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Stars Through the Darkness

Chapter Text

“Dude! He’s doing it again,” Negan stage-whispered to the table as he looked over at the trash cans on the other side of the cafeteria.

“No way!” Shane gasped, pushing Rosita out of the way and straining his neck to watch. The cafeteria was packed full of students and a constant dull chatter filled the room, the occasional laugh or shriek breaking up the sound of high school monotony.

“What are you idiots looking at?” Rick asked as he sat down with his tray.

“Dixon’s dumpster diving again,” Lori said in disgust, making no effort to watch.

“Seriously, Grimes. Check it out,” Negan said as he bumped the other boy’s shoulder. “He’s gonna pretend to throw something away, but he’ll come up with like a half-eaten sandwich or a banana peel or some shit.”

“Then he goes out to the parking lot and eats it!” Shane said with a cringe.

Andrea laughed as she tossed her hair over her shoulder. “You know, it’s all fun and games until you have to sit behind him in English Lit and he smells like ten-day-old garbage in the dead of summer. He’s disgusting.”

Rick watched with interest as he took a bite of his pizza. Just like Negan said, Daryl Dixon stood hovering by the trash cans. He was in the same ripped jeans he wore every day and the same damn stained T-shirt. A few other students walked by and chucked their trash, then finally, when no one else was around, he dipped a hand into the can and came out with a Ziploc bag containing God knew what kind of leavings.

“Told ya!” Negan bragged with a boisterous laugh. “It’s like clockwork. Dixon digging for scraps like a damn dog. Noon sharp. Next show...tomorrow. At noon.”

Rosita giggled and reached over to Shane’s tray to snag a french fry.

“He’s probably riddled with disease. You should ask to get your seat changed,” Lori said to Andrea. “I wouldn’t dare sit near him.”

“I bet he’s got fleas,” Shane added.

Rick laughed. “Maybe we should put a flea collar in his locker.”

“YES!” Negan shouted. “Now you’re in the spirit, Grimes! Who’s got money?”

“I’ve got a box of flea collars at home!” Andrea said excitedly. “I’ll bring it in tomorrow!”

Shane leaned back in his chair and took a long sip of his chocolate milk. “I know for a fact that he don’t got no lock on his locker,” he said with smug confidence.

“And how do you know that?” Rick asked. “Leaving him love notes are ya?”

Shane punched Rick in the shoulder playfully. “No, Dick. Cause I stole his jacket last week,” Shane snickered. That earned him a high-five from Negan.

“Ew. What do you want his jacket for?” Rosita asked.

“It was actually real leather, man. I had my mom take it to the dry cleaners to get the Dixon off it. Just goes to show you what he spends his money on.”

“Yeah, God forbid he buy soap,” Andrea added with a hard eye roll.

As the conversation changed to Mr. Blake’s pop quiz in Chemistry, Rick zoned out. He had another test coming up in American History that he hadn’t really studied for. He’d be lucky to get a C and he was really going to catch hell over it, sure as shit.

His folks always complained that he didn’t apply himself. His grades were never good enough. His interests were always foolish. His dirt bike, his video games...all wastes of time. For God’s sake, he was fifteen. What did they expect from him? He was supposed to be having fun. Everyone else was. Negan’s folks never gave him grief over grades or shit like that. Rosita’s parents were thrilled any time she got a C, thankful that it wasn’t a D or an F.

Not his parents. Most of the time they were perpetually disappointed. Grades weren’t good enough. Chores weren’t done. Attitude. Laziness. Rick shook his head at the thoughts. There was really no sense in trying. He’d never be good enough.

When the bell rang, Rick followed his group of friends to the trash can and emptied his tray, half a piece of uneaten pizza falling unceremoniously into the garbage.

Saying goodbye to his friends, Rick headed to Mrs. Monroe’s history class, already planning excuses for the grade he knew he’d end up getting. He noticed Daryl coming back inside the school from a side door and he shook his head with annoyance. Not smart enough to take a damn shower, but Rick knew he’d ace the test. He always did.

As they settled into class, Rick spared him another glance. He had no idea how the kid got out the door each morning without his mother forcing him to take a shower or change into some clean clothes. It’s like he just didn’t give a shit. Maybe he didn’t even want friends. Why else would he be like this?

Mrs. Monroe started the class without a word as she quietly walked the aisles handing out the quiz. Rick’s thoughts changed to the matter at hand -- trying his best not to shit the bed too badly on the test in front of him.

***********************

At school that Friday morning, Rick’s group of friends hung around his locker as they did at the start of every day. They were surrounded by the hustle and bustle of students coming and going around them as Andrea pulled the box with the flea collar in it out of her bag.

Lori was leaning against the nearby lockers texting, while Shane, Rosita and Negan stood in a semi-circle around Rick’s locker with huge smiles on their faces.

Andrea started giggling immediately. “Next maybe we can leave a can of Febreeze.”

“No!” Shane exclaimed. “A packet of those little pine trees for the car!”

Rosita threw her head back with a laugh at that one. “So who’s gonna do it?”

“Rick, you do it,” Negan said. “I’ll cause a distraction so no one sees. Lori, you keep an eye out for Dixon.”

“And what if I see him,” Lori asked with a put-out eye-roll.

“Just give it to me,” Rick said, grabbing the box and walking quickly to Daryl’s locker, seven down from his. He heard the group trying to hold back their snickering as he opened the locker, tossed the box on top of the pile of books, and slammed it shut.

When he took the ten steps back to his friends, Shane pointed down the hall behind him. “He saw you in there, man,” Shane said, barely able to control his laughter.

Rick shrugged. “What’s he gonna do?” Rick knew Daryl wasn’t gonna actually do anything. He might look all rough and tumble but he had yet to try to fight anyone back and there’d been dozens of times he’d have had every right to. He’d just avert his eyes and walk away.

They all stood along the lockers watching, less than subtly, as Daryl got to his locker and opened it up. When his eyes landed on the box they all burst out laughing, high-fiving one another as if they’d won a big game. Rick watched as Daryl turned to them, their eyes meeting for a whisper of a second before he averted them just like Rick knew he’d do. There were no tears, there was no fight in him, he just picked up a book, shut the locker and walked away.

The rest of the day Rick watched the clock, eager for the 3:30 dismissal bell. It was Friday and he couldn’t wait for the weekend.

***********************

Daryl walked down the hall with his head down, eyes hiding behind his too-long hair. He was lonely, always has been. But he’d rather be fucking invisible than noticed as the social pariah he was, always being stared at and picked on mercilessly. He knew he was cripplingly shy. He knew he never had clean clothes or enough to eat. He knew the other kids looked at him with disgust, talked about him, made fun of him. But he didn’t show up every day for that fucking abuse; hell, he could get plenty of abuse elsewhere. He showed up so that he could make something of himself one day. He didn’t want to become his old man. He wanted things, wanted a home, wanted more than one outfit so that he could wash his clothes. He wanted to have a refrigerator filled with food where he could just reach in and grab something whenever he was hungry. He wanted a car and a job and a paycheck.

Daryl knew he was greedy for wanting so many things, but things is how the world worked. He slammed himself into his chair for his first period art class, his thoughts still lingering on the flea collar. He saw it. He heard the laughter. He knew how he must look to all the other students. They all had different clothes every day. They all got showers every morning. They had perfectly brushed hair, brushed teeth, and full bellies.

Guys like Rick Grimes or Shane Walsh? They had it all. Daryl couldn’t even imagine what their lives were like from the time they went home from school to the moment they showed back up to school the next morning. They probably had no idea how good they had it. Guys like that just didn’t know any different than what they’d always had.

After working on a landscape picture for 45 minutes, the bell finally rang and Daryl’s stomach sank. The day was already moving by too fast. It was Friday and he dreaded having to leave Savior High for the weekend. As bad as his life was when he was there, it was worse when he wasn’t.

Chapter Text

Rick sat at the dinner table picking at the leftover meatloaf as he continued to fork out the diced onions and move them to a little pile off to the side of his plate.

“Ricky, don’t autopsy it, eat it,” his mother said.

“I hate meatloaf,” Rick whined.

“You know there are plenty of people in this world that would love to have that meatloaf,” Mr. Grimes said and not for the first time — not even the first time that week. Christ, Rick had heard it all before. His dad was like a broken record.

“Yeah, Yeah. I know,” Rick answered with an eye roll.

“You know, I don’t think you do, kiddo. I think tomorrow you’ll come with me to work at the soup kitchen.” Mr. Grimes folded his hands on the table and looked at Rick, already expecting a battle. “You’re old enough now.”

“But, Dad! Shane and Negan are coming over tomorrow to play video games!”

“You play enough video games,” his mother said. “You’ll go help your father like he’s asked.”

“He didn’t ask,” Rick complained. “He demanded.”

“Life is about more than video games,” Mr. Grimes said as he stood up from the table to refill his water.

“It’s not my job to save the world, Dad. That’s your job.” He hated the way his Dad had such a save-the-world complex. He was a fundraising consultant for non-profits and most of his time was spent raising money for the homeless, for kids with cancer, for animal shelters, you name it. He wanted to save everyone and everything and he wanted Rick to want that too.

“Ricky,” his mother sighed. “We just want you to have a good future. Why don’t you take anything seriously?”

“I’m a kid, ma. I’m not supposed to be saving the freaking world yet. I’m supposed to be playing with my friends.”

Rick’s mother stood with a heavy sigh. “I’m on the night shift this weekend,” she said as she kissed Rick on the top of his head. “Listen to your father.”

Rick watched his mother grab her coat and bag and head out to her shift at the ER. Just because she was a doctor it was like she expected the same momentous stuff out of Rick, and he knew his poor grades and ambivalent attitude drove her nuts. Same with his old man. In addition to all his consulting work he was a compulsive volunteer. The soup kitchen. The animal shelter. The senior citizen’s center. It was just too damn much to live up to. His parents put so many expectations on him that it made him want to hold onto his childhood for as long as he possibly could.

“Help me with the dishes,” his father said as he started carrying his own to the sink. He stopped and looked back at Rick’s plate with a smile and shook his head. “I know you don’t like the meatloaf. Put it in some tupperware and I’ll eat it for lunch tomorrow. There’s a microwave pizza in the freezer and if you tell your mom I sanctioned this I’ll deny it,” he winked.

“Thanks, Dad,” Rick smiled, and he jumped to his feet to help clean up the kitchen.

***********************************************************************
“Cause I’m only fifteen,” Rick argued.

“Exactly. You should have been coming down here to help with the soup kitchen way sooner than now,“ Jack Grimes said as he turned into the parking lot of the sketchy looking building.

“I could get killed in this neighborhood, Dad.”

“You’re not going to get killed. And you’re not going home.”

Rick sighed. “I could get fleas from these people. Do you know how hard it is to get rid of fleas?”

Mr. Grimes slammed on the brakes as he rolled into the parking spot and Rick felt the seatbelt tighten around him. Jack turned in his seat and stared at his son. “You listen up, young man. Just because you were born with nice things, with a home and a bed and a full refrigerator and two parents who love you, doesn’t make you any different from these people. It was the luck of the draw, buddy. You. Got. Lucky.”

The lecture continued as they walked through the back door of the kitchen. “I expect better from you, Rick. It’s these damn hoodlums you hang out with. Shane. That Negan kid. They are more spoiled than you and they are always up to no good. Why can’t you hang out with the nice neighbor kid?”

Rick made a face. “EUGENE? I am NOT hanging out with freaking Eugene Porter. I’d be pantsed ten seconds after I walked into the school.”

“Pantsed? What the heck does that even mean?”

“It means the cool kids would yank my pants down to humiliate me.”

Mr. Grimes stopped and turned to Rick with worry lines carved into his forehead. “Please tell me you’ve never done that to anyone.”

Rick rolled his eyes and shook his head. “No, dad. Don’t have a coronary.”

Jack Grimes shook his head as he led Rick over to the kitchen. After introducing his son to the other volunteers, he gave Rick a ladle and put him by the giant pot of chili. Rick spooned chili into bowls as each person came down the line. Most of them were filthy. He could smell BO even over the strong spices of the heavily seasoned chili. They were all polite enough, though. Lots of thank-you’s and nods of appreciation. Rick didn’t say much of anything. He was mostly thinking about getting back home so he could call Shane and Negan to come over.

After handing a bowl of chili to an elderly woman with a missing front tooth, he turned to the next person in line and froze.

Daryl Dixon stood there, empty bowl in hand and waiting for Rick to ladle in his lunch. The other boy’s eyes were downcast, though Rick knew he’d been seen. He looked the same as he always did in school. Dirty, miserable, trying his best to be invisible. Rick filled his bowl without a word.

“Thanks,” Daryl muttered, still looking down.

“Yeah,” Rick answered softly as the next person in line shoved a bowl in front of him.

After everyone had been served, Rick’s dad and the other volunteers cleaned up in the back while Rick wiped down the counters. He watched Daryl as he sat alone and ate -- slowly as if he was trying to savor every bite. Did he really have nothing else to eat at home?

“Look at that,” Rick’s dad said suddenly, popping up behind him. “That kid’s gotta be about your age. See what I mean? You got lucky. He didn’t.”

Rick shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”

“He’s here most weekends, poor kid.” As his father spoke, Rick looked over to where the other boy still sat.

Daryl was the last person left there in the cafeteria. “You gonna tell him it’s closing time?” Rick asked.

Jack Grimes shook his head. “Let’s let him stay a little longer.”

**********************************************************************

Daryl sat at the end of one of the tables, taking his time to eat the cornbread and chili the kitchen was handing out. The slower he ate, the longer he’d be able to stay. He kept glancing up at Rick Grimes, of all people, serving the food. He’d never been here before and what he was doing here now was beyond Daryl’s comprehension. Wasn’t he afraid of catching fleas?

He’d never noticed until today, but the man who seemed to run the place looked a lot like the Grimes kid. Must be his old man. If so, it made more sense that he was being forced to work in a soup kitchen, cause a kid like Rick Grimes sure as shit wouldn’t think of it on his own. He hated the feeling that was swirling in his belly. Jealousy. He’d give his right arm to have what Rick had. He’d give his left arm, too.

He focused on his near-empty bowl as he overheard them talking about whether or not it was closing time. He liked the elder Grimes. He was there most weekends and always pretended to take longer cleaning than he had to so Daryl could stay longer. He stood up and brought his dishes back up to the counter. He thanked Rick again quietly, but secretly panicked about whether he was going to get picked on even worse now.

Chapter Text

Rick sat in History class slumped back in his chair with his cell phone under his desk.

What did I miss this weekend? Rick texted to Shane. He never did get to have the gang over because in addition to the soup kitchen, his old man wanted help cleaning out the garage and mowing the lawn.

Rode bikes down to Scoops Ahoy and convinced Eugene to give us all free cones. Shane responded.

Convinced?

Rosita offered to show him her tits. Worked like a charm

Rick was distracted by a tap on his desk as Mrs. Monroe held a hand out to collect his cell phone. He sighed and slapped it into her hand and she put his graded test on his desk face down. “See me after class, Mr. Grimes.”

He dropped his head into a hand and flipped his paper over. D-.

He listened to Mrs. Monroe drone on and on about the Civil War as he practiced his excuse for his grade to his parents. Maybe he could convince Monroe to let him do some extra credit or have a redo...not that he’d do any damn better with a second try.

Once class was over everyone sifted out of the room except for Rick who remained slouched in his chair, eyes on Mrs. Monroe. She walked over and returned his cell phone.

“You know there’s no phones on during my class,” she said.

“I know.”

“You also knew there was going to be a test on Friday. Why didn’t you study?”

“I did…”

“No you didn’t, Richard. This was basic stuff. You didn’t even try.”

“Why do you care? You gave me a D-.”

“I didn’t give you a D-. You earned one. You didn’t even know which side Robert E. Lee was on.”

“What do you want me to do?” Rick asked.

“I want you to study and take this class seriously. You’re a bright kid, Richard. I can tell. You just don’t try.”

Rick’s phone dinged and he glanced down at the message.

You’re late for gym, dude.

“I’m late for class,” Rick said as he stood. “I’ll study better for the next one,” he lied on his way out the door.

Mondays and Fridays were gym days and Rick’s whole group of friends all had it last period. By the time Rick got to the locker room and changed, the others were already out on the field with Mr. Williams getting ready to run the mile.

“Thank you for joining us, Rick,” Mr. Douglas said as Negan and Shane started clapping. “Once you’re done the mile, you can head into the gym to play a little basketball before showers. I want everyone to run hard today. Track tryouts this weekend. I’d love to see some of you give it a shot.”

Once Mr. Douglas blew the whistle to start them off, Rick, Shane, and Negan kept up steady pace with each other.

“I hate running,” Negan complained. “There ain’t nowhere I need to be this damn bad.”

“Running will help for baseball tryouts,” Shane pointed out.

Negan shrugged. “Don’t know if I’m gonna try. Seems like a lot of work.”

“You trying out for anything, Rick?” Shane asked.

“Shit, don’t you have to have a certain GPA to play sports? I just got a damn D- from Monroe. I probably won’t even be eligible.”

Negan started laughing as he pointed up ahead. “Looks like Dixon’s got somewhere to be.” Rick looked up and saw Daryl running well ahead of everyone else in the class.

“He’ll bust ass to get back to the locker room so he can shower before the rest of us get there,” Shane said as if it were fact.

“Yeah?” Rick asked. “Why’s that?”

“You don’t never see him in there showering,” Negan pointed out. “He either busts ass to get in there first or he loiters until we’re all gone and he’ll take his last.”

Rick grinned. “And you noticed this because you’re trying to get an eyeful of his junk?”

Negan smacked Rick in the back of the head as they both laughed. “No, dick. I notice because I don’t want him getting an eyeful of mine. He’s probably a fag and gets hard if he sees all those cocks at once,” Negan suggested.

Shane seemed to think about that a while. “How much you wanna bet?”

“Bet what?”

“I say he just hates showers. You say he’s too hard to get naked. Five bucks to the winner.”

“And how do you determine who’s right?” Rick asked.

“I’ll handle it,” Shane said with a mischievous smile.

“Fine,” Negan said. “You’re on.”

*******************************************

Daryl was fast. He was fast when he used to run away from home. Fast when he used to run from Merle or his old man. Fast when he had to resort to stealing and needed to get away. And fast when he had to get away from bullies. Usually he hated gym class with a white-hot passion, but he didn’t mind running the mile. He was fast enough to stay ahead of the rest of the class so he didn’t have to listen to any bullshit. Plus it would get him back in the locker room with plenty of time to shower before the rest of the students poured in.

When he got to the end of the last lap, Mr. Douglas clicked the stop watch.

“7 minutes 15 seconds. Not bad, Mr. Dixon.”

“Thanks,” Daryl mumbled as he picked up a jog back to the locker room. He looked back at the track and saw that no one else was even close, plus they’d all be going straight to the gymnasium to fuck around on the basketball court for a bit. He’d have a decent chunk of time to shower in peace, without eyes, leers, slurs. He just wished he had clean clothes to change into.

He started pulling his clothes off the second he heard the locker room door close behind him, dirty Savior High t-shirt and stained sweatshorts. Turning the water in the shower stall on as hot as possible, he grabbed a bar of soap from one of the dishes. The water felt so good on his skin and he watched as layers of dirt ran down the drain. Gym class on Mondays and Fridays were the only times he was able to shower and he didn’t take it for granted.

Daryl could feel the bones of his small frame as he ran the bar of soap up and down his arms, hips, thighs. All sharp edges and narrow dips. He ran the soap through his long, dirty hair and did his best to suds it up like shampoo, but he was still incredibly wary about the time. Everyone else should be going to the gym instead of the locker room, but he didn’t want to take any chances.

He quickly rinsed his hair, washed his face, then shut off the showers and grabbed a towel. He’d always managed to avoid the other kids in the locker room, but there was always stress and anxiety on every gym day about whether or not he’d be walked in on. His life was terrorizing enough as it was without the other boys seeing his body -- back still riddled with old wounds, belt marks from his old man. Thighs covered in more recent marks, self-inflicted razor blade cuts that helped him blank out the world around him. He considered himself lucky that Rick had apparently not told anyone about the soup kitchen and he was growing terrified that his luck would soon run out.

Once dried, he pulled his gym clothes back on. They were probably less dirty than the one regular outfit he wore to school everyday. He’d have to try to find a way to wash them soon. Maybe at the sink in the public library bathroom. He’d only been kicked out of there once.

Suddenly the locker room door burst open and the whole class came in, hooping and hollering obnoxiously like they always did. Throwing his backpack over one shoulder he made his way quietly towards the door, trying not to draw any attention to himself. That was the way he always moved through the school. Slowly, cautiously, quietly.

Before he could reach for the door, Negan took a step in front of him. “Hey, Dixon. What’s your hurry?”

Shit.

Before Daryl even had time to think about coming up with a response, he felt someone grab the sides of his shorts and yank them down to his ankles as a room full of teenage boys burst out laughing.

“I think this faggot’s hard!” Negan howled.

“Don’t worry, Daryl. This is just Negan’s way of flirting,” Rick said as he stood back and tried to stifle a laugh.

Daryl bent down, pulled his pants back up, pushed past Negan...and ran.

“ENOUGH!” Mr. Douglas shouted after Daryl had fled the room. “Showers, guys. Come on.”

“You know,” Shane said as they headed to the showers. “I think the girls are gonna be pissed they didn’t get to see that go down. We might have to do it again some time.”

“Walsh, you liked what you saw so much you’re already planning a second date,” Rick said with a laugh.

They finished up with their showers and were dressed and ready to go by the time the bell rang for the end of the day.

“Are you guys gonna be online for Overwatch tonight?” Negan asked the others as they headed towards the busses.

“Soon as I get home,” Shane answered.

“I’ll be on after dinner,” Rick said as he unlocked his bike from the rack. “Talk then.”

As the other two boys climbed onto their bus, Rick hopped on his bike and headed to the back of the school where he always cut through the woods to get home. He liked his rides home. It was really the only personal time he had. At home his parents were always hovering and nagging and at school he was always surrounded by his friends and the burden of peer pressure. Not that he didn’t like his friends, it was just that sometimes it felt like he had to be “on” all the time. He couldn’t relax and be himself. It was almost like he was always auditioning for their friendship for some reason.

His rides home were just...peaceful. No peer pressure, no nagging, just him and his bike and the long path through the quiet woods.

As he rode past the back of the building he noticed a student huddled against an alcove in the brick wall, hugging his knees, head tucked down, shoulders shuddering with sobs and he could tell instantly by the worn out clothing and mop of wet hair...it was Daryl. He looked cold and just plain tired and it was then that Rick remembered Shane had swiped the poor kid’s jacket.

Chapter Text

That weekend Rick’s dad had him back at the soup kitchen. Supposedly not for punishment, though Rick still got an earful on the way to the center over his grade on Monroe’s history test.

Rick worked out front again serving the green beans and handing out rolls. He noticed a lot of the faces were familiar and before he could wonder if he’d see Daryl again, there he was, entering the cafeteria and getting in line.

They hadn’t paid that much attention to Daryl the rest of the week after the pantsing incident and Rick never told the rest of the guys about seeing the kid in the soup kitchen or in the back of the school in tears. He felt bad for the guy, but if Rick showed any sympathy, the gang would start ripping on him.

When Daryl was in front of him, Rick hesitated scooping the beans until the other boy finally looked up at him. “I’m sorry,” Rick said quietly. They didn’t really mean anything by it.”

Daryl looked down at his plate as the beans were served. “S’ok” he muttered, though not too convincingly.

“Wait,” Rick said as Daryl started moving down the line. “Don’t forget the roll.”

“Thanks,” Daryl muttered again, eyes still downcast.

Rick watched as the other boy slid into his usual spot and started eating. He thought back again to the hunched, shivering figure all alone in the back of the school yard. Maybe if the rest of the gang knew the poor guy had to come to a soup kitchen to get fed they’d back off a bit...or would it just make things worse? The kid must have a miserable home life to want to be in this stale cafeteria surrounded by so many unsavory strangers.

As the line continued and Rick served everyone who showed up hungry, he watched his dad go out on the floor and start cleaning up empty trays and talking jovially with some of the people. Once the line ended and the room was mostly empty, Jack Grimes sat down opposite Daryl. Rick cringed. Please don’t rat me out. he prayed.

********************
Daryl was surprised that Rick had said something about the incident in the locker room. He stole a few glances over at him as he slowly ate the roast beef, green beans, and the buttered roll. He didn’t look particularly thrilled to be here helping. Daryl was pretty certain it was some form of punishment. He’d much rather be out with all his friends. Negan and Shane. Lori, Andrea, and Rosita. Simon and Gareth.

He didn’t care that Rick apologized. It didn’t change a thing. He’d torture Daryl again the very next time all those knuckleheads started plotting out stupid ideas. All he could do was hope it wouldn’t be as bad next time. With just his roll left, he took tiny bites to procrastinate leaving. He really had nowhere to go. Sitting in the peace and shelter of the soup kitchen was the best part of his day on the weekends. Especially now that it was so damn cold out and he’d lost his jacket.

He looked up at the sound of trays being collected and Mr. Grimes smiled at him. “You get enough to eat, son?”

Daryl nodded. “Thank you.”

The man slid into the seat across from Daryl and folded his arms on the table. “See you here a lot.”

Daryl just nodded as he took another bite of his bread.

“You look about my son’s age. You go to Savior High?” he asked as he looked back at his son wiping down the counters.

“Yes, sir. A sophomore.”

“You must be friends with my son, Rick then, right?!” Mr. Grimes asked enthusiastically. Daryl wondered in what world this man came from where just going to the same school meant that people were friends.

Rick froze and looked over, waiting for Daryl’s answer.

“Yeah, we know each other,” Daryl said politely.

“What’s your name?”

“Daryl, sir.”

Jack shook his head and smiled. “Well, Daryl. You can call me Jack. I don’t like to think I’m old enough to be a sir, yet.”

Daryl smiled at that.

Jack leaned in and lowered his voice even though the only other person around was Rick up by the counter.

“You aren’t getting enough food at home. Your water turned off? Electricity?”

“We’ve just been having a tough time,” Daryl said, avoiding any details.

“Your folks don’t come in here with you?”

“Mom’s dead, sir.”

“Jack.”

“Jack.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Daryl. How about your dad?”

“He’s usually, like...busy and shit,” Daryl answered looking away.

“Well, why don’t you come home with us tonight,” Jack said loud enough for Rick to hear now. “Spend the night. Have dinner with us, use the shower. I’m sure Rick’s got some old clothes he could spare. Get a good night’s sleep. I bet it will do you a world of good.”

“Um that’s okay. I can just…”

“I insist, Daryl. A kid your age should be focused on school. Not on how to feed yourself each day. Give yourself a break. I’m sure Rick would be glad to have you. He always wants friends over to play video games.” Mr. Grims turned around, “Right, Rick?”

Daryl glanced over at Rick through strands of his stringy hair. The boy looked surprised, but it was clear he would do as his father asked. “Yeah, sure, Dad.”

Daryl stood up and shifted from foot to foot. Part of him wanted to run and part of him wanted to fall into Jack Grimes’ arms and find a comfort that always seemed to elude him.

“Okay. I’ll find a way to pay you back, Sir...I mean Jack,” Daryl said.

Jack just smiled and put an arm around Daryl’s shoulder. The boy’s instinct was to flinch at the unexpected contact, but he did his best to control himself. A hot shower. A warm bed. How did he get so lucky?

“Just make sure it’s okay with your dad first,” Jack finally added.

Daryl nodded. “He’s just around the corner. I”ll be back by the time you’re ready to leave,” Daryl said. He walked out the door and considered for the shortest of moments just taking off. But a warm shower with no rush. A hot home-cooked meal. He walked around the block making no attempt to find his old man and he returned to the soup kitchen like he’d promised.

******************************************

Rick sat in the front seat on the way home while Daryl stayed whisper-quiet in the back. Rick couldn’t believe his shit luck. What the hell was he gonna do with Daryl fucking Dixon all night? He pulled out his cell and texted Negan and Shane. Company from out of town tonight. You guys can’t come over, sorry.

There’s no way he could be caught dead housing Dixon for the night. He’d never hear the end of it.

“So you boys have any classes together?” Jack asked.

“Um...American History. And Gym,” Daryl answered.

“History? How’s your grades, son?” Jack asked Daryl.

“He always gets A’s,” Rick said with an eye roll.

“Good! Maybe you could help this lost soul up here on his next test.”

Rick’s stomach sank. What was this turning into?

“Dad, I usually study with Shane and Negan.”

“Well that doesn’t seem to be working,” Jack said with a purposeful frown.

When they got home, Daryl nervously entered the house after Rick, following his lead by kicking off his shoes at the doorway.

“Make yourself at home, son,” Jack said.

Hell, Daryl had no idea what that even meant. He looked around the living room they’d entered, a huge TV on the wall, soft looking throw pillows on two long couches. Thick carpet. Bookshelves with books, pretty vases and china. The whole place looked like a picture out of a magazine. He was afraid to touch anything and sure as shit didn’t feel comfortable sitting down.

Rick walked past him and plopped down on the couch, flipping on the TV with a remote control that he’d pulled out from between the sofa cushions.

“Who’s this?” Liz asked as she entered the room with a laundry basket.

“Rick’s friend Daryl,” Jack said, and Daryl gave Rick’s mom a nod of greeting.

“Hi ma’am. Mr. Grimes said it would be okay if I came for dinner, but if it’s too much trouble I can…”

“Oh, no,” Liz said tucking the basket under one arm. “Of course we’d love to have you.”

Daryl glanced back at Rick, wishing he’d be nearby participating in this awkward conversation, but he just sat in the living room watching something blow up on TV.

“I see Daryl a lot at the soup kitchen so we thought we’d have him over for the night. His family is going through some tough times,” Jack explained as he looked back at Daryl.

“Um, yeah.”

“Well, I’ll get the spare room set up; unfortunately, it’s just a couch in there, but…”

“A couch is just great, ma’am. Thank you,” Daryl said as he twisted his fingers together nervously.

“I’ll put some sheets and a blanket and pillow in there for you. I bet you’d like to take a hot shower so I’ll put some towels out for you too, sweetheart.”

Daryl felt a lump in his throat at the word “sweetheart”. No one had called him that...in a long, long time. She was right, though. He would LOVE to take a hot shower, but he was instantly self-conscious that she suggested it before he could sit down on their nice furniture with his filthy jeans, and for some reason his mind flashed to opening his locker and seeing the flea collar. He did not feel right even standing in the living room, much less sleeping on their couch the way he was.

“That would be great,” Daryl agreed.

“Ricky?” Liz Grimes called. “Get your friend an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt.”

She turned back to Daryl and put a hand on his forearm. “You let me know if you need anything, dear.”

Daryl just stood there with his jaw hanging open as both of the elder Grimes’ headed into a back room with the load of laundry.

“Come on,” Rick said as he walked down the same hallway. Daryl followed him, very aware that Rick didn’t want him there.

“I’m sorry about this,” he said as Rick started digging in a drawer. “I know you don’t want me here.”

Rick shrugged as he tossed some clothes to Daryl.

“Shower’s across the hall,” was all Rick said in response. By the time Daryl had gotten there, LIz had set out a fluffy blue towel and a facecloth. He dropped his clothes into a pile on the floor and then turned the shower on as hot as he could get it. He washed from head to toe with soap three or four times and for the first time since he could remember he used actual shampoo and conditioner. He towelled off and pulled on the shorts and plain t-shirt Rick had lent him and then brought his dirty clothes back to the room he’d be staying in.

