, like pretendin' somebody's hair smelled nice and somehow that was supposed to turn them on. If he's learned anything about women from Merle, it's that getting somebody's perm in your face was proper protocol, and he honestly can't see how that's supposed to be attractive 'cause he'd lay a hundred bucks on the fact that she's got about two cans of hairspray in that thing.

He didn't see it most days, what was so great about having your tongue in someone else's mouth – how was that supposed to feel good?

Then there were the rare days, ones where he'd see Merle's grin before darting off with a girl, or seeing some couple getting pretty damn hot and heavy for no reason. Rare days when he kinda wanted that too.

He's walked in on people fucking before. Merle, mostly, but his old man didn't bother shutting the door if he and his floozy were both drunk enough, and he's been to enough parties that he knows what happens when people meet at opposite ends of a tequila bottle. He's jacked off to enough pornos to know that everything works fine; everything except his brain.

He didn't look at chicks' faces in the magazines, didn't picture anybody when it was just him and his hand, never looked at nobody and thought: I'd have sex with her. His brother locked on a target usually within the first two hours, made comments Daryl couldn't imagine him saying to a woman without getting bitch-slapped to the tarmac, and over the years Daryl watched and wondered – how did Merle pick 'em? How did he decide who? Merle typically brought home brunettes, so it wasn't like he didn't have a type, or favourites even if they stayed in one place long enough. But Daryl just didn't understand it.

He never looked at anybody and thought he'd rather stick his dick in them than use his own hand.

But this first night, he spent most of it walking the edge of too sober, then at some point decided that was a stupid thing to do. Whenever he looked back on nights he was trashed, hours seemingly compacted into minutes. Where the fuck did all that time go, and what the fuck stupid shit did he say and do that he's already forgotten about? If he's anything like his brother when he's that drunk, he'd rather not know.

"It's good ta see ya loosen up, li'l brother!" he hazily remembers Merle shouting into his ear.

"It's good ta see me anyway," he'd retorted, completely unintentionally. Merle reacted to his response by doubling over against the bar in a fit of coughing. He realised then his brother had stolen his scotch without his notice, and was now choking on it.

"I like ya better when yer drinkin'," Merle said when he calmed down and cleared his airways, probably one of the truest things he ever said really. Daryl was all kinds of people when he was drunk, and whether he was chatty or confident or aggressive or downright bitchy, his brother funneled as much alcohol in his direction as he could. "Least now ya got a personality," Merle told him one intoxicated occasion, but he was so off his face at the time he might've made it up, or someone else might've said it, maybe not even to him.

He doesn't even remember how the girl ended up talking to him. She was too close, but his hearing was cloudy from the noise and he remembers leaning closer to understand something she'd already repeated twice. He can't even remember what she looked like, just a muddle of features but not enough to paint the picture clearly. Dark hair though he couldn't recall the colour, when she laughed he could see her gums, a small mole on her neck that was distracting more often than not.

He remembers lying on the motel bed and being terrified of the girl sleeping beside him, that she'd wake up and want a repeat of whatever the hell they did that night. He slipped out of that room with his jeans undone and his shirt hanging off his arm, and all he had to show for it was a cork of sickening regret that would sit inside him for a long, long time.

.:.


I'm so fucking selfish, he thinks. He drops onto his back on the bed, which in hindsight was not the best move he could've made, because the second he closes his eyes Rick was there with him, sliding his hands up his legs and telling Daryl to trust him. Eyes closed, he saw the seam of Rick's lips part to a tongue, glistening eager and prepared, and Daryl lets those hands rise along his thighs, refusing to look in case he loses this man in his mind as well.

Just last night Rick was here with him, doing something nobody's ever done before. Not just the whole sucking him off thing, 'cause he's pretty sure nobody's ever done that neither, but of all the times he can't quite remember, or doesn't remember at all, nobody's ever been more interested in making him feel good than themselves. Rick got literally nothing out of it, but he was more than happy to be doing it, he enjoyed doing it. Weren't no way he imagined that.

And now...

Now he was getting hard just thinking about it.

The first time Rick kissed Daryl he was in too much shock to reciprocate it. Part of him expected Rick to make that kind of move, 'cause it wasn't like he couldn't be realistic – he'd just jerked the guy off after all – but he wasn't quite ready for something like that. He couldn't even say how long it'd been since he kissed someone. A hand on his junk was, product of his twisted logic, less expected than Grimes trying to steal a kiss.

But more unexpected was how he tried to will himself to react, even under the scrutiny of Maggie and Glenn in the watch tower, even knowing that Rick was just using him. He tried so damn hard in those lost seconds to move, to respond to the kiss or press back into Rick's confident hand, but nothing happened.

Something clicked on in his brain but off in his body.

He wanted. For a split moment he thought he could have it, too, even though it'd never made sense to him until then. Before he could fathom it, before he could be stupid enough to consider it, Rick pulled away, fearing he'd made a mistake. Which he did.

But so did Daryl.

Seeing Rick like that...he could've thrown up.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, so fucking wrong, what the fuck did I just do!

