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Blooms Among The Dead

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Was this going to be what his life is now? Breakfast, lunch and dinner alone in a graveyard? The dirt was still fresh just three weeks later and the sod they laid overtop did a miserable job of camouflaging the time that hadn’t passed. It was darker green and taller than the rest of the cemetery, and the coffin-shaped bulge was still rounded above the rest of the ground. Daryl had spent a very impractical amount of money on the simple headstone--Merle Dixon, Loving Brother. The plot spoke of new loss and fresh grief and a brother left to wander the earth now alone.

Daryl unwrapped a bologna and cheese sandwich as he sat indian-style on the grass in front of the sod mound. “Still mad,” he said and took a bite. “Said you wouldn’t leave again. This is about as leaving as you can get.” His voice was quiet and meek. He popped open a can of root beer and guzzled it. After another bite of the sandwich, he changed course. “Figured out a way to keep the shithole house at least. Working 40 at the garage and Dale’s gonna give me all the tows. Got rid of HBO and Showtime. The Internet. So now there’s nothing really to do but come here and be pissed at you all over again.” Daryl finished his sandwich in silence. It was overcast and a light sprinkle had settled over the rolling hills of dead.

The mechanic pushed back damp hair from his forehead and took a deep breath, the rain in no way rushing his visit. Despite the warm September air, the dampness gave him goosebumps as he sat, unmoving in a sleeveless tank top. Daryl liked the outdoors and he had nowhere else to go anyway. It was Sunday. His day off. He had no one before but Merle and he had no one but Merle now. He wasn’t good at making friends. He wasn’t good with girls. He had no family. Hell, he didn’t even have a hobby. He hunted, but that was more for survival than for fun--still a lingering habit from childhood. There were months on end where Daryl and Merle would have starved if they weren’t out hunting, skinning and cooking their own meals. Their momma had left them when they were still young. Went out the same way Merle did, with a rubber hose tied ‘round her arm. And their father… he was a drunk. A mean one. Taught Daryl that touches were an unwanted thing. They meant hurt. Pain. Scars. He was covered in those memories from the top of his shoulders to the bottom of his backside.

Merle took his fair share of beatings too. Probably more than his share in an attempt to take care of his baby brother. They only had each other. Until Merle found coke and meth and all the wrong kinds of friends. He was in juvie and in jail at various points, leaving Daryl alone, the only moving target for his father’s belt. And every time he came back he’d promise Daryl he wouldn’t leave again.

Their dad had been dead for years now. But still, to this day, the sound of a belt sliding through loops would make Daryl want to curl into a ball and hide. He’d literally never bought or worn one himself for that very reason. He was glad when Will Dixon died, didn’t even feel guilty about that. He’d wished the man away more often than he’d wish for food when the fridge was bare. But Merle. Yes, he was a dick. He was a racist and a criminal and a drug addict. But he loved Daryl. Never hurt Daryl. Protected him the best he could. The only person in the world that knew him. The only person that saw him. Daryl could walk down the center aisle of a crowded mall and not a single set of eyes would ever meet his. He was invisible. No one wanted to talk to a Dixon. No one wanted to see a Dixon. And that was fine by him.

Daryl thought of himself as a loner even though technically he hadn’t been alone in years. The past five, Merle had been out of jail and living with him. He had someone to talk to every day. Not just someone. But someone who knew him. Really knew him.

As the mechanic crumbled up his lunch bag, he looked around the graveyard. Mostly old people, probably visiting deceased spouses. In just the three weeks that Daryl had been coming, he’d already noticed the regulars. There was the hat lady. She always wore an old pill box hat like Jackie Kennedy. More often than not, it was pink and it rarely matched anything else she had on.

Then there was an old guy up on the hill by the oak tree. He brought flowers every Saturday and used a hanky to loudly blow his nose during every visit. A young woman came with her daughter, usually just on Sunday mornings, dressed like church and visiting just long enough to feel like God saw them and would allow them into heaven because they grieved for the mandatory amount of time.

A guy about Daryl’s age was four rows up. He had long uncombed curls and a beard that looked like he just really didn’t give a shit about grooming habits anymore. Daryl guessed widower. The plot he visited had grass that matched the rest of the lawn at Grove Meadows Cemetery, though. Whoever he came to see had been gone longer than Merle and it made Daryl wonder how long he’d be spending time here. As it was, he visited at least once a day since Merle was put in the ground after an unceremonious funeral. Just Daryl, a preacher he’d never met and a generic Bible verse that he’d never heard. Merle would have called him an idiot for spending the money he did for this plot and the headstone. But he was all Daryl had. And he didn’t know how else to grieve.

“I’m throwing out all your Playboys. Your fucking room is like an episode of Hoarders.” Daryl picked at blades of grass, plucking them out of the earth just to have something to do with his hands. “Found that stupid ashtray I made ya in woodshop. Can’t believe you kept something so stupid,” Daryl laughed. “You ever throw anything away? Y’know the only thing wasn’t covered in trash in there was the goddamn trash can. It was completely empty.”

The rain had started to fall more steadily. “Still mad at you,” Daryl said quietly. “Just came by to tell you that.” The mechanic stood, wiping the rain off his face with a red shop rag from his back pocket as he returned to his Harley and another day of nothingness.

Chapter Text

Rick was still in shock each time he sat on this bench and faced the grave in front of him. Lori Grimes, beloved wife and mother. You will never be forgotten.

It had been nine months and Rick still came here more days than not, even though Carl had started refusing to come just a few weeks after the funeral. He hated how easily Carl seemed to be adjusting to life without Lori, but he was thankful for it at the same time. Shane said kids were resilient like that, and Rick thought it was something of a blessing because at least he didn’t have to deal with his son’s grief on top of his own. And there was comfort in knowing that while he visited Lori, Carl was waiting for him at the house next door, playing like a normal kid his age should.

After the accident, everyone had been incredibly supportive of the widower and his son. Their neighbors, the Morales family, had been amazing and they had two kids around Carl's age who had been friends with the boy since first grade. Mrs. Morales had given Rick more casseroles than he could count in the last nine months, each time with a well-meaning lecture about how much weight he’d lost and how he had to eat. Lori’s family had helped out tremendously with Carl and the funeral arrangements. And Shane had been a rock through it all during those first few hellish weeks, letting Rick cry it out on more than one occasion without judging him.

But after a month or so, the support had slowly shifted into pity. Now, everyone would speak in hushed tones about Rick. "He's on his way to her grave." Or "give him some time. He's still grieving her." God, he hated how people said "her" instead of “Lori.” Like she never existed at all. By now, even Lori’s parents had stopped coming to the cemetery. Rick was the only one who plucked the weeds off her plot, swept fallen leaves from the headstone and replaced the flowers from the week prior. It was becoming clear that everyone thought Rick should have moved on by now, been happy again, said goodbye and let her go.

And that’s why Rick needed to be at the cemetery. Alone. He didn’t have to pretend he was feeling better. He didn’t have to try to be upbeat, talking of heaven and angels and shit he wasn't sure he believed. He didn’t need to do anything to benefit Carl. Instead he could just be sad and angry. This was sacred time. And if he was hanging out here, Shane wouldn't be nagging him to move on. Carl wouldn't be begging him to go on Boy Scout trips. And Mrs. Morales wouldn't be force-feeding him enchilada casseroles. Here, he could grieve the way he wanted, without judgment from anyone else.

Rick picked up a stray acorn that had fallen next to a vase that was permanently affixed to the headstone. He rolled it between two fingers as he talked to thin air. In the first few months, he would sit and talk to Lori like it was a random Tuesday night on the couch before bed. A little about Carl. A little about his day. But recently most of his visits were less day-to-day chatter and more depth and despair. It started drizzling and Rick opened his umbrella.

“Wonder if I’d still be here. Y’know, if it weren’t for Carl. Probably just forget to breathe and die. But don’t worry. I’m breathing. I’m here. Doing the best I can.” The rain sent several visitors scurrying back to their vehicles. Amateurs. Bring an umbrella if it’s calling for rain, Rick thought.

His eyes fell back to the inscription on the head stone. “My heart still breaks every fucking morning I wake up without you by my side. How do I get over that, Lori?” His voice cracked at the taste of his wife’s name. “Don’t want to be in this world without you. I’m like a zombie with Carl. Just going through the motions to get him fed and to school… I know I need to get over it. Be better to him. He lost you and shit, Lori. I know I’m not all here. I know it. I just… I just need help. Or something. Shit, I don’t know what I need.” He dropped the acorn and ran a hand through his hair.

“Sure as shit don’t need anymore casseroles. So ‘f you got any strings you can pull up there, make Mrs. Morales just bring us some McDonalds next time.” He absently rubbed a thumb along his jaw, realizing that he had forgotten to shave. Not by a day or two. But weeks. He had a full-on beard growing in and the officer hadn’t even realized it.

“Carl misses that kind of shit food.” Rick tilted his head at the spot where Lori laid six feet beneath him, wearing the dress she bought for Easter the year prior. Yellow and lacy.

“Why don’t I take him?” he asked as if the question had been posed aloud. “Cause they have chocolate milkshakes. That’s what you got everytime. We’d have trays full of burgers and fries and you’d just have a chocolate milkshake and nibble at a few of my fries. So… you can see why. I can’t go in there.”

He ran his gaze along the horizon and saw only one other person who refused to let the rain steal their mourning. Guy about his age. Didn’t even have an umbrella. Just sitting on the cold, damp ground. Rick was used to some of these faces and this guy was new. He'd been coming every day as far as Rick could tell, but it had only been a couple of weeks.

His focus went back to the 2 ½ x 8 foot piece of earth in front of him. And he drifted into a silence. No longer visiting Lori as much as avoiding everyone else. He knew when he got back the world would expect him to operate within it. Make lunches, pay bills, check Carl’s homework. All he wanted to do was go home and crawl back into bed. Rick stood and swallowed hard.

“See you tomorrow, pumpkin,” he whispered and he pressed lips to his fingers and let them drop and flutter over the top of the headstone. Lori Grimes, beloved wife and mother. You will never be forgotten.

Chapter Text

It was just starting to rain when Rick pulled into his usual parking spot a few days later. He sat in his car for a minute to let a song play out on the Ed Sheeran CD. Lori's CD. She'd put it in there when they'd gone out to dinner the week before her accident and Rick hadn't taken it out since. Every song made him think of her, still here and singing softly next to him in the car. He could hear the ghost of her voice saying “This is my favorite part” during the final chorus of Give Me Love. He once liked the CD as well, but now the songs were nothing more than stark reminders of her absence. He kept replaying them anyway, almost craving the pain they brought. He wanted to remember. Wanted to imagine Lori next to him tapping fingers on her knees to the beat of the music, looking over from time to time to smile at him. When he looked over to the passenger side now, all he saw was the grounds of Grove Meadows through the window.

He scanned the rise and fall of the landscape and felt the emptiness each plot contained. It had been damp out all morning and drizzling on and off. The only other mourner was the new guy, only a few weeks into his changed world and still sitting vigil daily. He sat on the wet grass letting the rain take him.

Rick grabbed his usual umbrella then reached under his seat to pull out his spare. He looked again at the guy curled in on himself as he sat over the body of someone who was more important than the comfort of staying dry in the rain. Rick knew the pain he was in. He was a cop and had cop instincts. He was perceptive and he could tell over the past few weeks, that this was not the kind of graveyard visitor who came out of obligation or habit. He came because his world was destroyed and he was lost, like Rick was. So instead of heading straight to Lori, Rick followed the path towards the more freshly turned earth. The man looked up at the sound of Rick's footsteps.

"I had a spare," Rick said reaching out to hand off the compact, powder blue umbrella. He was met with another blue, glassy and tortured like turbulent ocean waves being kicked up by a storm as the man below him narrowed his eyes in suspicion, almost like he anticipated being robbed or something far more sinister than the offer of a kindness.

