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The thing about it was, Rick had never really had a lot of contact with people outside of his peer group. He'd gone on vacations, sure, visited Atlanta and gone riding out for school baseball games (and, as he got older, following Shane and Lori for football), but even if he "had the touch" as his mama liked to call it, the charm that drew people into liking him, he never really got close to too many of them. His personal world remained relatively small even if his social circle did not, proportionate to the size of the town he roamed, and that was alright with him.

Daryl Dixon made him curious though.

Two years younger, three grades under, and with a temper like a wet cat, the younger Dixon brother didn't try to make friends or even enemies. He wasn't meek though; if he didn't like you it was well known, drenched in acidic wit and thrown in your face if he was provoked. Which was quite easy to do. Most everyone got the second degree, Rick included, but even after the nasty barbs, the older boy found himself approaching the younger, out of some stupid sense of kinship or what he wasn't sure.

"The hell d'you want Grimes?" Had been the testy greeting.

The day had been warm, humidity high and cloud heavy. Seated beneath an old oak tree at the edge of campus, essentially where they weren't supposed to be, Daryl had one of the coolest bits of shade around, completely isolated but for Rick's intrusion. This explained the ease with which he sat, blowing smoke rings and looking only mildly concerned that he'd been caught.

Rick had considered telling him 'to get to know you' or 'to be your friend', but he'd seen similar acts crash in flames. Besides, just then he hadn't been sure what he wanted. So instead he'd moved to sit against the other side of the tree, making sure they weren't touching.

"To sit someplace I don't have to express my feelings every ten minutes," he'd said, surprised at how true it was.

Daryl had snorted, something like the word "fine" and they'd sat out lunch in relative quiet.

After three weeks of this, Daryl had offered him a cigarette (which Rick had declined, as politely as possible, because he'd never taken up the habit and was still honestly a little traumatized from his last attempt). The next day, Rick had casually offered him half of his pbnj, because he always packed two just in case Shane wanted to steal his food and he was getting kind of sick of eating both. Two days after that, Daryl moved a quarter way around the tree and announced, "Some asshole lit himself on fire in a biology lab," and they'd been friends ever since.

They didn't talk about a lot of things at first. Rick made a point to ignore the bruises and split lips after Daryl literally spit in his face for the tentative question and Daryl never mentioned the fact that Lori seemed to be pulling away after a loud, public argument about whether or not Rick cared. They never mentioned the fact that on the days they spent underneath the tree, Shane's lunches became Daryl's. They avoided the nasty things until Daryl was out a week and a half and returned looking like death, so bruised in the face that Rick couldn't do his usual calm hello in the hallway, had stopped mid-sentence to rush up to him, patting Lori's arm almost absently as he slipped away.

"Are you all right?" He'd asked, voice as low as he could make it, automatically reaching to touch the other teen's shoulder. A stupid mistake he'd think later, fingers stinging from the force of Daryl's automatic, defensive slap as he watched other boy slink away.

Lori's hand had been small and comforting on his shoulder, her lips pursed in disapproval after the retreating back before her eyes met his and they'd known more than Rick himself did. Wrapped up in her own problems or not, she knew what the boy wouldn't figure out until so much later.

Out of habit, Rick showed up at the tree that day, sinking down on what he'd unofficially called his side. Daryl showing up had surprised him, but what was even more so was the way he sat down, arm pressed against Rick's from shoulder to elbow, thighs nearly touching. It was nice and weird all at once coming from the contact phobic teen, but that all flew out the window when Daryl spoke.

"He got piss drunk n' wouldn't believe me about Merle bein' gone," he'd said, calmly, as if this were normal. "Normally I can get the hell outta dodge, but he cracked me somethin' good with a bottle."

Anger made his chest tight, made the rage move through him like an arctic breeze, freezing his blood, clearing his thoughts. "Your dad?" He'd asked, knowing the answer in the guilt and aggravation that crossed the other teens face.


He'd wanted to push it, to point out why that was wrong, to call the cops himself if he needed. In some way though, he knew it wouldn't work. He knew if he did, he'd break the fragile friendship he'd made, and Daryl would slide off the grid. The thought thawed some of the ice in his chest.

"Can bail to my house if you need," he'd said instead, offering one of the days plastic wrapped sandwiches.

Daryl's sneer had summed up his thoughts on that.

Spring fell into summer break. With it came less of Daryl and more Shane, sitting on Rick's front porch with giant jugs of tea brewing in the sunshine and playing baseball. Listening to Shane's exploits with women was exciting in it's own way, but Rick found that even if the thrill of vicarious living was wonderful, he had no urge beyond the hormonal to partake.

His relationship with Lori went rocky and ended, but he still found her beautiful smile and ridiculous sense of humor close to his heart. Rick thought they always would be. As summer wound down though, he found himself more worried about Daryl than his mending heart.

He SAW Daryl, but only in passing. Glimpses of him in grocery stores, a few sparse words of conversation on the street, and once he was sure he saw him out in the woods, past the boundaries of the park and into the territory of real, unmarked land. He missed the easy company and the familiar length of skin pressed against his side, the huffing laughter and somewhat morbid wit. He missed tired blue eyes and the sardonic twist of an ironic smile. He missed Daryl in almost the same way that he missed Lori, but he didn't think about it like that too often- wouldn't, because if he did then he thought of how Daryl would react. It was never favorable. Mostly, Rick just missed his friend.