It was early afternoon and he didn’t hear anything in the house but the TV in the living room so he walked out to the room and saw Rick still glued to his television show.

“What are you watching?” Daryl asked.

Die Hard,” Rick answered without looking at him.

“Okay if I watch, too?”

“It’s a free country,” Rick answered as he pulled his feet off the coffee table so Daryl could slip through to the second couch. Daryl sat down on the plush material, leaned back against the soft throw pillows...and promptly fell fast asleep.

Chapter Text

When Liz Grimes called them for dinner, both boys walked into the kitchen without a word and as if Rick’s night couldn’t get any worse...sure as shit, it was meatloaf.

He watched as Daryl sat down in the chair that Jack had waved him over to and kept his hands in his lap, looking completely out of place as he nervously waited for direction. Rick still couldn’t believe that Daryl fucking Dixon was sitting in his kitchen.

He dug into the Mac & Cheese first, hoping to fill up most of his plate with it so it wouldn’t be too obvious when he took the smallest piece of meatloaf he could manage to get away with. His dad handed Daryl one of the serving plates and Rick watched as the other boy took a piece of meatloaf, politely passing the tray over to Rick’s mom.

“Everything looks delicious, ma’am.” Daryl said softly and Rick rolled his eyes. Jesus, what an asskisser.

“I hope you’ll like it. It’s not a favorite of everyone at this table,” she said as she gave Rick a wink.

Rick sighed at his mother’s teasing and set to work at picking out the onions.

“There’s plenty of food here, Daryl. Be sure you get enough,” Jack encouraged, handing the carrots back to Daryl instead of putting them down.

“So that car accident out on 40 last night?” Liz started, “the kid came in with his leg all but severed.”

Rick looked up from pouring ketchup onto his plate. “Um, Mom, you know I can’t stand the sight of blood. Can’t you save these stories for after dinner?”

She laughed and looked over to Daryl. “I just thought it would be a good opportunity to remind everyone at this table...and I mean everyone…” she said as she looked at Jack, “that using a cell phone while driving is dangerous.”

“We don’t even drive yet, ma. And I bet he don’t even have a cell phone,” Rick said as he flicked his hand dismissively at Daryl.

“It’s never too soon to learn a lesson. We had to amputate.”

“How old was he,” Jack asked, full of genuine sympathy.

“Eighteen. His life was just getting started and now he’s handed this big blow,” she said, shaking her head.

Rick tuned out his parents’ idle chatter and watched Daryl devour the dinner. If he was eating this meatloaf so enthusiastically, he really must be struggling for food everyday. He still looked uncomfortable and out of place and Rick could tell the kid must have had a thousand things going through his head. His eyes darted back and forth between Rick’s parents, confused and unsure.

“Oh, Daryl,” Rick’s mom said changing the conversation from Jack’s latest fundraising campaign. “I have a nightlight in the hall in case you need to get up and use the bathroom and if you get hungry at night, you can help yourself to anything in the kitchen.”

Daryl looked slowly back and forth between the two elder Grimes’. “Ain’t you all afraid I’m gonna rob you or somethin’?”

Both Rick’s parents laughed at that and brushed it off. “I have a good read on people, Daryl,” Jack said. “I think we’ll be fine.”

After dinner Daryl insisted on helping Rick’s mom clean up the dishes, so Rick took off and planted himself in front of the computer in his room. Tomorrow was Sunday and surely Daryl would have things to do. Maybe he’d be gone by the time Rick woke up.

That night Rick lay quietly in his bed listening to Daryl toss and turn as the clock ticked slowly from one second to the next. He thought about how surprised he was when Daryl came into the living room after his shower. He was clean, not a smudge of dirt on his face, hair washed and shiny, clean clothes. When he’d fallen asleep on the couch, all the worry and stress from his face disappeared and he’d looked so innocent. Fragile. Almost pretty, Rick thought. He looked like...like a normal kid. Like a kid Rick would hang out with. Still though, he had been as stand-offish as he could all night with Daryl. He didn’t want the kid to misread anything and assume they were actual friends. Rick supposed the kid seemed nice enough and under other circumstances, maybe they would be friends. In fact, it wasn’t easy being so closed off all night, but he had to be. His group of friends just simply wouldn’t have it and he was too afraid to rock that boat and be ostracized. He did feel bad, though, for giving Daryl the cold shoulder the whole time he was there. After Rick tossed and turned a bit himself, he finally threw off his covers, walked quietly down to the end of the hall, and stood at the spare room doorway.

Daryl lay on the couch, his eyes open in the dark. He didn’t move or comment on Rick’s sudden presence.

“You like...warm enough?”

Daryl nodded. “Warmer than I been in months.”

Rick kicked at his own feet as he stood there hesitating. “Thanks for not telling my parents what a dick I can be.”

Daryl gave a sharp nod. “I don’t blame you, Rick,” Daryl said. “You’re either the butcher or the cattle.”

“Why don’t you ever stand up for yourself?” Rick blurted out.

Daryl sat up. “What am I gonna do? Beat up everyone who picks on me? I don’t have the energy. Or the interest. I just want to get through school. Keep my head down and just plough through.”

“Shane stole your jacket,” Rick confessed.

“I figured.”

“Can’t your dad get you a new one?”

Daryl smiled, an awkward half-tilt of his lips. “Not really how it works for me.”

Rick nodded even though he didn’t fully understand. He had no idea how it worked for Daryl and it actually made him feel sad for the kid to even wonder about it for too long. He was starting to have too much sympathy and that was just gonna make it harder to deal with at school. Rick wasn’t the kind of guy to step in and stop things. He was a follower. He wasn’t proud of it, but he was self-aware enough to know it.

“Well. Sleep good. I’m sure you’ll be gone in the morning when I get up so I guess I’ll see you at school,” Rick said as he left in an awkward rush.

****************************************************

Daryl laid back down and stared at the ceiling above him. He couldn’t believe his luck for the night -- A roof over his head, a soft couch and a damn blanket of all things. He felt like a fucking king with a full belly and private bedroom. He’d been hesitant at first to take Jack Grimes up on his offer, but it had been raining for a week and his old man had been on a hellish bender. His evenings had been unbearable and the thought of eating a hot meal and getting a shower that he didn’t have to rush through just became too tempting.

Rick hadn’t been a total dick. He made sure to let Daryl know he should disappear quick first thing in the morning, but he didn’t have to come in to see if he was warm enough. That was nice of him, though Daryl was not fool enough to believe the guy would treat him any better in school. He’d try not to even make eye contact and that was fine with Daryl. He didn’t want Rick to fall onto the wrong side of bullying. He just seemed too...gentle to be able to take it. He didn’t have the thick skin that Daryl had.

Daryl had been hoping to get a hot breakfast in the morning, but he understood Rick loud and clear. He’d wake up at dawn like he always did and he’d slip out of the house, thankful for a night of living in luxury.

********************************
Daryl woke up before dawn and it took him a few confusing moments to figure out where he was. He felt so comfortable and relaxed on the soft couch cushions, wrapped in a blanket, his head resting on an actual pillow. But he knew it would have to come to an end and his dad was probably wondering where he was by now. Maybe not. Maybe he hadn’t even noticed Daryl never showed up last night. But if he had noticed, he’d be pissed.

Daryl got up and dressed quietly, taking care not to make a sound. He tiptoed down the hall to the kitchen. Remembering what Rick’s mom said about food, he quietly opened the fridge and looked inside to see if there was anything he could eat for breakfast. At the front of the top shelf he noticed a Tupperware container with a note on top. For Daryl to take home

He took it out, opened the lid, and smiled at the leftover meatloaf and mac & cheese. He had those complicated feelings that he always struggled to understand. The loathing he usually felt for his old man morphed into this confusing guilt. The old man probably hadn’t eaten anything decent in days if not weeks. And as much of a dick as Will Dixon could be, he was still Daryl’s father. He tucked the Tupperware in his backpack, put on his shoes, and slipped outside.

Chapter Text

“You’re old man is a dick,” Negan said at the lunch table.

“Maybe if you actually studied for tests, Rick, you’d be able to hang out on the weekends instead of working like a slave for your dad,” Lori said. “I get ten dollars for every A. Tell them they should pay you for good grades. I bet you’d do better.”

“You missed all our plotting for the week,” Shane said, giving Andrea a bright smile. “You bring it?”

Andrea smiled coyly and pulled a baggie out of her lunch pack.

Rick laughed as he took a big bite of his cheeseburger. “Is that what I missed? Baking cookies? Did I miss Shane in an apron?”

“It’s not a cookie,” Rosita said with an eyeroll. “It’s a special brownie.”

Rick swallowed and looked at each of them in turn. “Like pot?”

“No, idiot,” Negan said. “Ex Lax. With extra lax!”

Lori and Andrea giggled as Shane reached over and grabbed the bag. “He’s gonna be hovering around that can any minute now. Who’s gonna dump it?”

“He’s not a moron, you know,” Lori said. “He probably knows better than to trust anything that one of us drops.

“Olive Oil has a point,” Negan said thoughtfully. He reached his hand out and pulled a student that was walking by over to the table.

“Hey there, Eugene,” Negan said with a smile. “Do me a solid, buddy?”

“Although it’s not a criminal offense,” the awkward teen muttered, “It’s highly frowned upon for me to do your homework. Again.”

“Nahh, I’m okay in the homework department, sport. I just dropped this brownie on the floor and I noticed you’re on your way to the trash cans. Can you throw it away for me?”

Eugene looked confused as he looked from the bag and then back to each of the six kids at the table waiting with bated breath for his answer. “Did you abide by the three second rule? Maybe it’s not a wasteful scenario after all…”

“I spit on it,” Shane added.

“Why would you do that to a perfectly good piece of chocolate confection?”

“I’m a dick, Euguene. You know that right?” Shane said.

“Yes. Yes I believe I do.”

Negan shoved the bag into Eugene’s hand. “My life is hell having to deal with this asshole every day, Eugene,” Negan said as he nodded at Shane. “Help a brother out and toss this for me.”

“Well in the interest of avoiding wasted steps, I suppose I am on my way to the refuse receptacle.” He took the bag and put it on his emptied tray and walked away.

“He ever really do your homework for you?” Rosita asked.

“Science take-home test. I aced it,” Negan smiled.

“Everything is falling into place, guys!” Shane said in his ridiculously loud whisper. Everyone turned to watch the action as Eugene dumped his tray, put it on the counter, and left the cafeteria, right at the same moment that Daryl breazed by and dipped a hand into the trash.

“Hope he’s got his shitting pants on,” Negan said with that sassy smirk of his.

“Did he get it?” Andrea asked with a wicked smile.

Rick watched helpless as the group celebrated the fact that Dixon had the brownie in hand and was on his way out to the parking lot to undoubtedly eat every last bite of it. He was glad no one seemed to notice how quiet he was. Picking on the Dixon kid was one thing, but this was going to hurt him. For a moment he considered faking the need for a piss so he could go out and stop Daryl from a world of hurt, but the group would be suspicious of him.

“Well, Rick, I apologize in advance, because you’ll probably be smack dab in the middle of American HIstory with him when the literal shit hits the fan,” Negan said as he looked at his watch.

Rick put his burger down, suddenly no longer hungry. Fucking Dixon. Why did he keep walking himself into these situations? If he was more alert, he’d have seen Shane coming for him in the locker rooms the other day. If he had enough sense, he’d eat enough at breakfast that he wouldn’t have to worry about digging for trash in the afternoon. Most of this shit was his own damn fault anyway and frankly it was pissing Rick off that he was starting to feel guilty about it all.

As the bell rang the entire cafeteria got to their feet and headed out the door. As Rick passed the trash cans he looked at his tray. Half a hamburger and most of his fries. He should try to smuggle that to Daryl somehow. Maybe if he wrapped it up in a napkin…

Before he could think another second, Lori tilted his tray over into the trash. “Move along, Rick. Unless you want to see if there’s any brownie left,” she laughed.

When he walked into American HIstory he saw Daryl already sitting in his seat, hands wrapped around his waist and clearly in some minor discomfort. Rick’s dad would be disgusted with him if he knew the kinds of shit he allowed this kid to be put through. Hell, Rick wasn’t too pleased with himself, either.

As the lecture went on, Rick kept glancing over and Daryl’s poor, innocent face was contorted into an expression of pain as waves of discomfort flooded through his body. As the seconds ticked by it just got worse and it wasn’t long before he stood up and headed for the door.

“Mr. Dixon? Am I boring you?” Mrs. Monroe asked.

“Hafta go to the bathroom,” Daryl answered as a wave of pain crept up on him and bent him in half with a gasp.

The classroom giggled as Mrs. Monroe attempted not to.

“Looks like you better get moving then,” the teacher said to a room full of snickering students as Daryl finally raced out the door, immediately breaking into a run once he hit the hall.

The class went on. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Rick kept glancing at the door, waiting for Daryl to come back. He wasn’t really sure how bad it would be. He’d probably just get a cramp, have some diarrhea, and be done with it, but after twenty minutes had passed, he finally raised his hand.

“Rick?”

“I have to use the restroom.”

“Fine,” Mrs. Monroe said.

Simon turned around with a grin. “Might want to steer clear of the shitstorm and use the one at the other end of the school.”

Rick walked out the door unsure of what his intentions were. He had a good fifteen minutes before the bell would ring for classes to change so he walked hesitantly towards the closest boy’s room. He could hear Daryl whimpering before he even opened the door, but he went inside anyway.

“Daryl?”

“GO AWAY!” Daryl yelled, the sound of tears obvious in his voice.

“I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I don’t know how much they put in that brownie and like...I don’t know what it really does.” He heard Daryl groan again and the sound of liquid gushing into the toilet.

“Go the fuck away, Rick!”

“Maybe you should go to the nurse’s station?”

“Maybe you should go to hell!” Daryl shouted with another moan of pain.

“You might need fluids. This could dehydrate you.”

“What do you want me to do, Grimes? Go to the hospital and get an IV? I don’t have any goddamn insurance.”

Rick remained quiet until he heard the toilet flush and the sound of Daryl zipping up. He came out of the stall hunched over and washed his hands without so much as looking at Rick. He wiped his wet hands on his jeans and as he turned to the door, he bent in half again with a sharp cry of pain. Rick instinctively grabbed the other boy to balance him so he didn’t stumble.

“Nurse’s station don’t cost nothing, “ Rick said and he held onto Daryl’s arm and walked him down the hall.

“Why’d you even come out here? You’re already failing History. You should be in class. Your folks are gonna be pissed,” Daryl said between strained grunts from his stomach pain.

“I didn’t want them to do this, just so you know.”

“Thanks! That makes everything so much better,” Daryl said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I don’t even feel like an alien is trying to rip through my stomach lining anymore.”

When they entered their destination, Nurse Enid took Daryl’s hand and led him to a bed without batting an eye. “What’s the matter here?”

“Stomach ache,” Daryl said as he curled into the fetal position.

“He...um. Some kids slipped him Ex Lax,” Rick said.

“What’s your name sweetheart?” she asked the curled up form on the bed.

“Daryl.”

“Well hang in there, Daryl. We have a bathroom right here you can use. You’ll probably need to make a few more visits before it’s all over. How bad is the stomach pain?”

Rick stood by helpless -- just watching.

“I’ll be fine,” Daryl said as stoically as he could muster.

“I’ll get you some Gatorade. We’ll need to get some electrolytes in you,” Enid said as she turned to Rick with a raised brow.

“How did you know about this?”

“I just...overheard some kids talking,” Rick lied.

“Well, I’ve got things under control here,” Enid said, clearly not believing him. “Head on back to class.”

Rick nodded and left without a word to Daryl.

*********************************************************************

Two hours after he ate that fateful brownie, Daryl felt like the worst was over. Enid had given him a full bottle of grape Gaterade and gave him a second one to take home. His stomach was still hurting, sensitive to the touch and sharp with pain if he moved too fast. The hallways were filled with kids on their way to their school busses and Daryl made his way out a side door and went to a spot in the back of the school where he liked to stall before going back to the old man. He needed to let his stomach rest some more anyway before the long walk.

As he sat down and hugged his knees he felt goosebumps litter his arms and he shivered from the fall chill. He wished he still had his old jacket. It had been a hand-me-down from his brother and though it was always a little too big on him, it was the only thing he owned that really meant anything to him. When he’d opened his locker and saw it was gone, he had to remind himself that it was just stuff and it wasn’t anything to cry over. He didn’t have the luxury of crying when he was sad or disappointed. He just had to move on.

He looked over the hillside at the small wooded area at the end of the school. He’d love to simply walk into those woods one day and just disappear. His emotions were really chasing him down today, covering him like a scratchy wool blanket, and he knew he’d have to stop by a store and swipe some razor blades. He had to cut, had to stop the pain in his heart. Just the thought of doing it made it a little easier for him to breathe.

The squeaky sound of a bicycle drew him out of his dark thoughts and he looked over to see the Grimes kid riding towards him. The other boy stopped his bike, took off his Timberland jacket, and tossed it to Daryl who caught it with a confused expression.

“I got another one at home,” Rick said. “You feeling any better?”

Daryl shrugged.

“My locker number is 313. I’ll wrap up half my food and put it in there after lunch. Combination is 1-3-13. You can grab whatever I have in there. Don’t eat out of the trash anymore. It ain’t safe.”

“Why are you doing this?”

Rick shrugged. “You never did nothin’ to Negan or Shane or any of us. My dad always says I got born lucky. You didn’t.”

Daryl looked down at the coat and slowly slid his arms into it. “Your friends are gonna see this. Know what you did.”

“That jacket’s a dime a dozen. There’s twenty other kids at this school that have it.” Rick put his foot back on the pedal of his bike and started to ride away. He looked back one last time. “I’m sorry about what happened,” he said, then peddled away before Daryl could respond.

Rick wasn’t worried about the jacket. It wouldn’t be the first secret he’s kept from his group of friends. He’s been keeping his other secret for two years now, ever since he figured himself out. As he rode through the wooded path he’d worn down from his daily trips, he wondered how good it would feel to come out and not have to hide that part of himself anymore. But it would never be possible. Eric Raleigh was out and Negan and Shane made obnoxious comments every time they saw him. He would never be able to come out in High School...not with his current group of friends. Just like he wouldn’t be able to befriend Daryl with his current group of friends.

Chapter Text

The rest of the week Rick picked over his lunch so that there was plenty left over for Daryl. He managed to figure out how to hold onto his napkin-covered leftovers after he dumped his tray, went right to his locker, and left it as he’d promised. And each afternoon as he stopped back at his locker, it was gone, a small scribbled note left behind each day that said thank you.

On Friday when the bell rang, Rick raced home. He had plans to meet up at Woodbury Park with Negan, Shane, Simon, Gareth, and Rosita to toss the basketball around. Lori and Andrea showed up too, but they just sat on the sidelines talking about make-up and Facebook.

Rick was partnered with Rosita and Shane and they played until well after dark, the lights from the court keeping things bright enough to keep going. Finally, Andrea stood up with a gasp. “Oh my God, guys! It’s 10:00! I gotta head home.”

10:00 was Rick’s curfew on Fridays and the ride home was going to take a solid fifteen minutes. He pulled out his phone and shot a quick text. Dad, sorry - lost track of time. Heading home now. Be there in fifteen.

Shane walked up and looked over his shoulder. “Aww, look at the boyscout letting mommy and daddy know he’s okay,” Shane mocked.

“Fuck you, Shane. You know I”ll catch shit if I don’t.”

“My parents don’t care what time I come home,” he bragged.

“Probably because they don’t like you all that much,” Negan piped in.

Rick laughed. “I didn’t realize me and your parents had that much in common.”

Shane flipped a middle finger as he turned to head home. “See you dorks on Monday.”

Normally Rick would stick to the main road. Going through the park could be a bit of a pain with all the drunks and homeless people, which always made him nervous...but it would be faster. He turned his bike to take that route and kept his eyes scanning along the sides of the path, keeping an eye out for any impending trouble. Andrea had said her sister was robbed there one night and Rick never forgot that. As he got deeper into the park he started to notice the old homeless people, a couple of them standing around a burning barrel, one passed out under the pedestrian bridge, and as he came up to a park bench he noticed one fast asleep.

As he rode by, he slowed his peddling. It wasn’t an old guy on the bench. It was a kid his age and as he stared more closely in the dark he recognized the beat-up old backpack the kid was using as a pillow. It was Daryl Dixon. Alone in the park at ten o'clock at night, asleep on a park bench. Rick continued pedaling but without as much determination to make good time. Was Daryl literally homeless? Is that why he was never clean? Why he was always hungry? Where the hell were his parents? The kid was just fifteen years old!

All the hell they put him through during school hours and this is what his reprieve from that torture was -- being cold, hungry, and alone? Rick felt like he had a rock in his stomach. He had never been much of an empathetic kid. He knew he was selfish and spoiled and the emotions that Daryl pulled from him were new. He didn’t want the gang picking on him any more. He didn’t want Daryl to be hungry or cold. Or sad. He had to figure out a way to get his friends to redirect their attention to someone or something else.

By the time he got home, his mom was sitting in a chair reading.

“Where’s dad?” Rick asked, still not sure if he was gonna tell him about Daryl or not.

“In bed. You need to talk?” she asked as she closed the book, getting ready to head back to the bedroom herself.

“Nah.”

“You sure, baby?”

Rick thought for a minute. “I had an idea.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, remember that kid from the soup kitchen?”

“Daryl. Yes, of course. He was so well-mannered. I was sad to see that he left before I could fix him a hot breakfast the other week.”

“Yeah, well. I was just thinking that I mow the yard each week and get $20 bucks for it for my allowance. And like...I have a lot of History tests and a paper and stuff coming up and I could use that time to study and maybe...like...Daryl could come over and mow and make the $20. He could use it alot more than me.”

Liz smiled. “We’ll talk about it with your dad in the morning, but I think it’s a great idea. I hope this is more about you wanting to help your friend than it is about getting out of your chores.

“It is,” Rick said. And it wasn’t a lie.

****************************************************************

Daryl was surprised to see Rick working at the soup kitchen again. He hadn’t expected that to be a permanent thing. Standing in line, he watched as Rick served up beef stew, smiling more at the people he was serving and actually talking to a few of them. When Daryl got up to the counter, Rick turned to him with a huge smile.

“Hey!”

Daryl nodded, surprised that Rick seemed almost happy to see him. “Thanks for the food this week,” Daryl said softly.

Rick ladled out the stew. “Sure, no problem. You study for Monroe’s class yet?”

“Yeah, you?”

Rick shrugged. “A little, I guess. Probably not enough.”

Daryl moved to the next station in line and looked back at Rick. “I can help you if you need.”

“I’ll remember that. Thanks.”

Daryl sat in his normal spot and ate slowly as he watched Rick. Daryl always thought he was better than the company he kept. He had kind eyes, a friendly face, and a smile that lit up any room he was in. The curls that framed his face made him downright adorable. Even when his group would pick on Daryl, Rick always kept to the background like he really didn’t want to be involved. Peer pressure could be a bitch, Daryl thought.

As the cafeteria emptied, Daryl wondered if Jack would sit down with him again and invite him over. He didn’t want to be a beggar or a charity seeker, but that hot shower and those warm blankets were amazing. He was pretty sure if he got the offer again he’d accept without hesitation. Hell, this time Rick might not even mind so much. He’d been so nice lately.

Jack peeked out from behind the kitchen door, said something to his son, and Daryl watched as it was Rick who came out this time to clear off the tables. He walked over to Daryl and sat opposite him like Jack had. He didn’t look as cheerful, though. In fact, he looked downright sad.

“I saw you,” Rick said, his blue eyes overflowing with sympathy.

“Saw me?” Daryl asked.

“Friday night at the park. You were asleep on one of the park benches.”

Daryl immediately averted his eyes. “Oh. Yeah.”

Rick sat up taller and leaned in. “Are you homeless, Daryl? Where is your dad?”

“We ain’t homeless...we’re just...between homes.”

“How long have you been sleeping in the park?” Rick whispered.

Daryl shrugged. “Not long,” he answered, keeping everything as vague as he could.

“And you had a house before that?”

Daryl was not used to people questioning him about these things. And he definitely wasn’t used to people seeming to give a shit about it. It was an unusual feeling.

“Lived out of my old man’s Chevy for a year or two.”

“Jesus, Daryl,” Rick said exasperated. “You can’t live like this!”

“It’s only gonna be a little bit longer, don’t worry,” Daryl said, suddenly more worried about Rick being upset than worrying about his own misfortune. “My Pa’s got a lead on a job, so I’ll be okay.”

“I mean, you should be in foster…”

“No!” Daryl shouted, louder than intended. “No. They tried that shortly after my ma died and it was horrible. Ain’t going back to that. No way.”

“Alright, alright,” Rick said with his hands raised in surrender.

“Ain’t none of your business anyways,” Daryl added. “That job is gonna come through any day now and everything will be fine.”

Rick eyed Daryl like he was trying to search for the lie in that. “Well, I have a proposition.”

Daryl’s eyes widened. He had no idea what the kid could be thinking.

“I get $20 a week to mow the lawn, but my grades are down and I could probably use that time to study, and I could probably use some help studying.”

“Told ya I’d help ya,” Daryl said.

“What I’m thinking is that you come over once a week, mow the lawn and earn that $20 for you. I don’t need it as much and then you can stay the night and help me study. At least that will get you a shower, a hot meal, and a good night’s sleep once a week.”

Daryl looked back to the kitchen for Jack who was nowhere to be found.

“This your dad’s idea?”

“No. Mine.”

It was perfect! $20 a week and one night of comfort? And all he had to do was mow a lawn and help Rick study? He’d hit the damn jackpot.

“I can do that,” he finally answered.

Rick smiled. “Good. Finish up your food. You can come home with us tonight. Lawn needs mowed and we have a test on Monday!”

Daryl nodded and took a huge bite of his untouched roll. “Don’t worry. I won’t say nothin’ about it at school,” he said with his mouth full.

Rick stood and sighed. “Yeah. That would probably be best. Thanks.”

“Hey,” Daryl called out before Rick could walk away. “Can we keep the homeless thing to ourselves? If your folks find out they might like, call the cops or something, and my old man will freak.”

Rick kept his gaze on Daryl’s as he nodded slowly. “Yeah. I can do that.”

Chapter Text

Rick stood at the sliding doors, watching as Daryl push mowed their modest yard. He was wearing his gym uniform and sweat was matting his overgrown hair to his head. Rick had to admit that despite Daryl’s small frame and narrow middle, he had these broad shoulders that really drew his attention. He liked the way Daryl looked. Hair always a tousled mess, that beauty mark above his lip, those dark blue, mysterious eyes. The way he smiled when he was trying not to...and the way he smiled when he couldn’t help but mean it. He’d never really taken the time to see Daryl before, and now…

“Wasn’t the whole point of this so you could be studying right now?” Mr. Grimes asked, startling Rick out of his reverie.

“Well, Daryl’s actually gonna help me when he’s done so…”

Jack rubbed his son’s head affectionately. “You know, I’m proud of you for putting yourself out there to help someone who isn’t as privileged as you.”

Proud? Jesus, Rick didn’t think he’d ever heard that word out of his father’s mouth before. He liked it, liked having his father proud of him, and now that he knew what that felt like he might want to chase after it more often. Maybe he’d really pay attention when he and Daryl studied later and he could get a good grade on his test. That would be amazing!

********************
By 7:00 that night both boys were sitting on Rick’s bed surrounded by notepads and open books.

“So, the Civil War didn’t just ‘start’ in 1861. There was all sorts of things that led up to it. For decades, I mean.”

Looking at Daryl with a blank face, Rick just sat and waited for an explanation. He actually wanted to do good on this test but this shit was just so hard to understand.

“Ya got the Missouri Compromise, for example. Missouri wasn’t a state. It was just a territory. But it wanted to be a state so it applied for statehood. But that was a problem for Congress. Any idea why?”

Shaking his head no, Rick shrugged his shoulders. “No idea.”

Daryl plowed on with his explanation, enthusiasm starting to seep into his words. “Well, cuz ya got the North and ya got the South and they both had representatives in Congress. And them representatives voted for things that would benefit their people—either in the North or in the South. The South depended on their slaves to do the work so they wanted to make sure that could continue. So their representatives would vote on things that would help with that. The North, though, had turned against slavery and so their representatives voted on things that would go against slavery. And this is where the problem starts.”

Pausing for a moment, Daryl surveyed the boy across from him, noting that he was not only paying attention, but actually seemed to be interested in the lesson. So he continued. “Well, when Missouri applied to be a state, there was an even number of representatives in Congress—half were from the South and half were from the North. If Missouri entered the Union as a slave state, which it wanted to do, it would upset that balance and then the South would have more representatives. Does that make sense?”

Rick nodded his head in affirmation. For some reason, hearing Daryl explain it made it a lot easier to understand. His enthusiasm was contagious and Rick couldn’t help but smile as he waited to hear what came next.

“So they decided on a compromise—the Missouri Compromise. Missouri would enter as a slave state and Maine, which also wanted in, would enter as a free state. After that, any time a territory wanted to become a state they had to do it in twos—one slave and one free. That would keep that balance. Now this was in 1820—41 years before the war even began! After the Missouri Compromise we’re going to see other things happening and each one is going to cause the North and the South to disagree more and more and to move farther apart. This is important because it created so much tension and anger between the North and the South that by the time the war starts there’s a shitload of resentment between them. Got it?”

Again, Rick nodded his head, this time with more enthusiasm. It was almost as if a lightbulb was hanging over his head, shining brightly with his sudden understanding. “I actually do get it,” he said with a smile.

“Great! So then…”

Two hours later, the boys were still hard at work, with Daryl wrapping up his overview of the Civil War and Rick hanging on his every word.

“…and that’s how it came to an end. General Grant must have been a pretty decent dude because he wasn’t a dick about it. He accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender and he even let Lee’s men—the Southern soldiers—keep their horses and a day’s food. That wasn’t usual. And then when Lee walked out of the courthouse there at Appomattox, some of them Northern soldiers started jeering at him and the other Southerners, but Grant put a stop to that pretty quick and told them to knock it the fuck off, that they were all brothers again. I think he did that because he and Lincoln just wanted to move forward and put the country back together again and they didn’t want to stir up more harsh feelings, ya know?”

Rick nodded in agreement, a smile on his face. “Yeah, it makes total sense. You can get more done when you work together than when you work against the other people. And if they were going to reunify the Union, it would have been a lot harder to do if the North treated the South like losers or the enemy. Yeah, that was good thinking.”

Daryl smiled as the other boy shared his opinion—an opinion that lined up perfectly with his own.

“Ya got it. So ya want to review? See what ya know?”

At Rick’s enthusiastic nod, Daryl gave another small smile as he prepared to begin quizzing the other boy.

“Okay. So what led to the Civil War?”

With only a moment’s hesitation, Rick replied, “Well, you have the Missouri Compromise in 1820. Then sixteen years later you have the Wilmot Proviso. And then we fought and won the Mexican-American war and got a bunch of new territory as a result—places like California, Arizona, Colorado, and so on. And that’s wonderful except it brought more problems because a lot of them were slaveholding territories. The North didn’t like that. And each time one of them wanted to become a state it threatened to upset the balance of power in Congress. Then there’s the Compromise of 1850 and the Dred Scott Decision. And through all of this you have this new idea called ‘popular sovereignty.’

Daryl nodded. “Yeah and what was that and why did it matter?”