Rick shook the outstretched umbrella. "Go on, no sense catching a cold," the widower encouraged. The other man slowly reached out and accepted the offer timidly. Rick heard it open as he walked away.

Daryl wasn't used to the kindness of strangers. He wasn't even used to the kindness of kin. He remained in the wet grass and popped open the umbrella as he watched the stranger walk towards his usual spot. When his eyes returned to Merle's name on the headstone, he scowled. "What?" he asked the emptiness, defensively.

If Merle were here he'd be working an angle. Thinking the guy was nice enough, trusting enough that maybe he left his car unlocked. Maybe he had a wallet or emergency cash tucked somewhere. Maybe Merle'd take a peek at the vehicle registration, make note of his visits and rob the guy while he was here suffering a grief worse than burglary.

"You ain't here. An' I ain't never been like ya. So you can forget about me fleecing that guy in your honor." Daryl bit nervously at a thumbnail, already growing ridiculously shy at the thought of returning the loaned umbrella.

"Not good at talking with strangers. You know that," Daryl confessed to the damp air and the slight breeze, imagining his brother giving him that look. A look that translated to "quit sucking yer thumb like a pussy and man up."

Daryl concentrated on trying to find a better memory. Like one of the times someone would be pushing him around in high school and Merle would show up out of nowhere and beat the piss out of two or three kids at once. Then he’d walk Daryl home with an arm around his shoulder, razzing him a bit but still keeping his kid brother close and protected.

Daryl couldn't imagine what life would have been like as an only child. He likely wouldn't have survived it. The burns and the lashings on his back would have been twice as bad if someone hadn't been there for the old man to switch over to. He probably would have gotten kicked around even worse at school if there hadn’t been the rumors about how Daryl Dixon's older brother once killed a guy for looking at him the wrong way. Merle hadn’t, of course, but Daryl let them all go ahead and believe it.

Merle would probably choke to death laughing at Daryl sitting here with an umbrella. First for being here at all instead of out looking for a piece of ass or drowning his sorrows at the bar like a real man. And second for hiding under an umbrella like he thought he was gonna melt.

The mechanic didn't really need it. He wasn’t afraid of the weather. But he had to admit it was nice not having to continually wipe the rain out of his eyes. After another half hour of unanswered conversation, Daryl stood and stretched. He shot his eyes over the widower and bit nervously at his bottom lip, trying to decide what you say to something like this. Probably just thanks, he guessed. Never had anyone do anything for him that would require a thanks. With shoulders hunched and a thumb back up to his lip, he walked over to the grieving man. He was sitting on a bench with his elbows on his knees. He looked up as Daryl approached, smiled and straightened up. The smile was one of those polite ones. Just for show. Not a happy smile. Daryl could tell the light in his eyes had been snuffed out long ago by whoever lay below them, swallowed up by the earth.

“Thanks,” Daryl said quietly as he handed the umbrella over. The light shower had slowed to barely a drizzle.

“Sure,” he nodded. The mechanic glanced at the headstone, unsure of what was appropriately polite for this social situation. He wanted to make sure this man knew how much the kind gesture meant. “Lori your wife?” he asked.

Rick nodded. “Yeah.”

“How long?”

“About nine months. Car accident.” He ran a hand through his untamed curls.

“Sorry ‘bout your loss, man,” Daryl said, hating that he sounded like a Hallmark card.

As he started walking away, the man called over, “Who’s Merle? Father?”

Daryl stopped and looked back, blinking. “Uh, brother.” Rick nodded.

“Must miss him like hell. You come a lot. My wife’s sisters haven’t been here since the funeral.”

The mechanic grunted in response since he didn’t know how else to respond. Rick stood with a sigh. “Think I’m going to head home too.” As they walked side by side, Rick glanced over. “Rick Grimes,” he said, extending his hand.

“Daryl,” the other man replied, cautiously accepting the handshake.

Daryl tried not to bite nervously on his thumb and instead nibbled on his bottom lip. They walked in silence. For a moment, the mechanic felt like he should fill the space with conversation. Like people are supposed to do. Like the other mechanics do. Like the guys at the coffee shop do. Like people on TV do. But he didn’t have anything to say and neither did Rick. And that was ok because there was a comfort in the feeling of their shared sadness and their comfortable quiet. It was nice to walk and not be alone.

Daryl walked to his bike and Rick waved. “See ya tomorrow, I guess," the widower said.

Daryl nodded and kick started the motorcycle.

Chapter Text

Rick was heating up casserole leftovers in the microwave when Carl got home from next door and rounded the corner, stopping in his tracks.

"Already ate at Louis and Eliza's," he said as he grabbed his Game Boy off the counter.

"Oh. Didn't want to have dinner with your old man tonight?"

"Well, you haven't made dinner in three days. Didn't realize you were… microwaving tonight." Carl sat in the chair and turned on the game. Snippets of digitized video game music filled the silence.

"I didn't give you dinner the last few nights?" Rick asked, rubbing a hand against his growing beard trying to remember the last time they’d sat down together. He furrowed his brows, deep in thought. When was that? What did they have? He could hear Lori in his head, the voice she used when she was disappointed. Hell, he was disappointed in himself. It was one thing for him to forget to eat, but to forget to feed his son? He had to figure out how to pull his shit together.

Carl rolled his eyes but the tone of his voice was sympathetic. "S'alright. Been eating next door. Mrs. Morales loves feeding people."

"Shit, Carl. I'm sorry." The widower sat at the table dejectedly and plopped his head in his hands as if it were too heavy to hold up for another second. Carl turned off the video game.

"Mr. Morales thinks you need to see a shrink."

"What? He told you that?" Rick asked, exasperated.

"Nah. We over-heard it when we were playin' Grand Theft Auto."

"Thought the Morales' were in agreement with your mom and me 'bout that video game. 'S too violent."

"They are. We were sneaking it. Had the TV on mute and turned up Eliza's Game Boy so it sounded like we were playing Super Mario." Carl smiled mischievously, proud of his con.

Rick swallowed hard. "Why are you tattling on yourself?"

Carl shrugged. "Don't know. Mrs. Morales says it's only a matter of time before I start acting out for attention. Overheard that during hide and seek."

Rick shook his head, his fingers pinching at the top of his nose. "You're right. They're right--"

"That you're nuts and need a shrink?" Carl interrupted.

"No! That I haven't been doing a good job by you. Not paying enough attention. Christ, not feedin' ya I guess. What have you been eating for lunch?"

"Been buying. You give me lunch money."

"I do?"

"Well, I take it from your wallet, but same diff,” Carl answered as he shrugged his shoulders.

Rick shook his head in disbelief. How did things get so bad with him? "I'm gonna do better, Carl. I promise."

"Like going with me to the Boys Scout camping trip?" Carl asked excitedly.

"Sure, yeah." Rick tried to seem convincing, excited. He really tried. He forced a smile and nodded, already trying to think of a way to get out of it.

The boy's grin almost split his face in two. "Really?"

"Yeah. When is it?"

Carl's face fell and he clicked the Game Boy back on. "December 4th."

Rick's veins turned to ice. December 4th would be the worst day of his life forever. "Carl... I can't... That's--"

"I know, Dad," his son replied as he got up and walked away with the blips of Tetris in his wake.

Rick dropped his head into his hands again. It was closing in on a year. A whole year without Lori to talk to or look at or laugh with or make love to. A whole year alone fucking up one thing after another. Forgetting to feed his damn kid. Leaving wet laundry in the washing machine all week. Forgetting to bring the trash to the sidewalk for the entire month of July. Garage smelled like a morgue in the heat of summer like that.

His cell chirped and brought him back to present. He checked the ID before he flipped it open. It was Shane. Rick ran a hand through his hair and answered, “Yeah, Shane. What’s up?”

“Can you lend me twenty bucks?”

“What?” Rick asked

“Simple question, brother. You got a twenty?”

“Yeah, what the hell do you need twenty dollars for?”

“Get it out. Make sure you have it.” Rick was starting to figure this was some sort of a game. He reached into his back pocket. Then to his front. Then got up and looked over at the table by the door next to his keys.

“Fuck,” Rick whispered into the phone.

“Second time this month you left it in the locker room at the station, brother. Open up. I just pulled into your driveway.”

Rick started walking out to Shane's vehicle before he realized he was just in socks. He huffed a frustrated sigh and continued through the damp grass, already eager to get back inside, rip the sopping wet socks off and just crawl into bed.

Shane got out of the car and lifted his sunglasses to rest on his perfectly brushed hair.

He dangled the wallet for Rick. "Christ, you leave your comb somewhere too? You look like hell, man."

"Widowers are supposed to look like hell," he answered as he snatched the wallet back from Shane.

"Gotta stop thinking about yourself as a widower, brother. It's been too long. You need to think of yourself as Rick Fucking Grimes.”

Rick tucked the wallet into his back pocket and looked longingly back at the house, desperate to climb into bed and shut the entire world out. Shane folded his arms and leaned onto the hood of the car as if he had more to say. He looked Rick up and down again from the unkempt hair to the soaking wet socks. “Saturday night. What are you doing?” he asked. “Nevermind. I know you ain’t doin’ nothin’. You are gonna brush your hair, bring your wallet and come with me to Neon’s. Meet some girls, man. You need to get out. Just talk to people. I’m not askin’ ya to fuck any of ‘em.”

“Shane. It’s too fucking soon. I told you that.”

“You’ve been telling me that for almost ten months, brother,” Shane’s voice grew quiet and sympathetic. “I get it. I understand being devastated. She was my friend and I’ve known her as long as I’ve known you. I miss her too, man. But do you really think she’d want you to spend the rest of your life alone and mourning her?”

“Goddammit, Shane. Stop saying ‘her’ and ‘she!’ She had a fucking name and not saying it isn’t gonna make her being gone any easier.” Rick stomped back to the house and shouted over his shoulder. "Her name is Lori!"

As soon as Rick slammed the door, Shane knocked. The widower flung it back open.

"What!?"

"You know I'm not the enemy, Rick," Shane said calmly.

Rick took a deep breath and sighed. "I know, Shane," he relented.

"I'm not asking you to go find a new wife. Just have a night out with me. Hear some music. Talk to some people. Wear shoes and brush your hair. That's it. I feel like I'm failing my best friend. Do it for me. So I don't have to feel like a horrible friend that has been completely unsuccessful in helping you cope with your grief."

Rick peeled off his wet socks. "Fine. Saturday. I'll see you tomorrow for work." Shane flashed Rick a giant smile as the widower slowly closed the door.

"I promise you won't have a miserable time!" Shane yelled as the door clicked shut.

Rick took a hot shower, said goodnight to Carl and crawled into bed. He wouldn’t realize that he left a heated dish of casserole in the microwave until the next morning.

Chapter Text

The bologna was gone. Daryl had been avoiding a trip to the grocery store like a kid avoiding broccoli. The list on the fridge was filled up with his barely legible scribble and he'd even resorted to tap water instead of his guilty pleasure of off-brand root beer. After adding bologna to the list, he moved shit around on the shelves of the refrigerator and found a sticky jar of grape jelly, He grabbed it, opened the lid and licked at his tacky fingers as he dug in the pantry for peanut butter. He did manage to have fresh bread since they sold the plain, white, no-frills Wonder Bread at the gas station.

"We really need to get to the fucking store," he hollered out to the other room. His lone voice echoed eerily in the house and he froze in mid swipe of jelly. He shook his head. "Fuck," he mumbled. Almost a month and sometimes, for just a whisper of a moment, he forgot.

The error made Daryl move faster to get lunch made so he could go over to the cemetery and eat with his brother. He sighed heavily as he worked, planning in his head to get a root beer on the way. When he was finished, he looked down to two sandwiches. Like he used to make. One for him and one for Merle, like his brain hiccuped again. "Goddammit!" he yelled as he threw the butter knife across the kitchen.