He thought about it too often during the month between, recalled how different it felt to have another dick in his hand other than his own, the angle all wrong and the pressure harder to determine when it wasn't himself, but much like himself Rick seemed to think the harder the better, but that just made him feel weird knowing that. He could still feel the curve of teeth biting into his palm when he covered Rick's mouth, taste the salt on his neck, smell the soil in his hair, feeling a man's body against his own. A firm, strong, unbreakable body that he didn't have to worry about being tender or careful with unless he wanted to, and surprisingly...he wanted to.

But he was just so fucking angry at Rick, and especially at himself. He didn't even understand his own rage, just that it was encompassing and it was safest to stray as far from Rick's side as possible, hope he wouldn't hurt anybody in the process.

Yeah, 'cause that really worked out like he planned it.

Now look at him. Couldn't even last a day.

He's worked a hand below the waistband of his jeans – not as tricky as it used to be, now that they'd all slimmed down in the softer places and toned up everywhere else – kneading a palm over his stirring flesh and feeling his cock harden underhand when he recalls suddenly the picture Rick made with his mouth around it. It nags at him like a pest buzzing at the other end of the room, that this is a vile thing to do, thinking about Rick like this. He drags his hand from his jeans never mind how easy it might've been to ignore his conscience, trails them over the flat of his stomach, and brushes the definition of his inner hip.

Sparks fly from his fingertips and settle in his groin, the touch feeling nothing at all like the plaintive worship Rick's mouth, but not so far from it that he wasn't reminded of it. Christ, the things Rick did with that mouth-

Fuck this.

He's got his cock out in the open before he has the chance to convince himself out of it. Respect for Rick forgotten, he recalls every detail with painful clarity, the plush of the other man's lips and the satisfaction at having Daryl right where he wanted him, spiraling waves of hair usually so tame mussed and falling from the crown of his head to graze along his belly and thighs. He remembers the weight of his body, the heat rising from their skin, the inferno of his mouth.

He remembers Rick watching him come. He remembers watching Rick, feeling it, and wonders if Rick felt the same power Daryl did, taking another man's pleasure in his hands, deciding when it would happen, if it would happen, and how good it'd be.

Stroking himself with more vigour than he'd had in years, too lost in his mind to take in the actual sensations of it, he wonders – what was it like?

What would it be like to have Rick looking down at him, watching, waiting, hands in his hair coaxing but not demanding, scraping and stroking across his scalp in encouragement, like praise really. What would it be like to have that kind of power over Rick instead, to turn his world inside out the way he'd done to Daryl's?

Lost in the unexpected twist, imagining the shudder of Rick's thighs under his hands, the jerk of fingers in his hair, the taste of his hidden skin, Daryl's pleasure wound tight and snapped, his climax brief and sudden and somehow disappointing after last night. Within seconds all he's left with is a clarity he's never felt before, and the cloying taste of corruption.

Like his hands would never feel clean again.

In the morning Carol pulls him aside and tells him about Rick's breakdown in his cell with his son. Abruptly he feels like the sickest person left in the world.

Barely weeks later, when he's seducing Rick, teasing them both to the edge and keeping just barely out of reach of what they want, fascinated with how he could drive Rick absolutely wild just by denying him a little bit, he almost gives in to the reality of what exactly he wanted from this game. He wanted prove to himself that Rick was only like this for him, nobody else. He needed to know that the reason Rick wanted to kiss him so bad wasn't just because he could.

Just when he starts to give in, when they're kissing right on that borderline of passion and affection, he hears his brother's voice in his head. He doesn't want all of you, just what'chu give 'im, he hears Merle tell him. You're a bitch in heat, you sick bastard!

Daryl rips away from Rick like he's been shot.

.:.


Daryl thought about killing himself when he was twenty-nine. He didn't contemplate going through with it, he just wondered on the mechanics of it, took the bullet out of its coffin inside an old wallet he never used anymore and rolled it in his palm. He wondered if there was any truth to the whole 'afterlife' thing, if he'd go to hell for putting the bullet through his brain.

He snorts at the thought. Hell. A wry smile comes to his face, contradicting the disgust roiling under his skin at the sounds of high feminine wails in the room next door, his brother's animal grunting louder, a piece of furniture banging around in time with them. I'm already in it.

.:.


Was it weird to like how Rick tastes?

It might be kinda creepy, come to think of it – he imagines, just briefly, Merle putting the moves on a girl after the turn, tellin' her he wanted to eat her out, ending up with a gun to his head for threatening her life. Not that he thought there was anything remotely sexy about it to begin with, and Merle's going rate of success for that particular one-liner wasn't exactly impressive, but it wouldn't be the strangest thing he's said to get a girl to spread her legs for him. Either Merle really knew how to handle women, or he was just really good at picking the ones without any pride in themselves.

But it wasn't even like that. It was still more than a little weird having another guy's come in your mouth, even if he'd only done it the once. Rick's done it a few times now, just as fucking hot as the first, but no matter how much he enjoyed bringing that look to Rick's face it was an uncomfortable thing to do, not to say he ain't planning on doing it again – 'cause he is – but doing it once don't mean he's any good at it, or prepared to do it all the time. It took a long time to work up to doing it the first time, and he'll probably need just as long to convince himself the next time he gets the bright idea to go down on him instead.