“Well,” Rick replied, “it was the idea that people should be able to choose for themselves. So the people living in California, and later Kansas and so on, believed they should be able to choose if they were going to be slave or free states.”

“Yep, that’s it,” Daryl said with a smile.

Encouraged, Rick forged ahead. “Then you’ve got that looney-toon John Brown who thought he was ‘God’s Avenging Angel.’ I mean, who calls himself that? Anyway, he tried to start that rebellion in Virginia, hoping to free slaves, but it was a huge bust and he was arrested and then hung. And this made the North mad because they saw him as a martyr for the cause of the abolitionists, but the South saw him as a spy sent by the North, so this caused even more divisions. And then finally, Abraham Lincoln is elected president and that’s when South Carolina said ‘I’m out of here’ and they left the Union, followed by the other Southern states. They all seceded and formed their own country, the Confederacy.” Pausing for a breath, he looked at Daryl, a hopeful expression on his face. “How’d I do?”

“That was great,” the other boy replied, an expression of approval on his face. “So how’s about this one. What was the main thing they were fighting for?”

Rick contemplated the question for a moment before answering.

“Well…everyone always thinks they were fighting over freeing the slaves, but that wasn’t exactly the case. The North did want to free the slaves, and the South did want to keep them, but they were really fighting for states’ rights, the idea that each state should be able to decide for itself on things that impacted them, like keeping or freeing the slaves. Oh, but then on January 1st of 1863 Lincoln changed it up a bit. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation and that kind of made it about slavery.”

“How?” Daryl asked.

“Well, it freed all the slaves in the South.”

“But how could it free them when they was in the middle of the war? Did the North have any say over what the South did at that point?”

With a sly expression on his face, Rick smiled in triumph as he prepared to respond. “No, they didn’t. But Lincoln knew that it wouldn’t really free any slaves cuz they were trapped down there in the South. But what it did was it moved the focus away from states’ rights to slavery. Now they were fighting for the freedom of other humans. So he wanted to give the war meaning by doing that. And that inspired the northerners to fight even harder, right?”

“Yep,” Daryl replied. “Ya got it. And here’s some things I just think are interesting. Did ya know that the ambulance was invented during the Civil War? It was to transport the troops from the battlefield to the field hospital. Yeah, each one had two guys carrying a stretcher and then one guy driving. Also, this was the first war that used the railroad. Lincoln was a genius cuz he figured out how much it could help the North, so he had them build a shitload of tracks all over the place. And—and this is really cool—both sides used hot air balloons to go up and see what was goin’ on. You know, aerial reconnaissance, I think it’s called. So there ya go. That’s the Civil War in a nutshell.”

Rick was a little disappointed when the lesson was over. He found he could listen to Daryl talk excitedly about something for hours and never grow bored. It was nice to see the other kid so animated and excited and as Daryl closed up all his books and stood to leave, Rick tried to think of a way to extend their evening.

“You probably love the History Channel don’t you?” Rick asked, hoping to entice him.

Daryl looked at him blankly for a moment. “There’s a whole channel?” he asked. “Just for history?”

“Yeah!” Rick said as he stood up, too. “Wanna go out and see what’s on?”

As they sat on the couch in the living room with their feet up on the coffee table, Rick flipped through the guide and found a special on Hitler’s rise to power. Daryl sat motionless, completely enthralled.

Rick took the time to steal glances at the other boy. He seemed like a different person now that Rick had gotten to know him. He actually liked spending time with him and there was a relaxation to their developing friendship that Rick never had with Negan or Shane. It was like it took so much energy to be friends with them. But with Daryl? With Daryl it was effortless.

*************

That morning Rick stumbled into the kitchen and found Daryl at the counter making pancakes as his parents sat at the table with coffee.

“I tried to tell him I’d do it,” Liz said, “but he insisted.” Christ, Rick never once considered stepping up and cooking the morning breakfast. He walked over to Daryl and looked at the growing pile of pancakes he was adding to the serving dish.

“How’d you learn to do that?”

Daryl looked at him with that adorable lopsided smile. “Read the box, man.”

“Daryl’s gonna come with us to the soup kitchen today,” Mr. Grimes said as Daryl carried the serving tray to the table and took out the orange juice. “He wants to work in the back, cooking.”

“Didn’t realize you liked cooking so much,” Rick said.

Daryl shrugged. “Old man never cooked much so you learn.”

As everyone loaded up on pancakes, Liz asked how the study session went.

“He’s totally gonna pass,” Daryl said. “He’s got it down, no question. You have my personal guarantee!”

Rick’s dad smiled. “You know, you’re welcome over here anytime, Daryl. Okay? Life gets hard, whatever, you’re more than welcome.”

Daryl looked down at his plate as he answered. “Ain’t gonna take advantage, Mr. Grimes. I just appreciate the one night a week.”

“Well, the offer still stands,” Rick’s mom added. “And Daryl? The pancakes are delicious. Thank you.”

That afternoon, Liz left for a shift at the hospital and Jack, Rick, and Daryl headed to the soup kitchen. Daryl stayed focused in the back making chicken with Jack, while Rick took his normal spot at the counter serving the dozens and dozens of people who came through the line. A couple times Rick heard Daryl laugh in the back and it brought a smile to his face. All this time in school and it had never registered that the kid had never once laughed. It was a sound that Rick wanted to hear more of.

Chapter Text

Rick got a B+ on his History test. Mrs. Monroe handed it to him, face up, with a bright smile. “I told you you could do it,” she winked.

He was dying to look towards the back and tell Daryl, but Simon or Gareth or someone would go back and tell Lori or Shane or one of them about it. So he kept facing forward and instead left a note with his leftover lunch in his locker that said I got a B+!!!

When he stopped at his locker before gym class he found a return note. Your pops is gonna be so proud!

Rick was almost sad that the lawn just got mowed the night before. It would be another whole week before Daryl could stay over again. He’d thought about asking his dad if Daryl could stay permanently…well, just until his old man got that job, but he didn’t want to push his luck on everything they’d been doing for Daryl already. His mom even bought Daryl a new pair of pants and a few new shirts. He didn’t want to ask for too much. He stood for a while just smiling at his note and the thought of making his dad proud.

As he closed his locker, Shane and Negan came up beside him, already in mid-conversation about somebody’s knockers.

It was Friday, a gym day, and they all headed to the locker rooms. Rick was eager to get the class over with. He planned to check the back of the school to see if Daryl was there after classes were over. They’d started hanging out for an hour or so before they went their separate ways, talking about everything and nothing.

Class was in the gymnasium running sprints, shooting hoops, and doing a few rounds of sit ups and push ups. They were just changing over to free play for the last ten minutes of class when Daryl slipped away like he usually did to get to the showers.

After a few minutes of half-hearted shooting, Shane put an arm around Rick and pulled him to the side of the court where Negan stood with a matching smile. “We got something fantastic planned. Tell the girls to come over to the entrance to the boys locker room before they go to theirs.” Shane said.

“Why?” Rick asked.

“It’s a big surprise,” Negan said, then thought about it and rephrased, “Technically, it’s a little surprise based on previous evidence.”

Shane laughed and the two of them left the gym. A basketball hit Rick in the head and he turned around to see Rosita standing there. “What are you doing? We still got a few more minutes.”

Rick worried about what Negan and Shane were up to, especially knowing that Daryl was in the showers alone. “I…I gotta go.” Rick said and he ran to the doors of the gymnasium. He ran past Lori and Andrea and realized quickly that all three girls were following him down the hall to the locker room. He heard Mr. Douglas’ whistle blow and felt the stampede of the rest of the class coming his way. Before he could reach the locker room door, it opened.

Shane was pushing Daryl out. “I don’t know what to tell you, Dixon. I didn’t take your damn clothes. Maybe they were just so old they disintegrated.”

Rick froze as he watched Daryl’s tiny frame, bare naked, pushed into the hall. His hands covering his dick, shoulders hunched in on himself, and stumbling into the corner of the hall where he fell to his knees and tucked his head down in an attempt to disappear. The sound of everyone’s laughter echoed through Rick’s ears as he looked down at his friend, his back criss-crossed with scars. He’d gotten back up to his feet trying to figure out which way to run and Rick noticed all the skinny scar lines on his inner thighs, saw how badly he was shaking, his eyes squeezed shut, and finally Rick reacted, racing into the locker room to grab the jeans and shirt he’d worn to school that day.

Daryl was in an absolute state of panic. From the moment he noticed his clothes were missing he could barely breathe. It was all happening in slow motion -- Shane and Negan taunting him, chasing him out the locker room door to the crowded hallway. He was naked, bare, vulnerable, and surrounded by every last student from gym class. The sound of their laughing slowed in his head and his vision narrowed like a tunnel as he gasped for breath. Everyone was too close. They were seeing too much. They were gonna hurt him, whip him. He didn’t know where to go, how to run, how to escape. Then he saw Rick in the crowd. Looking over at him desperate for a lifeline, Daryl watched as the boy he thought was becoming his friend turned his back and ran away.

Daryl’s breaths came faster and faster until he felt like he was going to choke on his own air source. He was getting poked and prodded by pointing fingers. He saw Gareth and Simon howling with laughter and he turned again towards the door leading to the back of the school and pawed at it until it finally opened and he fell out onto the ground as everyone laughed even harder. As he tried to get back up to run as far and as fast as he could, he heard Rick’s voice over everyone else’s.

“Show’s over,” he growled at the crowd, then Daryl felt Rick’s hands on his arms and he nearly leapt out of this skin at the unexpected contact. “Daryl. Wait, man. It’s me. Here’s some clothes,” Rick said to keep the kid from running off.

He helped the other boy step into his jeans and then handed him the shirt, and by the time Daryl was covered the other students had tired of the prank and gone back inside. Daryl slumped down against the brick wall, still shaking, and Rick knelt down next to him, a comforting hand on his back. “Let me grab my bag and get my bike. You’re coming home with me tonight, okay?”

Daryl didn’t respond and Rick took that as agreement and ran back inside. The whole class was hooping and hollering in the locker room, Negan and Shane getting high fives as Rick grabbed his bag and tried to slip back out.

“Grimes! Why did you ruin our fun, man? Wanted to see how far he’d run naked!” Shane shouted.

Rick looked at them. He didn’t want to be friends with them anymore, didn’t want to be like them, and didn’t want to pretend to go along with all their shit. He didn’t care if he had to go through the rest of high school being a lone;, he was done.

“You know?” Rick said. “You guys are real assholes.” He turned and left the locker room before he had to listen to any kind of response.

Back outside, Daryl’s shivers had settled, but his eyes were still damp and dazed and he wouldn’t talk. It took Rick a good ten minutes to get the other boy to his feet. They walked together, Rick holding the bike between them, towards the woods.

Rick didn’t try to talk. He knew Daryl wasn’t ready for it and he’d give the guy all the time he needed to shake off that horror. Rick simply couldn’t imagine. It was bad enough to be stripped in front of everyone like that, but all the scars that littered Daryl’s body? That had to just add to the humiliation.

When they were halfway home Daryl finally made eye contact with Rick. “Thanks for bringing out the clothes.”

“Sure,” Rick answered. Daryl looked so goddamn sad that it broke Rick’s heart. He was like a beaten down dog and there was an anger brewing in Rick’s belly that he wasn’t used to. He was used to ambivalence. Used to not really caring too much about anything. But he realized he cared. He cared about how this kid was treated and it was pissing him off beyond belief.

“You’ll stay with us until your dad gets that job.”

“I don’t want to put anyone out,” Daryl said and Rick spoke up before the other boy could say anything further.

“You heard them last weekend. They love you. They offered.”

They were quiet for a bit and finally Daryl spoke up again. “Maybe I can do extra chores and stuff.”

“You’re my friend, Daryl. And they like you. You don’t have to do anything extra. They want to help. I want to help.”

Daryl looked over at Rick, his head cocked to the side in confusion. “I’m your friend?”

“Yeah, man.”

Daryl looked straight ahead as they exited the woods and walked up onto the neighborhood sidewalk.

“Ain’t never had a friend before.”

Rick vowed right then and there that he’d make up for all the shit he’d put Daryl through by being the best friend that he could be. He deserved that, deserved to be cared about for once and deserved to have someone in his life that wasn’t causing him pain and agony.

When they got to the house Rick told his parents that Daryl’s dad still didn’t have the electricity or water back on and asked if Daryl could stay over until things got straightened out. He felt guilty lying, but he’d made a promise to Daryl about keeping his homelessness a secret, and he wasn’t about to break that vow. Daryl didn’t have much in the world he could trust, and Rick wanted to be the one person that Daryl could actually have faith in. He knew his folks wouldn’t mean any harm, but Daryl was right. They’d probably try to call the authorities and get him help. Rick didn’t blame Daryl for not wanting that kind of help. He’d seen enough TV to know that getting lost in the system could be a disaster.

***************

That night Daryl showered, had dinner with the Grimes’ without a word about what happened at school, and he went to bed before it was even dark. As he watched the light fade from his window, he heard a knock at the door.

It cracked open slowly and Rick took a tentative step inside. “Wanna watch TV?”

“Nah. Kinda tired,” Daryl said.

“Yeah,” Rick nodded. “Rough day.”

Rick seemed to hover in the doorway like he didn’t really want to leave, so Daryl sat up on the couch and hugged his knees, making room for the other boy to sit.

“Everyone is going to give you shit about helping me, you know,” Daryl said.

Rick shrugged as he sat. “I never really felt like I fit in with them anyway,” he said, brushing off the other boy’s worry. Daryl bit at his thumbnail, knowing that Rick had something on his mind, and after a few hesitant moments he finally asked the question Daryl had been dreading.

“Those scars...how?”

“Old man’s a bastard,” Daryl answered simply, hoping that would end the conversation. He wasn’t much for talking about himself like this. His life was personal, his scars...they were private.

“Was that like...from a belt or something?”

Daryl nodded. “The one good thing about living on the street is he can’t beat me too bad in public so I’ve had a nice break from it the past few months.”

Rick bit on his bottom lip as he thought about that. It was a habit Daryl had noticed. It was cute, but it meant he was thinking about saying something Daryl probably didn’t want to hear.

“Those ones on the insides of your thighs? That’s not no belt.”

Daryl continued to gnaw at his thumbnail, but kept his eyes on Rick’s.

“No. They ain’t,” he said. No one was EVER supposed to see those marks and now he was plunged into the spotlight by those fucking assholes and the one person he didn’t want to see him that way was crashing into him with it like a freight train.

“Why?”

Daryl looked out the window and noticed how dark the room had become, the only light from the full moon and a dim nightlight in the hallway. He kept his gaze focused on the scene out the window as he spoke. “Because it’s like...it’s like a relief. When things are hurting too much...it’s like taking control of the hurt. I dunno. It just...like...gets me out of my own head.”

“You ever talk to anyone about it?”

Daryl laughed dryly. “Like a shrink?” he asked, turning to face Rick in the dark.

“Yeah. Or like...maybe a Guidance Counselor like Mrs. Peltier?”

“Wasn’t something anyone was ever supposed to see,” Daryl said softly, hugging his knees tighter.

“Well, I’ve seen it now,” Rick said with a bit of fire. “So now it’s not just yours. I’ve seen it and I’m not just gonna let you fuck yourself up like that.”

Daryl was not familiar with concern. Being on the receiving end of worry and interest was like standing off balance in a windstorm. It was unfamiliar and made him a bit uneasy.

“When was the last time you did it?” Before Daryl could answer, Rick continued. “Because one of my dad’s razors was wrapped up in bloody kleenex in the bottom of the trash can,” Rick said, his eyes now focused on the dim light shinging outside the window to spare Daryl the accusatory eye contact.

“When did you start dumpster diving?” Daryl finally asked. “That’s kinda my thing.” It was an attempt at humor, but it fell flat in the heaviness of the room around them.

“I thought maybe after what happened today…” Rick started, leaving the rest of the sentence unsaid. “Will you talk to Mrs. Peltier on Monday?”

“And say what?” Daryl asked with a huff. “What do I say?”

“Well,” Rick started as he resituated himself on the couch so he was facing Daryl directly. “For starters, you could tell her about what happened. Maybe she could write you a pass and get you out of gym class for the rest of the year.”

Daryl’s snapped his head towards Rick in instant interest. “You really think she could do that?”

Rick nodded. “You had a full-on panic attack, Daryl. Have you even thought about walking into the locker room again?”

“I don’t know if I could do it,” Daryl admitted. “Gonna be hard enough to even walk into the school, but I ain’t gonna quit school over this no matter how hard it is. My old man dropped out of school and I ain’t gonna be nothin’ like him.”

“Then talk to Mrs. Peltier. Tell her about the attack, about the abuse, about the cutting. She might be able to help you more than you realize.”

Daryl shrugged, trying to hold back the tears that were threatening to storm. He really had nothing to lose. He’d never really thought about being anything other than what he was, but lately, with Rick and the Grimes’, he thought maybe he’d like to try being happy. Part of him was certain that it would end in disaster. He was a Dixon afterall, and Dixon’s didn’t get much in the way of happiness. But maybe making friends with Rick was the start of a new chance at life. He liked the feel of Rick’s friendship and he wanted more of it. If this was what Rick wanted from him, he’d do it.

“Okay.” Daryl could see the shadows of a smile on the other boy’s face.

“Thank you,” Rick said.

“Those guys...on Monday. They’re gonna start making your life hell,” Daryl said.

Rick shrugged. “Fuck ‘em.”

Chapter Text

On Monday morning Rick and Daryl went out of their way to arrive to school at the last minute. It was Daryl’s idea so that there wasn’t any time for an altercation at Rick’s locker. Hell, Daryl seemed more worried about the change in the landscape than Rick was. Frankly, Rick felt relieved. He never felt right with that group. Negan and Shane were always just so obnoxious. Lori and Andrea were snotty and completely full of themselves. Rosita was the only one that was okay. Sometimes he wondered if she didn’t feel the same way he did about their group. Maybe she wouldn’t be too bad to him, but he was certain the others would torment the hell out of him. But if Daryl could manage to get through it every day, then Rick could too.

“Hey loser,” Shane said catching up to Rick as they walked into the cafeteria. Rick cringed for the anticipated fallout, but Shane didn’t seem to think their friendship was over. “You shoulda been at the park this weekend. Lori wore a white blouse and we got caught in the rain. You could see everything”.

Rick smiled politely, surprised that there didn’t seem to be any animosity for the way he’d run to help Daryl the week before. Was he still gonna have to put up with these guys?

“So Rosita said we went too far with Dixon on Friday,” Shane said as they took their pizza from the cafeteria line.

“You did, y’know,” Rick said, a sudden burst of confidence giving him the strength to speak up.

Shane shrugged, uninterested. “Whatever.” They walked together to their usual table and sat down with Negan and the girls.

“So you know Peletier?” Negan was asking as they sat down. “I found one of those big old hairy wolf spiders at the house this morning and brought it in, let it loose in her car this morning.”

“The guidance counselor?” Andrea asked with a laugh.

Shane and Lori laughed as Rick stabbed at his pizza with a fork. “Why would you do that?” he asked.

Negan looked at him, dumbfounded. “Cause it’s funny.”

“What did she ever do to you?”

“Are you kidding me? She makes sure my parents know every single time I get in trouble around here.”

“She could get in a car accident, man,” Rick said.

“It’s just a spider, Rick,” Lori said. “She’ll be fine.”

Rick scanned the cafeteria and saw that Daryl had actually used some of his allowance money to buy his first school lunch. He was just sitting down alone at a table in the corner of the room, his back to them.

Rick quickly realized that he wasn’t relieved there was no fallout from his defense of Daryl. In fact, he was disappointed that the group was still accepting him.

“Oh my GOD,” Shane said all of a sudden. “Dixon’s got himself a lunch all his own!” He picked up a french fry and sailed it across the cafeteria aiming for Daryl’s head and missing. “Check your wallets. Goddamn thief probably stole that money.”

Rick stood up and picked up his tray. He looked at the group at his table and literally couldn’t even think of what to say, so he just walked over to Daryl’s table and sat down.

Daryl looked at him cautiously. “What are you doing, man? Looks like they were gonna accept you back after all!”

“I don’t want them back,” Rick said as he took a bite of his pizza.

The other boy smiled and the genuineness of it made Rick’s heart flutter.

Daryl took a bite of his own slice. “This is really good,” he smiled.

It was school cafeteria pizza. It tasted like cardboard and ketchup, but it put one hell of a smile on Daryl’s face. One hell of a smile.

“I’m gonna need a favor after lunch,” Rick said.

“Sure, anything,” Daryl responded.

“You afraid of spiders?”

“No.”

“Good cause I sure as shit am and we need to go out to Mrs. Peletier’s car after we eat and find the spider that Negan put in there.”

*************************************************
It wasn’t long after de-spidering her car (they were lucky the door was unlocked) when Daryl finally got called down to Mrs. Peletier’s office. He’d stopped in that morning like he’d promised Rick and asked for some time.

The guidance office was nauseatingly optimistic, covered with inspirational posters and smiling secretaries.

“You’re Daryl, right?” A cheerful blond student asked.

He nodded, wordless.

“I’m Beth. I’m a peer counselor.” She reached out her hand and Daryl just looked at it. No way would he be comfortable talking to Pollyanna.

She pulled her hand back, clearly not offended whatsoever. “Don’t worry. Mrs. Peletier knows you want to talk to her and not me. She’ll be ready for you in a minute.”

Daryl nodded and bit at a nail, feeling the itch from his recent cut between his thighs. “No offense or nothing,” Daryl said to the well-meaning girl.

“Not at all. It’s good that you found someone you’re comfortable talking to. Mrs. Peletier is great. You’ll really like her.”

As if she’d been summoned, the office door opened and Carol Peletier stepped out.

“Daryl Dixon?” She asked and he nodded in the aftermative. “Come on in, dear.”

He looked back at Beth who gave him a smile and a wave and then he nervously walked into the small office, cringing at the sound of the door closing behind him.

“So, Daryl,” Carol started as she sat down. “I’ve wondered if you’d ever come in to see me.”

“Why?”

“I’ve seen how you get treated here, dear. It’s shameful that we have students who would terrorize you like they do.”

Daryl nodded and looked down.

“I heard about what happened outside the locker room on Friday,” she said softly.

“Well, I’m only here cause Rick said maybe I had like a panic attack during that...that...thing. That maybe I could get a pass to not have to go to gym class for the rest of the year.” He glanced up at the guidance counselor through his bangs, looking hopeful.

She nodded, opened a drawer, and pulled out a pad of paper.

“An anonymous student stopped by this morning to describe your panic attack. It was very real, Daryl, and I’m sure it was terribly frightening.”

“Was it Rick?” Daryl asked with a smile.

“They asked me not to say,” she smiled sympathetically.

Daryl rolled his eyes. It was Rick.

She started scribbling on the notepad they all used for passes. “This will excuse you for the rest of the year. You’ll have a study period with Mr. Jones instead.

“Thank you.”

“I’m also gonna suggest you see a therapist outside of here. See about some anxiety meds.”

“I ain’t got no money for no doctors. I’ll be fine.”

She sighed and looked up. “You need to talk to a professional, Daryl.”

“Ain’t you a professional?”

“I think you could benefit from a psychiatrist that could prescribe you an antidepressant,” she said. “And who could help by talking to you about the cutting.”

Daryl’s eyes met hers in confusion. “Another student stopped in to tell me they recognized the scars and were worried about you.”

Daryl rolled his eyes, a little disappointed. “Rick shouldn’t have done that.”

She shook her head as she scribbled on another sheet of paper. “Wasn’t Rick.” She handed the paper to Daryl. “This is my friend Ezekiel. He’s a psychiatrist and I’ll see that he sees you and prescribes the proper meds. No charge.”

“Why?”

“I’ve seen your grades, Daryl. You are a hard worker and a smart kid and you just got a bad deal out of life. Ezekel likes to be able to help folks who really need it and he’ll see you for free.

Daryl stood and tucked the pieces of paper into his front pocket.

“I’m glad to see you’ve befriended Rick Grimes,” Mrs. Peletier added.

“Why?” Daryl asked. Because the other boy would be a good influence? Because he could help Daryl get through school without being terrorized? Why?

“Because he could use a good friend like you, too.” she said. And it wasn't an answer that Daryl expected.
***********************************************************************

Last period, Daryl reported to Mr. Jones’ classroom for study hall instead of going to the gymnasium. Mr. Jones was nice enough, though he probably knew everything that happened because he gave Daryl a knowing look. In fact, all day long he’d been getting looks, but at least no one said anything, at least nothing he could hear. He’d kept his head down most of the day, staring at his feet and moving through the school in a daze. It was nice having lunch with Rick, although he was worried sick about the other boy throwing away his social life for the next several years of school. He’d be better off to just distance himself from Daryl. Maybe he didn’t want to buddy back up with that obnoxious group, but he could find another group of friends and have a normal high school experience.

After handing Mr. Jones his pass, he slid into a chair by the window and pulled out his chemistry textbook to start reading the assignment. Rosita was already sitting in a chair, having a temporary pass from gym because of a sprained ankle, and two more students came in and quietly took their seats. One person he didn’t really recognize. The other, who sat in the back row near him was Eric Raleigh. He was in Daryl’s chemistry class and World Lit. Even Daryl knew the rumors about him. He was gay. Like, it wasn’t a classified secret or anything. He was pretty open about it and it didn’t get him a lot of friends. He sat with some of the audio visual nerds at lunch even though Daryl knew that wasn’t Eric’s scene.

“You get out of gym, too?” Eric whispered.

Daryl turned around to look at him and nodded.

“Heard what happened. That’s worse than what I had. Sorry, man.”

Daryl looked up at Mr. Jones to make sure it was okay to talk, but the man was so absorbed in grading some of his own classwork that he didn’t even notice. “What happened to you?” Daryl asked.

“Freshman year. Pushed me down in the showers accusing me of ‘looking’. Couple of them...Simon and Gareth...like...peed on me,” Eric admitted.

Daryl shook his head. “Fucking assholes.”

Eric shrugged. “I just remember that everyone left the showers and it was that Grimes kid that helped me up and brought me a towel.”

Daryl smiled, relieved to know that Rick was never one of the bad guys. He’d just kept bad company.

“Yeah, he was the one who helped me, too.”

“Alright, guys. Let’s use the time to study,” Mr. Jones said, not unkindly.

As the bell rang, Rosita limped towards Daryl favoring her right leg.

“Hey.”

“Hi,” Daryl said, confused.

“Just wanted you to know that I didn’t know about that prank and I’m sorry. I saw the scars on your thighs, though, and I have some like that, too. I just wanted you to know that there is help out there and to hang in there. I’ll try to keep the group from bothering you and Rick too much.”

Daryl was floored. She must have been the one that talked to Mrs. Peletier. Part of him was suspicious that this was a ploy of some kind for the next prank, but something in Rosita’s eyes told him that it was real.

****************************************

Rick and Daryl biked home together after school, Rick on his usual bike, and Daryl using Rick’s old one.

“Saw you weren’t at gym. That mean you got in with Mrs. Peletier this afternoon?

Daryl nodded. “Got a pass for the rest of the year,” he grinned. “And got this guy I’m supposed to go talk to, like about the panic attacks and something about there’s medicine that can help.”

“Good. That’s good,” Rick smiled.

“How was gym for you?” Daryl asked as he wobbled a bit on the bike, just having learned how to ride one that weekend.

“They picked on me a bit, but you know...sticks and stones and all that shit. Ended up running the laps with Eugene.”

“He’s a nice guy. A little weird if I’m being honest, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Daryl added.

Rick was happy. He felt an enormous relief at not having to deal with Shane or the rest of the group. He liked the easy friendship he had with Daryl. It wasn’t work. It wasn’t complicated. It was as simple as having someone to talk to, study with, laugh with, learn with.

As they pulled their bikes into the garage, Rick smiled to himself. He liked having Daryl around. It was almost like they were brothers.

At dinner that night they talked about their World Lit. assignment. They didn’t have the same class, but had the same teacher, and thus the same assignment.

“So we have to like go to work with a parent, learn what you do, and then write a personal narrative about what we see for ourselves in the future,” Rick explained to his parents. He turned to his dad. “Thought I could maybe come to one of your fundraising events or something and learn a little about that stuff,” Rick suggested.

Jack nodded. “That’d be great! And you already have experience at the soup kitchen you can write about.” He turned to Daryl and pointed at him with a fork. “You’re welcome to come too, of course.”

Daryl twisted his hands nervously under the table. “Actually...I was wondering...cause sometimes like...I think about how it would be cool to be like a paramedic or something...I wondered if I could go with you, Dr. Grimes,” Daryl said turning to Rick’s mom.

She burst into a smile! “Of course! I’d love that. Rick’s never really showed much of an interest in my profession.”

“Mom...the sight of blood literally makes me vomit,” Rick complained. “I literally can’t come to your work.

She laughed as Jack grabbed another helping of mashed potatoes. “You seem to do fine when you are up late watching those zombie movies.”

“That blood’s fake,” Rick clarified.

That night, Rick and Daryl snuck out to the living room after the Grimes’ went to bed and they watched Night of the Living Dead as they polished off an entire tube of Pringles. It was like having a real best friend, not the kind you had to audition for like Negan or Shane.

Chapter Text

“So what made you first take an interest in the medical field?” Dr. Grimes asked Daryl as they headed to Grady Memorial.

“Well, one time we was under that pedestrian bridge in the park on West Fourth. I mean like, I was just walking past. And one of the homeless guys started choking on something...I think it was a piece of leftover hot dog or something. Anyway, no one moved a muscle to help.” He turned to Liz and lowered his voice as if it was a secret. “Most of ‘em were drunk anyway.”

“But then,” Daryl continued, “I ran over and remembered the Heimlich Maneuver from school and I did it and that hot dog shot out like ten feet.”

“Good for you,” Liz said and Daryl could hear the pride in her comment. He blushed a bit at the praise, still not fully used to receiving it.

“Anyway, a passerby must have called an ambulance and they showed up and the guys were super cool and they found out I’d like saved the guy and they were really nice to me. I liked that. Felt good to like...save someone like that.”

“Well, you’ll have to be sure to stay out of the way and just watch from a distance, but since I’m an ER doctor, you’ll likely see some of the paramedics coming in with calls.”

“Awesome,” Daryl said as he gaped out the window at the huge hospital they were pulling into. “Thank you for like...letting me do this and stuff. Didn’t think I’d be able to write a very good paper if it was about my old man.”

Liz put a hand on Daryl’s head and tucked some of the wild strands of hair behind his ear. “I’m not gonna grill you about how things are for you at home. I know things aren’t good and I know you don’t like talking about it. But you just remember, you’re welcome to stay with us for as long as you want, sweetheart.” It was a gentle touch that Daryl hadn’t felt since his own mother was alive. He had a flash of memory -- long dark hair, fingernails painted bright red, a vague face that wouldn’t come into focus, and a voice telling him, “It’s okay, sweetheart.” But the warmth of the memory quickly gave way to a bathroom door being forced open and slammed against the wall, and his old man grabbing his hair and pulling him back out into the hallway where he took a few more lashings for spilling orange juice.

He shook off the memory as they walked together into the busy emergency room. Liz checked in on everyone that was in the ER with the doctor whose shift was ending and Daryl stood back and paid attention to all the different ways people got hurt in this world. Car accident. Fell off a ladder. Bee sting allergy. Grand Mal seizure. Heart attack.

Liz had a wonderful bedside manor and Daryl watched her with a smile. He’d never really been taken to a doctor despite all his childhood injuries, but if he had been, he’d have liked to have had Dr. Grimes.