He pressed his palms on the counter and tried to ground himself. He just needed to get out of the house. His mind would straighten out then. It was too quiet and cold and lonely. He just needed some air in his lungs and some grass under his feet.

He grabbed his backpack and looked at the two sandwiches. He bit at his lip and thought about bringing the second with him--for that guy, Rick. Like a thank you for the umbrella. Was that a normal thing to do? Or would it be weird? Daryl didn't know. He was shit with people. Guy could probably use a sandwich, though. He was awful thin. He threw both sandwiches in his bag and took off.

After a stop at the gas station for two root beers, he parked in his usual spot. It was a beautiful September day. Cloudless sky. The grass was finally dry after days of rain. The grounds had been freshly mowed and the scent of it hung in the air. Fresh cut grass and a hint of autumn. The earthy smells trying to make up for the unpleasantness of where they were.

Rick was already in position. Leaning forward, elbows on his knees and Daryl could tell he was talking. The mechanic grabbed the two sodas and two sandwiches, left the backpack on his bike and started walking over to Rick. He bit on his lip and considered bailing but Rick looked up and met his gaze, dipping his head in a nod hello.

As Daryl got closer Rick smiled. "Hey Daryl. Nice day for once, huh?"

The mechanic grunted, his old standby response.

"Just, uh... Had an extra sandwich thought maybe you'd want it. Just PB & J.” He pushed his hand forward awkwardly with the sandwiches and Rick took the top one. Then Daryl held out the other hand with two sodas and Rick accepted one of those as well.

"Thank you. 'S nice of you."

Daryl shrugged. "Accidentally made one for my idiot brother out of habit."

Rick's eyes glimmered in sympathy and he tilted his head. "Yeah, that kinda stuff happens to me sometimes still too."

Daryl nodded and walked to his home-away-from-home a few rows away.

He sat Indian-style on the ground and opened his root beer. "Got a letter in the mail says you got unpaid parkin' tickets. Set it on fire for ya."

Merle answered with a breeze and a twirling leaf, the first real sign of autumn. Daryl picked up the leaf and crumbled it in his hand as he chewed. "Made ya a goddamn sandwich on accident. Gave it to that guy over there. Don't really know why."

The cemetery was a little busier than normal since the weather finally cleared. Pink pillbox was back. And there was a new plot being dug about fifty yards away. "It is so fucking quiet. You got any idea how much you ran yer damn mouth when you were... alive? All the fuckin' time man. Never got a minute's peace. You talking about your latest lay. Bitchin' 'bout the price of cigarettes. Talkin' shit 'bout Tony or Darren or Vern. I'll have ya notice ain't none a them friends a’ yours been here once. They all run for the hills after you over-did it with that shit. That shit I TOLD ya was gonna be the death of you."

After a few moments of silence Daryl lowered his voice. "Getting drunk and talking 'bout dad. What you'd a' done to him if he hadn't drank himself ta death."

The mechanic swallowed the last of his sandwich and chased it with root beer. "Merle, did you know what you were doin', man? You just get sick of it here and leave me on purpose? Sick a' worrying about money? Hatin' on yerself 'bout dad. Mad at yerself cause you tried to raise me better and I'm nothin' but a basket case don't talk to no one. Counted on ya too much to be my only... friend.”

"Cause I tried to be a good brother and..." And there it was. The storm Daryl had been anticipating would hit sooner or later. Tears, fat and steady, rolled down his cheeks and he sobbed hard as buckets of snot made it harder to breathe. He gasped through his tears and got out his handkerchief to blow. Up until this point, he’d been stoic. Crying was frowned upon in the Dixon family. Merle, sure as shit, wouldn’t have wanted it. Daryl hadn’t shed tears since they were beaten out of him as a child. The abuse from his father only got worse when his tears fell. The mechanic could clearly remember an incident when his father had one thick rough hand around Daryl’s tiny neck, pressing him down over the kitchen table, whipping even harder with his belt, shouting that crying was for pussies and Daryl needed to learn how to be a man. He’d been nine. Nine and a half, maybe. And that particular beating continued until his tears stopped. Some of his worst scars were from that night. It wasn’t the last time he’d cried, but it was one of the last. That was around the time he’d started to learn how to disappear, to let his body take the stings while his mind went somewhere else.

He wiped at his eyes and tried to pull himself together. He’d never seen Merle cry. Not even during a beating. Not when their mother died. Never. It was one of the few ways that Daryl wished he was more like his brother--emotionally stronger.

Rick enjoyed the sandwich. It wasn't a casserole and it wasn't McDonald's. It was like Goldilocks--just right. He hadn't drank root beer since he was Carl's age and he wasn't sure why. It was really good. As he stood to leave, his first few steps took him toward the grieving brother and maker of sandwiches. But he noticed the shaking shoulders and heard the occasional escaped sob. It was one of those kind of visits. Rick knew them well. His heart ached in sympathy as he turned towards the parking lot. He'd thank Daryl for the sandwich next time.

Chapter Text

Rick pulled into the parking lot after work on Tuesday and set out for his spot at Lori’s grave. He hadn’t mentioned his forced plans for Saturday and felt a growing guilt that it was time to bring it up.

“Hey, Pumpkin,” he said as he slid onto the bench. He sat silent for a while like he always did before he started to talk. “So, Shane’s making me go out Saturday.” The widower shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Doing it for him. Gonna be miserable the whole time.” Rick sighed and continued, “Thinks nine months is too long to still be grieving. But he’s never had so much as a girlfriend that lasted nine months, so what the fuck does he know?”

After a half hour of lamenting to Lori, complaining about his upcoming plans with Shane and confessing about not making dinners for Carl, he noticed that Daryl was at his brother’s grave. He was sitting on the ground again with his arms wrapped around his legs. The two had driven past each other this week and waved but their visits hadn’t been lining up to give Rick an opportunity to thank him for the sandwich.

He looked back to the headstone in front of him. “Guy over there gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the other day. And a root beer.” Rick chuckled under his breath. “Remember that time when Carl was like four and took a sip of your root beer float. Didn’t expect the bubbles. That face he made.” Rick shook his head with a pensive smile. “We laughed about that for days. Took two weeks before he’d take a drink of something without staring at it first and questioning us about exactly what was in it.”

Rick's stomach rumbled at thoughts of PB & J’s and root beer floats. He looked back up to Daryl. “That guy understands,” he told Lori. “He gets grief. Not like everyone else thinks I need to just ‘get over it’.” His stomach grumbled again. The Moraleses were taking Carl to Outback for dinner to celebrate Louis’ 11th birthday, so Rick had to figure out dinner for himself. He skipped it a lot of times, but his stomach was petitioning for a meal tonight. Rick looked back over to Daryl. “Maybe I’ll buy him dinner. Thank him and stuff.” Rick waited as if he expected Lori to respond. Then he got up, kissed his fingers and pressed them to the headstone. “See you tomorrow, Pumpkin.”

Daryl saw Rick coming from the corner of his eye and looked over, giving him a nod.

“Daryl,” Rick said. “Never got a chance to thank you for the sandwich. Hadn’t had a PB & J in ages. It really hit the spot.”

Daryl wished for Rick to leave and to stay all at the same time. He didn’t know how to carry on a conversation, but just having someone there to listen to was so comforting already. The quiet at his house had become deafening. The guys at the garage had thrown him some platitudes when they first found out about Merle’s passing, but by now it had all gone back to normal. No one chatted or joked with Daryl while they worked. He searched his brain for an appropriate response. "No problem," he said quietly.

"So, I was having a real bad day when you gave it to me. So it, y'know, meant a lot. Wanted to repay the favor. You eat dinner yet?"

"No."

Rick smiled. "Good, let me buy you dinner. There's a diner down the road."

Daryl blinked rapidly and bit at his lower lip. “Oh. Uh, ok.”

Rick glanced at Merle's headstone and then back to the grieving brother. "No rush. Take your time here. You can meet me over there when you're done. I'm in no hurry."

Daryl looked back to the headstone, eyes pleading for help from his older brother, but Merle's response was the same as it had been for anything the past month--silence. Daryl was nervous at the thought of communicating with someone he barely knew. But at the same time, the idea of someone to listen to, someone who saw him...he was willing to take on the nerves.

He knew he would ‘pussy out,’ as Merle would say, if he didn't go immediately. So he stood as Rick turned to walk towards the parking lot.

"I'm done, actually," Daryl said and fell into step behind Rick.

The widower smiled. "You sure?"

"Yeah. He don't talk much anyway."

Rick laughed. Not at Daryl but with him, and the mechanic smiled proudly.

“This diner is good. My son always gets the turkey special. It’s like a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal.”

“Sounds good,” Daryl murmured. And it did sound good. He’d never actually had a Thanksgiving meal before. His family didn’t make a big deal of celebrating holidays. The best thing Thanksgiving had meant for him and Merle was fresh turkey subs from the local Gas-n-Go. And that was a special treat, really, considering that they’d sometimes go for weeks having to fend for themselves to get food.

Daryl followed Rick to the restaurant and parked beside him. It was busy but they were able to find a booth in the corner. The menus were already tucked between the ketchup and mustard and Rick handed one to Daryl.

“Anything you want. On me,” he said. Daryl glanced down at the menu. It wasn’t a four-star restaurant or anything but the prices were higher than what he was used to at McDonald’s or Subway. The turkey meal was almost ten dollars and Daryl was glad he wasn’t guzzling the water a waitress had dropped off because he would have choked on it. He flipped quietly through all four pages of the extensive menu and settled on the grilled cheese.

Rick watched Daryl flip through the pages. He was quiet, still deep in grief. But Rick thought maybe this guy was always quiet. Something about that made the widower sad. If Merle was all he’d had, he’d be facing a long recovery from this loss.

“Hi there, guys. I’m Maggie. What can I get ya?” a sweet southern belle of a waitress asked. Her eyes went to Daryl’s first.

“The grilled cheese please, ma’am,” he said softly. Rick bunched up his eyebrows and flipped to the page of the menu where the sandwiches were. This guy didn’t strike Rick as a grilled cheese kind of guy. Not with the other options on this menu. His eyes scrolled down the list until he landed on the grilled cheese. It was $3.10. Clearly the cheapest item in the restaurant. That was sweet, Rick thought.

“And to drink, sugar?” she asked.

“The water’s fine.” Daryl said with a self-conscious smile.

She turned to Rick.

“I’ll have the Turkey special. Two of them, please,” Rick said. The waitress stopped writing and darted her eyes up at him. For a moment, Daryl considered questioning him, but he knew full well he was too shy to speak up, so he closed his mouth and let the waitress handle it.

“Two, mister?”

“Yes and two root beers.”

“You got it,” Maggie said as she tore the ticket off her pad and headed for the kitchen.

“Sorry if that was presumptuous, but I wanted to thank you a little more than just a grilled cheese’s worth of thanks. I PROMISE you’ll love the turkey.”

“Thank you,” Daryl said as he grabbed for a straw to have something in his hands. “‘M not used ta nice gestures ‘n stuff.”

Rick nodded. “So you guys lived together? That’s why you accidently made two sandwiches?”

“Yeah. He, uh. Wasn’t very… He was in and out of jail a lot, so when he was out, he just stayed with me. He’d been out five years. So… got used ta havin’ him ‘round.”

Daryl was desperately searching his brain for a way to turn the conversation back to Rick, but before he could think of anything, Rick continued asking questions.

“Any other siblings or was it just the two of you?” He leaned in like he was really interested in the answer and this was another action that Daryl wasn’t very familiar with.

“Just the two of us. Our daddy and mamma’s both gone already. Long time ago… so just me now.” Daryl felt more alone than usual at the phrase ‘just me,’ but his mention of parents gave him the idea of how to put the conversation back the way he was most comfortable.