When school rolled around again, his senior year, he practically ran to the tree in the morning, begging off Shane's exasperated whining by pointing out the gaggle of pretty girls who had all missed him over the break. He dodged around a building, feeling rebellious and eager. He bolted to the tree, and wasn't surprised that Daryl wasn't there.

He waited. Daryl never came.

The afternoon came and went with no sign as well. The next day, he casually asked amongst the sophomores, but no one had seen him- or even taken notice. Two days after, he asked after him in the office, but was only slightly relieved to find that the other boy was still enrolled.

A week passed. Rick felt sick with anxiety.

When Daryl showed for classes, he was two weeks late with a legitimate doctor's note under his wing and a broken arm. Faded bruises lined his face and neck and his hair was cut short; if anyone cared to look closely enough, a patch near the base of his neck was shorter than the rest. Rick saw the patch before the bruises, running after the other teen in the halls with a frantic beat to his heart he didn't know how to define.

His worry had been that Daryl would rebuff him after such a time apart. Seeing the cruel slash of a smile as he gestured to his arm was worse.

"Stairs," he'd said, and carried on with things as usual.

Seeing him again made life better. For a month and a half, as summer sweltered its way into fall, Rick held his tongue. He held it while Daryl told him, in casual off the cuff, that things had actually gotten better at home. He restrained it as the other teenager mentioned that his brother had called from prison and said he was due for parole soon. He swallowed it when, standing beside Rick's dinged up truck after school, Daryl said he'd be cutting off the cast soon so the old man didn't get any funny ideas.

He could no longer hold it on Monday of the next week.

"Maybe we should get you help," Rick had said. What he wanted to say was get out of there, come live with me, that man is a pig who deserves nothing. It was Daryl's choice, as much as he hated it. Even if he wanted to be the friend to help, to call someone, in the end only Daryl could put him away.

Daryl had prickled furiously, eyes narrowed, shoulders stiff. "Maybe you should butt out."

"He hurts you."

The warning signs snapped to the surface in the blink of an eye, Daryl standing, tense all over, expression nearly feral.

"Fuck off," he'd said, stalking away.

"I'm here for you!" Rick had shouted, feeling helpless, thinking about Shane giving him the sideways look and asking if he was going to hang out with the Dixon again, thinking of bruises that he couldn't help, of finally telling his mother that he was very likely in love with a boy with a battered body and a foul mouth and her reply of oh honey it'll be okay. "I mean it!"

The call came at nearly midnight, which hadn't made his dad happy, but Rick stopped caring as soon as he heard the voice on the other end of the line, crackling with a bit of static. "Rick. Can I..."

"Where are you?" He'd asked at once, pressing the phone to his ear and wishing the chord were longer as he groped for his keys.

It wasn't cold yet and wouldn't be for weeks, but Rick's mother had given him a scarf on the way out, her smile gentle with understanding. He'd broken all the speed limits and driven through three stop signs to get to the school, and sitting in the parking lot, staring at the scrap of fabric in his hands and thinking of everything leading up to then, he finally understood.

He stepped out of the truck, shut the door, and started across campus.

Daryl lay under their tree, gazing upwards. He didn't move when Rick drew even with him, so the older boy sat down beside him, looking up too. The stars were beautiful, shockingly bright with the absence of the moon. It was easier to pick up on little things in the dark, the far off cry of birds and the rustle of grass when they shifted. It was nice.

"Got out before he noticed me," Daryl said mildly, breaking the silence.

Rick glanced at his friend. He looked small, uncertain, still wearing the vest from earlier. His cast was gone, however, and the arm beneath was noticeably smaller and as pale as snow.

"Glad you called," the older boy said. He didn't look away when Daryl scoffed. He smiled instead. "I am."

Darkness bled the color from things, but Rick knew the shade of blue that belonged to Daryl's calculating gaze. The younger teen sat up, frowning at him, but Rick didn't look away.

"I meant what i said earlier y'know. I'm here for you," he said. "Talked to my mom and she has no problem with you bein there. Dad too."

Rick rubbed the soft fabric of the scarf between his fingers, then carefully held it out. Daryl didn't flinch, hadn't flinched in a long time, so he carefully draped it over the other teen's shoulders. Daryl arched his brows and took one of the ends in his hands, looking a little bemused.

"S'this for?"

Rick looked up at their tree. He pulled the edges of his robe tight against himself and rocked back and forth, chewing over his words. Lori had always told him he was too quiet. Shane was more the type to express himself vocally. There was too much to say and too many ways to ruin it with words.

It was to cover the bruises if he wanted, to keep away the cold when his coat decided to tear or the holes in the cloth became too much. It was a promise of assistance and as much a sign of friendship as their hours saying nothing and being perfectly okay. It was safety, like the one Rick's mother had placed upon him every winter school day when he was young.

Instead he reached out and rested one of his hands over Daryl's own. He wanted to take it and hold it, but the timing wasn't right for being assertive. His own selfishness could and would wait.

"Somethin' to remind you I'm around," he said.

Daryl snorted again, but Rick could just see a smile lurking around his lips. The palm beneath his own twisted, fingers curling over Rick's, and he decided not to think too much about it, squeezing back. Instead he thought about Daryl, the stars, and where he'd be sleeping for a while.

"Ready?" Rick asked.

He was reluctant to let go of Daryl's hand to stand, but found he didn't have to. The other teen stood first and pulled on their linked fingers, dragging him to his feet.

"Taking that as yes."

Daryl scoffed, walking towards the parking lot. Rick laughed under his breath, tightening his hold a bit on the hand in his own and thanking whatever had made him curious.