He was sitting in the waiting room making notes when the sliding doors burst open and paramedics rushed in with an unconscious adult male. One of the paramedics was on top of the moving stretcher doing chest compressions and the medic who pushed him shouted to Liz. “Male, mid-thirties, heart attack…”

They disappeared through the ER doors before Daryl could hear any more. It was amazing to watch and he could feel the blood rushing through his veins at the excitement.

The paramedics walked back out with their stretcher, just walking calmly like they hadn’t just saved a man’s life.

One of them smiled at Daryl as he walked by.

“Is he alive?” Daryl asked.

“For the moment. I think he’s got a good shot for what it’s worth,” he said. “You a reporter or something?” the guy smiled, pointing to Daryl’s notepad and pen.

“Nah. Just, it’s like a project for school. To learn what you want to do.”

The paramedic looked around. “Doctor then?”

“Nah. I don’t know if I could quite pull that off. Plus it’s not as like...exciting and immediate as being a paramedic.”

“So that’s what you want to be?” the man asked.

“Hell, yeah,” Daryl answered. “That was awesome,” he said. pointing back to the doors they’d come through.

The paramedic held out a hand. “I’m Glenn. That’s my partner, Maggie,” he said pointing.

“I’ll go get the bus straightened out.” Maggie said with a smile. “Why don’t you give the kid an interview or something?”

Daryl sat in the waiting room absolutely enthralled with Glenn’s stories of how he became a paramedic and all the different situations he’s responded to. He could barely wait to write his paper!

************************************************

Rick sat in his dad’s home office second guessing whether he shouldn’t have followed Daryl’s lead and gone with his mom.

“So like...what do you do in here all day? Like when you aren’t at the actual fundraising events?”

“Well,” Jack said as he pushed back from his desk. “I do a lot of the planning. I design emails to promote the events and to ask for support. I design websites. I call donors. I...this is boring , isn’t it?” he finally said.

“I do feel like Daryl is probably coming up with a lot more to write about,” Rick laughed.

Jack stood up and shut off his computer. “I work on quite a few accounts, homeless programs, hospice, animal shelters, veteran’s causes. But today there’s an actual fundraising event at the Animal Shelter over on Elm.

“Cool,” Rick said as he grabbed his jacket and tossed his backpack over one shoulder. “You know what would really be a good way to help at an animal shelter?” Rick asked.

Jack stopped in his tracks at the door as if he’d already figured out the answer.

“Adopting one of them,” Rick said cheerfully, strolling along up ahead as Jack stared after him already anticipating how the day would end.

At the event, Rick walked around and talked with all the families that were looking to adopt a dog. One really hit him hard. It was a single mother with a son around seven who was shy and backwards. “He gets picked on a lot at school,” the mother whispered to Rick. “Thought maybe a dog would help cheer him up, make him more confident.”

Rick wanted to cry. Cry for this poor kid and for the seven-year-old Daryl used to be when he was getting those beatings. How could grown adults treat children so horribly? Rick spent the rest of the day taking little Sam around to the different dogs so he could get to know each of them. It wasn’t long before a mutt reached a paw out through the cage to try to touch Sam.

“He wants to play with you,” Rick said. “Should we take him outside?” Sam looked to his momma and she gave him a nod.

The three of them, plus the dog, Cricket, went out to the gated area and threw around a ball for a good half hour. Sam was all smiles and so was his mother. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so happy,” she said with tears rolling down her cheeks despite her smile.

It didn’t escape Rick’s notice that the kid had a black eye and bandage on his right arm. “You married?” Rick asked cautiously.

“Trying to separate,” she said softly.

Rick went back to the trunk of his dad’s car and pulled out one of his brochures for a Women & Children’s shelter. “Take this,” Rick said to the mother when he returned. “Just in case.”

The woman reached for a tissue and wiped at her eyes. “Thank you. But I think I can stay at my mom’s if I get the guts to leave.”

“Having the dog will help you both feel safer,” Rick said sincerely. He could see how damn happy that poor kid was rolling around with the dog in the soft green grass.

“Thank you, kid,” she said with a smile.

********************************************************

When Liz and Daryl walked in the door that night, the latter was abuzz with excitement, talking about everything he learned from his hour-long conversation with Glenn Rhee. When they walked into the living room they both froze at the sight of Jack and Rick sitting on the floor...with a little brindle pit bull puppy between them.

“Jack?” Liz asked. “I don’t recall agreeing to this.”

Daryl knelt down by Rick. “Oh my God! He’s so cute!!” The pup waddled over to Daryl and put his two front paws up on Daryl’s thighs. “What’s his name?!”

“Well, dear,” Jack started to explain to his wife, “It’s hard to try to convince others to donate and adopt if we don’t…”

“We donate,” Liz said, trying not to smile as the puppy rolled over onto his back and kicked his feet as Rick rubbed his belly.

“It will be good for Rick and Daryl to learn the responsibility of taking care of a pet. It’s an investment in their future,” Jack insisted.

“Mom, I swear. I’ll train him and walk him and…”

“Clean up the dog poop in the yard?” she asked with a raised brow.

“I’ll help too,” Daryl offered.

She relented and smiled. “Does he have a name?”

“We thought maybe Lincoln,” Jack said. “Rick picked it out because he’s found a new interest in his history class.”

“Good name!” Daryl said to Rick as they sat there taking turns tugging at a stuffed hamburger dog toy with Lincoln.

“Let’s take him for a walk!” Rick said as he clicked on a brand new leash. Liz leaned down and patted Lincoln’s head.

“You’re lucky you’re cute,” she said to the pup and then she looked over at Jack. “Same goes to you,” she quipped.

Rick and Daryl took Lincoln outside and they talked about their day as they circled the neighborhood half a dozen times. Once back in the yard they played fetch with the new pup until it was too dark to be able to see anymore.

As the weeks went by, they fell into a routine. School, home, take care of the dog, chores, homework, and staying up late watching stupid horror movies together and laughing. Every other day they went for a run together around the nearby ballfields as Daryl tried to make up for his lack of gym class. Rick, of course, went with him each time as the two had become inseparable, Rick working hard to increase his pace to keep up with his friend.

Daryl had a few appointments with Carol’s friend and he now had a prescription for his anxiety and hadn’t cut himself since the day of the locker room incident. Everything seemed to be going too well, and the longer things seemed okay, the more suspicious Daryl became that something terrible was going to happen.

It took him by surprise when he opened his locker one afternoon to find that it had been filled with manure. Shane, Negan, and Andrea howled as it spilled onto Daryl’s shoes. Rick came over with Euguene, and the three of them worked together to clean up the mess as the rest of the students left for the day.

There’d been a note left in there, too. “Doesn’t matter that you got new clothes. Dixon’s are still nothing but shit.”

Rick recognized Negan’s handwriting.

That night Daryl sat on the floor in the bathroom while the shower ran. The words had gotten to him. How long was he really expecting the Grimes’ kindness to last. Forever? That was ridiculous. Eventually they’d realize it. Dixon’s are shit. Nothing but trouble. Nothing worth saving. He fumbled with the razor blade in his hand, a Kleenex at the ready. He was filled with this void, this emptiness, this nothingness. He felt like nothing, like he was just a character in his own dream. Dixon’s were nothing but shit. For some reason the few weeks without being picked on had made this recent attack hurt more than usual. He was at least glad it was only his locker and not Rick’s. But that feeling inside him, he had to let it out. It was this haunting pain, this haziness, and this hurt. He pressed the razor down and followed the line of the scar above it. The cut stung and the oozing of blood was like watching the hurt in him dribble out.

The relief wasn’t the same as it used to be because a part of him felt guilty about the cut, like he was letting Rick down. Letting Mrs. Peltier and Ezekiel down. He used two bandaids to stop the bleeding, stood up, and took his medicine. It seemed to do some good, but the relief wasn’t as immediately as what the cut provided.

That night he and Rick sat in the living room watching some stupid show about aliens on the History Channel. The room was dark, save for the flashes of color from the TV screen. Rick hadn’t said much to him that evening but their friendship had developed to a point where they were comfortable with the quiet between them.

Daryl could feel Rick glancing over and his eyes dropped to his lap. He knew he’d been busted and he tugged at his sweatshorts nervously even though they covered all the damage on his thighs.

Rick put a hand on top of Daryl’s and pulled back the leg of his shorts to expose the Band-Aids there.

“I wish you’d have come and talked to me instead.”

“I’m sorry,” Daryl mumbled. And he meant it. He could hear the disappointment in Rick’s voice.

“I don’t like it when you hurt,” Rick said, his eyes still on the Band-Aid.

“I’ll try better next time,” Daryl promised. He hated letting Rick down like this. The sadness that filled those dark blue eyes was too hard to look at. Why it mattered so much what Rick thought was beyond him, but he always wanted Rick to know the best sides of him. Not the scar side, the homeless side, the side that got all the pity. He wanted Rick to see that he was smart and funny and brave. He looked back down at Rick’s hand still on his own and he felt goosebumps raise up on his arms.

He wasn’t often the recipient of kind touches and there was always something about Rick’s touch that did something to him. There was a confusing electricity in the air as they sat there paying more attention to one another than to the TV.

“I’ll try better, too,” Rick said as he finally pulled his hand away. “I should have known today would have been a trigger.”

That night Daryl had trouble sleeping. He liked that he’d managed to shake off some of his Dixon, but he couldn’t deny who he was...or where he came from. He thought about his old man. He hadn’t touched base with him in weeks. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d been away from one another that long, but it was the first time it was Daryl that did the walking away. As much as he despised the old man, a part of him harbored a guilt that nipped at his heels like a threatening dog. He decided that night that he would leave early for school and stop by the park, bring the old man some food, and at least let him know that he was okay.

Chapter Text

Rick was up early, unsure of exactly what made him startle awake. He stared at the ceiling waiting for sunlight, unable to fall back asleep even though he was exhausted. He hadn’t slept well the night before. There had been a moment between him and Daryl on the couch that evening that wouldn’t stop circling in Rick’s mind. Sitting beside one another and having an emotional heart to heart, their hands touching innocently.

Rick hadn’t realized how much he cared about the boy until he thought of him sitting in the bathroom in so much pain that the only release he could conceive of was to cut himself open. It made Rick want to wrap the other boy in his arms and hold him, but he was fairly certain an act like that would not be well-received. Rick had noticed over the time they’d been spending together that Daryl was hesitant to touches. But that being said, Rick was able to rest his hand atop Daryl’s for several minutes the night before and there was no push back.

When he went out to the kitchen, he was surprised to see his folks sitting there alone.

“Where’s Daryl?” Rick asked.

“Said he had a few things to do before school this morning. He’ll meet you there,” Rick’s dad said without a hint of worry in his voice.

“I made eggs and bacon for breakfast,” Liz said as she filled a plate for her son.

“Not hungry, ma. I’m gonna try to catch up with Daryl.” And he was out the door before he could hear the first words of protest. The bike Daryl had been using was gone, so Rick grabbed his own and peddled to the school. He was half-way there before he realized that probably wasn’t the other boy’s destination. If he was feeling low and worthless...he’d go to see his old man, thinking he’d deserve it.

Rick headed for the park, figuring he’d start at the old bridge since it had rained the night before. He passed several school busses as he was going in the wrong direction, but he wasn’t the least bit worried about being late. He needed to find his friend. Daryl needed help and he just wasn’t one to ask and goddamnit, Rick was going to somehow change that.

***********************************

“You got a bike now,” Old Will Dixon grumbled as Daryl stopped in front of him, “Why don’t you make yourself useful and sell it. Get your old man a bottle of Jack.” Daryl leaned the bike against the wall of the bridge and sat down next to his dad.

He handed him a turkey sandwich, some beef jerky, and a soda he’d bought with his own money.

“No booze?”

“Pa, I’m only fifteen. I can’t buy it.”

“Worthless piece of shit,” Will grumbled as he ripped open the beef jerky with his teeth. “Where the fuck you been?”

“Oh, good. You noticed I’ve been gone,” Daryl said, voice dripping with sarcasm. Before he could see it coming, Will swung a fist and connected with his right eye.

“Don’t be a fucking smart ass,” he growled. “Where you getting all this money for shit like food and that damn bike?” he asked suspiciously as Daryl held a hand over the explosion of pain in his eye. “You taking it up the ass for some cash now you fucking faggot?”

“No Pa. I stole it,” he lied.

“I see the way some of these guys look at you. They can tell you’re a goddamn queer just as easy as I can. And I done told you no son of mine will…”

“Pa. I ain’t having sex with no one. Jesus!”

Will took a bite of the beef jerky as he eyed up his son. “I’d kill ya ‘f I ever found out you was taking it in the ass. You hear me?”

“Yeah, Pa. I know,” Daryl answered. It was nothing he hadn’t heard dozens of times before.

“Don’t want you runnin’ off anymore either,” he said after he glugged down some of the soda.

“Yeah?” Daryl asked, thinking for a moment that his Pa may have actually missed him.

“Easier to get money when you got a kid with yah. They see a drunk old man alone, they ain’t coughin’ up enough for me even to get a goddamn single at the Beer Mart.”

Daryl sighed. He’d been staying with Rick so long he found himself wanting the love of a parent himself, but he should have known better. He’d just simply never have that with Will Dixon.

“I gotta go to school,” Daryl said as he stood.

Will barked out a laugh. “You ain’t gonna amount to shit, kid. Why waste your damn time? You should be here trying to beg.”

“I don’t want to fucking beg,” Daryl yelled. “I wanna get a job and make my own money and buy my own goddamn beef jerky. Can’t you understand the pride in that?”

Will stood, wobbly from his morning drunk, but still imposing and menacing to young Daryl. “You saying you’re better than me you little piece of shit?”

“I ain’t sayin’ shit,” Daryl finally relented and as he turned, Will kicked at his knee and the boy fell to the hard cement, cracking his nose, an instant pool of blood surrounding his face.

Despite feeling dizzy and like he was about ready to black out, Daryl heard someone holler. “HEY!” He heard the sound of a bicycle braking and the beeps of a phone being dialed and then his eyes dropped shut.

He must have only been out a matter of seconds because when he opened his eyes he saw his old man running away and bending down in front of him was Rick, soft blue eyes, caring face, tears threatening to spill, and a phone to his ear. “He’s bleeding all over the place,” he heard Rick reporting. “Under the bridge.”

Daryl sat up and, and grabbing an old red rag he always kept in his back pocket, tried to wipe the blood from his nose though it hurt like a bitch.

“Daryl, don’t. Mom’s on her way. If you wipe at it like that it’s gonna hurt.”

“But you can’t stand the sight of blood,” Daryl mumbled.

Finally, Rick sobbed, putting arms around Daryl and holding him tight. “It’s gonna be okay. You don’t ever need to come back here again. You ain’t his no more. He lost that privilege. My dad knows a lot of people. He knows people in the system; he can get custody and you can stay with us legally and FUCK that asshole.”

Daryl tried not to laugh at the boy scout’s sudden use of language. When the familiar Toyota Avalon pulled up, Rick helped Daryl get to his feet and they both scooted into the back seat as Liz jumped out to check Daryl’s injuries.

“Just a black eye,” Daryl said. “Broke nose maybe. I had worse.”

Rick could see his mom struggling to remain professional. “This was your father?”

“Yes,” Rick answered for him.

She sighed. “Let’s run a few tests on that bump on your head and…”

“I don’t got no insurance, ma’am. I’ll be fine. Maybe just some water?” Daryl said.

“I have connections, Daryl. Let’s get you looked at.” Rick hopped back out to load the bikes onto the bike rack and then Liz drove them quickly to the hospital.

********************************

Rick and Daryl never made it to school that day. Liz had Daryl checked out and all his injuries were superficial, though they were painful to look at. His black eye was swollen shut, lip split, and his nose was still bloodied and black and blue. He shivered in the back seat on the way back to the Grimes’ home, wondering what was going to happen to him now. The cat was out of the bag. Rick’s parents would know that he was well and truly homeless and that his old man was a child abuser. He hated the feeling of the unknown.

Rick had an arm around Daryl the whole drive home, trying to still the chills, and it felt nice to have someone who cared about him being so comforting.

When they walked into the house, Mr. Grimes came up from his office, seemingly not surprised at the scene before him, so Daryl guessed Liz must have called him.

“Hey there, son,” he said as he put a gentle hand on Daryl’s back. “So your dad is homeless? You’re homeless?”

Daryl nodded with his eyes on the floor in shame.

“I wish you’d have told us some of this.”

“I’m sorry” Daryl said dejectedly. He felt Rick hold onto his hand.

“I knew things were kinda bad, dad. I should have told you. I’m sorry, too. He just didn’t want his old man to get madder from the cops or child services or whatever.”

Liz ruffled Rick’s hair in a way that made him know neither of them was in trouble.

“I called Yvette from Child Services. Since Daryl’s been staying with us and thriving, we’ll be able to take him in as foster parents until his father gets his shit straightened out,” he said as Liz led the boy to the couch and sat down next to him.

She ran fingers through his hair. “What made you feel like you had to go see him?” Liz asked as she rubbed his back. Daryl knew he couldn’t answer with words without bursting into tears. He knew Jack and Rick were right there in the doorway watching, but he couldn’t help it. He leaned into Liz’s embrace and sobbed like a child. She rubbed his back like his mamma used to and told him it would be okay. In the back of his mind it registered that nobody yelled at him to shut up and stop crying. Liz hugged him like a real mother would. She said all the right things and that made Daryl cry even harder.

*****************************
For the rest of the day, Daryl laid on the couch in the living room with his feet on Rick’s lap. Liz and Jack had tried to convince Rick to go to school and that they’d take care of Daryl, but their son would have none of it. He wouldn’t leave Daryl’s side.

“It’s noon,” Rick said as he rubbed the top of one of Daryl’s feet. You hungry?”

“Nah,” Daryl answered without looking over at Rick.

“You haven’t had anything to eat all day.”

“Head hurts too much to chew.”

Rick tried to keep his voice steady even though it was starting to waver with stifled tears.

“Ohhh! How about ice cream?”

That did get Daryl’s attention. “I don’t even remember the last time I had ice cream,” Daryl said with a smile that Rick knew was forced just for his sake.

“Do you like mint chocolate chip?! We got some. And chocolate sauce.”

Daryl thought for a minute. “Don’t know. Never had it. Sounds good, though.” He sat up and wrapped his arms around his legs.

“I’m gonna get us each a giant bowl and I think it’s okay for you to take some more Tylenol now, so I’ll get that too. You need anything else?”

Daryl just looked at Rick, almost like he was in awe. “It’s nice to have someone makin’ a fuss,” he said quietly.

“That’s what friends do,” Rick explained.

When he got back, Daryl took another dose of meds and they both sat on the couch digging into their ice cream. Liz ended up going in to cover a shift, but Jack was in his office. He didn’t need to know that lunch was ice cream drowned in chocolate syrup.

“It’s good, yeah?” Rick asked.

“I think it’s my new favorite thing ever,” Daryl said with a smile. They watched a Twilight Zone marathon the rest of the afternoon, Rick constantly fussing, bringing in glasses of water, fluffing Daryl’s pillow, bringing him a blanket. He stayed in his spot at the end of the couch with Daryl’s feet on his lap and ended up massaging both feet wordlessly. Neither of them made reference to it. It was just something that happened.
******************************

Daryl was comfortable despite the fire he felt radiating from his nose and eye. Rick had practically tucked him in with a pillow from his bedroom and a fuzzy blanket and for some reason, he’d been rubbing Daryl’s feet. It felt good. Comforting. Like the caring kind of actions a real parent would do. He felt terrible sobbing like a baby all over Rick’s mom, but the feeling of kindness from the whole family was just so damned overwhelming.

He had no idea how he could ever go back. Not after knowing what it was like to sleep on a comfortable couch, to have pillows and blankets and food and people who care. Showers every night and clean clothes. How could he go back? He knew it would only be a matter of time before he’d be sent back now that the State was involved. He didn’t blame the Grimes’ for trying to do what was right. And he was thankful that he’d be able to stay for a while. But his old man would find a way to ruin everything. He always did.

Daryl had fallen fast asleep on the couch by 9 pm so, making sure he was covered and warm, Rick turned off the TV before heading quietly back down the hall. He had a weight on his shoulders that had only grown heavier since his friendship with Daryl had evolved. It was becoming crushing and he thought maybe it was finally just time to get it over with.

He knocked quietly at his parent’s door and opened it when he heard his Dad tell him to come in. He stood in the doorway for a few moments, contemplating fleeing. Maybe blame it on sleepwalking or something, but when his mom patted the bed and asked him what was wrong, he went in and sat down.

“I just had something I wanted to like...I don’t know...get over with.

“What’s the matter?” His dad asked, sitting up and closing his book which he rested gently on his lap.

Rick had never taken the time before to be thankful for how attentive his parents were. He’d been taking them for granted all his life and he hoped to God their love for him wouldn’t change.

He kept his gaze on the comforter and said it. “I’m gay.”

His mom instantly put a gentle hand to his cheek and dipped down to make eye contact. “Is that all?” She asked with a smile.

“Is that all?” Rick asked, eyes welling with tears.

“We don’t mean to trivialize it, buddy,” his dad said, reaching over to put a hand on his knee. “We’d just like to think you have enough faith in us to know that it’s not going to change anything. We love you more than life itself. We always have and we always will.”

“It’s just...it’s hard not being like everyone else,” Rick said, his voice still shaky and weak.

“Well, we’re here for you, baby. Whatever you need,” Liz said as she ran her fingers through Rick’s unruly curls.

He took a deep breath and exhaled. It was the first time he’d said it out loud. And it felt good -- like a relief. He talked with his parents a little more about how long he’d known and his hesitancy to come out at school and just like they always had, they listened and offered advice and love. Rick was born lucky. He really was.

***********************

By the end of the week, the couch in the spare room was gone and was replaced by a new full-sized bed with fresh new sheets and a thick green and blue comforter. The Grimes’ were taking their role of foster parents very seriously.

Saturday, instead of working at the soup kitchen, Liz and Rick took Daryl shopping for some new clothes. Daryl had never been shopping before. Most of his old clothes had been hand-me-downs or just shit he found.

Apparently shopping meant trying things on to make sure they fit and modeling it like a dumbass in front of your foster mom and best friend. It was weird hearing that he “looked nice”. It made him blush ten shades of red. His swollen eye was healing enough to see out of and the bruises around his nose were fading. He’d gone to school that week after his day of healing up at his new home. He kept his head down and tried to stay out of everyone’s way. He must have gotten lucky because even Shane and Negan left him alone.

Rick had caught up with him between every class for no other reason than to chat. The kid liked talking -- Daryl was quickly learning that -- but he didn’t mind because he had a strange interest in everything the other boy had to say.

That night they spread their notes all over Daryl’s bed as they both worked on finishing their essays. There was no reason they had to sit in the same room and do it together, but they’d sort of morphed into doing everything together. For someone who had felt alone for a very long time, Daryl was loving the feeling of being a part of someone else’s life.

“Does this sound stupid?” Rick asked as he picked up his notebook and began to read. “I can’t stand the sight of blood. I’ll never be a doctor. I have no interest in being a lawyer or a fireman or a police officer, but I can still help save people. My dad saves people everyday.”

Rick looked to Daryl for his reaction.

“I think it sounds great. You know your dad is actually kinda like a superhero,” Daryl said with a smile.

Daryl talked as he wrote about how Glenn had shown him on a dummy how to do CPR and how exciting it was seeing him coming into the ER saving someone’s life.

After a few moments of silent scribbling, Daryl spoke up, “You know, if I had to do this about my dad, it would be like one paragraph about a week he worked at the gas station on Fifth Street a couple years ago.”

They giggled at that. After a while, Lincoln bounded into the room and jumped up onto the bed, crinkling papers and demanding attention.

“I think this means it’s time for a break,” Rick said. “Let’s take him for a walk.”

Chapter Text

They took their normal route with Lincoln, leaving the neighborhood and heading towards the ball fields on the north side of town, talking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, the kinds of pies Daryl had never tried, and how much Rick hated cranberry sauce. Once at the field, they leaned against the fencing at home base as Rick threw Lincoln’s rubber Kong towards the outfield.

He looked over at Daryl who was just looking up, gazing at the sky.

“Nose is looking a lot better,” Rick said.

Daryl smiled and nodded. “It’ll be cleared up by next week. Usually don’t take long.”

Rick worried his lip as he watched Lincoln jump up to Daryl with the toy.

“Gimme that Kong, pup!” Daryl laughed as he tugged at it. Daryl purposefully fell to the ground to fight Lincoln for the toy, giggling the whole time as the pup dropped his toy and instead licked Daryl’s face until the boy could finally get up, his giant smile brightening up the darkness. He picked up the Kong and threw it before he leaned back against the fence with Rick.

“I don’t know how you did it, Daryl,” Rick finally said.

“Did what?”

“Survived. In all that darkness you been drowning in all your life.”

He shrugged his shoulders and looked up at the sky again. After a few minutes of companionable silence, Daryl said “See them stars?”

“Yeah.”

“What if it was overcast and stormy? Would you see them then?” Daryl asked as he looked to the other boy for his answer.

“No.”

“But you know they’re still up there. There’s always stars in the darkness. Sometimes you just can’t see ‘em easy.”

Rick thought about that as Lincoln came barreling back to them for another throw of the Kong.

They were standing so close to each other that their arms touched -- brushing against one another gently. When Rick tossed the Kong back out he looked back over to Daryl. “I think you’re amazing,” he said softly.

Daryl gave a huff of a laugh at that. There was nothing amazing about him. He was ordinary if not boring. He didn’t know all the stuff Rick knew about video games. He couldn’t ride his bike over ramps like Rick did. He wasn’t as funny as Rick. If anything, Rick was amazing. Daryl felt his stomach flutter at the cool night breeze and the feel of Rick’s warm bicep against his own. Rick’s touches always felt so nice, Daryl thought. And he didn’t know what to make of that.

“‘S true,” Rick insisted, nudging his shoulder against Daryl’s. Lincoln came back, tail wagging, butt wiggling, and eager for another toss and Rick obliged him then turned towards Daryl, looking at him wordlessly, the sound of the breeze the only thing breaking the silence. Daryl licked his lips nervously when he noticed Rick’s eyes drop to them. There was an electricity between them, an energy. A something’s-gonna-happen moment that terrified and excited Daryl in equal measure.

“Think I’m gonna kiss you,” Rick whispered, his eyes still studying Daryl’s lips.

“Ok,” Daryl answered for lack of any idea of what else he could possibly say. He’d never been kissed before and having Rick do it felt incredibly right. And then he did it. Rick leaned in and brushed his lips gently against Daryl’s, then pulled back to survey the other boy’s reaction. Rick was nervous. He had no idea if Daryl was really interested or if he was just doing whatever Rick wanted because he was so thankful for all the boy had done for him. He looked Daryl in the eyes and saw that beautiful innocence and openness...and something else, something determined, and before Rick could say anything, Daryl leaned in clumsily and kissed Rick again, his lips slotting into place as Rick’s mouth parted. Daryl moved in front of Rick and pressed him against the chain link fence, hands trembling as they ran up the other boy’s arms.

Rick heard Lincoln come back and drop the Kong at their feet, but he couldn’t pull away, not when he finally had Daryl in his arms. He ran his hands up into and through the other boy’s too-long hair and held his head so he could kiss more urgently and heatedly. He’d never felt more right, never felt more certain. He was falling for Daryl in a big way and he couldn’t believe his feelings were being reciprocated.

“HOMO ALERT!”

Daryl pulled away from Rick at the sudden yell from the road. It was clearly Shane’s voice and the car he was in made a sharp turn at full speed towards the field without noticing the fire hydrant as the vehicle slammed into it at 50 miles per hour. The crash was louder and more sudden than anything Rick had ever heard. Lincoln started barking and ran towards the accident, Daryl and Rick right behind him.

“Flames,” Daryl shouted as he pointed towards the engine. “Get ‘em out quick!”

Daryl was already pulling a body out of the driver’s side when Rick finally raced into action and opened the passenger door. He saw a mess of blond hair streaked with blood pressed against the dash. He put his hands under the girl’s arms and as her head fell back he recognized Andrea, unconscious, nose bleeding, and a deep gash across her forehead. The only sound he heard as he tugged her out was Lincoln’s steady bark and the sound of the flames. Once he had her on the ground, he noticed that Daryl had already pulled out two bodies. They were lined up in the grass. Andrea. Shane. Negan.

The car finally went up in an explosion of flames as Daryl dropped to his knees and started chest compressions on Negan.

“Got your cell?” Daryl asked over the roar of flames and the barking.

“No! Shit.”

“Go call 911!” Daryl shouted. “Run!”

Lincoln followed as Rick raced home, thankful for the times he’d gone running with Daryl trying to keep up with the other boy’s pace. He burst through the front door and snatched up the phone in the kitchen and dialed as his parents came running down the hall.

“What’s wrong!!” Jack asked.

“Car accident at the Alexandria ballfields,” Rick said into the phone. “Three. Unconscious.” He handed the phone to his dad and followed his mom who was already running out the door to the scene with her medical bag.

Lincoln made his way back to Daryl first, sitting beside him as if waiting for instruction. Shane was finally conscious and was screaming for Andrea, who wasn’t responding. Daryl was still giving Negan CPR.

“I got this,” Daryl said to Liz. “Check her.”

Rick watched, helpless, as his mother tried to breathe life back into Andrea.

Finally, the sound of sirens broke through the deafening sizzle of the car fire and the paramedics took control of the situation.

“You okay,” Rick asked Daryl, as they backed away from the scene.

“Yeah. Not sure he is, though,” he answered with a sadness that broke Rick’s heart.

***************
Rick and Daryl sat on the floor of the living room with Lincoln in between them, both boys praising and petting him as the dog started to snore and wiggle in his dreams.

“You were amazing out there,” Rick said.

Daryl shrugged even though his adrenalin was still running. “Glad I’d just had that lesson from that Glenn guy the other week.”

Jack leaned into the living room, keeping his voice low so as to not wake the sleeping pup. “Your mom’s gone in to help. She’ll call if she has any news, okay?”

“Okay, thanks,” Rick said.

The two boys sat in companionable silence for quite a while before Rick spoke again.

“Guess Negan must have just gotten his license. He was held back a year in first grade.”

“Do you think you should have called Lori and Rosita?” Daryl asked.

“Hadn’t even thought about it to be honest,” he said as he looked at his watch. “Too late now, anyway.” After a pause, Rick continued. “Scary.”

“The accident?”

“Yeah. You know what else was scary? When I found you beat up in the park.”

Daryl laughed half-heartedly “For someone who can’t stand the sight of blood, you’ve had a real shitty week.”

“Hated seeing you hurt like that,” Rick said as he put a hand on Daryl’s knee.

After a few moments, Daryl put his hand on top of Rick’s.

“I’m not sure where they were going, but when they saw us in the park...they made that sudden turn because they were coming to pick on us,” Rick said.

“I know.”

Rick met Daryl’s eyes. “Don’t care if they would have. I don’t regret kissing you.”

“I don’t either,” Daryl smiled shyly.

“So I guess you obviously know now that I’m gay,” Rick laughed.

“You know,” Daryl started. “I never thought I’d fall in love with anyone, never imagined it- boy or girl. But you...being in your arms felt like the most natural place for me to be.”

Rick tried not to grin like a fool. “Fall in love?” he asked.