“How old’s yer boy?” Daryl asked, a little too eager to put the responsibility of answers back on the widower.

Rick smiled. “Carl. Carl’s twelve. Going on thirty. He’s handling his mother’s death a hell of a lot better than me.” They were quiet for a moment and both men peeled paper off their straws when the root beers were put down in front of them.

“Lori was killed in a car accident. Just an accident. Wasn’t anyone’s fault. Raining. Guy just lost control of the car and hit her. Both of ‘em died.” He paused and took another sip of his drink. “She was my high school sweetheart. Never loved nobody else. Knew her better than I know myself and it’s like half a’ me is missing. Can’t concentrate on anything. Keep forgetting things. Big things, too, like feeding my own damn kid.”

“You don’t got any food in the house?” Daryl asked, surprising himself at the boldness of his question, but feeling a sudden sympathy and kinship with the unknown Carl Grimes.

“I mean, we got food. Plenty. The freezer in the garage is overflowing with casseroles from the neighbors. But I keep forgetting to actually cook it and feed it to him.”

Daryl was relieved to hear that for Carl’s sake. “But he’s twelve. I was making meals for myself way before that.”

“Everyone else thinks I’m a monster for not having proper meals.”

“Not a monster. Just sad. It’s hard to do anything when you're sad. Shit, when it first happened… with Merle. I forgot to shower for a week.”

Rick laughed. “I haven’t shaved in nine months.” And both men chuckled again.

“What’s worse… I didn’t even notice I had a beard until just last week.”

Daryl laughed so hard, he spit out some of his soda. The food came and Daryl was salivating before the plates had even touched the table. Sliced turkey, slathered in gravy. Mashed potatoes. Stuffing, and not Stove Top, but real home-made stuff. Green beans and a warm buttered roll.

“This is the most food I’ve seen on one plate in my life,” Daryl said.

“Yeah, Carl usually always has leftovers.”

There was silence for a few bites and Daryl looked around the diner. He didn’t get many opportunities to be out like this just observing. He liked just watching people, but he didn’t want to ignore his gracious host. He looked back to Rick. “You ever start talking in the house like Lori was still there? Y’know, on accident?”

Rick nodded, and it wasn’t lost on him that this man had no trouble using Lori’s name. “Yeah. Not as much now. I can at least comfort you with that. Some habits do pass with time. But I’m sorry to tell ya, there isn’t any ‘getting used to it’. Lori is gone and my heart is well aware of that with every beat. As much now as nine months ago.”

Daryl nodded. Merle was a part of his life longer than Lori was a part of Rick’s, so the mechanic anticipated a similar fate. Being always aware of the absence of someone who had been a constant.

“Worst part was at night the first few months, Rick continued. “I’d wake up, forgetting. And roll over to drape an arm around her and there was nothing. Just air and emptiness. Those nights were the worst. Nightmares. Shit like that.”

Daryl nodded as he shoveled in another fork full of the best mashed potatoes he ever had in his life. He enjoyed the sounds of quiet conversation. Rick had a nice soft voice. In one way it was even nicer than it would have been sitting here listening to Merle with his gritty baritone usually complaining about one thing or another. Daryl liked to sit and listen. But he was also finding comfort in the exchange of stories with this new person.

“After Merle died...” He stopped and looked up at Rick in confession. “Drugs. I had nightmares awful. Being a kid and me screaming for him to help me but he wasn’t showing up. And in the dream I knew he was there but he wasn’t coming to help. Wake up pissed at him for about thirty seconds ‘til I shook off the feel of dreaming. Realized he wasn’t ever gonna be able to help me again.”

Rick had kept his eyes locked on Daryl throughout the story. “Yeah. Nights. God they're the WORST.” Daryl nodded.

With plates half emptied, the conversation lightened a bit. They talked about work. Daryl panicked for a second when he found out Rick was a cop, until he realized he had nothing to worry about. Merle was gone so the drugs were gone and any stolen property was gone and whatever else Merle always got in trouble for was gone. Alone, Daryl realized, there wasn’t anything to hide.

Rick was pleased to find out that Daryl was a mechanic and handled tows. He even got his card for emergencies. The widower was never really good at that sort of thing. Lori used to always rag on him about it. He couldn’t even figure out how to change the oil. He missed her gentle teasing. He missed her presence. He missed her smell and her laugh. Rick grew quiet as he ripped pieces of the roll off and nibbled on them.

“You ok?” Daryl asked as the waitress dropped off refills of root beer.

Rick smiled, the kind that was all mouth and no eyes. “Yeah, just still miss her so damn much,” he sighed and looked back up at Daryl. “You ever been married?”

“Nah.”

“Ever close?”

“No. I’m not… I’m not good with talking to people.”

“You’re talking to me,” Rick pointed out. Daryl shovelled a fork-full of stuffing into his mouth to avoid having to answer.

Rick continued, “So listen to this, my partner, Shane? He’s making me go out with him next Saturday to some damn club. He PROMISED he’s not gonna make me try to meet people, but I know how he is. It’s gonna be miserable.”

“Why ya goin’?” Daryl asked, glad to have the conversation flipped.

“Guilt. I don’t know. He says he’s trying to help me and shit. I just… I don’t WANT to ‘get back out there.’ I had my love. And she’s gone. And I don’t think you get that more than once. He thinks I’m nuts. Need therapy and shit. I don’t need that shit. What is there to shrink me about? My wife is dead. There is nothing else to say.” Rick’s voice grew more and more stressed and Daryl’s heart broke for him.

This was a man who felt like he had nothing. To Daryl, someone who had friends at work, a son, neighbors who care about him, and family… a man like that has everything. But Daryl knew you can’t judge a man until you walk in his shoes. And he could tell by his time with the widower, that Rick truly felt like he was alone. And that broke Daryl's heart. Because of all things in the world, that was something Daryl could identify with more than anything.

"Can ya, like, call in sick?" Daryl offered.

"Been doing that to him for months. Starting to get worried he's gonna report me at work for needin' a psych eval."

Daryl sopped up gravy with his roll, watching Rick closely. "For what, missin' your wife? Seems ta' me you'd be nuts if ya didn't."

Rick smiled affectionately as Daryl crammed the roll into his mouth.

"You get it, Daryl. You know? No one else seems to understand."

"I don't like change. Death is 'bout as big a change as there is."

"Yeah." Rick nodded, forking at the stuffing and making one round lump of it into three little lumps. He glanced over at Daryl and was pleased to see him really enjoying the meal. "Told you it was better than the grilled cheese," he said, nodding at Daryl's near empty plate.

"Yeah, thanks man. All I gave you was a used PB & J I accidentally made for a dead guy."

"Gotta be awful with no family left," Rick said sympathetically. "Friends been trying to get you out and about too?"

Daryl shrugged. "Kinda keep to myself really. Always have."

"Hey," Rick said, lighting up with an idea. "Come with me Saturday!"

"What?" Daryl asked, mouth full of his last piece of turkey.

"With Shane. You don't like talking to people and neither do I. That way, Shane feels like he's finally gotten me out and when he starts hitting on women, you and I can just stay miserable by ourselves like we want it."

"You're inviting me to have a miserable time out at a bar?" Daryl asked with a shy smile.

"Yeah. Misery loves company, right?"

"Well, it is nice to have some company. Can't stand it alone at home. It's like a tomb. Don't think you'll ever understand how much my brother ran his mouth when he was alive."

"Feel like I'm just as bad. I've been talking a lot."

"'S good. I like listening."

The waitress dropped off two checks and Rick reached quickly for both. "Y'all need anything else?" the waitress asked.

"Could I get a box for the grilled cheese, ma'am?" Daryl asked softly.

"Sure, sugar. Hold on."

He boxed it up and handed it to Rick. "For Carl, ok?" he said.

Rick smiled. "Thank you. You're doing a better job of feeding my son than I am." He laughed.

"You're doing fine, Rick. He's twelve and there's plenty of food in the house. He ain't gonna starve. Trade my old man for you any day." Daryl blanched as he said it. He'd never muttered words like that about his father to ANYONE but Merle. EVER! But Rick was a father and getting to know a real father, the way one ought to be, was sort of fascinating.

He may have been distracted about meals, but he felt genuinely bad about it. Talked about the boy and always with a smile on his face. Daryl was fairly certain that his old man's bar buddies didn't even know he had a kid. Rick knew Carl's favorite meal at the restaurant and even let him get it even though it was expensive and way too much food for him to finish. Daryl could tell Rick wanted to do better by Carl. And he had no signs of hatred or disappointment. It was clear Rick loved his son. Of that there was no question.

Daryl would never be a dad. He's too damn shy to talk to a woman much less impregnate one. But if something ever happened for him, he'd want to be like Rick. He bet Rick probably didn't barely even yell at his kid, much less beat 'im.

Rick stood and put Daryl's card in his pocket. “I'll call you then about Saturday, ok? You're really saving me, man."

Daryl grunted. "Sure. Thanks for the food. Didn't havta."

As they walked out the door, Rick patted a hand to his shoulder and Daryl went rigid. A handshake he's learned to deal with. It's relatively innocuous. It's expected and he can see it coming, but the unexpected, innocent clap on that back was sudden, heavy, and right in the spot where belts and switches had once landed and forever scarred.

Rick grabbed the door and looked back at Daryl. "You ok, man?" he asked softly, aware that Daryl's whole aura had changed.

Daryl's heart raced and he knew he was shaking enough for it to be noticed. "I'm ok."

"Daryl, I know I've been a selfish prick to people since Lori died. Sometimes I can't see it. I feel like I did something wrong here and I don't want to upset you. Did I say something wrong?"

Daryl shook his head. "Nah, you're fine, man. Just... Don't like being off guard… with touching like that."

Rick was a police officer and he was familiar with a lot of things because of the worlds he was exposed to each day. His mind created a fuller picture of this Daryl Dixon. He had been very close to a brother. Lost a mother young. Raised by a father who didn't feed them at all. He was shy, awkward and friendless. And now he showed signs of being touch-averse. This man was a victim of abuse and Rick's heart shattered at the discovery.

"I understand, Daryl. I will remember that. Promise."

Daryl nodded, humiliated that this person who could maybe become a real friend would think he's a weirdo.

As they walked to their respective vehicles, Rick held up the card. "I'll be in touch, ok?"

Daryl nodded.

Chapter Text

On Friday night Daryl sat alone at home. His day was the same as every day since Merle left him. Waking. Coffee. Work. Home. Food. TV.

He'd seen Rick throughout the week at the cemetery as they were coming and going. He always said hi, had a little polite conversation, and Rick always ended with, "Saturday. Don't forget."

As Daryl finally stretched out on his worn but familiar recliner, an old episode of NCIS on the television, his cell phone chirped with a text message.

It was one of those things that happens. A sound that meant something very specific. That chirp usually meant that Merle was too drunk to drive and had enough sense to text for a ride. Or he was at the store asking if Daryl needed anything. Or was texting to tell Daryl they were out of Milwaukee's Best and to please pick some up.

But since Merle up and died, Daryl’s phone had not made a peep. He sat up taller, haunted, like the chirp itself was his brother's voice. His stomach dropped with the feeling of loss, as empty and heavy as it was on the day he died. He climbed out of the recliner, grabbed his cell off the kitchen table and walked barefoot back to his seat, covering himself in the blanket from Merle's bed that he'd been using ever since. The number showing on his cell was unfamiliar.

Hey- it's Rick. Whatcha doing?

Daryl let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. The sadness that had enveloped him slowly faded like a dense fog clearing after you pass over a low lying creek. The fog still there, but not quite as heavy.

He started to to type "nothing", then changed his mind and answered with some detail. The thought of keeping the conversation going wamed him in the chilly house. And it was easier to talk when no one was looking at him, expecting an immediate answer.