No, it wasn't like that at all though.

Kissing Rick felt weird at first, for no reason other than he didn't have much practice in it, just enough to get by with some little tricks that seemed to work a little too well on Rick. One of his more insensitive lines of thought since this whole thing started, way back when he first learned that the further he tried to stick his tongue down Rick's throat the more noise he made, was something along the lines of "Lori must've been boring in the sack if a little tongue action can get you this worked up."

Not that he was one to talk - he was still fascinated with just how turned on he could get by watching Rick stretch his arms over his head. An unintentional slip of pale skin below his naval and Daryl was done for.

Kissing Rick all over was different, too.

Where he tried to keep it physical for both their sakes, the temptation to explore was too much. Their rabid kiss could become almost tender in seconds, his mouth would follow a path of it's own accord from lips to chin to neck to chest, and somehow his longing to drive Rick as wild as Rick drove him overrode whatever coding was in place before that kept the other man out. The more of Rick he tasted, the less he was willing to stop.

Then Rick kissed him in Judith's cell and it tasted so much sweeter than ever before, thick saccharine in his mouth. It was so much better than everything that came before it, if only for that lingering taste. He would chase it for the rest of his life.

.:.


"A heart attack," the paramedic said, went on to say something else, but Daryl's mind blanked about twenty seconds ago at the words "Are you William Dixon's son?" Which was probably a good thing, because the first word out of his mouth would've been 'no' had he been talking to anyone other than a grim reaper of a man with sympathetic eyes – the wrong kind of sympathy – and an ambulance patch sewn onto his breast.

He stands stiff and awkward while the man recounts his father's medical history at him. Too much alcohol and not enough of everything else, like Daryl didn't already know that fact intimately. He's got his arms folded and hopes the guy doesn't realise why. The discomfort that posts him rigid in the ground is in fact a complete lack of pity, not whatever kind of reaction this man thinks he's having to the news.

He's dead. That's all Daryl cared about.

"Your brother's already inside," the man tells him, a twitch of his mouth that's supposed to be a smile but it's so fucking fake he could almost laugh at the effort. He doesn't even acknowledge the paramedic before turning to go inside, wondering somewhat darkly if his brother was planning on starting the cremation early. He finds Merle, somewhat unexpectedly, sprawled on the couch, watching the news of all things with a beer in his hand and a smirk on his face. In the entryway of the hall, two detectives are talking among themselves and watching his quite comfortable brother with interest. The screen door rattles closed at his back, a tinny maraca of a sound, and Merle rotates his head like he does when he's been on the booze for a few hours, fluid and calm and so deceivingly friendly. There's a genuine grin when he sees Daryl standing there.

"Hey li'l brotha!" he calls from the couch, hoisting himself forward with a grunt and slamming the beer bottle in his hand on the coffee table. Daryl's a little disappointed when it doesn't shatter. The detectives are watching them both carefully, too carefully, though that was probably somewhere in their job description – suspecting everyone of anything. His brother doesn't look in their direction. "Been wonderin' when you'd show up!"

"Where is he," he says, sliding his eyes from his manic brother to the detectives in the hallway, who part like guardians without a word. The bedroom, then. "I wanna see 'im."

"Aww man, I wouldn't, he's really stinkin' up the place," Merle tells him, scoops his bottle back up from the table now that he's standing, and with the next breath goes on to contradict himself, "I'll show you."

"No," Daryl denies him, Merle cocking his head without protest, "I gotta see for myself." He passes by the detectives without a further word, knowing his brother's sober stare is on his back, gauging for what kind of man's walking into that bedroom and what kind of man's gonna walk back out.

Daryl doesn't know, either.

It ain't like in the movies, he realises when the first thing that assaults him upon opening the bedroom door is a wave of hot, nauseas stench. He staggers back a moment, covers his nose with the back of his hand, tries to breathe through his mouth only to find now he can taste it, and that's so much fucking worse. It takes a titan force of willpower to stand straight and enter that room, shutting the door behind him because he's not entirely sure he trusts himself not to desecrate his old man's corpse. It's dark in the room, probably an attempt to keep it cool and slow the decay, but Daryl can see the body so clearly that the rest of his reality feels suddenly like inebriation, and this is the hungover truth that stabs him behind the eyes and socks him in the gut, that makes him feel sluggish and tired but so painfully awake.

On the bed lay an old, fat, grey-haired wrinkle-faced version of his brother. His skin looks like cheese that's been left out in the sun, waxy and sweaty, pale and kind of stiff but not...like plasticine. This is life's creation, the world's consolatory gift to him. He's on his side, an inglorious and uncomfortable shape made from the bulging, swollen rolls, a balancing act of limb over belly like gravity does not exist in this room. Perhaps that is why his feet feel so heavy but his brain is swimming in oxygen. Then again, that could be from holding his breath as long as possible.

The lower half of his undignified face seems bruised, like a port wine birthmark, lividity staining him stark patches of purple and white.