Daryl realized what he said and tried to backtrack the intensity of the sentiment. “Well, I mean...I just like…”

“I’m in love with you, too,” Rick said, leaning over Lincoln to kiss Daryl again. “I’m so sorry for all the bad things I’ve done to you in the past,” Rick whispered against the other boy’s lips.

“You’re forgiven,” Daryl said as he nibbled at Rick’s plump bottom lip. They started moving like one being, standing up and backing up as Rick playfully pushed the other boy to the sofa and slid on top of him so that their bodies were touching from head to toe as they kissed one another hungrily. “Oh my God,” Daryl whispered between kisses.

The harsh sound of a ringing phone made them pull apart and Rick jumped up and went into the kitchen to answer it.

“Hey sweetheart,” Liz said. She sounded exhausted. “Were you sleeping?”

“Hell no. Can’t sleep after that. Neither of us can,” he said as Daryl leaned against the wall -- close enough that he could hear Liz’s voice, too.

“Well, baby. I told you I’d call with an update,” she said solemnly. “None of them were wearing seatbelts, and they’d turned into that fire hydrant at practically full speed. Negan is alive. Tell Daryl he did an amazing job.”

Daryl heard the news and smiled bashfully at the praise.

“He’s got a severe concussion, a few broken ribs, and some internal bleeding. Shane’s wounds were more superficial. Just some cuts and bruises. But, baby, I’m so sorry but Andrea didn’t make it.”

Rick’s eyes grew wide as he looked at Daryl.

“She punctured a lung and was bleeding profusely from all the cuts from the windshield; one major shard into her temple. She just...she just didn’t make it.”

“Oh,” Rick said, still in shock. Daryl reached out and held his hand.

“Well, thanks for letting us know,” Rick said.

“I know you must both be a mess over this. We’ll talk more when I get home, okay?”

“Yeah, mom. Thanks,”

When he hung up the phone he felt the sting of freshly falling tears. He’d been friends with Andrea since second grade, and despite the fact that he’d recently been ostracized from his old group of friends, these were still people he knew, people he knew well.

“I’m so sorry,” Daryl said. “I know you been friends with her a long time.”

“It’s a complicated sadness,” Rick said. “She’d been so awful to people, then awful to me. But she’d been part of my life for...well most of my life.”

“It’s getting super late,” Daryl said and he tugged at Rick’s hand to follow him. “You should try to get some sleep.”

Rick let Daryl lead him to his bedroom and as he crawled into his bed, Daryl sat on the edge of it. He rubbed circles around Rick’s back. “I’ll stay til you fall asleep,” Daryl said softly.

Rick let himself cry some more and relaxed into the comfort of Daryl’s touch and before he knew it, he was fast asleep.

Chapter Text

Word had gotten around at the school that Daryl was practically a superhero at the scene of the accident, and by the end of the week he’d spoken to more people than he had in his entire school life. Rick got a lot of questions too, but most of them were directed at Daryl. What did it feel like to save someone’s life? How did he learn how to do CPR? Were he and Negan friends now?

The last one was hard to answer since they hadn’t seen him yet. Shane had just come back to school that Friday and was very standoffish to everyone, not wanting to talk about it. He sat with Lori and Rosita at lunch like always, and scowled at Daryl and Rick whenever they were nearby.

“I don’t know. I think maybe we should go visit him. He’s still in the hospital and...I don’t know,” Rick said that Friday evening.

“He was your friend, Rick. If you want to do it, that’s totally fine.”

“I want you to come too, though,” Rick said with a pleading look in his eyes.

“Why?” Daryl asked with a grin.

“Cause i like it when you’re with me. You make everything seem easier.”

Daryl leaned over and kissed him. “Of course I’ll come if you want me to. I’d probably do anything you’d want me to,” he laughed.

Rick raised a brow. “Yeah? Because I have lots of ideas about things we can do.”

They pulled apart when they heard Liz walking towards the living room.

“Ma, can you drive us to the hospital? I think I should visit Negan,” Rick said.

“Sure baby, give me five minutes.” Rick had told his parents he didn’t hang out with the old gang much anymore because they bullied Daryl, but he never told them exactly how bad it was.

When they got to the hospital, Liz went to chat with her co-workers as Daryl and Rick walked towards Negan’s room. Rick wanted to hold Daryl’s hand so badly, but they hadn’t said anything to his parents yet about their relationship, so he just stood as close to the other boy as he could get away with.

“You ready?” Daryl asked as they got to the door.

“Yeah. You?”

Daryl nodded and they walked in. The TV was on and tuned to a channel that was playing M*A*S*H reruns. Propped up in the hospital bed, Negan was still on an IV, had two black eyes, a bandage wrapped around his head and a giant bruise just starting to fade on his neck.

He looked at the boys and then turned away. “What are you doing here?”

“Just thought I’d see how you were doing,” Rick said as he finally relented and grabbed Daryl’s hand for support.

When Negan looked back his eyes went to their clasped hands. “You faggots come here to rub it in my face that it was your fucking fault we crashed?” he asked, his voice slowly rising in anger.

“We didn’t do nothing to cause it. We just wanted to make sure you were doing okay,” Daryl replied.

“Shane said you been bragging at school about saving me. Well I will shut that shit down when I get back. Don’t want anyone thinking your dirty hands were on me.”

Rick stepped forward. “He saved your life, Negan.”

“No. You flaunting your gayness got Andrea fucking killed.”

Rick was surprised at Negan’s reaction to their visit although he shouldn’t have been. But the thought of him being even madder at Daryl worried him and he wasn’t about to let anything else happen to his...well...his boyfriend. He took a step closer to the bed, bending down a bit so that Negan would hear every word clearly. “If you lay a fucking hand on Daryl Dixon again, that will get you fucking killed. You understand me?”

“Fuck you, Grimes. Ain’t scared of you. You’ve always been a pussy. Hell, I shoulda known you were a queer.”

Rick turned and walked out of the room, tugging Daryl with him by the hand. When they’d gotten out of the hallway and turned into an open waiting room, Rick walked in, sat down, put his head in his hands, and started to sob. He hated this. Bullied and tormented constantly. How on earth did Daryl survive it? He felt Daryl by his side, running soothing fingers through his curls.

“Frustraining. I know,” Daryl said.

Rick looked up, his eyes red-rimmed and his cheeks wet from tears. “He does anything to you again and he will fucking pay,” Rick said through clenched teeth.

Daryl looked at him with a lopsided smile. “You don’t have to worry about that Rick. I can take it. Been taking it for as long as I can remember.”

“No more,” Rick said. “Not on my watch.” He stood and pulled Daryl close as their lips met for a gentle kiss.

“OH! Hi,” Liz said as she walked in the room and Daryl and Rick leapt apart.

“I’m sorry!” Daryl said immediately.

She smiled and stifled a laugh. “Sorry for what, Daryl? That my son has met a wonderful boy that cares about him deeply?”

“I was gonna tell ya,” Rick said. “I just wasn’t sure how.”

“I can move out if it’s too awkward,” Daryl offered.

“No!” Rick shouted as his mother also said “No!”

“You’re part of our family now and you’ll stay put at our house,” Liz said. “Did you have a nice visit?”

“It was fine,” Rick answered unconvincingly, but his mother didn’t push and the three of them headed out of the hospital, Rick gripping Daryl’s hand firmly as they went.

******************************************

Two weeks later it was a short week, with Thursday and Friday off for the Thanksgiving holiday. Negan returned that Monday and he denied to everyone that Daryl and Rick were at the scene, saying they made it up for attention. Neither boy bothered to to refute the lie. It was pointless. Negan had a bigger-than-life personality and they knew he wouldn’t ever admit how Daryl helped him.

Daryl wasn’t bothered by it. He didn’t really care what anyone thought anyway. Well, anyone but Rick. They’d finally started holding hands at school and kissing before parting for different classes, and a few slurs were thrown their way, but there wasn’t much of a fuss made over it, which made Daryl happy. He could take the bullying, but Rick just couldn’t. He was too sweet, too fragile. Thinking about Rick as he walked to his locker put an instant smile on his face. He’d never had anything to look forward to or to be happy about. It was a new feeling, a great one. It made him feel lighter, made him smile when he was walking down a crowded hallway, made him daydream. The only thing that occasionally gave him pause was wondering what his Pa would do if he found out Daryl was with Rick, but he tried his best to ignore that nagging worry.

When he opened his locker for his Chemistry book he saw a note folded up on top of it. He picked it up, opened it, and read.

Daryl, Skip fifth period and meet me behind the school. I want you so bad. Rick

Daryl had never skipped a class before, but the thought of Rick waiting out there and wanting him over-rode every instinct he had to go to Chemistry. Just this once he would skip. This thing between them was so new, so intense, and so undeniably powerful. He closed his locker and headed straight to the side door so he could walk around to the back. It was a beautiful day, the sun was out, the sky full of fluffy white clouds, and he was going to lean against the building and kiss on Rick for a whole hour.

When he turned to the back of the school, he didn’t see his boyfriend and he hesitated a moment. Then he thought of the little alcove that used to be his special place. Rick would definitely pick that spot. He walked quicker at the thought of Rick’s soft lips and gentle hands, but when he turned into the alcove his smile dropped and he froze.

Shane, Simon, and Gareth were standing there with Negan in front of them -- Negan, who was holding a piece of metal pipe and smacking it threateningly into the palm of his hand.

“Hey Fucker,” Negan said with a smile.

Daryl turned and tried to run, but Shane and Simon grabbed him and strong-armed him into the alcove. Shane ended up putting him in a chokehold and Daryl looked up at Negan as best as he could.

“If you’re gonna beat me up let’s get it over with, asshole.” At this point he just wanted to move things along and get back inside.

Negan leaned back and laughed. “You know, I knew you’d come out here thinking your boy-toy was waiting for you, but I didn’t think you’d come running so damn fast. Couldn’t wait to get more cock, could you faggot?”

“Fuck you,” Daryl said as he struggled harder to break free from Shane’s firm grip.

“No, Dixon. Fuck you,” Negan responded as he twisted the pipe in his hands, that sick smile of his plastered over his face. “Take down his pants, boys.”

“What?” Daryl shrieked. “No! Get the fuck off me!” He was starting to gasp for air from the chokehold and the start of a panic attack. “Get the fuck off of me!” He kicked at Gareth who had tugged his pants down. Shane pushed his face into the pavement as Daryl tried his best to kick, but he felt hands on both legs. He felt the air on his bare ass and he felt himself start crying and gasping. “No! No! Please!”

His eyes glazed over as he felt a wave of nausea and light-headedness sweep over him. Oh God, he thought, his life was gonna be over. There’d be no coming back from something like this. He already felt so violated, so humiliated.

“Don’t worry, Dixon. A faggot like you is gonna love this,” Negan laughed and Daryl felt the cold pipe at his entrance, then pressure and pain. He felt like he was being fucked with a sharp knife, felt like his whole body was being ripped in half, and as he screamed, Gareth put a hand over his mouth. He was all tears and snot and gasping and pain, and eventually his vision grew darker and darker around the edges until he completely blacked out to the sound of laughter.

******************************
Daryl opened an eye and saw the blue sky above him, one leg was twisted under the other, pants still down by his knees, and his ass was killing him. It was all he could think about -- pain, pain, pain. He wasn’t even sure if he could sit up to pull his pants up. He started to remember, visions flickering through his memory. Negan. A pipe. Laughter. Excruciating pain. Darkness. He had no idea how much time had passed and he had no idea what to do. He wasn’t sure what to do, where to go, how badly he was hurt. It felt like it might not be something he could just get up from on his own and shake off.

A bird flew over head and the sudden movement and closeness of it made Daryl’s heart jump into his throat. He sat up slowly, trying to swallow his screams as the tears inside him felt like they were splitting further with the movement. He pulled his pants up, felt a wave of dizziness swept over him, and laid back down. Finally, he thought about Rick. He couldn’t let Rick see him like this. He was destroyed now even worse than the scars that already littered his body. He tried to imagine telling Rick and he just couldn’t picture it. Couldn’t picture going back to school. Couldn’t picture sleeping in his new bed at the Grimes home. It was like his future was erased, like he had no future. He tried to sit back up again and saw that the pavement was soaked in blood, the pipe left lying just as bloody.

He managed to get to his feet despite the wave of nausea. He should just go back to his old man where he belonged. School would be over. He’d never be able to come back. He was traumatized. Didn’t even think he’d ever be able to let anyone touch him again. He leaned against the brick wall and started to cry. His mind was already filled with missing Rick. Eventually, when his tears finally dried up, he decided to try to walk to the Grimes’ house after all. He was going to be horribly embarrassed and humiliated and he was certain Rick would pull away from him. But he could still feel the blood running down his leg and he knew he’d need medical care. Dr. Grimes would be his only way to get it -- the only option he had since he was uninsured.

He heard the school bell ring as he took one slow step after another towards the woods. He wanted to try to get to the house before Rick saw him. He’d eventually find out what happened, no doubt, but if he could just keep him from having to see the blood maybe he could postpone the inevitable. His thoughts were jumpy -- one minute thinking about cutting, another thinking about beating Negan to death, and the next remembering kissing Rick for the first time in the ballpark.

He stopped once he reached the tree line and put a hand against one of the trunks to steady himself a moment and that’s when he heard the sound of a bicycle behind him.

“Daryl! Hey!”

Rick’s voice was so sweet and innocent and Daryl gritted his teeth as he tried to turn around.

Rick slammed to a stop at the sight of him close up, stepped off his bike, and let it fall as he walked slowly towards the injured boy.

“Jesus Christ. What happened? What did they fucking do to you? Where is all this blood coming from?”

It was too many questions at once and Daryl didn’t really want to answer any of them. He looked into Rick’s eyes and knew instantly that the least of his worries was this boy leaving him. And that feeling of love in those eyes just broke Daryl apart and he bent over and started sobbing uncontrollably.

“Daryl,” Rick said, already starting to join him in crying. “Sit down, take a deep breath.”

Daryl shook his head. “Can’t sit. Hurts.”

He looked up tentatively to see if Rick had figured out what happened yet.

The color was draining from his boyfriend’s face as the realization dawned on him.

“They fucking raped you?” Rick said, barely even a whisper.

Daryl just started sobbing again. “I’m sorry,” he said. And he was. He was nothing but a burden, nothing but trouble -- just like his old man always said.

Rick squatted down so that he could look up to meet Daryl’s eyes. “You listen to me. This isn’t your fault. You have nothing to be sorry for. This is serious. This is not bullying anymore. This is a crime.”

Suddenly Rick’s phone was at his ear as he reached out with his other hand to try to wipe away some of the tear streaks from Daryl’s face.

“The bullying got out of hand. We need to get Daryl to a hospital right away.” Pause. “In the woods up by the school. I think I should call an ambulance.”

Daryl started getting light-headed again and he knelt down, put a hand on the ground, and slowly laid down on the dirt on his side to keep any pressure off his backside.

He heard Rick’s voice, but was fading in and out and couldn’t make out all the words. Suddenly exhausted, he closed his eyes, blocking out the world around him.

When he opened them again he was in the back of an ambulance with Glenn holding up an IV that he was already hooked to.

“Hey, buddy. Stay with me. You lost a lot of blood.”

“Rick?”

“Is that the kid that was with you? He’s on his way to meet you at the hospital.”

Glenn sat down and looked Daryl in the eye. “Listen, Daryl. Do you remember who did this to you? Because the cops are gonna be asking.”

“No cops,” Daryl said, realizing that he must have been given some painkillers. His head felt puffy and the pain wasn’t as bad.

“I’m sorry, buddy. But this was rape and the cops are probably already there waiting for you. They’re going to pay for this,” Glenn said a hint of anger in his voice.

The visions swept past his memories again. Negan pounding the pipe against the flat of his hand. The feeling of Shane’s arm around his throat during the chokehold. That empty, sinking feeling in his stomach when he realized what was going to happen.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl said to the paramedic. He wasn’t sure why but he felt like he owed everyone an apology. He closed his eyes once again and tried to refocus his thoughts on Rick before he drifted into a fitful sleep.

Chapter Text

Rick angrily paced the waiting room as his dad watched him.

“He’s with your mom,” Jack said. “He’s in the best hands he can be in.”

Rick continued pacing, gritting his teeth and trying to convince himself not to steal a car, drive to Negan’s house, and slit his throat.

“Did he say who it was?” Jack asked.

“I know who it was. It was Negan and his henchmen.”

Jack shook his head. “I always knew those kids were a bad influence, but Jesus. This is way worse than anything I could have ever thought of.”

“Dad, I’m worried about what this is gonna do to him...like emotionally and psychologically. He’s already had such a rough life and now this and…”

“We’ll take care of him. He’s got family now and we’ll help him work through this. But you’re right son, it’s gonna be a rough road for him.”

“Rick Grimes?”

He spun around to the doors and exhaled disappointedly when he saw it was the police, not the doctors he was waiting for.

“Yeah.”

The first man walked into the room. “My name’s Tyreese and this is Bob,” he said nodding his head towards his partner.

“It was Negan,” Rick said before the question even came.

“Did you see the assault or is this what he told you?” Tyreese asked as he made a note on his opened pad.

“No, I didn’t see it. If I did he wouldn’t be alive to arrest.”

“Rick,” Jack said as a warning.

“Are you Daryl’s father?” Bob asked.

“Yes,” Jack said without even bothering to correct them with foster father. He stood and shook hands with both officers. “Rick is a little worked up. He’s just assuming it was Negan because the kid has been terrorizing Daryl for years.”

“It. was. Negan.” Rick said between clenched teeth.

“We’re going to hang out here with you until the doctor clears him to talk, that okay?” Tyreese asked.

Jack moved to the end of the couch to make room for the officers and Rick continued his pacing.

“What’s gonna happen?” he asked looking the shorter cop in the eyes.

“Well, once we find out who it is…”

“Let’s say for example it’s Negan,” Rick said smartly.

“Okay. Hypothetically, if Daryl identifies the assailant as Negan, we would go to his house and arrest him.”

“Immediately?”

“Yup. Tonight,” Tyreese said.

“And then his folks will pay bail and he’ll get out tomorrow and will be even more pissed off that Daryl ID’d him.”

“Rick? Mr. Grimes?” An orderly had arrived at the door. “Liz asked me to get you. Daryl is okay for visitors. Room 204.”

The two policemen stood and Rick whirled around. “I need a few minutes with him first. He’s probably terrified,” Rick said.

“Sorry kid, but we need to talk to him right away, while his memory is still fresh.”

Rick huffed in annoyance and headed towards the room. When he walked in, his mom was there, running her fingers through Daryl’s stringy hair. He rushed to Daryl’s side and held his hand.

“How are you feeling?” Rick asked.

“Embarrassed,” Daryl answered. “And afraid,” he added, his eyes pleading for Rick’s comfort.

“I’m here. And I’ll be here every single day and I’ll help you, whatever you need.” Rick paused a minute then whispered “I love you.” He wanted so badly to do more, wanted to kiss him and cradle him and tell him how beautiful he was. They’d been dating such a short time that he hadn’t had the chance to tell Daryl that yet. God, what if they’d killed him? He’d have never known how beautiful he was. Rick was certain no one in his old life ever told him that.

Daryl smiled as his eyes filled with tears again and Rick vowed to himself that he would take care of him for the rest of his natural-born life. The feelings he had for the other boy were bursting out of his chest.

“Son, we’re going to help you get through this,” Jack said as he put a hand on the boy’s foot. Rick noticed Daryl’s slight jump at the unexpected touch. It would be a long road to recovery, but he wouldn’t be doing it alone. He took a minute to be thankful that his parents were so compassionate.

Daryl couldn’t make eye contact with Jack, looking down as he said “This is so humiliating.”

“I don’t mean to break up the family conversation,” Bob said. “But we have to ask some questions while your memory is still fresh.”

Daryl sighed and looked down dejectedly. “I know.”

“Do you want everyone to leave the room while you talk about this?” Tyreese asked.

Daryl looked up at Liz and over at Jack.

“We’re going to wait outside,” Jack said as he reached out for his wife’s hand.

Daryl met Rick’s eyes next.

 

“You want me to leave?” the other boy asked.

“No. I don’t want to let go of your hand,” Daryl replied with a defeated laugh.

Rick squeezed his hand and lifted it to his lips to kiss it. “You don’t have to. I’m right here.”

Both boys turned to face the officers and Tyreese pulled out his notepad and got ready to write.

“Do you remember who did this to you?”

Daryl nodded.

“We’re gonna need names.”

Daryl started to bite at a thumbnail. “Don’t wanna piss them off. They’ll do it again.”

“They won’t. They’ll be arrested right after we walk out of this room.”

Daryl looked up to boyfriend, meeting his eyes and seeking strength them. Rick nodded encouragingly and squeezed his hand.

“It was a group of guys,” Daryl whispered.

“How many?” Tyreese asked.

“Four.”

“Can you give us names?”

Daryl nodded. “Negan.”

“I told you,” Rick said smugly.

“Full name?”

“Jeffery Dean Negan,” Rick answered. “1016 Sanctuary Drive.”

“Who else?” Bob asked.

“Shane Walsh. Gareth and Simon.” The anger in Rick’s belly was boiling.

“Who was the one who penetrated you?”

“It wasn’t...It was…” Daryl tried to find the right words.

“Did they use something to penetrate you?” Tyreese asked softly, sympathy clear in his voice.

Daryl nodded.

“Which one did it and what did he use?”

“Negan,” Daryl choked out. It was a…” He pictured Negan again, standing there menacingly with the pipe. “It was an old metal pipe.”

“Jesus,” Rick whispered as he squeezed Daryl’s hand.

“Shane had me in a chokehold and the other two held my feet.”

Rick felt like he was gonna be sick. God how helpless and violated Daryl must have felt.

“And the pipe? Do you know where that might be?” Bob asked.

“It was lying next to me when I came to. It’s probably still in that alcove behind the school.”

“Okay. Good job, Daryl. We’re going to go pick them up right now.”

Daryl just laid back into the bed, exhausted, and looked away from everyone.

“Please make sure he doesn’t get out.” Rick pleaded. “You can tell the judge he’d be a repeat offender; he’s hurt Daryl before -- dozens of times.”

“We’ll do everything we can,” Tyreese assured him and the two officers left the room.

Finally alone, Rick sat down on the bed.

“Look at me,” he pleaded.

Daryl turned his head and met Rick’s eyes as the other boy leaned down, slowly and cautiously, and planted a soft kiss on Daryl’s lips.

“I’m so sorry I let this happen to you.” Rick said, tears springing to his eyes.

“Ain’t your fault, Rick. You didn’t do nothin’”

“Exactly. I should have kicked his ass ten times over by now.”

Daryl tried to laugh at that but cringed like it hurt too much.

“I could take him,” Rick insisted.

“I know you could, Rick.” Daryl said with a weak smile. The sound of Rick’s name on the other boy’s tongue gave him butterflies.

“You’re not alone. I need you to understand that. I’m here with you and I won’t leave your side for a minute and we’ll get you set up with a therapist to help you work through this and…”

“I don’t think I can go back to school,” Daryl said with sorrow. “Like ever. I’m gonna have to drop out.”

Rick thought about that for a few minutes. “We can change schools,” he suggested. “I know it would devastate you to drop out.”

“Is that a possibility?”

“Yes. Certainly these circumstances would be enough of a reason to transfer. We’ll talk to dad about it.”

After a few quiet moments, Daryl took a deep breath. “I’m ruined.”

“No, you’re not. You’re still you and you’re still amazing and gorgeous and…”

“No,” Daryl interrupted. “I’m ruined...for you. What if I can’t ever--like--relax enough to like do things? You know, like bedroom things.”

“Daryl, we won’t ever have to do anything you don’t want to. Ever.”

“Eventually you’ll get frustrated if I can’t.”

Rick rested a hand against Daryl’s cheek and leaned in to kiss him gently. “Daryl, I am so crazy in love with you. I will never get frustrated. It’s not about wanting...that. It’s about wanting you

Chapter Text

Walking was still terribly uncomfortable, but the alternative was Jack literally carrying him into the house, so he was determined to do it himself. He’d already had enough humiliation for the day.

All four of them walked slowly, keeping Daryl’s pace as they made their way to the door. Thankfully, Rick led Daryl straight to the boy’s room. It was already well past nine and Daryl was exhausted.

As he laid down on his side, Jack came in with a small white box. “Just came today. I thought you should have one,” he said as he handed Daryl a new iPhone. “Even more important now. Want you to know we are just a phone call away.”

“You didn’t have to do this,” Daryl said. “‘S expensive.”

“For all intents and purposes we are your parents. It’s our responsibility to take care of you. And we plan on doing that for as long as we ‘ll be doing it for Rick.”

“Thank you,” Daryl said as he looked down at the package in wonder. He couldn’t believe he had his own phone, but he was actually warmed at the thought that the Grimes’ cared for him enough to buy it for him. He’d be able to text Rick whenever they weren’t together.

Liz came in with a glass of water and another dose of the painkillers they’d prescribed at the hospital.

She paused at the bed and ran her fingers through Daryl’s hair. “You wake us up if you need anything” she said.

He was still amazed at simple niceties like that. He would never hear something like that out of his old man’s mouth. Never had. Never would.

“I’m gonna stay with him awhile,” Rick said as his parents were leaving.

“You want me to bring your mattress in here?” Jack suggested. “You can sleep on the floor.”

Rick looked down at the other boy and Daryl tried to scream to him in just a look, Please, please, please, stay with me.

As if Rick could read his mind, he turned back to his parents. “Yeah, actually. I think that’s a good idea.”

As they all left the room, Daryl took his new phone out of the box, turned it on, and realized it would be too painful to move to plug it in. God, he was already gonna be relying on Rick for everything. How would he keep from being a burden?

Once Rick and Jack had the mattress situated on the floor, Jack said his goodnights and Rick settled in, sitting on Daryl’s bed and leaning against the headboard as Lincoln jumped up on the bed and planted himself by Daryl’s side.

“I can put him in the hall and close the door,” Rick offered.

“No, he’s fine,” Daryl said as he ran his hand against the pup’s soft fur.

Rick looked at the phone in the boy’s other hand and he jumped back up. “Here let me get it charging for you.” Daryl didn’t even have to ask for help. Rick just knew.

Once he settled back into his spot on the bed he started running fingers through Daryl’s hair. “I talked to Dad about the school thing. He said he’s absolutely sure he can make it happen. He’s gonna call about it first thing in the morning.”

“That would be amazing. When I thought my only option was dropping out...it shattered me. After I worked so hard for the grades...trying to be better than my old man…” He let the sentence die instead of finishing it. He still felt the pull to just...end it all, but he tried to fight it by thinking about how much it would hurt Rick. Though in the long run, it would probably be better for Rick if Daryl just disappeared. He could do so much better. Maybe Daryl was just convenient.

“Hey, how you feeling?” Rick asked breaking Daryl away from his circles of thought.

“Dirty,” he finally answered. “They let me take a shower at the hospital before I changed into the extra clothes your mom brought. I scrubbed and scrubbed and it’s like I just can’t get it off.”

“That makes sense. But just so you know, you aren’t dirty. You’re gorgeous and brave and strong and...”

Daryl laughed. “You’re just picking adjectives out of the air. I ain’t none of those things.”

Rick cocked his head in question. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?”

Rick let the fingers he had in Daryl’s hair slide down along his cheek to his chin. It was such a gentle touch and the look on Rick’s face was so genuine.

“How beautiful you are.”

Daryl felt the heat of a blush creeping up to his cheeks. He wasn’t used to getting compliments. In fact, he wasn’t sure he’d ever gotten one.

Before he could figure out a response, he gave in to a powerful yawn as his eyes grew heavier and heavier by the moment.

“Close your eyes,” Rick said. “Get some sleep.”

Daryl did as Rick instructed and he fell asleep before he could process another thought.

********************************

Rick slipped out of the room after Daryl fell asleep and went into the kitchen to look for something to eat. He’d missed dinner and his stomach was growling. When he turned into the room he saw his mom and dad sitting at the kitchen table talking.

“He sleeping?” Liz asked.

“Yeah,” Rick said as he opened the fridge and pulled out a piece of leftover fried chicken. “I hope he doesn’t have any nightmares.”

Rick sat down at the table as Jack started with the questions.

“You said at the hospital that Negan had hurt Daryl numerous times before. Why didn’t you tell me about this?

“I dunno, Dad. Never came up I guess.”

“What else has he done?”

Rick looked between his mom and dad. “Just terrorized him.”

“Give us some examples so we can understand what he’s gone through,” Liz pushed.

Rick took a deep breath. “Pulled his pants down once, another time took all his clothes when he was in the locker room and then pushed him into the hall, got him to eat Ex Lax…”

“Jesus,” Jack said as he looked down and shook his head. “This poor kid.”

Rick’s guilt was weighing heavy on him. He’d contributed to so much of that abuse before he came to his senses. And as much as he didn’t want to confess, he felt that his parents were owed the truth. “I used to pick on him. I didn’t take part in all that stuff, but before when it was mostly benign...I did. Rick confessed.

“Oh, Rick,” Liz said with disappointment.

“I apologized and I’ve obviously been forgiven. I was an idiot back then.” He had been an idiot. He couldn’t even remember what he must have been thinking when he let so much happen. Hell, he participated in some of it.

“Rick?” Liz said, turning in her seat so she was completely facing him. “Do you know anything about all those scars I saw when I was examining him?”

“Scars?” Jack asked, clearly the first time he was hearing about it.

Rick looked at the piece of chicken he was picking at. “Yeah.”

“Well what happened?” Jack asked.

“Some of them appear to be self-inflicted,” Liz said. “Am I right?”

Rick nodded.

“He’s a cutter,” Liz said to her husband. “The insides of his thighs.”

Rick looked over at his dad and it looked like the man was ready to cry, something Rick had NEVER seen.

“The ones on his back?” Liz asked.

“Look, Daryl really doesn’t want people knowing all this stuff.”

“We’re his parents now, Rick. We need to understand him,” Liz said.

He put a piece of chicken in his mouth just to procrastinate before answering. Finally, he muttered, “His dad.”

“He isn’t ever going to have to see him again. Does he understand that?” Liz asked.

“I’ve told him that,” Rick said. He stood up and threw away his scraps, washed his greasy hands, and turned back to face his parents.

“Thank you.”

“Thanks for what?” Jack asked.

“For being good, caring people and for helping Daryl like you are and for everything you’ve ever given me. I’ve been taking it all for granted this whole time. I know that now.”

Jack stood up and hugged his son and Liz quickly joined him.

“I better get back now in case he wakes up,” Rick said. He already felt like he’d left his boyfriend’s side for way too long.

Chapter Text

Daryl jumped awake from a jarring nightmare that he couldn’t remember. Lincoln was still lying tight against his belly. Reaching out a hand, he ran it over the snoring dog’s side. He kept seeing flashes of memory all jumbled up. Shane laughing. Negan with the pipe in his hand. A blue sky with fluffy white clouds.

He rolled over and looked over the edge of his bed to see Rick sleeping peacefully. He still felt dirty and like he’d lost all control. He couldn’t get his thoughts to slow down or to move to something nice instead of something awful. He hated that Negan and his friends were still terrorizing him in his memory even though the actual assault was over. Daryl wasn’t one to often feel anger. He usually just reacted to things with more depression than rage, more sorrow than fury. But he was angry. He wanted his life back from Negan and he had no goddamn idea how to get it back.