Watching NCIS New Orleans. What are you doing?

What channel?

Ten

Ok- I'm watching now too.

Rick missed idle evening conversation. Watching Survivor and talking about their favorites. Sometimes the things Rick missed most were the most mundane things that other couples--couples that both still had breath in the air and feet on the earth--wouldn’t even consider special. Carl was in bed and Rick was just fucking lonely. Always lonely. He’s not sure what made him think to text Daryl except he felt certain the fellow griever would be feeling the same way.

After a few minutes watching Dwayne Pride try to connect the dots in a double murder, the cute brunette, Brody, talked to a bartender who had been near the scene. Rick replied again.

I think he did it.

Nah, that's what they want you to think. Those two were up to no good. They probably owed someone money, Daryl answered.

Rick smiled. So, you wanna come meet at my house and we'll go meet Shane together on Saturday?

Daryl gnawed on a thumb as he read the text. He wanted to go. He liked this thing. This having someone to talk to thing. But he was so clueless about social situations. He tapped thumbs into his phone.

This is gonna sound stupid, but I don't know what to wear to a club. Is there like a dress code or something?

I'm just wearing jeans and a T-shirt. If they kick us out - then awesome. We can leave and go night fishing or something.

Daryl grinned at his phone. What did this mean? Rick wasn't just using him to get through the night with Shane? Would he really want to go night fishing? Daryl would like that. He would like that a lot. Merle used to go night fishing with him before he fell into that bad crowd. Never caught much more than a buzz though. But Daryl loved being out at night. Having a few beers with Merle. At least trying to fish. Both men were much better hunters than fisherman, but there was a certain peace to it that Daryl cherished. He wanted to be a friend to this Rick. This man who saw him and talked to him.

You remember to eat dinner tonight?

Yeah. Enchilada Casserole. AGAIN! Parking Lot attendant had an alibi.

This was so nice. Daryl liked this. He liked conversation and that wasn’t how he usually felt. But Rick was easy and natural and understanding and kind and, well--he was there.

I had a microwaveable pot pie. Made it an hour ago and it’s still too damn hot to eat.

Rick smiled. Poor guy. That’s bachelor food.

When you leave Saturday I’m making you take home one of these damn casseroles.

I’ll swap you a PB& J.

Deal. My address is 471 Cherokee Drive. Be here at 8?

8? Is that what time people go out? Sounds awful late, but I’m in.

No shit, I’d much rather be in bed, but we’ll make an appearance, Shane will get off my back and, I don’t know- I kinda really want to go night fishing now. Maybe we can play it by ear.

Ok. Good night. p.s. - I win. Loan shark did it!

Chapter Text

"So, I'm going out to this bar tonight with a friend," Daryl said to a plot of earth that was less rounded this week, finally starting to look more even with the rest of the grounds. He waited for a response that he was well aware wouldn't come.

"That guy that sits over there," Daryl motioned towards Lori's headstone. "He don't want to go alone with his other friend."

Daryl filled in the quiet with possible responses that Merle might have given if he hadn't pumped his veins full of poison. He imagined that Merle would've said, "Three's a crowd, baby brother. Don't confuse friendship with getting used. What's he want from you? He must want something. Everyone wants something."

"Don't think he wants anything. He's just sad. Like I am. Cause even though you were a complete jackass, you were my jackass. And you were all I had."

Daryl paused for a bit and let the breeze and rustle of autumn leaves flutter over him. He stretched out and laid beside Merle's plot with his hands folded under his head.

"He just wants understanding company. And so do I. I think, anyway. Miss having someone to listen to. Kinda comfortable around him, actually."

"No one's gonna replace ole' Merle," he imagined his brother saying.

"No." Daryl said. "Ain't looking for a replacement. Looking for a friend. Ain't never had one before. 'Sides, he's way too nice and soft-spoken to be compared to you." Daryl paused. "And he's a cop." The mechanic nearly grinned at the thought of Merle having a conniption fit over it.

"You weren't the best role model, Merle. You know that. Ain't no surprise. But Rick, he's a good man. I'd like to be like him. Maybe have a kid one day. And lots of casseroles ready to reheat for dinner. Doing kind things for strangers like that first day with the umbrella. I want to be kind and confident like that. So that's why I ain't letting you talk me into bailing on the bar tonight."

Daryl lay thinking about all the worst case scenarios. What if Shane didn't like him? What if Rick and Shane talked the whole time and Daryl was like a third wheel? Or worse, what if Shane tried to talk to Daryl and he didn't know what to say? What if Shane did bring some girls and Rick got interested and left Daryl alone?

His thoughts turned to the alternative. Another microwaved frozen meal. Another night of flipping through channels and landing on something he hated but he watched anyway. The only voices surrounding him coming from the television. Other people living other lives. Even if they were fake TV lives, they were all, always, better than what Daryl had. And with that, he decided it was worth the risk.

----------------

Daryl knew the lay of the land in town from running the tow truck. He was familiar with the neighborhood where Rick lived. It would only take about ten minutes but he was already in hole-less jeans and a plain black T-shirt forty-five minutes ahead of time, pacing in the living room. He bit on a nail, wiped down the kitchen counter three times for no reason and went into Merle's old room assessing the rest of the work he had ahead of him. Most of Merle's shirts had been crumpled on the floor of the closet when Daryl started cleaning up the room, but he washed them all and hung them. He looked through them and found a black band T-shirt from a concert he'd taken Daryl to. He couldn't remember what had happened to his own, but he pulled Merle's off the hanger and held it up. It was bigger than his brother would have needed at the end. The concert was from before, when Merle was all lean muscle and not withering away from drugs. But it did look like it would fit Daryl. He pulled his black T-shirt off and pulled the concert one on, thinking it might be nice to be tucked inside something that belonged to his lifelong protector. He looked in the mirror. The unique spiral pattern around the band name made him look more interesting already. It could be a conversation starter even. Maybe Rick or Shane liked Tool, too, and then Daryl would have something interesting to say.

"'Member how bad our necks hurt the next day from banging our heads the whole night to the beat of that music?" Daryl asked his brother's room. "That was fun. Before the drugs. Back when I was enough."

His phone dinged and he instantly assumed it was a cancellation. His heart sank. He'd been nervous, but looking forward to being out in the world instead of trapped in this house. But he was no stranger to disappointment and he'd take it like a man. He pulled his cell out and flipped it open.

Just a desperate reminder about tonight. Hoping you weren't going to stand me up. I can't do this alone. See you in 15, right?

Daryl's smile was so unusually wide it almost hurt. He looked at his watch and texted back.

On my way!

The ride to Rick's was familiar enough. Daryl passed several locations where he remembered picking up vehicles that had called for a tow. He felt like he'd be able to blend in enough at the club--jeans, Merle’s black Tool T-shirt and a leather jacket. He could be comfortably invisible if he wanted to be.

Merle's voice chased him as he rode his brother's bike, Daryl’s own bike sold to buy the plot and headstone. "You be careful baby brother. World's full of users. Only one person you can count on in this world and that's me."

And he had. He had counted on Merle almost as much as he blamed him for some of Daryl's own shortcomings. But Daryl would always forgive him. Merle had matching scars to show that he was just as damaged and frankly even Merle's faults couldn't be put all on him. Nearly everything wrong with both brothers came directly from their father and the end of his belt.

As Daryl arrived at the address Rick had given him, he felt like he was in a TV show. Like the Brady Bunch or Dennis the Menace or one of those shows that took place in a suburban neighborhood with kids on Big Wheels and dads washing cars and perfectly manicured flower beds under each mailbox. Daryl had always assumed this image was something Hollywood had invented until his first tow job in a place like this a few years ago.

He felt uncomfortably NOT invisible on a Harley in leather with all the kids playing hockey down the street, stopping in mid-game to stare. He parked in the driveway next to Rick's Subaru and walked with his head down to the front door. It opened before he was even up the porch steps.

Rick smiled, nearly a real one, when he saw Daryl. Before he could speak, a smaller version of Rick darted outside under his father's arm. "Bye have fun!" The kid yelled as he blew by with a clear destination in mind.

"Carl!" Rick yelled, but nowhere near the type of yelling that Daryl was familiar with. "Manners."

Carl walked back to them. "Oh, yeah. Sorry."

He raised his small hand to Daryl. "I'm Carl. Nice to meet you."

Daryl took his hand and shook it with a firm grip. "Daryl."

"I'm sorry about your brother. Dad told me." Carl said.

Daryl's brows knit. The kindness of strangers again. He nodded. "Thanks."

Carl turned to Rick, "And I know. I'll text you if I need anything but we'll be fine. We’re camping out in the back yard. Mr. Morales will check on us, don't worry."

Rick nodded. "Ok, buddy. Have fun."

Both men watched Carl scramble next door. He paused at the bike and looked back. "You ride a motorcycle?" he asked excitedly.

Daryl nodded, "Yeah."

"That's so cool," the boy said. Then ran a hand along the seat and continued next door.

Daryl looked back to Rick. "Damn, looks just like you, man."

Rick grinned as he reached for the keys and wallet that he left in the bowl on the foyer table. "Yup, pity for him," the widower said with a self-deprecating smile.

"Might have to push the seat back a little. Carl's the only person who's been in it," Rick said as they climbed into the Suburu. Once they were strapped in, Rick turned the key to the sound of a coughing engine. After three more attempts it still wouldn't turn over.

"You gotta be shitting me," Rick muttered as his cell phone chirped.

"Pop the hood. I can take a look. Might be the spark plugs. Distributor cap maybe," Daryl said, feeling suddenly at ease and in his comfort zone. The mechanic started rooting around in the engine as Rick read Shane's text.

Expecting you in 15. Don't let me down.

Rick sighed as he watched Daryl focus on the innards of the Subaru. "Yeah. See here? Cracked distributor cap is all."

"I don't know what that means. How do I fix it? Do I need to have you tow it to the garage?"

Daryl stifled a giggle. "Well, Jesus. Probably be easier to just go to the Auto Zone up the road, buy a new distributor cap and replace it here. I can do that. Just cost ya for the part."

"Really? That'd be great," Rick said. "Should I call Shane to pick us up? We could stop at the store on the way."

Daryl looked over at his bike and shrugged his shoulders. "Can just take my bike if you want," he offered.

Rick cocked his head and looked at it. "Never been on one before. It IS just off the parkway. You don't mind me riding with you?" Rick asked.

Daryl bit at his thumbnail. The thought of someone being pressed against his scarred back wasn't particularly a pleasant one. He was uncomfortable enough with touch when it was in front of him. But this was a nice guy. They'd be on the bike. There wouldn't be any way for him to be surprised or thrown off guard from unexpected lashings and frankly Daryl was sick that his father still had this control.

"'S fine," the mechanic said as he climbed on and nodded with his head for Rick to get on the back. The cop swung his leg over and put his hands gently and slowly on either side of Daryl’s waist, keeping in mind that this man had a history and was touch-averse. Before he knew it, the bike came alive and they were going down the main road of the neighborhood.

Rick didn't realize that he'd held on tighter and wrapped his arms full around Daryl until they made the turn onto the parkway and he squeezed even harder. It only took about eight minutes before they pulled into the Auto Zone and Rick was able to get off the bike and wobble a little to get his footing.

"Takes some getting use to," Daryl said with a smile. His back still buzzed with the awkward feeling of someone against him, his skin still almost bracing for a belt. But he survived it. He had Rick behind him for miles with hands on him and nothing happened. There was no surprise, no pain, no real fear. Just the slightest hint of habitual panic, but this was Rick. And Rick was gentle and well-meaning. And he wasn’t even wearing a belt. Daryl had taken noticed.

Rick looked at the front doors of the store, clearly overwhelmed.

"You want me to get it?" Daryl offered.