There's nothing beautiful about this dead man, except from the very fact he is dead.

"I hate you," he hisses, bite-jagged nails carving into his hands, the dried-up well of emotion filling with a monsoon of righteous hatred, staring at his ugly corpse and wanting suddenly to pick it apart. Saliva wells on his tongue like venom, but he doesn't think to swallow it, not until has to fight down the urge to spit.

He fights down a lot of urges in that room. Particularly the one that included taking that ceramic lampshade and bashing it into his dead father's face over and over until there was nothing distinguishable left, until even dental records were useless. He wanted to crush the beast's skull with his own two hands. He wants to take the Swiss knife from the top drawer of the bedside where it's always been, wants to stab his father over and over.

He regrets that he doesn't do it. He regrets that he didn't do it years ago even more.

He didn't get the solace he was hoping for, but he got something, because the moment he stepped out of that room the air felt somehow lighter, and not just because it wasn't carrying the stench of one monster's annihilation.

"Fucker got it easy, goin' in 'is sleep," Merle grumbles when Daryl finally leaves the room and goes straight for the kitchen, following in his brother's earlier footsteps and taking a bottle of beer from the crisper. They're not quite far enough away from the detectives for Daryl to feel certain they couldn't hear him. Maybe Merle wanted them to hear him. Maybe Daryl did, too. "Here I was hopin' he'd drop dead with his fat ass on the can and shit himself while he was at it. That would'a been no less than he fucken deserved."

Daryl suddenly understood the dizziness rotating behind his eyes. The man who walked out of that room was finally free. A lifetime of labouring under the weight of his father's undeserved existence, and he was cut from the chains, almost as an afterthought.

He very deliberately looks at Merle now, lets the superficial cheer show. "It's about fucken time," he grunts, louder than his brother, watches the malice curve Merle's lips into a violent smile, "what'chu say we drink up an' get on outta here, 'fore they think we give a shit."

.:.


The halls of the prison were full of ghosts. He saw them glimmering in the corners, sometimes with familiar faces, the brother and sister they lost here, Theodore strapped in riot gear and Lori with her butchered stomach. Sometimes they had the faces of their enemies, the sunken opal eyes and mangled lips. This night Daryl woke in a cold sweat, still tasting the puss in his mouth from Lori's vile kiss.

"What's so great about you," Lori, with a voice like her vocal chords have been cut, disconnected and pyrite rough, drags him from serenity into the darkest darkness his mind could spin for him, "why can't my husband think of anything but this."

She crushes him back against something hard and cold, and for some reason there's hard mist falling on his face when she brings her lips to his, crushing against him with the weight of her death on her own shoulders. She pinches his jaw with fingers like cold rock, kisses with a mouth as rigid and unforgiving as hatred itself, but he tastes no blood, feels nothing, her tongue in his mouth sliding empty behind his teeth. She pulls away to growl from above him.

"Oh, that's why," she says, tilts her head to frame her pale swan's neck with a shawl of dark hair, and gives him a red smile that drips thick blood on his chin. "You taste good."

He sinks into the earth that closes around them like a Venus flytrap, blades of grass suddenly spearing the sky either side of him, a crooked cross snapping in half and tumbling. Lori swallows down his tongue before he makes a sound, her full moon irises all that is left of the light. He wakes slowly, half expecting to still be surrounded by wet soil, for his tongue to be a bitten-off stub in his mouth, for bloodied fingers to be tearing at the skin over his ribs like wrapping paper, clawing their way inside.

Chilled from the sweat soaked into the sheets surrounding him, his mouth feeling violated and putrid with undoing, Daryl does not return to sleep. He scrubs his mouth out with acrid mouthwash so strong it corroded the sensation from his tongue, scrubbed until his gums bleed and his palates burn. He does not go back to sleep.

.:.


"You've got a nice ass," Rick teased last night, hiding whatever he was going to say first under that veil of humour Daryl still couldn't decide between detesting and being grateful for. Perhaps detesting it just this once was okay, seeing as he's been wondering what compelled him to Rick for a long time. He was plain, rude, and downright unbearable company more often than not. His past was a subject that came to light sporadically, and when it did he king hit Rick with the worst of it and kept on punching, not that there was much good in his life to brag about anyways.

People don't wanna hear your sob stories, most of 'em got their own, and they don't wanna be woken up to the truth that there are people out there worse off than they are. He ain't never complained to nobody, dealt with it like a fucking man, but Rick always managed to trawl the truth out of him just by being the first person who wanted to know. Every time he opened his god damn mouth, he hated what came out, good or bad or without any inflection at all.

Nothing came out right. Sometimes he'd say shit without thinking, a sideways confession of how much he wants Rick or an abrupt urge to try and tell the other man exactly what he feels, but it left him feeling cottony and embarrassed, replaying himself in his mind at the darkest hours of the day and the night. He sounded so fucking stupid. Even in the heat of the moment, sometimes he was surprised he could even keep it up what with how fast his mind was turning – but then he'd let his eyes wander over Rick, no matter what state they were in, and the hunger that stabbed at him heart and loins alike overrode whatever stupid shit came out of his mouth.