He sat up slowly and climbed out of bed as Lincoln rolled into his spot. Walking to the bathroom to pee, Daryl decided that he needed a shower, too. And he hated himself for it, but he needed to cut. Needed to let the hurt drain out of him any way he could. He shut the bathroom door and turned on the light, instantly going for the drawer where he knew the razors were kept. He pulled open the drawer and dropped his jaw when he found it empty. Goddamnit.

Leaning against the wall, he slid down to the floor, hugged his knees, and started sobbing. He was trapped and he didn’t know how to get what he needed. He knew Rick or Jack or whoever hid the blades was doing it because they cared, yet Daryl couldn’t help but seethe in anger. He stood up quickly, flinching at the searing pain he felt from moving too fast. He couldn’t even stand up without a stark reminder of how he’d been violated.

Moving to the counter, he started opening and closing every drawer and cabinet looking for something, anything, that could help him stifle the pain. He opened the last drawer and saw a hairdryer and an electric razor. He took them out and threw them against the wall, not even realizing he was screaming himself hoarse until he heard the banging on the bathroom door.

“Daryl?” Rick shouted as the door knob jiggled. “Open up.”

Daryl started gasping for breath as he tried to wipe the tears from his eyes. “I’m fine,” he tried to say with relative calm.

“Please,” Rick said softly. “When you’re ready, I’ll be sitting out here waiting for you.”

Daryl leaned against the door feeling helpless. And dirty. Always dirty. “I need to take a shower, okay?” Daryl said, defeated.

“Okay.”

Daryl turned on the shower as hot as it would go and waited until steam was wafting out from behind the curtain before he climbed in. He soaped up and rinsed off three different times, washed his hair, and let the water hit him until his skin turned pink underneath the stream of it. It didn’t help as much as he’d hoped. He knew the only thing that would help and he tried to stave off his anger over the razors. Once he got dressed, he unlocked the door and twisted the knob.

Rick stood immediately, facing Daryl and trying to seem unfazed at the fit he’d just heard through the door.

“Hey,” Rick said calmly.

“Hey.”

“Is it okay if I hug you?”

Daryl nodded and leaned into the other boy’s arms, his own arms just dangling by his sides, but accepting the comfort of Rick’s strong hug. “I’m sorry you couldn’t find what you were looking for in there. We just…” Rick let Daryl go and looked him in the eyes. “We just couldn’t let you hurt yourself. You’ve been hurt enough.”

Daryl felt his hands clench into frustrated fists.

“You can punch me if you need to let off some steam,” Rick offered and Daryl almost laughed.

“Ain’t gonna hit ya, Rick. Ever. I just can’t...stop thinking about it. It’s pissing me off that I still can’t escape even though I’m far away from them.”

“Wanna watch some History Channel? Maybe try to zone out into something a bit? See if that helps?”

Daryl nodded. He certainly didn’t want to go back to bed to more inevitable nightmares. They walked out to the living room and found an episode of “History’s Mysteries”. As they watched, Rick kept asking Daryl questions about the show as it examined the story of who killed Kennedy.

It did help a little. Daryl felt temporarily safe in the dark room -- just the TV for light and Rick right by his side. He occasionally felt a surge of anxiety with the urge to flinch and look behind him, but each time there was nothing there, only Rick by his side and a dark cocoon of safety in the Grimes’ home.

That afternoon, Jack went to the courthouse and came back with the good news that bail was denied. He’d been successful in convincing the court that the accused wouldn’t hesitate to seek retaliation before they’d be brought to trial. It certainly didn’t fix anything, but it made Daryl breathe a little easier for the time being. And he’d take every easy breath he could get.
*****************************************

Rick hated leaving the house. He’d been by Daryl’s side night and day for nearly a week, and the feeling of being away was miserable. But he needed to go back to the school to clean out their lockers and pick up some paperwork for the transfer. It had to be done, so Rick rode his bike through the woods and back up to the school mid-morning. Hopefully, everyone would be in class.

Eugene had stopped over earlier in the week with a tin of cookies his mom had made. He’d said he wasn’t sure what the ‘appropriate nicety was for surviving an assault of that nature’ but explained that everyone loved a good chocolate chip no matter what. In his visit he’d told them that word had gotten around the school about the assault and that there had been assemblies and counselors and lectures. Lori had started sitting with some of the football players at lunch and Rosita had started sitting with Eugene and Eric. Most of his visit was about pining for Rosita, but it was still nice for Daryl have something else to talk about that wasn’t about what happened.

As Rick pulled his bike into the rack at the front of the school, he heard the bell ring and cursed under his breath. He didn’t really want to get caught up in conversations. He just wanted to go in, get what he wanted, and leave. He waited until the initial rush was over and then slipped in the door closest to his locker when the hallway wasn’t quite as crowded. He went to Daryl’s locker first and filled up his empty backpack with everything he’d left behind. As he stood up he found himself face to face with Rosita.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hi.”

She leaned against the locker and started digging in her backpack. “You guys coming back soon?”

“No. We’re transferring. It’s not...It’s not healthy for Daryl to have to come back to this place.”

She nodded and pulled out the book she was digging for, stuffing it in Rick’s open backpack. He looked inside to read the title. The Rape Recovery Handbook Rick looked back at her.

“It’s my copy. And it helped a lot.” She handed him a folded up piece of paper. “Can you give this to Daryl? It’s my phone number in case he ever needs to talk.”

“Jesus, Rosita,” Rick said as he took the note. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know.”

She shrugged. “I don’t really talk about it much. But I know what he must be going through and if there’s any way I can help, I want to. I still feel so damn guilty about all the shit we put him through.”

“You and me both,” Rick said as he moved down to his locker and started emptying that one out.

“How’s he holding up?”

Rick sighed as he closed his emptied locker door. “He’s angry a lot. Get’s frustrated with himself. He’s jumpy. He wishes he could just “shake it off”, but it just doesn’t work that way.”

“No,” Rosita said in agreement. “It doesn’t.”

After Rick picked up the paperwork from the Guidance Counselor and the Principal’s office, he jumped back on his bike and headed home, never to come back to Savior High again.

Chapter Text

Sitting on the picnic table in the backyard, Rick and Daryl took turns throwing the Kong for Lincoln, who hardly ever left Daryl’s side anymore. Even when Daryl was in the shower, Lincoln laid against the bathroom door to wait for him. He slept in Daryl’s bed every night and kept himself between Daryl and anyone else that wasn’t family. He’d actually given Eugene the evil eye and a few warning growls during his recent visit. Rick was certain their sweet pup was just trying to make Daryl feel safer, so he tried not to be jealous that Lincoln had clearly picked his favorite.

“How have the therapy sessions with Ezekiel been?” Rick asked. He’d gone with him each time and waited in the outer office, but afterwards Rick could tell the other boy was too exhausted to rehash anything.

Daryl shrugged then threw the Kong. “I dunno. Okay I guess. He wants me to go to a group therapy for rape survivors, but I don’t want to. I’d be the only guy there and it would just be awkward.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Rick said, then he suddenly remembered his conversation with Rosita. “Oh, I meant to give you this when I got home,” he said as he pulled a folded up paper from his pants pocket. “It’s Rosita’s phone number. She gave me a book for you, too..about surviving a rape. She...she said she’s been through it if you ever want to talk.

Daryl’s eyes welled up with tears as he unfolded the note. “She...she...oh no. Poor Rosita!” Daryl said. Rick leaned over and looked at the note as Daryl held it open. If you ever need to talk to someone who understands, I’m here.

“Might be a good idea to reach out if you don’t want to do the group thing,” Rick suggested as Lincoln dropped the Kong on his lap and wiggled his butt, waiting for the next throw.

“Our schedules from Hilltop High came while you were at the school this morning,” Daryl said, trying to change the subject as he often did. “We have almost all the same classes!”

Rick was thrilled to see the rare smile on Daryl’s face. He was starting to crack jokes again...starting to have cravings for mint chocolate chip ice cream instead of going for days without wanting to eat anything.

“We don’t have gym together because I still don’t have to go. I’ll have study hall that period but everything else is together!”

“Great! Then you can tutor me in everything,” Rick said as he knocked his shoulder against his boyfriend’s.

“I hope the kids are nicer there,” Daryl said as he sat down on the grass and started play-wrestling with the dog.

“I bet they will be,” Rick said. “It will be a whole fresh start for both of us.”

Before Daryl could respond they heard the doorbell ring inside the house. Daryl’s eyes grew wide and worried. “Who is it?” he asked, panicked.

“Don’t worry,” Rick said. “Dad’s inside, he’ll answer it.” He reached down for Daryl’s hand and pulled the boy to his feet. “Let’s go inside and eavesdrop.”

They got inside just as Jack was opening the door. “Hey there, Eugene,” Jack said.

“I was just wondering if Rick and Daryl would enjoy some socialization. I could converse about a variety of topics. I brought a list.”

Daryl and Rick giggled as they listened to their odd friend. “We’re here,” Daryl called out. Rick was pretty sure Daryl liked Eugene’s visits just as a change of pace and a change of topic, something to take his mind off other things. For some reason, the neighbor always seemed to put a smile on Daryl’s face.

All three boys sat down at the kitchen table to dig into the M&M cookies that Euguene had brought with him.

“I went with the M&Ms this time because I know the homosexual community likes rainbow colors and I wanted to assure you that I am supportive of your lifestyle. It’s actually peanut M&Ms because I thought including ‘nuts’ would also be apropos.”

“Thanks, Eugene,” Daryl said, with a grin to Rick.

“Peanut M&M’s are my favorite,” Rick added.

“So what’s happening at school?” Daryl asked.

“Well,” Eugene pulled out some papers from his backpack. “You both got A’s on your papers for your lit classes.” He handed them both marked-up essays. “We had another assembly about bullying and they now serve fish as an option to pizza on Fridays.”

“Who would pick fish over pizza?” Daryl asked as he took another cookie.

“Well, Fish is brain food,” Eugene answered then he looked down at another paper. “I brought some topics of conversation to take Daryl’s mind off...you know, the things that well and truly suck. Topic number one -- Mrs. Peltier. Rumor has it that she’s been dating that Tobin guy that teaches Woodshop. Thoughts?”

Rick and Daryl looked at one another with a smile. They weren’t even sure that Euguene realized how funny he could be.

“I think she could do better,” Daryl said as he cocked his head and really gave it some thought.

“She got divorced last year,” Rick added as he picked up a cookie. “She’s probably just trying to dip her toe into the dating pool.”

They continued chatting for a good chunk of the evening, covering topics like whether Pluto was or wasn’t a planet, a discussion on the Pepsi and Coke wars of the 90’s where Euguene was very impassioned about his loyalty to Coke, and what kind of facial hair they all planned to grow once they could start growing it.

Rick loved to see Daryl laugh during these visits. it really did seem like it gave the other boy some relief from his own brain if only for just a few hours.

**********************************
That evening Daryl sat up in his bed petting Lincoln as the pup twitched in his dreams. Watching Rick sleeping peacefully on the floor of his room made him feel protected and safe and it dawned on him that he’d actually had a pretty good day. Time spent with Rick and Lincoln, a visit from Eugene, and his new class schedule arriving.

As nervous as he was to leave the house, he thought maybe getting started at a new school might help things get back to normal for him. He’d have his good moments, a few hours here and there where he didn’t think about what had happened, but then he’d lie in bed after a day that wasn’t that bad and his mind would try to destroy everything.

He played Scrabble on his phone as he dealt with his insomnia. He hadn’t told Rick about his trouble sleeping yet, but he probably should. The other boy usually knew how to fix just about anything, but Daryl didn’t want to give him even more to worry over with him.

Finally, he clicked to the internet and searched for insomnia treatments, skimming over article after article and trying to keep the visions of Negan with the pipe out of his mind. It was really rushing in on him tonight, almost crushing him under its weight -- a combination of too much of a good day and nerves about starting school again the next week. How would he be able to walk through the new school like he had no fear? He tapped over to his contacts and searched for Rosita’s number, staring at it for a good ten minutes before he started a text.

Hi Rosita. Thanks for the book. He’d read through a bit of it, but it was just words. It wasn’t reality. It was helpful, though, to read about how others had the same feelings that he’d been having. Hopelessness, worthlessness, depression, suicidal thoughts.

He gnawed on a thumbnail as he waited for a response and after a few minutes his phone buzzed.

Daryl? Hi! How are you holding up?

Ok. We’ll be going back to school at Hilltop High right after Christmas. Daryl typed.

Have you left the house yet since it happened?

Not really. Daryl admitted. He’d gone to the grocery store once with Rick and Liz, but he was teetering on the edge of a panic attack the entire time and they had to come home before they’d finished shopping.

You should try to get out this weekend. Like a practice run.

Daryl thought about that. It was actually a really good idea. He wondered what else Rosita might be able to help with. How long does it take to feel like a normal person again? Daryl asked.

Well, Daryl. It won’t ever just disappear. You just learn to survive it, to move on. And it won’t happen overnight.

Do you maybe want to meet up tomorrow for like a movie and lunch with Rick and I? You know, for my practice run?

Noon at the MoviePlex Plaza? she asked.

Great.

Try to get some sleep. Remember, you are in a safe place. Take a deep breath and relax. And Daryl, I’m so sorry that I was involved in so much of your torment. I’m completely ashamed.

It’s okay. Thanks for being nice now.

Daryl put the phone back on the nightstand and did what Rosita suggested as Lincoln resituated himself with his head on Daryl’s leg. He was safe. He was in a good home, in a room with Rick and with Lincoln. With Jack and Liz right across the hall. There was a house alarm and nightlights and all the doors were locked. He was safe. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe calmly and steadily until he finally fell asleep.

Chapter Text

“I’m thinking about growing a mullet,” Eugene said as he brushed his hair in the mirror, Rick and Daryl both sitting on his bed waiting for him to finish. He turned around and faced the other boys. “It says business in the front, party in the back. That will display my propensity for serious scientific thought while at the same time it radiates my predilection for bitchin’ fun.”

Daryl and Rick shared an amused glance. “I think you could rock one,” Daryl told him.

“I don’t understand why you were ready to leave until Daryl mentioned that Rosita would be meeting us there,” Rick teased.

“Well, out of an abundance of respect for the fairer sex, I believe it’s my duty to be as presentable as possible. Does my hair look alright?”

“It’s perfect,” both boys said at the same time, in hopes that the hair brushing could finally be over.

Daryl stood as Eugene finally put down his brush. “So how long have you had the hots for Rosita?”

“My hots for Rosita are irrelevant. And I’d appreciate your discretion. I don’t want her to be aware of my interest until I’ve gotten the appropriate amount of guts to ask her out.”

“Our lips are sealed,” Rick promised. He was glad that Daryl had contacted Rosita and that he wanted to get out of the house. It had even been his idea to invite Eugene, as well. The more the merrier he’d said. Jack had dropped the three boys off at the MoviePlex where they saw Rosita waiting for them out front.

“Forget to mention something?” Rosita asked Daryl as she eyed up Eugene with a sigh.

“He’s been a good friend,” Rick said. “No ulterior motives here,” he whispered to her.

“Hi Rosita. Pleased to see you outside of our mutual educational facility and our shared lunche table,” Eugene said, standing up straight and extending a hand in greeting.

Rosita looked at Daryl with an eye roll, but then reached out and shook Eugene’s hand, suppressing the start of a genuine smile. “Hey Eugene. How’s it shakin’?”

As they talked in line, Rick was thrilled to see a real smile on Daryl’s face. He did still have some tenseness in his muscles, and had the tendency to stand so that his back was to a wall so no one would be able to come up behind him, but Rick wasn’t sure if Daryl even realized he was doing it or if it was just subconscious. Rick stayed as close to his side as he could without causing a scene.

They got sodas and popcorn and watched Zombieland, Rick on one side of Daryl and Rosita on the other. Rick rested his hand on Daryl’s knee for the entire film, just wanting to feel the other boy close, and it hadn’t taken any time at all for Daryl put his hand on top and intertwine their fingers. Rick mostly just watched Daryl, his first movie ever, enthralled by the big screen and surround sound and the excitement of the other movie-goers. He could never get enough of watching Daryl be enthralled with the simple things in life he’d never been able to experience it before.

Afterwards, they spent some time in the arcade -- Eugene and Rick playing video games while Daryl and Rosita sat in the corner talking. They had lunch at the nearby Applebees, Daryl pressed close to Rick’s side as they ate. He’d gotten a little quieter and more reserved since his conversation with Rosita, but he was still engaged with the fun of the afternoon.

That night Liz was at work and Jack was at a fundraiser as Rick and Daryl sat on the couch in the living room kissing intimately, hands gently caressing faces, fingers sifting through hair, well-kissed lips plucking against well-kissed lips. The TV volume was muted, the dark scenes from an episode of Supernatural the only thing lighting the room.

“I hope you had a good day,” Daryl whispered between soft kisses.

“I always have a good day when I’m with you,” Rick answered as he pulled back just enough to answer and gaze intensely into his boyfriend’s eyes. “I hope you did.”

Daryl leaned back in and kissed Rick’s lips, running a trail of kisses from Rick’s mouth to his ear and he whispered. “I did and I feel strong and I’m ready for going back to school next week.”

Rick’s heart fluttered with love at the sound of confidence on Daryl’s tongue. He knew the boy would never truly be free from the assault and he would have lots of ups and downs as the weeks and months and the rest of their lives passed, but he was glad to be able to be responsible for as many of the ups as he could be. He moved back to kissing Daryl’s lips, letting his tongue dip into Daryl’s mouth, tasting, exploring.

After long, long minutes of slow, easy kissing, Daryl pulled back and rested his head on the couch, eyes swimming in Rick’s as he spoke. “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me, Rick.”

“I should be saying that to you. You literally made me a better person. I was such a dick for so damn long and look what I could have had so much sooner if I’d have just opened my eyes and looked instead of having my head up my ass.”

Daryl huffed a laugh at that. “Ain’t never had anyone in the world that I been this close to. I feel like I can tell you anything.”

“You can, beautiful.”

Daryl snorted and blushed. “Beautiful,” he laughed. “You come up with some crazy shit.”

Rick put a gentle hand on Daryl’s cheek and spent a moment just looking at him. “I love that you have no idea,” he said. “Makes you even more irresistible than you already are.”

Daryl just shook his head in disbelief and looked down.

“Do you have something?” Rick asked. And when Daryl looked at him with confusion he continued, “Something you want to talk about? I’m here. I’m listening. I’m always listening.”

Daryl rearranged himself to sit cross-legged on the couch and he faced Rick as the other boy mimicked the same position.

“I’m afraid of the trial even though it’s months away,” Daryl admitted. “I hate that the...the...thing that happened keeps popping up in my head at random freaking moments. I hate that I get angry now. I don’t like the feeling of it and I hate that I get scared. I hate how much I have to fight the urge to cut when having you should be enough to alleviate this stupid pain that keeps flaring up like a damn fire. I hate the panic attacks. I want so bad to just forget it all, just focus on you, on us.”

Rick brushed a hand through Daryl’s hair to get the long strands out of his eyes. “It’s okay to hate all those things. I hate them, too. I don’t think forgetting is ever going to be in the cards. But I’m here for you when you feel angry. When you feel like cutting. When you have panic attacks and when you just want me to be here. I’m in love with you.”

Daryl crawled over Rick until he was lying on top of the other boy and he kissed him desperately. “I love you, too,” he said between frantic kisses.

The weight of Daryl’s firm body above his own drove Rick wild, butterflies in his belly, goosebumps on his skin, fire in his veins, and a growing hardness in his pants. “Can I put my hands on your back?” Rick asked out of an abundance of caution between kisses.

“Yes,” Daryl breathed, “Please.”

Rick held Daryl tight, hands flat against the small of his back, lips bruising with their passionate kisses, his hips starting to buck up to Daryl’s as he felt a matching hardness in the other boy’s pants.

Daryl pressed his forehead to Rick’s chest as he rutted into his boyfriend. “You feel so fucking good,” Daryl practically cried as he dry humped against Rick with an ever-increasing pace.

Rick wrapped one arm securely around Daryl’s back and held on to the back of his head with the other, his own head arched back, eyes rolling back in his head at the feel of an impending explosion. He held Daryl tighter, rocked his body faster, and as he heard Daryl murmur “oh fuck, Rick,” he felt the euphoric burst of orgasm shudder through his entire body. As he came down from the high, he heard Daryl’s own whimpers of orgasm before the other boy also stilled, sliding off Rick but staying close enough that his head could rest on Rick’s chest.

“Holy shit,” Rick finally said after both of them started breathing normally again.

Daryl laughed, but Rick could hear hidden tears in the sound and he looked down at Daryl’s beautiful face. He had tears stains on his cheeks. “Are you okay?” Rick asked, worried.

“I’ve never been more okay in my entire life. But my pants are kinda sticky.”

Rick laughed and leaned up onto his elbows. “I think we need a shower.”

“You can go first,” Daryl offered as he climbed off the couch.

“Actually, I really don’t want to be alone right now,” Rick said as he sat up. “Can we shower together?” he said in a way that he hoped was more flirty than pushy.

Daryl smiled as he wiped the drying tears from his cheeks. “Are you patronizing me?”

“That depends,” Rick said as Daryl pulled him up to his feet, “on what patronizing means.”

Daryl got a good belly laugh at that. “You need an English tutor, too?”

“Probably wouldn’t hurt,” Rick admitted.

“Alright,” Daryl said, “If you really don’t want to shower alone, I guess I can come along.”

Rick got serious for a moment and he took Daryl’s hand. “Only if you are comfortable with it, Daryl. I don’t want it to sound like I’m pushing anything.”

“Rick, I promise I’ll tell you if anything is uncomfortable, okay? You don’t need to treat me like china.”

Rick nodded, his eyes glued to Daryl’s in complete understanding “Okay...beautiful.”

“Okay, I’m uncomfortable with that,” Daryl said with a smile.

“Then stop being so beautiful. That one’s on you,” Rick said as he tugged Daryl towards the shower.

Chapter Text

Daryl stood in the bathroom and watched the other boy undress silently. He felt a blush rising to his cheeks as he appreciated the sight of Rick’s bare skin, his smooth chest, the curve of his ass, his adorable bowed legs, and the place he was trying his best not to stare at. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the other boy was growing hard again.

Reaching in to turn on the shower, Rick turned to Daryl. “Shy?”

Daryl looked down at his still clothed body, remembering every scar and cut and bruise. Rick’s body was beautiful and flawless, but Daryl’s...his would be a disaster — maps of memories and pleas for pity.

“You can change your mind if you want to,” Rick said, sending out the offer like a life jacket.

“I...I want to shower with you, but...I don’t want you to see...I have so much...wrong,” Daryl stumbled over his words.

“I love every inch of you, Daryl, but I understand.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “I’ll keep my eyes closed the whole time; you’ll just have to lead me into the shower so I don’t fall.”

Daryl’s heart swelled at the way Rick could understand him and anticipate his needs. “Okay.”

He slowly peeled off his sticky pants and let them drop to the floor, pulled his shirt over his head, and stepped towards the shower as he took Rick’s hand. “This way. Lift your leg over the edge,” Daryl said as he guided the boy’s knee over the edge of the tub with a gentle hand.

“Soap?” Rick asked with his hand out, eyes squeezed shut and a smile on his lips.

“You can’t see,” Daryl said. “Maybe I should just wash you?” The thought of running his hands over Rick’s naked, wet body brought his own length back to full staff.

“Yeah,” Rick said, barely a whisper. “You better.”

Daryl used a finger under Rick’s chin to tilt his face up so the shower spray would wet his mess of curls. Once they were sufficiently soaked, he instructed the other boy to turn around and he put a dab of shampoo in his hands and massaged them into his boyfriend’s scalp.

“That feels so nice,” Rick said.

“I love your curls,” Daryl said, surprised he’d never actually said it before. Those locks drove him crazy.

“I was actually thinking of getting it cut.”

Daryl froze. “Don’t.”

“Okay,” Rick said with a smile, eyes still obediently closed as Daryl turned him back into the shower spray and rinsed the suds out of his hair.

He then took the bar of soap and sudsed up his hands, foregoing the face cloth. He wanted to touch, to feel. He ran his hands along Rick’s shoulders, his arms, his chest. Slow. Gentle. Watching the emotions run across Rick’s face as he did it. He loved that Rick was keeping his eyes closed. It gave him a sense of control, of being in charge of his situation and his surroundings.

Moving closer to Rick with added soap, he put arms around him and rubbed circles into his back as he pressed a shy kiss to the other boy’s lips. Rick smiled at that. “This is the best shower I’ve ever had.”

Daryl laughed, thinking about how often the other boy was able to get him to do that. He slowly moved his hands lower and lower until he felt the top of Rick’s ass. He bit his lip as he tried not to think of his own and what it had been through.

As if he could read the other boy’s mind, Rick reached blindly for the bar of soap in an effort to take over, but Daryl put a hand on his outstretched arm. “No.” He ran his hand over the firm skin of Rick’s backside, dipping into the crevice so as not to miss anything. He knelt in the shower and soaped up Rick’s legs, then stood again with nothing left to wash but the other boy’s hardened and strained cock.

Daryl soaped his hands up again and watched Rick’s face with fascination as he wrapped his hand around Rick’s length and pulled his hand up to the tip and back down to the base. The other boy’s lips parted as he gasped for breath, putting one hand up against the shower wall and the other onto Daryl’s shoulder to steady himself.

Again, Daryl had a sense of control the way he was making Rick fall apart in his hands. He liked that, liked making Rick happy, making him feel good, being in control of it like he had been on the couch, the one on top making the moves. He kept moving his hand up and down, twisting it, dropping it down to Rick’s balls, between his legs and then back up again, up and down and twisting again.

“Daryl. God.” Rick said as he panted, his hand squeezing tighter onto Daryl’s shoulder.

“Go ahead, Rick. Come for me again,” Daryl whispered and like a switch was flipped, Rick groaned loud and came hard.

Daryl soaped up his hands again and carefully cleaned off Rick’s spent cock. Rick reached blindly for Daryl’s face then pulled him into the spray and kissed him. “Your turn,” he whispered as he turned them in the shower so that Daryl was under the spray. “Might need some help since I can’t see.”

Daryl looked down at his body and considered for a moment letting Rick open his eyes, but the sight of his marks made a lump form in his throat. He just wasn’t going to be comfortable with it no matter how much Rick insisted he didn’t care about all his blemishes.

Without a response, Daryl helped Rick soap up his hands and then used his own to guide Rick’s as they ran over Daryl’s chest. He had the control, the safety. The feel of Rick’s hands on his damaged skin was confusing. It was a feeling of self-conscious worry, but at the same time it was a feeling of a raw, private intimacy that sent chills up his spine.

He let Rick’s hands roam his body on their own to soap up his arms and shoulders.

“Your broad shoulders are sexy as hell,” Rick said with a smile.

“Your weird-ass compliments are sweet,” Daryl responded, feeling a bit lighter and less alone at the sound of Rick’s voice.

“You know what else is sexy?” Rick asked as he gently transitioned to wrapping his arms around Daryl and running his soapy hands over the other boy’s back.

“Is it weird?” Daryl asked with a smile and a genuine happiness in the moment of conversation, hot water, and gentle hands.

“Yeah,” Rick laughed as he nodded. “It’s the way your one ear peaks out of your hair. It’s so freaking adorable.”

“That is fucking weird, Grimes. You got some weird-ass turn-ons,” Daryl laughed.

He suddenly realized that Rick’s hands had dropped down to the start of his own ass and he jumped back unconsciously, making Rick have to reach out to put a hand on the wall to balance himself from the shift in position. His mind had suddenly filled with the feeling of so many other hands trying to spread him open, the sound of laughing and the image of Negan in front of him, pounding the pipe against the flat of his hand.

“I’m sorry!” Rick said, still keeping his eyes squeezed shut. “Shit, Daryl. I’m so fucking sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Daryl said, his voice trembling just a bit as he tried to pull himself together. “I’m okay. Just...maybe I’ll finish up on my own.”

“Okay,” Rick said, his hands down at his side. “Do you want me to step out?”

Daryl looked Rick up and down. “Not really,” he whispered.

“Okay. I’m right here. Eyes closed. Just here for you, okay?”

“Thanks,” Daryl said as he backed under the spray and quickly washed the rest of his body, eyes staying on Rick to make sure his eyes stayed shut. When all he had left was his own dick, he noticed that it had started to harden again at the sight of Rick obediently standing there naked and blind. He stroked himself with a soapy hand and then turned so that Rick was behind him and closed his own eyes. Rick was behind him. No one else. Just Rick. And it was okay. Nothing was going to happen but what he wanted to happen. He was safe and he was still turned on despite the little hiccup.

He took Rick’s hand and wordlessly soaped it up, pulled the boy up close against his back, biting his lip the whole time and forcing himself to relax into it, to relax into this boy he trusted with his life. He wrapped Rick’s hand around his cock and then covered the hand with his own, setting his own pace of up and down. He was in control. Rick was behind him because he let Rick behind him. Rick’s hand was on him because he wanted the other boy’s hand on him.

“Daryl,” Rick whispered behind him, kissing him gently on the back of his neck. “I wanna feel you fall apart in my hands.”

The sound of Rick’s voice had become such a comfort and a turn on for Daryl that he dropped his head back almost completely relaxed, and rested it on Rick’s shoulder. He reached for Rick’s other hand with his free one and pulled it around himself, lacing their fingers together as they continued to stroke Daryl’s now-leaking length. He felt so safe and relaxed with Rick, safer than ever in his life. He could let go and be vulnerable with this boy, he could love him and be loved back, he could give and he could also receive. The thought of what they had together and the friction of Rick’s hand against his cock combined into an overpowering feeling of pure ecstasy as he felt himself burst in Rick’s hand, his heart fluttering with love while at the same moment making his whole body feel as if it was floating.

After he rinsed off the mess, he turned the water off and faced Rick again, the other boy’s eyes still obediently closed. Daryl opened the curtain, wrapped himself in one of the towels, and handed Rick his.

“You can open your eyes if you want.”

Rick did, his eyes staying on Daryl’s instead of wandering up and down the other boy’s body. The towel covered most of the damaged areas, but Daryl was still happy to see that Rick tried so hard to keep him comfortable. The other boy stepped forward and pressed a kiss to Daryl’s wet lips. “Thank you for trusting me like that, beautiful.”

Daryl laughed as he towelled off, keeping all his trouble spots covered despite Rick trying like hell not to look too closely. “Is this “beautiful” thing going to be like...a thing you never stop doing?”

“Probably,” Rick answered as he tucked the towel around his waist and opened the bathroom door.

“Fine, weirdo,” Daryl teased.

“I’ll take weirdo because I know you mean it affectionately,” Rick smiled like he’d won a battle Daryl didn’t even know they were having.

That night when they went to Daryl’s room for the night, both boys laid on Daryl’s bed talking a bit about how well the day had gone as well as the upcoming holidays. Once they’d both obviously grown weary, Rick tried to get up to retreat to his own mattress on the floor. Daryl reached out and grabbed his arm. “Stay?” he asked and Rick did, lying on his side and facing Daryl.

“Of course.”

Daryl wanted to stay in that cocoon Rick had created for him that night for as long as he could before the peace he had found faded away. He turned so that his back was to Rick and pulled the other boy’s arm around his waist, settling into his place as the small spoon. Lincoln jumped up on the bed and curled up in his usual spot in front of Daryl.

He was surrounded by comfort, he was warm and happy, and he closed his eyes, hoping he’d be able to hold onto it just a little bit longer.

Chapter Text

Rick jumped up from the table when he heard the doorbell ring. “That’s mine! I got an alert on my phone that my Amazon packages were coming today.”