Rick looked over at him, running a hand through his hair. "Yeah," he said, embarrassed. "I don't even know what a distributor cap looks like. Or what aisle to look for it in. Only thing I ever bought at an Auto Zone was window washer fluid and I had to get the guy to put it in for me." Rick looked at Daryl sheepishly and the mechanic laughed.

"Don't worry about it. I don't know nothin' 'bout criminal databases or police codes or shit. We all have our thing."

"Thanks for not making fun of me." Rick smirked as they entered the store.

Daryl returned the smile.

The mechanic found the part in the complicated auto shop as easily as Rick would have found bread in a bakery. The widow found it sort of fascinating to see how comfortable Daryl was in the store. He knew what he needed and where to get it. Rick was pleased to see a side of Daryl that wasn’t so shy and nervous. Rick smiled as he handed over his credit card to a heavily tattooed cashier.

“What are ya smilin’ at?” Daryl asked, curious.

“Just like seeing you comfortable. You know what you’re doing in a place like this.”

Daryl grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not a complete fuck up all the time. Just most of the time.”

“You aren’t a fuck up at all,” Rick said and turned back to sign the credit card slip. Daryl blushed and shoved his hands in his pockets.

Once they were back outside, Daryl carrying the bag, Rick looked back towards the direction of his house.

“You wanna just head straight to the bar so we aren’t late? We can kinda use this as our ‘out’. Y’know- we can’t stay too late cause we have to fix the car.”

Daryl nodded, tucked the bag into the pocket of his leather jacket and hopped on to the bike. When Rick slid on behind him, the mechanic didn’t even grow tense.

Chapter Text

Daryl followed Rick closely as they walked into the crowded bar. It was dimly lit with a dance floor and a band in the back corner playing covers. The sound of a slightly off-tune version of Back in Black played as Rick scanned the place for Shane.

The widower spotted him quickly at a corner table already with a beer in his hand. He got up and hugged Rick. "You came! Good for you, Rick. This is good."

Rick turned and motioned to the mechanic. "This is Daryl. Daryl, Shane." The two shook hands.

"How do you know Rick?" Shane asked, clearly surprised that Rick knew someone that Shane didn't. Daryl turned to Rick. He hasn't even sat down yet and was already feeling socially awkward and incredibly uncomfortable. Should he say from the graveyard? Would Shane think it was "unhealthy" for Rick to surround himself with someone else going through grief? He tried to ask those questions in his glance to Rick and it must have worked because the widower turned to Shane and said, "Mechanic. The distributor cap on the Subaru went up."

Shane grinned. He had one of those always-confident smiles. "Went up?" he asked, raising a brow and glancing back to Daryl.

"'S cracked," Daryl explained. "He don't know much about cars."

Shane went back to his toothy smile and laughed. He reached a hand up almost in slow motion with the clear intent of a friendly slap on Daryl's back.

The mechanic felt himself cringe as Rick slipped between them, stepping into Shane’s space and nudging his partner’s shoulder.

"Came out for a drink Shane, not ridicule," Rick said with a smile as Shane’s playful slap wound up on the widower’s back instead. Rick nodded his head to encourage Daryl to sit in the corner and Rick slid in next to him.

Shane motioned to one of the waitresses who came over with a sweet smile. "Hi fellas. I'm Andrea. Get ya some drinks?"

"I'll have another," Shane said as he tapped at his Rolling Rock.

Andrea turned towards Rick. "Just a Budweiser."

She looked at Daryl and he muttered softly, "Yeah, I'll have the same."

She nodded and turned away as Shane watched her ass the entire way back to the bar. "She's hot," Shane said, waiting for them to agree.

"Shane, I told you I was just coming for a drink, not for-"

"I ain't suggesting you propose, Rick. I'm just making an observation. She's hot, right?" Shane turned to Daryl to weigh in.

"So Rick says you're a cop too," Daryl said, in an attempt to get them all out of the awkward conversation.

The diversion worked and they fell into easy chatter--story after story of the kinds of trouble Shane and Rick stirred up in the academy. Daryl enjoyed listening to them laugh about some of their old instructors and joke with each other about what bad shots they used to be and how much trouble Shane had memorizing the Miranda Rights. Listening was Daryl's comfort zone.

Shane went up to the bar for another round of beers as the place started getting more crowded.

"Thanks for coming, man. And thanks for distracting him. He loves to talk about himself so this should hold us over for the rest of the night." Rick smiled. He was really glad Daryl was there.

"Kinda reminds me of Merle," he said.

"Does he?" Rick asked, cocking his head in interest.

"Yeah. Confident like that. Ain't afraid a' shit. Kinda full of himself a little. Likes hearing himself talk." Daryl smiled and shook his head. "That was Merle. 'Cept he was on the wrong side of the law, of course."

Shane came back to the table with a dramatic bang as he put three beers down. Three women were behind him. "Hey guys, ran into some ladies that can't find a seat, thought we could be gentlemen and share our table. That's Rick and Daryl. Guys, this here's Rosita, Karen and Patricia.”

Rick looked nervously over at Daryl.

"They can have our seats. We gotta go anyway. Gotta get the distributor cap fixed still," Daryl said as he stood and reached for his wallet to settle up.

"That can wait til the morning. These ladies need some company. Karen here is in a similar situation as you, Rick." Shane said as he pulled out the chair next to Rick for Karen to sit.

"I'm sorry." Rick said, feeling like he had to at least be civil if she was a hurting widow too. "How'd he die?"

"Die? I wish he died! We're divorced. He ran off with his dental hygienist."

Without moving his head at all, Rick flicked his eyes back over to Shane. "Distributor cap," he said firmly and stood quickly. "Put your wallet away, Daryl. These beers were on Shane."

Rick stormed off with Shane right on his heels, leaving Daryl looking at the three women with no idea what to say.

"Umm... His wife just died and uh... I gotta go fix his distributor cap." He slid past the blond and went after Rick and Shane.

When Daryl got down to the parking lot, Rick was screaming. "Never again, Shane. Never. You don't understand and you'll never understand!" When Rick saw Daryl, he climbed back on the bike to wait for him.

"Rick, you know I'm not the enemy here. I'm just trying to help you get back on your feet. You're thirty-fucking-four. You're young. You ain't me. You want to be settled down. You liked it. You can find it again."

"I didn't like being settled down. I liked being settled down with LORI. My WIFE. I don't want a replacement wife. She's not a distributor cap." Rick looked at Daryl with big sad eyes. "Daryl, please?" he asked, desperate to be taken away.

"Thanks for the beer," Daryl said softly, then got on the bike, started it and sped back to Rick's. He held his breath for a moment when the bike started, knowing that his passenger would press against him a bit to steady himself. The ease of having Rick climb on the bike earlier was slightly hindered this time by the yelling and loud voices. But once they were on their way, Daryl remembered there was no immediate danger and he relaxed a bit. He hoped maybe the ride and the breeze would help Rick the way it helped Daryl when he was upset.

When they pulled into Rick's driveway, the widower climbed off. It was clear he had tears in his eyes. "I'm really sorry. Sorry if I made a scene and shit. I just... I..."

"It's ok, man. I understand," Daryl said.

Tears started spilling from Rick's eyes and he turned and went into the house, leaving Daryl in the driveway alone with a distributor cap still in his pocket.

The lights over the garage were still on and Daryl had nowhere to be. He tested the door to the Subaru and it was unlocked, so he popped the hood and got to work. Changing out the distributor cap would be simple enough.

Within fifteen minutes, the job was done and Daryl tried to shut the hood as quietly as he could in case Rick had gone inside and crawled into bed.

“Never seen a mechanic treat a vehicle so gentle. Thought you guys usually liked to slam things and throw wrenches and cuss and shit.”

Daryl turned around, a little startled from the unexpected noise from behind. Rick was standing there in sweats, a T-shirt, and slippers with two beers in his hands. His hair was sticking out in every direction and he still had red rims to his eyes from tears that had finally dried up. He was calmer, like the good cry helped to clear his head. “It’s Moosehead. Not as smooth as Bud, but it’s good.” He handed one to the mechanic. “As a thanks for fixing the car and a sorry for ruining your evening.”

Daryl took it and shoved the handkerchief he’d been wiping his hands off on in his back pocket. “Didn’t ruin my night. It was that or watching Friends reruns.”

Rick sauntered back to the porch and moved the chairs in the corner out a bit so they could both sit comfortably. “Well, I ruined any chance you had with those girls. They were all pretty enough.”

“Told ya. I ain’t good with that kinda shit. Didn’t have a thing to say to them. Can’t even remember how I got out of there,” Daryl laughed.

Crickets chirped between their chatter and both men smiled when they heard Carl’s voice from next door shouting “It’s just a ghost story, Mr. Morales. You can’t scare us!” A car drove by and turned into the driveway a few houses down.

“That’s Noah. Good kid. Going to college in the fall. Wants to be an architect,” Rick said as he took another swallow of beer.

Giggles echoed through the neighborhood from the few boys camped out at the Morales’. “What do you think Carl will do?” Daryl asked, genuinely curious.

Rick sighed. “I don’t know. Is playing video games a job yet?” he laughed. “Seriously though, I know he doesn’t want to be a cop. Lori, she was a nurse. Think he’d like to follow in her footsteps somehow. Maybe in research or emergency medicine. Y’know, typical kid who loses his mother, now wants to save every accident victim.”

“That’s a good kid.”

“Yeah,” Rick agreed. They stayed silent, taking slow sips of beer and just gazing up at the sky.

“Daryl?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I ask?”

“Ask what?”

“What happened. What makes you so skittish. Afraid of people. Left only with Merle and now left with nothing. If I’m being too nosy, you don’t gotta answer. But I feel like we’re kinda friends now. You had my back in there tonight. You get me. I wanna get you. Don’t want to spend the rest of my life being a selfish prick. Know I got that way after Lori.”

“You ain’t selfish, Rick. You’re hurtin’.”

Rick grinned. “And you're avoiding my question.”

Daryl shrugged. He never talked about this. Only to Merle and Merle was gone. Dead and gone forever. So did that mean the talking ends? Or did that mean he needed a new person to talk to?

“I’m a cop, remember. See a lot of stuff. Alright if I take a guess?”

Daryl grunted in acceptance and took a longer pull off the bottle than he had previously.

“Close to Merle cause you been through the same shit. Saw the dates on his grave. Lot older than you. Protected you the best he could. Lost your mamma early. Only had your daddy and he wasn’t a good man. Remember you talking about fending for yourself for food. I’ve taken kids out of situations like that before. Sorry there wasn’t anyone there for you.”

Daryl didn’t respond. He took another sip and kept his eyes across the street at an alley cat, sleek and black, moving through the trash cans pulled out for the next day.

Rick took another sip of his beer. “Beat ya. Clearly. That’s why you don’t like the unexpected touches.”

“Thanks for shifting in on that back slap from Shane.” Daryl said, feeling kinda numb, still keeping his eyes on the stray cat. “Probably woulda crawled under the table like a baby.”

“Really fucked you up,” Rick said with sorrow to his voice so thick that Daryl could almost feel it brush against him in the night air. “And Merle gone,” the widower continued,”… end of your safety and protection even though your old man is long gone.”

Daryl bit at the inside of his cheek in an attempt to keep focus there instead of on his emotions. No one ever spoke to him like this. No one knew, other than Merle. Teachers at school should’ve known. Neighbors should’ve. But no one did. And now all these years later someone sees? Daryl wasn’t sure if he liked finally being seen like this or not. He was a grown man now and didn’t need anyone to save him anymore. How did a random stranger from the graveyard see all this? And why did he want to talk about it? To “get him”?

“Yeah. Guess that’s the gist.” Daryl paused. "I've never talked about this before."

"Cop. My job to make people talk."