He tries to look back on everything objectively sometimes, stretching his mind during the lulls of ecstatic energy, the days when he isn't quite so sure what they're doing together, the days when he can't bring himself to think in terms of 'we' and 'us'…the days he doubts. He tries to ensnare that feeling, tries to use it to determine the truth, but in trying to think on all subjects 'Rick' with a clear mind he finds himself clouding it, not with doubts but with promise. I'll be here until he decides he doesn't want me anymore, he vows, somehow less bothered about what he would do with himself after Rick and more concerned with being everything the other man needs him to be.

He's tried his best to fit every pair of shoes Rick throws at him, but on these objective days he worries his best isn't enough, and that Rick is finally expecting too much of him.

Whatever he's trying to convince himself of, whether that be to stay by Rick's side or split away from it, he never really does get his answer. Just a vague acceptance that whatever comes will come. So far nobody's looking to drive him out of the prison with pitchforks. Nobody's looking to bash his face in. He feels guilty for not feeling guilty; he'd prefer not to break his brain thinking too hard on that one.

He told the truth when he said he tries to avoid thinking of his brother at all times, for their sakes as much as his own, but these past two weeks it's been unavoidable. Whenever he's alone, whenever he sees that detachment in Carl's curious looks or feels Carol's enthusiastic avoidance of the elephant in the frigging room, it crawls up the back of his throat like dry-swallowed pill. He's pretty sure Merle would have a stroke if he learned his brother was in fact happier than he'd ever been in his entire like, and that most of that satisfaction came from how frequently he gets to touch Rick's dick.

No small part of his contentment came from the fact his life didn't have Merle in it, but the less he thought about that the better.

Before the people fate gave to him to protect, there was only Merle. He was jammed so far under Merle's thumb he was wedged between the nail and a bed of raw flesh, a suffocating trap he never quite realised he was caught in, never felt the impulse to chew off his own leg and escape.

Until little over a year ago every decision he made, every action, every word, it all came down to whether or not it would affect Merle. The worst consequence, to him at least, wasn't the law or the violence that hung at the edges of their lives thanks to Merle's little hobby, lingering like forgotten portraits in a foyer. The worst thing that could've possibly happened to him before the turn was losing Merle, be it from a bar fight he wasn't there to intervene in or a few choice words that sent one of them packing. It didn't matter how much Daryl wanted to be the one to start that bar fight, to break a pool cue over the back of his brother's head and toss him out the door on his face. It didn't matter all the things he wanted to say, whether it was "leave me be", or "you're such a useless piece of shit", or "I hate you". Not that Merle was an entirely bad brother, he just wasn't a good person, but Daryl understood that – he'd always understood that, he just never realised how Merle being less than good would come back to bite him in the ass.

For all that he'd indentured his fucking life to his brother, the only person who had given a shit and ever would give a shit about him, having him gone was strangely…liberating. Shit, he could finally think. Not that it was a new experience for him – thinking, that is – but having Merle in your life had a certain prerequisite for numbness.

It took him a few weeks after losing Merle to adapt to not second-guessing his every whim. The shit Merle would laugh at him for; making an actual effort to befriend a kid, knowing what part of Asia exactly Glenn's family came from, struggling to keep the whole group fed because he wanted them all alive and healthy, turning Carol's subtle flirtations down like he should've Rick's, the fact he didn't turn Rick down at all; these were the things he did because Merle wasn't here to tell him not to.

Seeing Merle's severed hand on that rooftop was the worst moment of his life.

The worst things always happen when he's alone, be it to the wispy kid with a shirt fused to the sores on his back, or to the exhausted man that almost killed himself trying to survive on his own.

He was going to kill Rick Grimes. He was going to take him apart piece by fucking piece, feed his family to the geeks, he was going to set fire to the man's life and watch him burn, and he wasn't going to let no group of wannabe gangsters take that right away from him. He was conflicted of course, sometimes confusing whether or not he was intrigued or irritated by the hero complex, sometimes not so sure if the trust he put in the other man was because he was pretending to believe in him or because he truly wanted to.

"He's one of our group, more or less," he'd said, and Daryl never quite got over the way it made him bristle. He'd been providing for these ungrateful bastards for weeks - regardless of whether or not he and Merle decided robbing the camp blind was their ultimate course of action, he was still sticking his neck out to bring food back to them, under no obligation to share it but knowing if they didn't they'd be under even more suspicion – and he'd helped set up perimeters and kill off wandering corpses. Then some new guy came along and felt he had more claim to these people after just one night? Oh it was just fuel to his fire. Keep going, he'd thought, lava in his bloodstream, what more crap can come out of your mouth? Make my day.

Where the fuck have you been since the world ended. Daryl was positively steaming as guns were given away like a 'get well soon' card. The one redeeming quality this guy had left after strolling into Atlanta guns blazing, enough weapons and ammunition that every man could fend for himself and his own, and he was handing them out because of some sob story. Why was he the only person who didn't appreciate the charity? Fuck, at least Shane had some idea of "give what you get".