He opened the door and quickly whisked his gifts for Daryl and his parents into his bedroom, stuffing them into his closet as Daryl walked into the room.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I can’t tell you,” Rick smiled. “It’s for Christmas!”

Daryl looked at him -- confused -- his head tilting and his eyes narrowing in concentration. “You mean like for...presents?”

“Yeah!” Rick said before it dawned on him that Daryl had probably never had a proper Christmas before. “You ever...like...have a Christmas?” he asked, his voice now somber as Daryl sat down cross-legged on the floor with him.

“I remember one time when my mom was still alive watching Charlie Brown’s Christmas for a few minutes before my old man turned the channel to some hunting show.”

“Is that all you ever had? Never any presents? No tree? No Christmas cookies?”

Daryl huffed a laugh and looked down, shaking his head. “Yeah, that wasn’t really a thing the old man was into. My older brother Merle gave me a leather jacket once. It was a hand-me-down and it weren’t wrapped or nothing, but I think it was in December.”

“Where’s he now? You never talk about him.”

“Prison,” Daryl answered without elaboration and Rick thought it best not to pry too much.

“Well, Christmas is right around the corner and you are gonna have the best one ever! We’re going to start decorating tonight and mom and dad will start making cookies and we’ll put on Christmas music and…”

“How can I use my allowance to order presents for you guys on Amazon?” Daryl interrupted.

“You don’t need to get us anything.”

“But that’s not how it works,” Daryl complained. “I want to do Christmas right. I want to give presents, too.”

Rick sighed and smiled. “I give my money to mom and she gets me an Amazon gift card so I can order. She’ll do the same for you if you’re insisting.”

Daryl smiled and started nibbling on a thumbnail, already clearly deep in thought about what to buy. “Can I use your computer for a while?”

“Sure,” Rick answered and then when he didn’t move Daryl added, “In private?”

After being alone in Rick’s room for over an hour, Daryl came back out and the boys started bringing all the decorations up from the basement as the house started to smell like a chocolate factory from all the cookies Liz was baking in the kitchen.

Rick loved watching Daryl marvel over the decorations and the smell of the cookies, as well as the excitement and anticipation of what was to come.

“Alright boys, time to go pick out a tree,” Jack announced as he pulled on his coat. “You wanna come with me or do you just want to hang out here?”

Rick looked at Daryl to gauge his interest and saw that the other boy was already standing up. “We can help!” Daryl offered, clearly interested in taking part in every aspect of this holiday that was so unfamiliar to him.

It was one of Rick’s favorite things -- to see the wonder in Daryl’s eyes at new things he’d never been able to experience before. Like his first taste of Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream. The first time Rick said they were friends, The first time they kissed. Giving things like that to Daryl had practically become an obsession.

******************************
Arriving at the tree farm, Jack and the boys walked up and down the various paths eyeing up tree after tree. Daryl was in awe of the whole experience. Everyone there was happy, he got to have free hot chocolate and cookies. And he was able to walk through the rows of pine trees in the light flurry of snow with...well, with family.

“What do you think, Daryl? See one you like?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know how to pick one,” he admitted, looking up at Jack, a defeated expression on his face..

“It’s easy” Rick said as he snatched up the other boy’s hand. “You just find one that doesn’t have many bare spots and isn’t much taller than dad so it fits in the living room, and there’s different kinds of needles so you can pick the one you think is the prettiest.”

“I think you’re the prettiest,” Daryl whispered so Jack wouldn’t overhear.

Rick beamed at that. “Your flirting has really improved,” he laughed.

Nothing felt better to Daryl than putting a smile on Rick’s face. As much as he’d been through the past weeks and as much as he was still working through it, he was so thankful to have someone he could get lost in thoughts about.

As they walked a little further, Daryl saw a squirrel scurry out from under a tree and almost run up Rick’s pant leg, causing the boy to shriek which had Daryl and Jack both bent over laughing.

“How about that tree?” Daryl asked pointing to it.

“It doesn’t come with the squirrel,” Rick teased, still looking around the ground to make sure the furry animal hadn’t come back for him.

“But it’s gonna make me smile every time I see it thinking about how you practically jumped into my arms to avoid a tiny squirrel.”

Jack was still snickering, too. “I’m with Daryl. This one’s got a story now. It’s gotta come home.”

Jack and Daryl squatted by the tree and sawed it down together as Rick kept an eye out for any more ferocious squirrels. As he watched the tree farm workers wrap up the tree and help Jack put it up on the roof, he had a vague memory of driving with his dad and Merle and looking out the window at a passing station wagon with a tree on top. He’d asked his pa if they could get one that year and he got a swat across the mouth for asking a stupid question. Now he was finally going to have one, decorations and pretty lights and all. And he was just as excited about it as he would have been at six years old.

Back at the house, all three of them went straight into the kitchen and swiped cookies from the cooling racks as Liz tried to chase them away. Coming right out of the oven, they were even better than the ones Eugene had brought over. Though Daryl would never be so picky as to turn down any kind of cookie.

Once Rick and Jack got the tree in the stand, the boys added the sparkling colored lights, all the balls and ornaments, and the sprinkles of tinsel, Jack adding the bright star at the end. It was one of the most beautiful things Daryl had ever seen and he stood in a stupor for several minutes just watching the lights twinkle.

“It’ll look even cooler with presents under it,” Rick whispered.

The presents Daryl had ordered arrived a few days before Christmas. Daryl had a few ups and downs with nightmares and memories through the few weeks they weren’t going to Savior High anymore, but someone was always there to help him through it. He still got the urge to cut, but the unfamiliar feelings of letting loved ones down kept him from taking any action, even though he’d found where the razors were now kept. He listened to Christmas music in his room as he wrapped his gifts in privacy, hoping that he did a good job of picking out things everyone would like. He’d even gotten a new squeaky toy for Lincoln. That was the only one he was pretty confident about the recipient liking.

The night before Christmas the whole family sat in front of the TV to watch It’s a Wonderful Life and Christmas with the Kranks. Daryl couldn’t help but eye the bottom of the tree where they’d all put their gifts. He was more excited to hand his out than to receive any. But there was still a part of him, a little boy who had never opened a wrapped package before, that was excited to get a present of his very own.

After the elder Grimes’ went to bed, the boys turned the TV to a Christmas music channel, smushed together on the recliner, and watched the lights twinkling on the tree.

“I like Christmas,” Daryl said as they held hands, his head leaning against Rick’s shoulder.

“It isn’t even Christmas for another couple of hours,” Rick said.

“I already know I like it. It feels like...hope and goodness and like everything is gonna be okay.”

“It is,” Rick said firmly as he turned to look Daryl in the eye. “Everything is going to be okay.” As he kissed Daryl softly on the lips, sitting there in the dark, lights twinkling, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas playing on the TV and Rick’s lips brushing against his own, Daryl realized this might well be the best, most favorite moment of his entire life.
********************************

Leaving his bedroom, Daryl walked down the hall with trepidation. It seemed longer than it usually was and the walls were made out of bricks like the school. He felt wary as he moved towards the living room, but part of him was so excited for his first Christmas that he was able to push away the fear that was starting to bubble up inside him.

When he got to the living room, it wasn’t actually the living room. Instead it was an old motel room that he remembered from years ago. His old man sat on the bed with a fifth of whiskey and the remote.

“What the fuck are you looking for?” he asked before he took another long pull off his bottle. Daryl felt about five years old again -- small and weak against his old man.

“It’s supposed to be Christmas,” Daryl said.

“Christmas? You think you deserve a Christmas? What the hell good have you been all year? You’re nothing but a burden and a screw up.” His dad jumped up from the bed and took another drink from his bottle. “Where’s the beer I asked you to get?”

“They wouldn’t sell it to me,” Daryl said, eyes on the ground and shifting from one foot to another. He knew what was coming next. He heard the slide of his old man’s belt as it was pulled out of it’s loops, and before he knew it he was grabbed by his neck and pressed face first into the bed so that he could barely breathe.

“I told you I’d kill you ‘f you was a queer, boy, didn’t I?” Daryl wondered how the hell the old man found out. This was going to be worse than the usual beatings and he fought as hard as he could as his little body spasmed with each lash of the whip, his skin burning and his pride broken.

“Pa, please. I’m sorry! I’m sorry!.” Daryl should have known his begging and crying would just make the swings come faster and harder, and soon the old man was laughing.

Laughing.

And then more voices were laughing -- Negan, Shane...and he felt his pants being tugged down to his ankles before he started screaming.

Daryl woke to Rick and Lincoln’s faces, both looking at him with worried expression on their faces, Rick holding his arms down and whispering “it’s okay, it’s okay.” as Daryl gasped for breath. He heard a knock at the door and Jack and Liz rushed into the room.

“Is he okay?” Liz asked.

Daryl’s eyes flicked frantically from Rick to Jack to Liz to Lincoln and he tried to twist out of Rick’s grip.

“I’m letting go, it’s okay,” Rick said as he pulled his arms away. “You were pulling your hair. I was just trying to stop you. You’re okay, beautiful.”

“Just breathe,” Jack said as he sat down at the foot of the bed with a hand on Daryl’s foot. “In and out. Slowly. Just focus on the room, where you’re at, who you’re with.”

Daryl tried to fight off the cobwebs of his dream, body still shaking from panic, and trying his best to follow Jack’s lead with his breathing. His eyes were glued to Rick’s as he sought the comfort that the other boy’s presence could bring.

“Okay,” Daryl finally managed to say. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, sweetheart,” Liz said as she ran a hand through his hair. “Nightmares happen. We all know that by now.”

“Sounded like a really bad one,” Rick said as he rested a hand on Daryl’s knee.

“Was I loud?”

“Absolutely screaming,” Rick said with a valiant attempt not to tear up.

Daryl sat up and hugged his knees, Lincoln licking at his face as he moved. “It’s Christmas. I ruined Christmas,” Daryl said as he looked solemnly at Jack.

“You didn’t ruin a thing,” Jack said. “Liz and I were just about to get up and start on breakfast. Why don’t you boys rest up a bit longer and come on out when you’re ready.”

Before Daryl could protest, Jack continued, “There’s no timeline on Christmas, no deadlines, no rules. Everything is fine, son.”

Daryl felt a swell of emotion whenever Jack called him son, especially so after his nightmare. As Jack and Liz left, Daryl tried convincing himself that everything he dreamed was over -- everything was okay and he was awake and with Rick. He was at home with his dog and Jack and Liz, and it was Christmas and Daryl had presents to give out. The idea of handing out his own presents really excited him and he clung to that feeling as he tried to forget the nightmare he’d just suffered.

He was curled against Rick as the other boy rubbed his arm up and down and kissed at his forehead. “Was it the usual?” he asked softly.

“Partly. My pa was in it, too.”

“Jesus,” Rick whispered. “Well, you’re with me now. Just you and me.”

“I’m sorry I woke you,” Daryl said as he hugged his boyfriend tighter, not wanting to let go after the terror and hopelessness of his nightmare.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to wake you sooner,” Rick countered.

Once Daryl felt himself finally relax, he sat up and kissed Lincoln on the head. “Thanks for helping wake me up, buddy.”

Rick stood up and reached out a hand for Daryl. “It’s Christmas, baby. I want to show you what it’s all about.”

**************************************
Daryl was stuffed. He’d eaten four chocolate chip pancakes and several homemade M&M cookies and was on his third eggnog. Rick and Daryl sat on the living room floor surrounded by torn wrapping paper, presents, and a very happy pup with several new squeaky toys.

He never knew it was a thing that could happen, but Daryl’s cheeks actually hurt from smiling -- from the moment he and Rick came out to the living room til well after noon on Christmas day. Opening his very first gift was so exciting. He had no idea what it was. The curiosity was killing him and the thought that his Rick picked something out especially for him made it such a warm moment. Once it was unwrapped and pulled out of the box, Daryl saw that it was a new leather jacket.

He loved it and put it on immediately, but his favorite part of the morning was watching everyone open the gifts he’d bought. A squeaky squirrel toy for Lincoln, a heart necklace for Liz that was inscribed with Thank you for sharing your heart.. He got Jack a paperweight shaped like a house for his desk that was also inscribed, “Thank you for making this house a home.” And for Rick, a watch inscribed with Thank you for every minute we share.

By the time the Christmas season was over and the Grimes’ celebrated New Year’s, it was time to start getting back to life as normal, and that meant the first day at their new school.

Chapter Text

Rick woke up as soon as daylight started creeping in through the crack in the blinds. Daryl was still securely tucked against him, with Lincoln bookending him. He could see the clock and knew their alarm would be going off in another ten minutes, so he decided to try to wake Daryl in a more peaceful way than the annoying buzz of the clock.

He peppered the back of Daryl’s neck with little kisses as he ran his fingers down the other boy’s arm until he was able to reach his hand and intertwine their fingers.

Daryl moaned softly and wiggled back even closer to Rick. “That was the best sleep I’ve had in three weeks,” the other boy mumbled, the sound of sleep still thick in his voice.

Lincoln woke and rolled over, stretching out on his back for belly rubs as he positioned his head to give Daryl a good morning lick. Rick sat up and reached over Daryl so both boys were able to love on their pup.

“You ready for today, beautiful?”

Daryl rolled his eyes despite his smile and got up. “Gotta be, weirdo.” He leaned back down and gave Rick a soft good morning kiss.

In the kitchen, Liz had made a full breakfast -- eggs, bacon, pancakes, and hashbrowns. Jack was setting the table as the boys walked in.

“Cereal would’ve been fine,” Daryl said with a smile. Rick loved how much more comfortable the other boy was around the family now. He’d really settled in to being an honorary Grimes.

“Not on such an exciting day!” Liz answered as she put the plate full of hot pancakes in the middle of the table.

As the family took their seats with Lincoln, as always, by Daryl’s chair, Jack asked. “So are you boys ready to get back to your studies?”

“I guess,” Rick said unconvincingly as he nibbled on a piece of bacon.

“He’s excited to go back,” Daryl said.

“I’m just worried that going in during the middle of lessons is gonna make it hard to catch up,” Rick admitted.

“We’ll study together, man. You’ll be fine,” Daryl said, comforting Rick when really it should be the other way around.

“You feeling ready?” Jack asked as he looked over to Daryl.

He nodded. “Yeah. It’ll be okay. Thanks for making it happen with being able to change schools and all.”

“Of course, kiddo,” Jack said with a smile.

“Remember, you have a cell phone now,” Liz added. “And you call us if you need anything today. Did you take your meds?”

“Yeah,” Daryl answered. Rick could tell his boyfriend still felt embarrassed that he had to rely on drugs to help with his panic attacks, but he knew the other boy liked having parental figures that worried and doted and cared.

Since there were no busses that went to the out-of-district school and it was too far to bike, they’d be relying on his parents for rides back and forth to school each day. Rick started calculating again how long it would be until he could get a driver’s license. He felt bad about the burden on his folks, but knew they were more than happy to do it.

Liz drove them in that morning on her way to work and pulling up to the front doors, Rick was surprised at how small the school seemed. It was in the middle of cornfields and woods, unlike the in-town location of Savior High. It seemed, at first sight at least, like it would be a much better fit for them. He looked at Daryl before they got out of the car and could see the swirl of emotion in the other boy’s eyes. Nervous but excited, worried but determined.

Rick took his hand the moment Liz pulled away and they walked towards the school. Most of the kids were already in homeroom classes when they walked in, but a few still lingered in the halls.

“You sure about this?” Daryl asked as he motioned to their intertwined hands.

“Might as well go in with all our cards on the table,” Rick said. “As long as you are okay with it.”

Daryl gave his hand a squeeze. “Yeah. I am.”

They headed down the hall towards the guidance office where they were supposed to report. Walking in, they were confronted by a man radiating confidence and compassion. He was already standing in the outer office as if he knew the exact minute they’d be showing up.

“You must be Rick and Daryl,” the man said as he held out his hand. “I’m the guidance counselor here at Hilltop High. We aren’t formal here so you can just call me Guillermo.”

The boys greeted him and followed the man into his office. “Well, Jack has filled me in a bit on things which I understand you boys gave him permission to do.”

“Yes,” Rick said. “We needed to make sure that Daryl didn’t have to go to gym class and that our schedules could be together.”

“Of course, and we have everything squared away for you boys.” The counselor turned to Daryl. “And how are you feeling about getting back into classes?”

Daryl shrugged. “Okay I guess. Ain’t seen a lot of students yet so ain’t been afraid or nothin’.”

“Well, after what you’ve been through you may have some tough moments getting back into the swing of your routine. You come to this office anytime you need to, okay?”

“Okay.”

“So you already have your class schedules. As you already know the only class you don’t have together is gym. Rick, I’m afraid you’ll still have to attend the class, Daryl you’ll have study hall that period, but for the first few days I’m gonna have you report here instead so we can touch base each day. Does that sound okay?”

“Yes, sir,” Daryl answered.

“Guillermo,” the man said with a smile as he stood. “Let me take you to your homeroom and get you situated.”

The morning went fairly smooth, Rick always having his eyes on Daryl to make sure the other boy seemed okay. He’d gotten familiar enough with the panic attacks that he was sure he’d be able to recognize the signs before it got too bad. Guillermo had prepared everything perfectly for them, even right down to having lockers right next to each other.

Rick was relieved that their history class was just finishing up with the Civil War so he felt like he knew what was going on thanks to Daryl’s help with the class back at Savior High. A few students had said hello and introduced themselves and Rick was on a constant lookout for the kids that seemed to be bullies. They hadn’t seemed to run into any yet, but no school was without them.

By 11:30 it was lunchtime and the boys sat alone at a table in the corner of the cafeteria with packed lunches courtesy of Jack.

As Daryl pulled out his sandwich, chips, and cookie, he noticed a note fall out of his bag. “What the heck is this?” he asked, looking up at Rick who was holding one too.

“Oh my God, my parents are such dorks,” Rick sighed as he opened his up and read. “Hope you are having a good day! We love you! Mom and Dad” He looked back at Daryl who had his opened.

“You made it to the half-way point! The first day is almost over and we hope you are having a good one. We love you! Jack and Liz”

Rick could tell that Daryl was affected by the endearment by the way he bit on a thumbnail to help cover the smile that he wanted to hide. “How stupid,” he said unconvincingly.

Before Rick could even unwrap his sandwich a girl with long brown hair, orange sunglasses propped up on her head, and a Twizzler sticking out of her mouth, pulled up a chair at their table.

“Hey. Tara,” she said, holding out a hand as she sat. Several other students with her took the other chairs.

Rick glanced at Daryl and noticed him hunch his shoulders in a defensive position, and he hoped to God that these kids weren’t going to harass them for being in their seats or something. “Figured all us gays should stick together,” Tara said as she bit off another nibble of the Twizzler and pointed it at the heavyset kid in the middle. “Oh, and Jerry. We’re like a cool gang -- the gay kids and Jerry.”

“I’m Rick and this is Daryl. How did you know we were…”

“Saw you come into the school looking all adorable and holding hands,” the other boy with them said.

“That’s Aaron,” Tara said by way of introduction and that cutie on the end is Denise,” she said with a wink at the other girl. “She’s mine so don’t go straight and get any ideas.

Rick heard Daryl laugh next to him and the sound made him relax.

“You guys are so lucky to find each other,” Aaron said as he took a bite of a chicken nugget from the school lunch tray in front of him. “I’m the only gay guy here so my options are basically zero.”

“Lies, bruh,” Jerry piped in. “I told you to try the flirtbox.com and you met that one cat. He was…”

“He was a nightmare,” Aaron finished and looked back to Daryl. “Totally not my type.”

“You gotta keep trying, yo,” Jerry added.

“That’s how Jerry met Nabila,” Denise added, “and they are so perfect together I literally puke everytime we all hang out. She goes to Alexandria High.”

“So what’s your type?” Daryl asked and Rick was so proud of him for making conversation. He felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders at the sudden appearance of new friends.

“He likes nerds,” Tara piped in.

“I do not,” Aaron protested.

“You have a picture in your locker of a dude with a pocket protector, bruh,” Jerry added.

“That’s an 89-year-old scientist, dufus,” Aaron said.

“That’s your type?” Rick asked and the table laughed.

“That’s my idol!” Aaron defended himself with a smile. “I’m gonna be an inventor.”

“Seriously then, what is your type?” Daryl asked and Rick knew the other boy was thinking of Eric from their old school.

“Well,” Aaron said, “someone nice. And like kinda shy cause I like to take the lead. Someone who’s smart and ambitious and kind. And smaller than me; I like to be the protector.”

“Would you ever consider a blind date?” Daryl asked with a wide grin.

“You know someone like that?” Aaron asked, his jaw agape and the chicken nugget in his hand forgotten.

By the end of lunch Daryl had texted Eric and the whole group made plans to meet for dinner that Saturday night. Rick was so thrilled at how everything was going that he nearly forgot when the bell rang that it was time for he and Daryl to separate -- Rick to gym class and Daryl back to the guidance office. He felt sick to his stomach at the thought. He couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to destroy the great positive momentum of the day.

He grabbed Daryl’s hand as they left the cafeteria and started walking him back to Guillermo.

“You have gym, weirdo,” Daryl said with affection. “That’s that way,” he pointed.

“Thought I’d walk you to the guidance office first, beautiful.”

Daryl nudged his shoulder against Rick’s in a way that expressed love and appreciation. “It’s okay. I got it. I have to start being able to do things on my own,” he said.

“You sure?”

“The morning has gone really good, don’t you think?”

“Yeah. It has. I just don’t want anything to…”

“I’ll be okay, Rick. I promise if I need anything I’ll text you. I’ll be right there in the guidance office. Safest place here.”

“Okay,” Rick finally relented and he pulled Daryl close and gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “I’ll see you in Algebra.”

Daryl knew Rick was watching him walk away and that did comfort his nerves a bit. He wasn’t completely thrilled about being alone and surrounded by strangers who could turn on him at any moment, but he knew he needed to get his life back to normal. He couldn’t depend on Rick forever; he was a boyfriend, not a crutch.

He flinched a few times as rowdy students rushed past him in the hall and he felt his shoulders tense up as he walked the long hallway alone, but his breathing was steady and he felt like he had some semblance of control once the guidance office was in sight.

Guillermo was walking another student out as Daryl arrived.

“Daryl!” Guillermo greeted. “Come on in. This is Amy, our guidance counselor for this period.”

Daryl said hi and they exchanged a few pleasantries until Guillermo waved Daryl into his office and closed the door behind them.

The counselor sat back in his chair and looked at Daryl. “So how did the morning go?”

“Not bad actually,” Daryl said with a smile at the thought of lunch. Of an instant group of friends, something he’d never had before.

“Classes didn’t seem overwhelming?”

“No, not at all. I’m a…”

“Damn good student,” Guillermo finished with a kind smile. “I know. Got your records from Savior High and you have great grades. You know, if you are interested, we have a tutoring program here and we have more kids that need tutoring than ones that can provide it. If you feel like you’d want to get involved in something like that just let me know.”

“I dunno, maybe,” Daryl answered. “I kinda have my hands full tutoring Rick,” he said with a smile.

“I saw on his records that his last semester of grades had gone up dramatically. That because of you?”

“Nah,” Daryl said shyly. “He’s smart. Just needed to apply himself a bit. I just helped a little.”

“And how did lunch go? Have you guys met any of the other students yet? Started making any friends?”

“Yeah, actually. Ain’t never really...things were different at my old school. I was homeless and kind of an outcast for pretty much ever until Rick and his folks took me in. So other students usually just avoided me or…” He didn’t finish the sentence, not wanting to steer the conversation to the incident.

“I know you had tough times back there. Jack brough me up to speed completely. I understand that you are seeing a therapist. Ezekiel? He’s a good friend, Carol Peltier, too. You’ve been in good hands.”

They talked for the entire 40 minute period and only briefly touched on the incident. Daryl had noticed that it had become a little bit easier to talk about what happened as some time had passed. That or Guillermo was just easy to talk to. He was glad to hear the bell ring though, because that meant he’d see Rick and he wasn’t sure he’d been apart from Rick for that long in weeks.

Chapter Text

A month into their new lives at Hilltop High, Daryl was pleased that he’d managed not to have any panic attacks in front of their new group of friends. He’d had two during the different times that Jack had taken him to talk to the prosecutor about the case against Negan and the others, but Rick was right by his side as always, and between the two Grimes men they’d help Daryl through it.

He and Rick had successfully set Aaron and Eric up on a date that went perfect, Rick had gotten solid B’s in all his classes thanks to Daryl’s help, and both boys had continued to grow closer and closer as school ended and summer break arrived. In fact, Daryl could barely remember not having Rick in his life. As much as they tried to focus on the good things, Daryl still had worries in the back of his mind about whether or not his rape case would go to trial. Dale Horvath, the prosecutor, had felt fairly confident he’d be able to get a plea bargain, which would keep Daryl from having to go to trial and testify and although that would result in a shorter sentence, that was what he was hoping for.

The mere thought of sitting on the stand in front of a jury, a full court room, his new family, AND his attackers made him short of breath. To be questioned about each and every little detail would be like reliving the entire event over again, but out in the public for all to see. As he lay in bed on the morning of the plea bargain meeting, he looked over at the floor, forgetting that Rick had moved back into his old room weeks ago. They had gotten a long lecture about sex and waiting after Liz caught them in the middle of a pretty heavy make-out session on the couch in the living room and that was the end of the extended sleepover.

Lincoln woke and rolled over for his moning belly rubs and Daryl obliged him. He smiled as Lincoln’s tongue lolled out the side of his mouth as he yawned and stretched. Having the dog beside him each morning had become an overwhelming comfort to Daryl. It was like he was never alone anymore after years and years of lonely solitude.

There was a knock at his bedroom door and Rick opened it up. “Hey Link! You gotta go potty, boy?”

The growing pup bounced off the bed and flew past Rick.

“Don’t you care if I gotta go potty?” Daryl asked sarcastically as he crawled out of bed to follow them to the back yard.

“You sleep good, beautiful?” Rick asked as they opened the back door and watched Lincoln run down the back steps.

“Good enough, weirdo. You?” he asked with a smile and leaned in for a gentle good morning kiss.

“I had a dream that I kicked Negan’s ass. Like literally, somehow I had all these awesome karate moves and we were in the old gym locker room and I round-house kicked him and his teeth flew out and then I punched…”

“I told you we overdid it on that kung fu marathon the other day,” Daryl laughed.

As they sat for a few minutes on the picnic table as Lincoln made his way around the yard, Rick said, “Maybe we’ll get some resolution today.”

Daryl nodded, his eyes still on Lincoln. “Yup. Meeting’s at eleven.”

Rick put an arm around Daryl’s shoulders. “Want me to kick your ass in Mario Kart for a while to pass the time?”

“What is with you and kicking ass today?” Daryl laughed as he turned to the other boy.

“I’m in a feisty mood, I guess.”

“That sounds interesting,” Daryl said playfully, his voice lowered a register and his eyes glancing down at Rick’s plump lips. Before he could lean in for a kiss, Lincoln’s head popped up between the two of them, tail wagging for attention.

They took a long morning walk with Lincoln after breakfast and Daryl let Rick beat him at Mario Kart like he always did. When the phone rang a little after noon, they both froze and paused the game, immediately going to lean over the railing to the downstairs office where Jack answered the call. They watched each other as they eavesdropped.

“Hello, Jack Grimes here.”

Pause.

“Yes. Hi Dale.”

Rick grabbed Daryl’s hand and squeezed tight as they continued to listen.

“Okay.”

Pause.

“Okay, yes.”

Pause.

“How long?”

Pause.

“Well, I think it’s definitely better than the alternative.”

Pause.

“It’s great news, really. Thanks for everything, Dale.”

Once they could tell the call had ended, they headed downstairs to find out what happened. Jack was already standing up at his desk ready to track the boys down.

“Well, Dale just called,” Jack said as he leaned against his desk.

“And?” Rick asked rather impatiently.

“They took the deal,” Jack said, not beating around the bush.

Daryl exhaled a breath he must have been holding for months as Rick pulled him into a hug.

Jack continued. “So, the obvious good news is that there will be no trial and all four of them are going to jail. Shane, Gareth and Simon will each be serving a four year sentence. Negan’s will be five. All of them will be eligible for parole in three.” Jack sounded obviously disappointed with the parole news and both boys were as well.

“Three years,” Daryl repeated, doing the math in his head. He’d be eighteen. Before he could think any more about it, Rick spoke up.

“I had a great idea. How about Daryl and I take self-defense classes at the Y?”

Daryl turned to Rick.

“I know you’re gonna be nervous when they get out, even if that’s several years from now. So why not prepare ourselves to feel a little more secure.”

Jack was nodding at that when Daryl looked to him for his reaction. “Not a bad idea.”

“I never thought about something like that,” Daryl said. “It’s a good idea. Plus Rick has been dying to kick someone’s ass lately, so maybe the sparring will get that aggression out of his system,” Daryl teased.

All three started up the stairs for lunch. “All in all I think it’s the best news we could get,” Jack said.

All three boys were sitting on the front porch when Liz got home after work. She immediately rushed to Daryl and hugged him. “I’m so glad you won’t have to testify!” she said excitedly. “I know you’d been worried sick.”

Daryl smiled at the attention and affection he got from Liz. He never thought he’d ever experience what having real parents was like. Having a family that cared about him was even more amazing than he ever could have guessed. There was a feeling of togetherness, a feeling of us against anything bad. It was like having your own little world that belonged only to you, a cocoon of safety surrounded by an unconditional love that no one could take away.

“I think tonight calls for pizza with the works!” Liz said, knowing that was one of Daryl’s favorites. He loved how his new family knew things like that -- like when he needed a hug, where he liked to go on his runs, what kind of books he’d enjoy...and what his favorite food was. Rick, Jack, Liz and pizza with the works. It was a good night. A damn good night.

The four of them walked into the house together, Daryl reveling in this developing feeling of belonging as Will Dixon secretly watched them from a hiding spot in the woods across the street.

Chapter Text

Daryl now knew what Rick was talking about when he used to complain about how his parents nagged and lectured. Now that they were basically Daryl’s parents too, he certainly got a healthy dose of lecturing as well. The latest was how Jack and Liz were concerned that Rick and Daryl were becoming too dependent on one another and that they should consider occasionally doing things apart.

Daryl understood their concern, but he didn’t have to like it...and he didn’t...but both boys were always inclined to listen to their parents. So they tried. Daryl would go on his morning runs alone every other day instead of having Rick join him every time. And Rick started volunteering at the animal shelter once a week without Daryl. Other than that, they remained as tight as ever.

Daryl popped in his new ear pods and started running towards the baseball fields. He usually saved most of his allowance because he always had this nagging fear of being without money like his old man, but he occasionally splurged on something that he really wanted and without Rick on runs, he really liked the idea of having the music to listen to. It still seemed weird to spend money on something that wasn’t food, but it was definitely something Daryl could get used to.

As he crossed over Woodbury Avenue, “Howl” by Beware of Darkness blaring in his ear pods, Daryl thought again about getting a job. Both boys, now almost sixteen, had shown an interest in getting summer jobs, but Jack recommended that they take this last summer off before they dove into the world of work. He’d love to be able to somehow contribute to the household, buy some groceries, or pay the phone bill or something, but Rick kept insisting that neither of them were expected to pitch in yet.

Legs pumping, muscles aching, and sweaty strands of hair hanging in his eyes, Daryl picked up his speed as he hit the track that looped around the two now-empty baseball fields. He smiled as he saw the fence behind home plate on the closest field...his and Rick’s first kiss.