Daryl wanted to change the subject. He wasn’t mad. He thought maybe someone fully understanding him like this might bring some peace, but he was done with the conversation. He didn’t have anything else to say about it. "You think Shane was right? 'Bout Lori not wanting you to be alone?”

Rick sighed. "Don't know. Don't really care. She ain't here so it's not about what she wants. It's about what I want." He looked over at Daryl. "Wish you knew what it was like to have that."

"Have what, marriage?"

"Yeah, but not just marriage. The 'one.' Lori was my one."

"Merle said marriage was for suckers," Daryl laughed.

"Nah. It's the best thing in the world. It's getting to spend every day with your best friend. It's having someone to talk to. About anything. About being annoyed at your parents, or stress at work, or finding unexpected nose hairs, or American Idol or just anything." Both men took another slow drink from nearly empty bottles as Rick continued.

"It's about having someone close. Loving them and knowing that someone loves you back that same way. It's about fighting, but it's also about making up. It's about surprising each other. Knowing each other better than anyone else in the world knows you. It's about having someone to wake up to. Someone to go to bed with. Someone to just walk through life with so you aren't alone."

"Sounds nice enough. I can see why Shane thinks you want that again."

"Too late for me now. Mine's over. But you," Rick grinned and raised his beer, "You haven't found yours yet. Maybe I can help you find her. Give me something to do."

Daryl blushed brighter than the cherry-red tulips from below the neighbor's mailbox. He shook his head and put the bottle on the ground. "Don't think that's in the cards, Rick, but thanks. And thanks for the beer and the conversation. Been missing that since Merle," Daryl said as he stood and stretched. He started down the steps wondering why he felt a little less heavy, like it was just the tiniest bit easier to walk and to breathe than it had been earlier that day.

"See ya at Grove Meadows, I'm sure." Rick said and Daryl tossed back a wave before he climbed on his bike, feeling more bare than usual after two rides with a body pressed warmly against him.

Chapter Text

Instead of heading straight home, Daryl felt himself pulled towards Grove Meadows Cemetery. He was pretty wired after an actual night out. An evening with people and talking and beer and banter. Friendly banter. He didn’t want to go home and be alone. Didn’t want to sit in front of the TV and watch TV people having perfect TV marriages.

It did sound nice in theory, Daryl thought. To have someone like that and not be alone. And for them to be your everything. Daryl was content to be a loner because he thought that was his only choice. But maybe he should try harder. He’d like to have an everything. He’d like to have a family. Like that Home Improvement show. Or Family Ties. Or the Waltons or some shit.

He parked in his usual spot and walked over to Merle’s grave. The cemetery was moderately lit with a few strategically placed street lamps. He stood over Merle’s grave looking down. Still an awkward arrangement. Daryl always looked up to Merle and even though he had a bit of a buzz and kinda felt like yelling, he sat down to be more at his brother’s current level. At least as close as he could get and still be above the ground.

“Ya know, you was always trying to throw your leftover chicks at me and talking about getting laid. Why didn’t you ever talk about what else there was?” Daryl waited like he always did for a reply he knew damn well wouldn’t come.

“Is it cause you didn’t know nothing ‘bout it either? ‘Bout how you can have someone to love, not just to fuck? Someone to talk to? Cause you always thought I was worthless. Too shy to even get it up. Too fucked up to let anyone touch me. But I’d let someone talk to me. I would have liked someone to talk to. Other than you, I mean.” Daryl rolled his eyes at himself.

“Not that I’m saying someone to replace you. Just someone else to talk to sometimes. Didn’t you have that with that Candy girl for a while?”

Daryl let some time pass. He watched a few bats chase one another in the night sky. Slapped at a mosquito. “Did you love her? Did you think about marrying her?” Daryl stood and paced. “I liked her for you. She was nice. Didn’t do drugs. Went a little overboard on the make-up, but she had a job and seemed to, for whatever reason, find you charming.”

Daryl could hear Merle’s voice in his head. “She found my dick charming, little brother. Couldn’t get enough of it.” Even in death, when Daryl was responsible for both sides of the conversation, he couldn’t control Merle being Merle.

Daryl stopped his pacing, surrounded by the silence of the dead. “I refuse to believe that’s all there was to you. Dad fucked me up and I freak out when anyone lays a hand on me. Maybe the way you got fucked up is not being able to love. Because you know… I think I could. I think I could love someone. And be married. And talk about my nose hairs. And have a kid and show that fucker father of ours how to be a good parent. Because, Merle… I would be a good fucking parent. And I would be a good husband. All those TV women always talk about their husbands not listening? That’s my specialty. I listen. I could be a catch.” Daryl grinned at the thought of Merle’s rough laugh.

“I mean, I’d have to grow a pair and talk to one first. But…” Daryl’s voice tapered off and he laid back in the grass with his hands behind his head, gazing to the stars for answers. “You’re probably right. I don’t have what it takes. Just fooling myself. Even if I could get the nerve to talk to a girl. Asking her out?” Daryl laughed. “Yeah, I would never be able to do it. And the fucking touching. I’d be nervous to put hands on her. Afraid to hurt her. Afraid that she would hurt me. Just always afraid.”

“Ain’t your fault though, Merle. Wasn’t your responsibility to teach me about shit like that. You got royally fucked getting stuck with a baby brother that was basically your damn kid since our folks weren’t real folks. You know how different we could have been?”

And again Daryl heard his brother’s voice in his head. It was an unusual moment of kindness and empathy and Merle did have those on occasion. “Ain’t too late for you baby brother. You can do anything you want. You’re a good kid.”

“And you were a good big brother. You did the best you could Merle. I wouldn’t ‘a had a chance without you.” Daryl absently reached his hand back over his shoulder, slipped it under his T and rubbed at the tip of one of his scars. “Thanks for listening.”

Daryl stood up and left, the breeze stirring up leaves that chased after his feet as he walked with purpose to his bike and to a bed that he would lie in alone.

----------------

After eating a PB&J and washing it down with a root beer, Daryl flipped off the TV in the middle of the Simpsons and went to bed. The music of an autumn night filled his room. A soft wind rattling some of the loose pieces of siding on their house… his house. Crickets and toads sang. He ran a hand down underneath his boxers and cupped himself. He wasn’t a stranger to jacking off. He WAS a man. He had man parts with man needs. He tried to figure out what to think about. Who to think about. One of the women Shane brought over? Maybe Mere’s old girlfriend Candy? Maybe the mom from Home Improvement? Shit. He had no idea. His relief usually came during the night, waking up with thoughts he couldn’t quite chase after but damp boxers that showed he must have been thinking about something.

He could do it. It just wasn’t easy. He was never relaxed enough. Always a certain degree of tension in his shoulders. A certain bracing for the worst. Even when he was alone and protected in his own home. He rubbed absently at his soft cock. Even if he could find his “one”... He’d never be able to perform. Never be able to give everything that the kind of decent person Daryl wants would need.

His mind spun around to different women he’d seen lately. In the coffee shop, or the garage or TV and he finally landed on the cute brunette from NCIS New Orleans. He'd watched the show a few times. She was cute but clearly kinda damaged, just like Daryl. She had a modest chest, rounded tits just enough to fill Daryl’s palms.

His partially growing dick shrunk back at the thought of himself participating. Touching. He had to keep himself out of the equation if he was gonna get it up. Just picture the girl. Rick was sure she had that case solved. He remembered reading the texts as he watched. He pictured her again. The actress portraying her. Alone. Daryl not there. She looked like she'd be nice, sweet. He tried to picture her touching herself. Tried to keep himself away. Touching his body but being out of his body.

His dick grew harder as he pictured Agent Brody throwing her head back, an imaginary cock that definitely was not Daryl’s pumping into her in all the right ways. Daryl groaned. He felt the tingles of possible release. He just needed to focus. Keep his mind away from too much. Tried to keep his mind out of his body. He wondered if Rick did this now that he had no one in his bed either. His mind drifted to their texts.

I'm just wearing jeans and a T-shirt. If they kick us out - then awesome. We can leave and go night fishing or something.

And suddenly Daryl pictured Rick. Sitting on the side of Daryl’s favorite fishing spot alone. Jacking it. Crying out Lori’s name before he came and Daryl suddenly realized the build in him was close too and a few more strokes brought out the rush of feelings, of everything and nothing simultaneously. Of perfect peace and contentment, slowly followed by self-loathing. Christ. He hated himself so much, he could only get off at the thought of someone else getting off. He’d feel wracked with guilt if he’d pictured Rick’s wife during that. But it slowly dawned on him that he didn’t even know what she looked like.

Chalking it up to just another way Daryl was completely fucked up, he cleaned up his mess and curled into a ball, the only way he could fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Rick gave Shane the silent treatment for a solid thirty minutes Monday morning. Finally, Shane stopped the car and got out at their favorite coffee shop. He didn't even ask Rick if he wanted anything, which was fine because Rick wouldn't have answered anyway on account of the silent treatment. But Rick knew an apology was afoot when he saw Shane coming back with two cups and a bag.

He climbed in and handed one of the coffees to Rick. "Black, two sugars," and he shoved the bag at him too. "And a glazed blueberry."

Well, eating the donut wouldn't interrupt the silent treatment. And glazed blueberry was his favorite. He reached in and pulled out a donut with a big bite out of it.

"You’re trying to make amends with a used donut?"

"It's only slightly used. It was the last one. I wanted a bite. Got ya the coffee too, that's untouched. Swear."

Rick sighed and took a bite. Shane knew he wouldn't resist the blueberry glaze.

"I was a dick. It came out wrong comparing you to that divorced chick. I recognize how wrong it was and I'm sorry."

Rick grunted in reply, mouth full of donut, and Shane continued. "Just wish you'd talk to me again. Y'know, about other things besides your grief. Like the game last night or the next Boy Scout trip or something funny Carl said."

Rick had nothing funny to report. He didn't watch the game last night. Hadn't even realized it was on. And the Boy Scout trip? The one coming up in December? Don't even think about it.

After two word-less blocks, Shane sighed. “Rick, I’m just worried about you. I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how to help. Feel like you need to at least talk about something other than your grief. Can’t you just try talking about normal everyday things?”

"I talked about a TV show the other day. Like one of those NCIS things."

Shane smiled optimistically. "Watching TV. That’s nice, normal. Good for you. You watch it with Carl?"

"What? No. Carl is always over at Louis'."

"Who'd you talk to about it to then?"

"Daryl. We were texting during it."

Shane raised his eyebrows and cocked his head. "Huh."

Before Rick could ask what “huh” meant, a call buzzed through for a robbery in progress. The day grew more active than usual and after responding to two additional calls, both minor fender benders on the parkway, Shane bounced back to the conversation.

"You really just, like, met that guy at the garage and became such good buddies?"

"Why's it matter how I met him?" Rick asked, subconsciously chewing on a nail. He looked out the window praying to see a crime in progress. He knew Shane would have a fit about him hanging with people who were just as depressed as he was.

"Cause I know everyone you know. Everyone. And I don't know him."

"What's the problem? He's a good guy. Anyway, you know him now."

"Only place you go is the graveyard, Rick. You don't hang at garages. You wouldn't hit it off with a new bud from standing around a garage. You barely know how to put gas in your car."

Rick looked at the dash computer and willed a call for support. Another robbery, kids sniffing glue, anything.

"You met him at the goddamn cemetery didn't you?

"What's it matter, Shane?" Rick sighed.

"You're surrounding yourself with misery. It's just not healthy," Shane said, shaking his head.

Rick decided not to respond. He was so tired of the same conversation. The same push. The same judgement about how long is too long. "Thanks for the coffee. And the partial donut," he said, clearly indicating that the conversation was over.

----------------

That night, Rick stopped at Amy's Florals to pick up a new bouquet for Lori. Red roses. He knew it was cliche, but they meant love. As soon as he walked in, Amy pulled out six red roses that were all ready for him. It was Monday. He came every Monday.