Every word out of his mouth. Every god damn word. It was tallying up. Even the one thing that simultaneously impressed and frustrated him, that he was willing to sacrifice his life and his family to bring Glenn back to camp with them, couldn't keep his wrath from expanding pyroclastic inside. He was so torn, resentful really that anybody still had enough good left in them to think the best of people – to think the best of him.

It didn't matter what came out of his mouth; when he opened it, Rick paid attention.

How could someone who invited all the bad in the world be so impervious to it? His world view'd been warped since he was a kid and he watched Merle and his buddies terrorize a young woman in the middle of the night, spitting at her and pouring vinegar in her eyes and mouth until she threw up all over the counter, gagging and spluttering in a foreign language he'd never heard before. He'd watched them tear her filthy shirt and laugh when she reacted to the danger her mind told her she was in by cowering at their feet, flinching at the sounds of breaking bottles and tipping shelves. The rest of his life was a reference list of why he saw the worst in everyone.

He was so frustrated that the worst thing he saw in Rick was that he was an inherently good man, but that wasn't going to stop him. The only person who could stop him from doing anything was Merle.

And stop him, Merle did.

Turns out the only vengeance at camp was the slaughterhouse they ran into. This is one hell of a mess.

They killed, they cleaned, they burned and buried, but the labour was only a distraction for Daryl, about as distracting as cooked human meat clinging inside his nostrils for days afterward could possibly be. He was waiting,, hoping for a chance to slap Merle in the face with his own severed hand – stop hitting yourself – and get the fuck out of here. Merle never came back for him, abandoned him on the roadside with a bunch of women and children who would eye him with fear then expect him to put a plate of fresh food in their laps. The time came to bury Merle's hand before it deteriorated any further and stained his belongings permanently, and to make his choice.

Go back into the city alone, try and track his brother down without any leads and likely get himself killed in the process.

Stay right here, follow these people around until something better came along, and hope they crossed paths with Merle at some point.

Sometime after getting to the farm that plan changed. He wasn't going nowhere, not unless the rest of his people did, and they weren't going nowhere Rick didn't tell them to.

Somewhere along the line he stopped hoping they'd run into Merle one of these days. He stopped condemning Rick for being the only one who didn't look at him and see Merle.

This wasn't the family he volunteered to be a part of, but it was the one he'd chosen anyway, perhaps a little later to the party than anyone else but not that it mattered none. He actually loved them – fucked if he knew how that happened, but it did, and now he's made another choice involving Rick, the dumbass do-gooder cop he once wanted to get some old fashioned eye-for-an-eye from. The man who had, in righteousness alone, made Daryl's life seem comically pale in comparison. Maybe that's why Rick got away with being the way he is, taking over groups of people accidentally-on-purpose, driving them to follow him by simply being the leader craved in dark times like this. Rick didn't mean to do it, but it was hard to feel like anything other than a lesser man when drawn beside him.

"I'm just the other good man," Daryl told him once. He still feels the verity of it every day; no matter how Rick had himself convinced that they were every bit as good as each other, Daryl knew that was not the truth. He tries too hard to be a moral man, but any amount of pressure needed to convince him of acting one way and not the other was surely a bad sign. He is not envious, he finds. He's never been a man for envy. Certainly he resents the spoiled ones, the sheltered ones, the weak ones. He resents them partially because that was never a chance he had, but mostly for the poorer quality personalities it made of them. It was a hard grudge to hold onto, as are many of his grudges in fact.

He was surprisingly quick to forgive and forget, trained that a sincere apology was better than no apology at all. His inability to hold many grudges – not enough room in the hateful corner of his heart – was a necessary survival skill, much like desensitising himself to everything intended to pierce him.

He's everything I'm not.

He always thought the world was vain, that people always want to be with someone who remind them of themselves. Whenever someone says "We've got so much in common," all Daryl hears is "They're just like me". He used to believe everyone's favourite person in the world was themselves, and being with someone who mirrored them in many aspects of life was their way of saying, "it's not perfect, but this person is me."

He knows now that the world isn't all like that. All the shit he's been through, all the mistakes he's made, it's a wonder there's anything left of him. It would be toxic to want to be with someone like himself, provided he wanted to be with anyone. Broken people don't always fit together – their jagged edges are unique, the pieces that are missing sometimes buried deeper than another person can reach, and really it would be like trying to mend a broken vase by purposely using pieces from opposite sides.

How is he so much like me when he's nothing like me at all?

Fuck, some days he looked at Rick and wondered if that's what he looks like, too. Does he look worse?

Rick may as well be made of glass, because he's breakable and transparent and beautiful, and once Daryl might've wanted to take a person like that in his hands and smash them to pieces.

Because Rick is beautiful. He's tragedy and salvation, he's a giver and a taker of lives, and Daryl's seen that too-good face of his contort in agony, misery, abandonment…ecstasy…he couldn't save Rick how he deserved to be saved. He couldn't bring back his wife and his best friend, he couldn't turn back time. It's the best he could do to help him forget.