The music pounded through his bloodstream as he picked up his speed again to match the pace of the song. Yeah...catch me if you can...my, my, my I’m a hungry man. Oh, oh catch me when I fall…

It was when he got to the bleachers of the second field that his pace slammed to a complete stop. There, leaning against the clunky metal bleachers, was his old man.

********************************************

Daryl stood there dumbfounded as the song he was listening to fizzled to an end and he tugged out his ear pods.

“Hey boy. You too good to say hello to your old man?” Will Dixon asked with his gravelly voice.

“What are you doing here?” was all Daryl could think to say. The ball fields were on the total opposite side of town from the park where his Pa always stayed. That would have been miles of walking and Will Dixon was not known for his interest in doing anything that didn’t result in an immediate benefit to him, most particularly the procurement of alcohol. What was he getting out of walking across town?

“Just happened to be in the neighborhood,” he said with a laugh as he lifted a brown bag, undoubtedly covering a bottle of cheap whiskey, to his mouth.

“Actually, I think the way the fostering arrangement works is that you aren’t supposed to have any unsupervised visits. And since you never asked for any I assumed I’d never see you again.”

“I’m not at your new house visiting,” Will said, air quoting, as he tried to keep himself balanced. “Just happened to run into you is all.”

Daryl wanted to walk away, but even though he was almost sixteen and had gained some muscle, he was still incredibly intimidated by the man before him. “What do you want?”

“Well, I’m not gonna lie, kid. I could use some money,” the old man said with a laugh. “Why don’t you just go ahead and give me whatever you have in your wallet.”

When Daryl didn’t answer, Will burst out laughing. “What are you thinkin’ behind those blank eyes ‘a yours? You thinkin’ ‘bout runnin’ to your new pretend daddy for help? You think he’s gonna wanna keep you once he finds out what a worthless piece of shit you are?”

“He ain’t like that,” Daryl said quietly, and he immediately found himself questioning whether or not Jack really would get sick of dealing with him. He’d been nothing but trouble all this time, and now that the legal stuff was over, maybe he and Liz would just want to wash their hands of him.

He startled when he realized that he’d zoned out and his father was snapping his fingers in Daryl’s face. “Back to earth dipshit. Come on. Wallet.”

Before Daryl could decide how to reply, Will smacked him upside the head. “Boy, I ain’t gonna ask again,” he threatened. And those words were so familiar to Daryl that he could almost feel a whip to his back as he flinched out of instinct.

He fumbled for his wallet as Will took another swig of whiskey.

Daryl handed the man the twenty dollar bill he had. “Just take the money and leave me be. Please,” Daryl begged.

“I tell ya boy, I didn’t expect you to leave me in that park like you done. Expected you to come by, help me out a bit. After all, I’m the one that raised you. I coulda let you burn with your mama in that fire but I got you out, didn’t I?”

“No. A fireman got me out,” Daryl responded, the memory just a blur in his head.

“Yeah, and I’m the one told him you was in there. I expect at least a weekly visit at the park from now on,” he said as he held up the twenty. “Or else I’ll make your life hell.”

Daryl turned to walk away as Will added, “Oh, and one more thing…”

When he turned back to face his father, Will swung a fist into his face and Daryl felt his knees give out as he fell to the ground.

“Don’t even think about avoiding me again.” Will started walking away and turned back one last time. “I’ll see you next week, boy.”

Daryl got up and sat on one of the bleachers. Goddamnit. After all this time of not getting hit, he’d forgotten how fierce a fist in the face could feel. He was gonna have a hell of a black eye. He watched as his old man walked out of sight and started making decisions right away. The Grimes family had helped him out of enough situations already and there was no way he was going to involve them in this. This was Daryl’s old man and he’d take care of it on his own. He still got his $20.00 weekly allowance so he’d have something each week.

He put a gentle finger against his already bruising cheek. He’d just have to tell them he tripped and fell on his run. He could manage this.

Chapter Text

Rick watched Daryl carefully as he ate dinner that night. His eye looked terrible and there was something about the way the other boy avoided his gaze when he told him he fell that didn’t sit right with Rick. He and Daryl had become incredibly close and Rick was familiar with the boy’s every mannerism. Looking away like that? That was new. He looked back and forth between his parents and despite their attempt at pleasant dinner conversation he was certain they were suspicious, too.

“So I guess it’s my fault about that eye,” Jack finally said.

Daryl looked up, cautious and confused. “What?”

“Well, I was the one that said you boys were too codependent. Bet that fall wouldn’t have happened if Rick was there.”

“It wouldn’t have,” Rick said firmly.

Daryl brushed it off. “Just clumsy is all. Not used to running with the music, I guess.”

“Daryl, you know you can tell us anything, right?” Liz finally asked.

He looked at her, then at Rick and Jack. “Yeah. I know. There’s nothing to tell.”

Rick’s heart sank. He knew it was a lie. And it was the first lie between them.

Later that night, the boys sat on the picnic table out back tossing the kong to Lincoln.

“So tomorrow is the first day of the self-defense class Dad signed us up for,” Rick said.

“Yeah. Where is that at again?”

“At the YMCA over by the park.”

Rick could sense Daryl’s discomfort over the location and if he hadn’t already been pretty certain, he definitely was now. That black eye was from his old man, not from a goddamn fall.

“Just in time, too,” Rick added as he motioned towards Daryl’s eye.

“I fell,” Daryl said again, eyes downcast.

Rick slipped his hand in Daryl’s as Lincoln abandoned chasing the kong to settle down with a bone they’d brought out for him. “You know what’s nice about being together?”

Daryl leaned in slowly and pressed a kiss to Rick’s lips. “The kissing?” he asked.

“Well, that, yeah. But you know what else?”

“What?” Dary asked.

“Being able to tell each other everything.”

Rick noticed Daryl look away immediately. He reached out and turned Daryl’s head back to him and looked him in the eyes. “Daryl. Talk to me. I know this wasn’t a fall. Who did it?”

Daryl started biting on a thumbnail. “Can’t ya just let me handle some things by myself?”

“No. I can’t.”

Daryl laughed and shook his head. After a few minutes of silence he looked back at Rick. “Ran into my old man, that’s all. I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“What were you doing out by the park? I thought you usually ran up by the ballfields?”

Daryl sighed and pulled the hood from his sweatshirt up over his head to stave off the chilly winter air.

“He was at the ballfield waiting for me. Must have followed me there at some point.”

Rick stood up and started pacing as Lincoln whined in concern. “So he what? Just showed up to beat on you?”

Daryl shrugged as he hugged himself. “Just wanted some money. Pissed that I ain’t gone to see him.”

“You’re not supposed to go and see him. The foster arrangement…”

“I know. I know, Rick,” the frustration evident in his voice. LIncoln finally got up and put his two front paws on Daryl’s lap, sensing his discomfort.

Daryl rubbed the pup’s head and kissed his snoot. “I’m okay, buddy.”

“You aren’t going back to see him, are you?” Rick asked, speaking softer and trying to be more understanding than angry.

“I can handle it. Hell, I’ll know self-defense in a matter of days. I’m a quick learner.”

“Promise me you’ll talk to me before you do anything stupid?” Rick asked as he sat back down and leaned against his boyfriend.

“I will,” Daryl said, and Rick was relieved at the honesty in those words. “And you promise me that you won’t say nothing to your folks. They’ve been fighting my battles long enough.”

Rick squeezed his eyes closed, not liking the deal one bit. “Fine,” he eventually said. “Fine.”

******************************************
When Rick and Daryl walked into their first Self-Defense class they were both feeling incredibly inadequate. A higher level class was just finishing up and the students defended themselves like they were in a blockbuster movie.

“We’re signed up for level one, right?” Daryl whispered to Rick as they watched.

“Yea,” Rick answered. “And I’m pretty sure this is level Jackie Chan.”

They sat down on the benches along the wall as they watched the wirey, long-haired teacher demonstrate how to get out of a chokehold.

“Chokehold’s illegal, y’know,” Daryl whispered to Rick.

“Jesus Christ,” Rick said as the guy elbowed his opponent in the ribs and spun out of the hold. “I mean like seriously, this guy literally looks like Jesus Christ. I don’t know if we should clap at that or do the sign of the cross.” Daryl snickered at that and bumped a playful shoulder against Rick’s.

Once the class let out, a few more students Rick and Daryl’s age had arrived for Self-Defense 101, and the teacher walked over to the new students against the wall as he twisted his hair up into a bun. “Hi everyone and welcome to Self Defense 101. I’m Paul, but my friends call me Jesus.”

“Are you serious, bro?” Daryl asked and Rick tried not to giggle.

“Well, you have to admit the resemblance is uncanny,” Jesus said with a welcoming smile.

“Jesus, it is,” Rick said, the first student to stick out a hand in greeting. Jesus went down the row of students and had everyone introduce themselves and then he had each student take a seat on the mat.

“I know you are all probably eager to kick some ass today, but day one is about more than that. Day one is about being alert, aware, prepared, and confident. So we are going to talk for a while.”

 

The class went on for forty-five minutes, with Rick and Daryl both paying rapt attention to the kindhearted instructor.

That night Rick lay in his bed, thoughts scattered and worries weighing heavy on him. He trusted that Daryl wouldn’t go back to Will without talking to him about it first, but he hated that his boyfriend even had to worry about it. The urge to tell his father was unbearable. But really, guilting your kid into giving you money wasn’t illegal. Hitting him was, though. Rick sat up in bed, sleep clearly eluding him, and he bit at a thumbnail, a habit he’d picked up from Daryl.

Maybe he could talk a little sense into Will Dixon himself. Go down there and talk to him man-to-man and tell him that Daryl would keep up his end of the deal with giving him a little money each week, but the only way it would stay that way was if Will stopped hitting him. In fact, Rick would demand to go on each visit so that he could be sure Will would keep up his end of the deal. No police, no CFS, just a couple dollars here and there and a promise that there would be no more physical or verbal assaults on Daryl. The more Rick thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He turned to the nightstand and saw the clock as it blinked over to 4:45 am. Outside the window, he saw a full moon and a night of clear stars. Rick knew that if he left now, he could have everything settled and be back before Daryl even woke up. In fact, he could bring next week’s money so that Daryl wouldn’t have to go back right away.

He slipped out of bed and dressed quietly, glad that Lincoln still slept with Daryl every night so that he wouldn’t wake the entire house with the click clack of his nails on the hard wood floors.

There were hardly any cars on the road as he biked his way to the center of the park where the bridge was. He was fairly certain he’d be able to recognize Will Dixon from when he caught the man knocking Daryl down in this very spot so many months ago. Getting off his bike, he leaned it up against a trashcan and crept through the spots where the homeless often convened. Some were sleeping, but most were awake already.

“Rick? What you doin’ here, boy?” a kind voice called out from a spot under one of the overgrown bushes. He stopped and squinted in the dim light.

“Dwight?” It was one of the regulars from the soup kitchen that Rick had taken a liking, too. The man had simply fallen on hard times and Rick had a soft spot for him.

“Kid, this ain’t no place for you. You do your good in the soup kitchen. You ain’t got to come out here.”

“I’m actually here looking for someone. Someone that doesn’t come to the Center.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s that?”

“Will Dixon. You know him?”

Dwight instantly stood up and put a hand on Rick’s shoulder. “Kid, you don’t want to fool around with Dixon. He’d punch your teeth down your throat as soon as look at yah.”

“He’s...he’s...he has a son. You know that?”

Dwight nodded. “Daryl. Good kid. He ain’t gonna be like his old man. He’s smart. Ain’t seen him around for months, though, if that’s who you’re looking for.”

“Daryl’s with me. He’s gonna be fine. But I need to have a few words with his old man.”

Dwight shook his head. “Your daddy’s always been good to me. Even lent me a suit the other day for a job interview that I’m still hoping might come through. I can’t stand by and let his kid put himself in a dangerous situation. Why don’t you go on home?”

“I take self-defense. I can take care of myself,” Rick insisted, failing to mention that he’d only had one class.

Dwight sighed and rubbed a hand down his scarred face. “I’ll take ya to him and I’ll stand by and watch to make sure he don’t lose his shit on yah. I don’t got no self-defense, but I can fight dirty if I need to.”

Rick smiled. “It won’t come to that, Dwight. I promise.”

They walked down past the bridge and up to a park bench that was partially hidden by overgrown ivy. Sitting there with a brown bag of liquor was Will Dixon.

“‘The fuck is this?” Will asked, motioning to Rick with his bottle.

“Kid needs to have words with you,” Dwight said. “Suggest you listen with your ears ‘stead of your fists. His old man’s done right by me and I won’t stand by if you…”

“Fuck off Dwighty-boy. Who the fuck are you?” Will snarled, looking at Rick.

Rick took a few tentative steps closer as the sky around them grew incrementally lighter by the moment. “I’m here because of your son. Daryl.”

Will stood, took a moment to get his balance, and walked down to the sidewalk to see Rick a bit better. Up close and personal. “He dead?”

“No!” Rick said in shock. “Would you even care if he was?”

Will shrugged and took another drink. “What the fuck do you want?”

Rick took out a ten and handed it to Will. “This is his payment for next week. He’ll come back each week after that as he promised. But you will NOT lay one fucking finger on him nor will you verbally abuse him while he’s here.”

Will barked out a laugh as Rick heard Dwight mumble “Damn, kid. You got balls.”

“What are you, fucking him or something?”

“He’s my boyfriend,” Rick said without any shame in it.

Will’s face turned red, his fists clenched, and his eyes went wide in shock.

“You fucking that little bitch? Is that what you’re telling me? That he’s a faggot?”

“It’s none of your goddamn business because he’s not your kid anymore. You’ll never be good enough to get him back and you’re lucky he feels compelled to keep this arrangement with you. If it were up to me…”

Will pulled back a fist and before Rick could even brace for it Dwight tackled the other man to the ground. “Told you I ain’t putting up with your shit today, Dixon,” Dwight said as he wrestled him into a chokehold. Dwight looked up at Rick. “Get out of here kid. And tell Daryl to stay away, too.”

“I’ll fucking kill him,” Will screamed. “No son of mine is gonna be taking cock and living in a princess castle where his boy toy’s gotta come down here and protect him!”

Rick got on his bike and started pedaling away as he listened to the fading sounds of Will’s hysterics. “I’ll kill him! I’ll kill him!”

Chapter Text

It was Saturday morning and Rick had just gotten home from his probably-not-a-good-idea visit to Daryl’s father. The house was still quiet save for Jack and Lincoln’s snores, and Rick paced the kitchen, biting a nail as the dim light of the slow-rising sun slipped in through the window over the kitchen sink.

“Shit,” he muttered. It had never dawned on him that he was actually outing Daryl to a man who literally looked capable of murder. He was just trying to help and he was certain he just made the whole situation a million times worse. Daryl would be furious. How in the hell was he going to be able to fix the damage he’d done? He just wanted to protect his best friend, his boyfriend, the man he had no doubt that he was going to spend the rest of his life with.

A door squeaked open in the hallway and Rick heard Lincoln’s nails clacking down the hall. When the pup turned the corner he wiggled his butt and ran to Rick for some attention. Daryl followed behind him.

“Hey,” Daryl greeted as he walked towards the back door to let Lincoln out. “What are you doing here in the dark?”

“It’s not dark. Sun’s coming up,” Rick answered stupidly.

Daryl didn’t take his eyes off Rick as he opened the door. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Daryl. I fucked up,” Rick said, his voice cracking at the admission.

Walking over to him, Daryl wrapped his arms around the other boy. “What happened, weirdo?” he asked softly, a gentle hand combing through Rick’s mop of curls.

Rick smiled at what had become a loving endearment and felt tears coming at what a disaster he’d made.

“I...I...just wanted to help. I went to the park this morning…”

Daryl backed up and went pale. It took him a moment to process what Rick just said. “What?” he finally asked as he reached out a hand to Rick’s cheek. “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” He used his fingers to tilt Rick’s face towards the growing light from the window, checking for any damage his old man may have left. “Why would you do that? What were you thinking?”

“I’m fine. Dwight from the soup kitchen was there and he...jumped in before your dad could do anything.”

Daryl’s lips quirked up in that half smile. “You tryin’ to protect my honor or something?”

“I really fucked up, Daryl,” Rick confessed again. “Was just trying to tell him that you’d give him some money each week but that he wasn’t to hurt you in any way or the deal was off.”

Daryl shook his head, still keeping that gentle smile on his lips. “You’re a fool,” he said, still not realizing how bad the situation was.

“I accidentally told him you were my boyfriend,” Rick finally said.

Daryl blanched, eyes wide and jaw agape. “Shit.”

“Yeah. He didn’t take that well. I’m so fucking sorry, Daryl” Rick said, finally letting the tears fall. “He’s pissed. Like...he really looked like he could…”

“Kill me?” Daryl asked.

Rick nodded, sobbing. “I’m so sorry. I’ll figure out a way to fix it. I’ll figure something out…”

“Take it easy,” Daryl said as he wrapped the other boy in his arms. Both boys looked up when they heard their parent’s door open and Daryl took Rick by the hand and pulled him outside. They sat down on the picnic table, both watching as Lincoln appeared to be following a scent trail from a squirrel. Daryl put a comforting hand on Rick’s knee and squeezed as Rick wiped a sleeve over his runny nose and tried like hell to stop sobbing.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Daryl started. “We’ll use our allowance to give Dwight $20 a week when we see him at the soup kitchen. He’s trustworthy. We can let him keep $10 and give the other $10 to my old man. That way we don’t have to see him and he’ll still get some cash to keep him drunk and stupid in the park and away from us.

“But he’s come to this side of town before when you were running. What if he…”

Lincoln finally came back to them and rested his head on Rick’s lap, knowing that it was the other boy this time who needed his comfort.

“If we keep him drunk, he won’t have the energy. And I mean...we’re taking those self-defense classes so if he comes around we’ll just kick his ass,” Daryl answered. For the first time it was Daryl that had to do the comforting and he was really good at it, Rick thought.

“I’m really sorry, Daryl,” Rick said as he took a deep breath once he finally stopped crying.

“It’s okay,” Daryl said. “You had good intentions. I know that. You’re just an idiot’s s’all,” Daryl said as he bumped shoulders with his boyfriend in an attempt to make him laugh. It worked. Rick laughed.

“We’re gonna need Jesus to pick up the pace of these classes,” Rick said as the door to the house opened.

“Breakfast is ready,” Jack yelled out.

“Let’s not bother your dad with this,” Daryl said and he grabbed Rick’s hand and squeezed it.

“Okay,” Rick agreed and they joined Lincoln going back into the house with a plan to pretend he didn’t just ruin everything in a single morning. Daryl may have forgiven him already, but Rick hadn’t forgiven himself.

************************************
A few weeks later Rick and Daryl came back from a morning run. Even though everything with Dwight had been going smoothly and they both had some basic self defense, Rick had decided that he no longer wanted Daryl going out for a run alone. Rick bent over catching his breath, always the one who struggled to keep up, as the other boy pulled a white envelope out of the mailbox and turned pale.

“What is it?” Rick asked as he straightened up.

“It’s from the prison.”

Rick took it from the other boy’s hands and looked it over. It was addressed to Daryl from Negan Dean Morgan, Prisoner Number 91001032 at Atlanta State Penitentiary.

“You gonna read it?” Rick asked, finally looking up.

Daryl took the letter back carefully as if it might bite and they both turned to walk up to the house. “I mean...I guess.”

“What the hell you think he wants?” Rick asked.

Daryl shrugged.

“Maybe I should read it first,” Rick suggested as they walked inside. “Y’know. In case it’s upsetting or something.”

Daryl smiled and kissed Rick softly. “Always trying to protect me.”

Lincoln circled them, tail wiggling and eager to go outside to play. Daryl stuffed the letter in his back pocket for the moment and the boys played with Lincoln for a good long hour, playing keep-away and tug and fetch. When Lincoln finally stretched out on the grass to soak up some sun, Rick and Daryl sat on the picnic table.

Pulling out the letter, Daryl tore it open. “Might as well get this over with,” he said and he held it out so they both could read together.


Well, as you can imagine, prison sucks dicks. Which probably makes it sound like a great place to someone like you, but to someone like me...not so much.

They got a priest guy here. Weird bald dude with only one good eye and a whole lot wrong going on in the other socket. He ain’t a bad guy. Works with a bunch of criminals trying to sell this whole religion thing that of course we all eat up cause it’s like free forgiveness.

I’m like a monster now. My own folks won’t even visit me in here. But you know who did? Rosita. And boy did I get an earful. I didn’t know. Didn’t know that she’d been put through something like I put you through and she made sure that I felt completely and sufficiently horrified at what I’d done. Made me promise to write you and apologize cause she thinks it will help you get some closure or some shit. Not that I ever gave much of a damn about you…but I did give a damn about her.

Look, I don’t know why I did it. When I found out you were the one that saved me after that accident...it made me feel weak. I already felt so much guilt over Andrea. And at school....people looked at me weird, blaming me for Andrea and wondering if the new resident homo gave me mouth-to-mouth. And somehow my dumb ass decided to fix it by doing what I did to you. In hindsight, not so well thought out.

I know you were disappointed I took the plea and only got five years instead of the fifteen it could have been. So I guess you’ll be happy to know that Andrea’s parents are suing me for wrongful death, so I’m likely gonna be making Atlanta State Penitentiary more of a permanent residence than I thought.

Any fucking way...I promised Rosita I’d give you some kind of closure, so here it is. I hope you can have the life that you’ve probably always deserved. I guess I’m going to get the one I deserved.

N.

Daryl folded it back up and stuck it in the envelope.

Rick sighed and put a hand on Daryl’s knee. “Doesn’t really help much, does it?”

Daryl simply answered with a shrug.

**************************************
Habits are funny things. They become ritualized, but if there’s one small change in the routine, everything could crumble. Dwight was at the food shelter every Saturday and every Saturday Rick or Daryl gave him the money that would go to Daryl’s old man. Dwight meant well, he just fell on hard times. Daryl and Rick truly liked the man, so when he’d told them he had another job interview coming up they were thrilled for him and wished him the best of luck. The following Saturday, unbeknownst to them, Dwight had been hired and was working. With the shelter so packed that weekend, both boys forgot about needing to get their payment to Will Dixon.

They didn’t think about it Sunday. Or Monday. Or Tuesday. They didn’t think about it until they were just finished mowing the front lawn on Wednesday evening and saw him, Will Dixon, marching across the street to the Grimes home with empty hands and a scowl. Instinctively, Rick moved to stand in front of Daryl.

“We forgot,” Rick started to say as he reached for his wallet.

Will got closer and closer and Daryl was frozen in place, that childhood fear freezing him when he should be acting, should be trying to get Rick out of the way so the Dixons could handle this between themselves. He didn’t want Rick in the middle getting hurt for him. Daryl was just trying to pull Rick back when Will pushed the boy out of the way, not even paying attention as Rick fell to the ground with a thud. He looked back at Daryl with a fist in the air and yelled. “So it’s true, you fucking faggot. What I tell you, boy?” and the fist swung at Daryl in slow motion. Slow enough that he was able to block the punch with a well-placed arm, a move he’d learned from Jesus, but in quick retaliation Will grabbed Daryl by the throat and pushed him up against the Dogwood tree in the front yard.

“Get off him!” Rick yelled as he got back to his feet and kicked at Will’s knees, a weak spot Jesus taught them about that would hopefully drop him and give both the boys a chance to make a run for it.

“Pa,” Daryl tried to say as he clawed at the other man’s hands on his throat.

Rick grabbed onto one of Will’s arms and tried to pull his hands off Daryl, whose face was becoming red as he struggled to draw breath.

Daryl started to feel faint as he wheezed in a desperate attempt to pull air into his lungs. He stared at his father through the endless parade of words. Useless, worthless, faggot, stupid. And then he registered another sound. A door slamming somewhere behind him. And as Will took one hand off Daryl’s throat to backhand Rick, who was desperately trying to help, all three of them froze at the sound of Jack Grimes stomping towards them.

“Hey!” Jack yelled loud enough to be heard over the shouts and gasps. “‘The fuck you think you’re doing?”

Rick’s jaw dropped. He had never heard his father cuss like that before. As Jack got closer, Will dropped Daryl to the ground and tried to stand tall as if he could intimidate a man like Jack Grimes.

“‘S my damn son and I’ll…”

Before another word could come out of his mouth, Jack had clenched his fingers into a fist and swung hard at Will Dixon’s face. The old drunk swung around in a semi-circle and dropped to the ground, immediately unconscious.

Jack and Rick both clamored to Daryl. “Are you okay, son?” Jack asked as Rick took the other boy’s hand. “Daryl? You okay?”

Daryl nodded, his voice still feeling scratchy from the constriction. Jack looked up to Rick. “Call 911,” he said. “Ask for an ambulance and the cops.”

“Breathe in and out slowly, Daryl,” Jack said. “Through your nose if it’s too hard through your mouth. Keep your eyes on me. You’ll be okay.”

“Rick?” Daryl gasped.

“He’s fine. He’s fine. Calling 911.”

Daryl’s breathing came easier and easier as the minutes passed and soon the sound of sirens filled the air. He sat up and saw that Rick had Will Dixon on the ground, a knee to his back and both hands pulled back and tied with Lincoln’s leash.

Glenn and Maggie jumped out of the ambulance, Maggie going to Will, and Glenn making a beeline for Daryl.

“You okay, man?”

Daryl nodded as Glenn moved the boy’s hands from his neck and examined the imprints of Will’s fingers. He heard Jack talking to the police. Words like “Attempted Murder” and “Pressing Charges.”

Before Daryl had time to start feeling overwhelmed, and like he was nothing but trouble--just a giant burden to the Grimes--Rick threw his arms around him and squeezed tight. “Did you see dad punch the shit out of that asshole?!” Rick asked and Daryl tried to hold back a laugh.

“He’s gonna kick our ass when he finds out we’ve been smuggling him money all this time without telling him,” Daryl said as they sat down against the tree to watch Will being shoved into the back of the police car.

“Yeah. We’re in for a hell of a lecture,” Rick agreed.

Chapter Text

Daryl sat in the back of the ambulance, siren blaring, lights flashing and Glenn by his side. He wanted to cry and he probably would later, but right now he had to be strong. Had to be confident and focus on what was important. He thought about his first time in an ambulance...the incident with Negan years before. Remembered the fear and the pain.

He thought of other black eyes and marred skin. He chased thoughts of his father away. He hadn’t spared the man a thought in years, ever since the Grimes had formally adopted him, and now was no time to get knee-deep into the past. At times like this, he always took a moment to be happy about what he had. Wonderful parents in Jack and Liz. And a wonderful husband in Rick.

He squeezed the little hand that he held in his own. “You hanging in there big guy?” he asked the seven-year-old boy lying on the gurney with a black eye, a broken nose, and bloodied elbows wrapped in fresh gauze.

“Yeah,” Sam Anderson said softly, wincing in pain. Daryl could recognize the sorrow in his eyes, the worry, the hurt.

“My name’s Daryl and this here is Glenn. We’re gonna get you all fixed up.”

“Do you know where my mom is?”

“We called her, buddy,” Glenn said. “She’s on her way to meet you at the hospital.”

Daryl used his pen light again to check the boy’s eyes for concussion.

“Will my dad be there, too?” he asked with a shaky voice, holding his hands gently around his sore ribs.

“No,” Daryl said firmly. “The policemen took your dad because what he did is not right.” He tried to say it as softly as he could, hiding the anger that was eating him up inside. “You know you didn’t do anything wrong, right? You did not deserve this, kiddo.”

Sam’s eyes welled up with tears. “You’re nice. I wish you were my dad.”

“How about I be your friend? Deal?” he asked, holding out his hand for a shake.

“Deal,” Sam said with a small smile, shaking Daryl’s hand weakly.

“You know what?” Daryl asked with a sly grin, leaning towards Sam conspiratorially. “We’re breaking the speed limit right now. Ain’t that pretty cool?”

Sam smiled at that and tried to look out the window in the back doors. “How fast are we going?”

“Probly as fast as an airplane. Dontcha think, Glenn?”

“Faster I bet,” Glenn answered.

Sam’s eyes widened and then he winced from the pain in his face. Daryl put a gentle hand on his arm. “I know how much it hurts big guy. Hang in there.”

After a few moments, Sam closed his eyes and Glenn leaned over to Daryl. “You’re really good with the kids, man. This is definitely your calling.”

“You know there’s something I ain’t mentioned cause I didn’t want to jinx it,” Daryl admitted and Glenn’s brow wrinkled in confusion.

“What?”

“Me and Rick? We been working on something,” Daryl grinned as they pulled into the hospital parking lot, stopping outside the ER.

They hurried Sam out of the vehicle as Daryl reported the boy’s injuries to the doctor who’d rushed out to meet them.

“Black eye, cracked ribs, nose probably broken, and lacerations on both elbows.” As the team at the hospital took him back to be checked over, Glenn nudged Daryl’s arm.

“Well? What are you two up to?”

Daryl pulled out his wallet and slipped a photo out, handing it to Glenn.

“That’s Carl,” Daryl said. “He just turned four. We’ve been visiting with him over the past few months. His parents died in a house fire and they’re looking to place him in a permanent home. He’s been in the system for nearly two years. Doesn’t even remember life before being in the foster system.”

“You’re going to adopt?” Glenn asked with a wide smile. “That’s fantastic! You two will make amazing parents!”

**************************************

“It’s pretty cool here, huh?” Daryl asked as he sat on the floor leaning against one of the beds.

Carl looked up from his spot on the floor beside Rick and a growing tower of legos, and he shrugged noncommittally.

“Got a lot of kids to play with,” Rick said.

“I like when you guys come to play with me.” Carl continued as he snapped a red lego into place. “It’s too crowded here. I gotta share my room with five kids and I have to share all the toys and Patrick snores loud. And also Cyndie is mean and Gracie cries all the time.”

Daryl and Rick smiled at one another. Today was the day they were going to talk to Carl about their intentions.

Before they had a chance to say anything, Carl continued. “Patrick says that you guys aren’t gonna take me home cause there’s no mom at your house to take care of me.” He stopped playing with the blocks and just looked to Daryl for a response.

“We don’t have a mom at home, I’m afraid,” Daryl said. “But you know what we DO have?”

“What?” Carl asked.

“TWO dads!”

Carl cocked his head as if he were deep in thought.

“Two dads and your own room,” Rick added. And then he continued, “Carl. Daryl and I talked to the ladies at the courthouse and if it’s okay with you, we’d like you to come live with us.”

The boy opened his mouth, letting it hang open for a moment as he took in all the information he’d just recieved. “You guys got a dog? I always wanted a dog.”

“We have one but he lives with our parents. We’ve been meaning to get a new puppy. We kinda thought maybe you could help us pick one out,” Daryl said with a grin. “What d’ya say? Want to live with us?”

Carl stood and opened and shut his mouth several times before Rick noticed his eyes well up with tears as the boy fell into Rick’s arms. Rick hugged and shushed him as Daryl moved over and sat beside them, a hand rubbing circles on Carl’s back.

“I hope those are happy tears, buddy,” Daryl said, knowing full well they were.

“I always wanted to have a real family,” he sniffed.

“Me too,” Daryl said as he met Rick’s eyes. “Me too. Family is the best thing in the world.”

*******************************************************
As they drove home that night with Carl’s meager belongings and the boy falling asleep in the back seat, Rick looked out the passenger side window.

“Lot of stars out tonight,” Rick said as he reached over to grab his husband’s hand.

“There always are,” Daryl said. “There always are.”