He never planned on becoming so much more. He'd planned for a situation where "you've got a nice ass" was exactly what Rick meant to say.

He doesn't want me to go. By no means was it the first time he had the revelation – it came to him last night when he informed Rick of his plans to get some air back into his lungs and leave the prison for a few hours. He didn't even have to say he was running away. Rick ain't stupid, which was something he appreciated more than he could put a name to.

What he used to believe was stupidity, Rick's inability to leave well enough alone among other things, became the things Daryl was most glad for. He could see Rick's traits for what they were, same as everyone else. He watched that unbearable optimism file down after each brush with death and unfortunate circumstance – his innate pessimism couldn't handle somebody like that, who refused to see all the awful things he saw – and underneath was the precious stones of loyalty and a violence toward whatever and whoever threatened his family. Rick would kill for them, has killed for them – he can't say the Rick he met that first day in camp would've done the same. He valued life too much, his morals were his personal law and he abides them the best he can, and in the beginning all that made him was a stupid cop with too-good intentions.

But Rick woke up, and while he may not be entirely proud of himself as he is now, Daryl is.

If Rick were anybody other than who he is, Daryl wouldn't love him this way.

Who Rick is, a man who values family above all else, makes sense to him. He wasn't annoyed by the hesitance he receives when he wanders over, Glenn sitting alone in the idling car to warm up the engine and Maggie somewhere doing something unimportant. He was far from annoyed.

He catches sight of Rick's frown before it vanishes. "What's got you so bothered 'bout this?" He asks. "It's never bothered you b'fore."

Rick straightens, still trying in vain to hide his unease. "It always bothers me. I should be going with you."

Daryl tampers down the smirk with his teeth. "Don't be worryin' 'bout me now. You got other stuff to worry about."

"Don't remind me," Rick sighs. "Just...don't give me a reason to worry about you. Don't do anything I would do."

He hears Glenn calling his name. Impulsively, he reaches out and cups the back of Rick's head, but before he can go through with brushing their lips together he thinks better of it, tipping his chin toward his chest and pulling Rick down until their foreheads touch. Rick is wide-eyed and watching him but Daryl doesn't want to look and see himself reflected there. He just wants this moment, this quiet appreciative moment, the swelling affection that was as new as it was familiar.

Glenn doesn't call for him again.

Rick does.

"Daryl..." he whispers. Daryl feels a gentle stroke over his hip, Rick moving just slightly, just enough to brush their noses together.

Daryl can't help from breathing Rick in, wanting to press their lips together but knowing they're being watched. They ain't here to give nobody a free show, and he certainly ain't wanting to share those sorts of things with other people. It was only for Rick.

Damn, he was lucky enough that Rick understood that. He didn't even have to explain it.

Rick squeezes his hip, then pulls back. "I mean it," Rick hums, smiling, thankful for the gentleness. "Watch yourself."

"Yeah, yeah."

They don't say 'goodbye'. Glenn doesn't mention it.

Neither does Maggie until they pull into the parking lot an indeterminable time later, turning in her seat to look back at him, smacking him on the side of the knee when she sees he's too lost in thought to notice. "So how come Rick didn't wanna come with you?" she asks when he's blinked back away from the window toward her.

"He got some errands," he says. She sees he's being honest and smiles fondly at him, still not turning around even when he sinks into his seat. "What?"

"Just you two," she smiles wider, then turns around before Glenn turns into a space big enough to park in, "that's all." Glenn finds a spot by the store, though thankfully he doesn't attempt to use an actual parking space or Daryl might not have let him live it down, inching into a small cove shielded by wreckages of cars and a stack of rusted trolleys, perfectly camouflaging among the havoc so passers by wouldn't spot the odd car out. It's as inconspicuous as it's gonna get in a big open area like this. Even though he's never been to this particular place yet the other two have, he still takes point.

Daryl stopped sympathising with the ones that didn't make it a long time ago. Parking lots full of skeleton cars and tumbleweeds didn't give him that uneasy feeling anymore, though unlike some of the others he never quite felt guilt for being alive when they weren't. He didn't look at the walkers like they were something to apologise to – by that point, the brain and everything left of the person was already dead, a sack of rotting meat that just happened to wear a face – and he didn't have any romantic ideas about what was going to happen should he turn one day. Put me down nice and clean, don't let me hurt anyone; that's all I ask.

He's projecting his own apathy when they approach the store, the hatchback parked a couple dozen feet from the entrance, Glenn and Maggie seeing he doesn't so much as pause at the days-old blood-splattered innards of an open-doored Coup and after just one tiny falter they keep on following. He keeps the crossbow poised high and scans as thoroughly around the parking lot as possible, somewhat irritated with all the abandoned cars in his line of sight, the snow glaring too fucking bright for his eyes in small patches. This place had danger written all over it, and he was getting this feeling like he was being watched, beady eyes from a distance – human or walker he wasn't sure, and in remembering White Oak and the tracks in the snow, he's tempted to turn them around and go home. They didn't urgently require supplies, but they would eventually, so they'd be taking the risk all over again on some other day that might not look as promising. Not a walker in sight.

"You're on edge," Maggie points out, reaching out but not touching, grazing the open fold of his leather jacket when he turns around and tugging it once. "You wanna wait out here? Keep watch?"

"That a good idea?" Glenn asks, looking just as on edge. Considering what he knows the kid can handle, it's probably his own intuition showing through the cracks that's affecting them both.

"Baby stuff's three aisles from the door," Maggie points out, pulls her arms up to rub at them like she's cold. She's felt it too, like they're being watched, though whether those eyes are predatory, hungry, or frightened, it's impossible to say. He doesn't want to find out. "It doesn't take three people carry formula."

"Rick said to grab her some talcum powder," he says before he thinks twice, and twin grins appear on their faces. He scoffs. "Shut up."

"That's adorable," Maggie prods, uneasiness forgotten.

"Shut up."

Glenn seems barely capable of containing his mirth, especially when Daryl mutters a breathless curse on feeling red heat inching up his neck. Maggie's about to say something else when Glenn grabs her hand. "C'mon, let's get what we need and skin out." He leads her inside, but she looks back at him with a self-satisfied smile. Daryl barely holds back on the urge to stick his tongue out at her.

They disappear inside the sprawling cubic building, but its sheer looming size was a comfort after so long at the prison. Impulsively, he turns his back to the door and leans against the closest vehicle, a Bentley half run up the curb and nosing into the post of a disabled parking sign, and abruptly the feeling of being watched was gone. Quiet, serene almost, there wasn't a sign of life here, human nor animal alike. It looked no different to the hundred other overrun places shelled out after the turn, grass cracking through the pavement and rustic dirt shrouds over everything, an installation sculpture of humanity at its crux. Modernized ruins.

He rests the business end of the crossbow on the ground and wedges it to stand between his legs. Hands free, he pats down his own torso, finding he'd slipped his carton of cigarettes on the left inside pocket. Not that he had many left, but he might as well light one up while he was waiting. The crossbow digs into his thigh and his ears strain for sounds of movement from Glenn and Maggie in the store, still on guard even despite his sudden distraction, and reaches for the packet of cigarettes stashed inside his jacket.

Not on guard enough.

The click he hears behind his turned back is very, very familiar. A safety switched off, a gun to his head from a short distance away, and stupidly enough the first thing he thinks is that the last three times it's been Rick. He wouldn't be so lucky.

Whoever's behind him is light on their feet because Daryl only just now hears them walk. A piece of plastic cracks under their weight but their shoes don't scuff. Glenn and Maggie are still inside. Stay inside, he thinks, frozen, not even willing to lift his head in case whoever's behind him's trigger-happy and traumatised. The levity of his position was delayed, but with another step, another snap of thin plastic, a sickness lodges in his stomach, and it slithers slick and wrong inside him. Rick…

Another step, and he tries to take his hands out of his jacket, tries to straighten up so whoever's behind him knows he isn't a threat – which he is and he knows it, but they don't have to – but his movement does exactly as he thought it would. It makes them nervous. "Easy now," the man behind him demands, "don't be no hero."

I know you.

At the risk of being shot, light-headed and still queasy, he jerks around and steps back away from the car. He doesn't raise his hands in surrender, or think twice about his crossbow falling carelessly to the ground. He doesn't say anything, but his wide-eyed open-mouthed shock says it all.

He barely hears it over the pounding in his ears.

"…fuck me sideways. Where you been, little brother!"


.:.

END

.:.


A/N: I know, this is a totally cliché way of ending a fic and you totally saw it coming, but don't kill me or you won't know what happens next. ("You're saying Merle's a Trojan horse.")

Also, not denying it took me so long to get this truncated version of the original final chapter to you because I've been contaminated by NBC Hannibal and there is no cure. But The Walking Dead is my priority, I promise. And I've been very, very lazy this last week.

Random Fact: At one point there wasn't going to be a sequel story. I was going to end it right here and never touch this verse again. I thought that wouldn't be a very good first impression to make on you guys.

So there will be more of Daryl's POV in Stasis, the sequel story, including revisiting some old scenes through his eyes. He's such a dynamic character and there is still so much to explore how I've written him and by no means have I done his character development justice. I usually find writing in other points of view refreshing and, especially for Carl, quite enjoyable. I delay returning to Rick afterward. I'd hoped writing Daryl would be similar but it was just one big exercise in anxiety and Rick's the security blanket I had to let go of completely. I took the re-written scenes out of the chapter because they weren't exactly relevant right now. So while I'm absolutely dying to write Merle, I'm also pretty excited to get back to writing for Daryl, as terrifying as his point of view is for me to write apparently.

I'm taking a well-earned break for a few weeks and then, when I'm comfortably ahead a few chapters, I'll start publishing it. I'll be sad to see you go, anyone who would rather not read the second story, but thankyou for reading this far! This story is unbetad, clearly, but I'll be thoroughly revising the one on AO3 sometime within the next few weeks, before Stasis.

Again, thankyou for reading my story, I'm so overwhelmed with the response I've gotten for it. I'll see you all in a few weeks!

Much love, MK