“Hi there, Mr. Grimes,” she said with the same empathy in her voice that she’s had for the past ten months. As she rang him up, he looked around the store at sale signs for carnations.

“Buy too many carnations this week?”

She smiled. “Yeah. Homecoming. Guess the kids aren’t as romantic as they used to be.”

Rick brushed his fingers against a few of the petals. “What do the white ones mean?”

“Remembrance. Do you want some in your bouquet this week?” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “I won’t charge you for them.”

Rick smiled and shook his head. “What about the pink ones?”

“They mean gratitude.”

Rick thought about what he was grateful for. He hadn’t been able to think of much since Lori died. Well, he guessed he was grateful for the usual things--Carl, the Moraleses, his family. But he was usually more focused on his own misery than on being thankful for anything. “Can I have one of those? Separate. Not in the bouquet,” he asked. Amy grabbed one and handed it to Rick with a sympathetic smile, then charged him only for his standard six roses.

----------------

On the way to the graveyard, Rick was trapped in his own deep thoughts, but for once they weren’t focused on himself. He’d found out a lot about the Dixon brothers last night and what their lives must have been like. His heart broke for Daryl. Broke for both of them really, because that was the kind of household Rick’s brothers on the force should have somehow been alerted to. Those kids should have been taken away. Given proper food, proper schooling, love.

Daryl had told Rick enough about Merle to know the guy was no saint. But he was basically left raising a kid because his parents were worthless. Both of them beaten and unloved and it was all just so damned unfair.

As Rick stepped out of the Subaru he looked towards Daryl’s usual spot and saw that his friend was not there at the moment. Rick walked to Lori’s grave and carefully changed out the roses.

"Hey, Pumpkin," he said quietly as he sat down.

"So I went with Shane and it was a total disaster. I'm not even going to bore you with it." He looked around. Monday evenings at Grove Meadows were pretty slow. Pillbox hat was just leaving. A young girl was across the path huddled over a new grave.

"Business never stops. Customers just keep on coming," Rick murmured more to himself than to Lori's ghost.

After a few more minutes of quiet observation, he dropped his eyes back down to Lori's name emblazoned on the head stone.

"Before you know it, it's gonna be Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then... " His voice dropped off.

Then December 4th, he thought. One year. He put a foot out and squashed a dried, fallen leaf just to hear the crunch of it beneath his shoe. “Not sure what Carl will want to do for Halloween. Probably go one last time. Louis and Eliza will probably still go. Guess I need to remember to get him a costume, huh?”

As if Lori asked, “What will he want to be?”, Rick answered, “I don’t know. Probably some kind of Video Game guy.”

Rick wasn’t much in the mood to talk on this visit. The months were chasing after him. October, November then December 4th. He’d probably have to show up at Thanksgiving. His parents would insist on it. Hell, he hadn’t seen some of his cousins since the funeral. His stomach tightened at the thought. He felt that urge to crawl into bed and disappear. He knew he’d have to man up and attend Thanksgiving alone. Just he and Carl. He’d have to show up with canned yams because Lori was the one that always brought the sweet potato casserole and Rick could barely make a bowl of cereal. Seriously. Last week he’d put orange juice in it. He sighed and stood, purposefully aiming for another crisp leaf to destroy under his shoe.

“Feeling quiet today, Pumpkin. But I’ll see you tomorrow.” He kissed his fingers and grazed the top of her headstone.

Instead of heading to his car, he took hesitant steps towards Merle’s grave. He still had the pink carnation and twisted it by the stem in his fingers as he walked. He glanced at some of the graves between Merle’s and Lori’s, calculating ages as he went. Forty-seven. Ninety-two. Four. No rhyme or reason to it at all.

He stopped at the foot of Merle’s plot.

“Merle Dixon,” he said like it was a casual greeting. “Heard a lot about you from your brother.” Rick stood, thinking again about some of the domestics he’d been to. He’d seen wives with bloody lips and black eyes and he’d seen kids covered in bruises and cigarette burns. Shit you couldn’t even imagine. He felt like those days were a success, though. Pulling kids like that out of the situation. Trying to give them a better life. Trying to SAVE them. Putting men like that in the back of the patrol car was a pleasure. Rick was always gentle with drug addicts, prostitutes, even a few burglaries in progress where they apprehended the guys after a foot chase. He’d help them in and watch their heads. But men who beat their children? Their wives? They were monsters. Didn’t deserve to be treated carefully. They would get tossed in with complete disregard to their safety. And now that Rick had befriended someone who lived through such a hell, he pitied the next drunken asshole who would get Rick Grimes when the call for a domestic came through.

“Know a lot. Drugs. Stealing. All that shit.” Rick looked over to the parking lot. Just his Subaru. “Probably killing you to know a cop is standing here over your grave, I’d bet.” He twirled the pink carnation again.

“Well, ain’t here to arrest you,” he smiled. “Just thought you should know…” Rick paused again to get his words right. “Just thought you should know that you weren’t nothing. You raised a kid when you practically were a kid yourself. In the worst of all possible circumstances.”

“And it’s on us. It’s on me and my brothers on the force when kids like you and Daryl get lost and missed. We should have been there for both of you. Someone should have. No one was there for you. But you were at least there for Daryl. And he’s a good man. And you should be proud because he’s yours. He ain’t your momma’s or your daddy’s. He’s yours and you did good.”

Rick tossed the carnation on the plot of ground that covered Merle. “He’s become a good friend of mine. And I’m grateful to you for what you’ve done to care for him all his life. You meant the world to him. You were his world. And even though I'd probably have to arrest you for something if we’d met… I wish I could have met you properly. You never had a chance for much better with the cards you were dealt. And, brother, I’m truly sorry for that. Pink flower’s probably kinda gay, but it meant gratitude and I wanted to let you know I was grateful. And it was free anyway. So… y’know. Thanks.”

Chapter Text

Daryl stopped at the cemetery on his lunch hour Tuesday. He'd missed Monday and was feeling empty about going without his brother for a day. When he pulled in he looked to Lori's grave before he even got off the bike. Rick wasn't there yet. Or he'd already been and gone. It was strange how Daryl looked forward to seeing him. This other person in the world who knew he was alive. Who talked to him. And Daryl actually wanted to talk to back.

He trudged over to Merle's grave with a McDonald's bag in his hand and paused before he sat in his normal spot in the grass. A single pink flower was laying on Merle's plot of land. Daryl cocked his head, perplexed. He looked at the nearby graves, Bill, Vivian, Joanna. All names he’d gotten familiar with from all his visits. None of them had bouquets with a missing flower. He scoped out the cemetery, looking further out to see if maybe it blew over from the fall breeze. The only other plot that had fresh flowers was Lori’s. The half-dozen red roses that Rick replenished every week.

Daryl sat down and reached for the flower, twirling it by the stem between his fingers as his bagged lunch grew cold. “You got a secret admirer?” Daryl smiled. “Took ya dead before anyone deemed you good enough to pay such a nicety.” He leaned forward and rested the flower against the headstone. He opened up his Big Mac and took a bite, watching the dainty flower as it lay fragile against the cold hardness of the marble. As he chewed, he glanced back to Lori.

“The cop maybe?” Daryl sipped his root beer. “That guy likes to be thankful for stuff. Alls I did was have a beer with him. Couple more at his place after I fixed his distributor cap.” Daryl’s face scrunched up when he imagined Merle making a comment. “Is that an innuendo, baby brother?”

“What the fuck, Merle?” Daryl answered himself, fairly certain that had Merle been alive, the conversation would have gone EXACTLY that way. And it would have. Merle had spent many an evening concerned that Daryl was gay. And time and time again, Daryl would assure him that he wasn’t anything. He just wasn’t. He hadn’t met anyone yet that he wanted that with. Hell, he’d hardly met anyone at all. He kept to himself.

Most of the time it was just Merle being Merle. Not the best of all human beings for sure, but the best thing Daryl ever knew. Some of the times when Merle was just high and relaxed and they were watching something mellow on TV like a concert on the Paladia channel or one of those mesmerizing How it’s Made episodes, Merle would get sincere.

“You ain’t never had nothing in life, Daryl. Makes me sad,” he’d said one Halloween. Daryl specifically remembered because Merle had come back from a party where he’d dressed up as a cop. His dealer did NOT find it funny. A kerfuffle occurred and Merle ended up home early, stretched out on the couch still in the cheap WalMart cop uniform.

Daryl had shrugged. “Don’t mind.”

Merle had cocked his head at his baby brother, sincerity in his eyes. “You know if you, like, dig dudes, I’m still your brother, right?”

“There’s no one I ‘dig’, Merle, ok? So quit worrying yourself about it.”

“Ain’t always gonna be around baby brother. Could get pinched and end up doing another nickle. Let’s face it, could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and be gone from this world permanently. Ray is a shitty shot. Could get picked off by accident shooting tin cans in his backyard.” Merle inhaled smoke from a dragon-shaped bowl again. As he held the smoke in his lungs he continued, “Some damsel in distress could sweep me off my feet, be gone and married and you’d be all alone.”

Merle blew smoke rings and coughed at the final one. “Love you. Hate thinking you’d have nothing.”

After that night Merle had gone on a three-day kick of dragging Daryl out to bars where the shy mechanic would sit quietly and uncomfortably in the corner. He’d have a few awkward conversations with women Merle would bring over but they usually walked off when they realized Daryl had absolutely nothing to say. And then Merle would give up and stop pushing it.

“Miss you, Merle,” the mechanic simply said. He wadded up his McDonald’s bag and went back home, where his brother would be disappointed to find him alone.

----------------

After twenty minutes of watching a show he was paying absolutely no attention to, he got out his cell and decided to text Rick. Been two days. Subaru must have run ok or he’d probably have needed to call Daryl to come back to look at it. He thought maybe just a text asking about the car, but he wasn’t great at starting conversations. He did have a legitimate question though, so he typed into the cell and pressed send.

Were you at the cemetery today?

He bit nervously at his lip as he waited for a reply. Why would Rick want to talk to him anyway? He was probably busy with his kid or, like, collecting neighborhood casseroles or something.

Hi! Yes. Rarely miss a day. Were you?

Damn. Daryl was kind of hoping Rick would mention the flower so he didn’t have to sound stupid about it, but the curiosity was killing him. Dixons didn’t get flowers. They just didn’t.

Yeah. You by any chance put a pink flower at Merle’s grave?

Guilty. You mad?

Mad about what?

Too presumptuous of me or something. I never met him. But I had this free carnation and pink is for gratitude and he did raise you practically even though he wasn’t perfect and I just wanted to thank him for doing the best he could by you.

Daryl was truly perplexed.

Why?

There was a long pause before the next text came and that made Daryl nervous.

I actually don’t really know why.

Five minutes went by as Daryl stared at the phone, not wanting to be alone. He typed again.

You watching TV?

The response was quick, like Rick had been sitting there staring at his cell too.

Yeah. The Voice. It’s stupid.

What channel?

Twelve.

The mechanic changed his channel and watched a 16-year old girl from Tennessee singing Whitney Houston.

This IS stupid. Is someone gonna tell that girl she can’t sing? Can’t she tell by the way no one is even looking at her?

Rick responded again quickly. They’ll push a button to turn their chairs if they like her.

Well, I just turned my whole couch around. Sounds even worse this direction.

Daryl could picture Rick maybe smiling at that. Not a full smile, of course, but the kind where his lips curved up slow and stop before they reach his eyes. The dots pounced on Daryl’s phone as the widower was responding.

LOL! I’m thinking about moving mine out to the porch.

After a tearful follow-up interview, the host announced that they’d be back after the break. Daryl tapped into the phone. Was that just a Christmas commercial? It’s not even Halloween yet!

Shit. Halloween. I have to pick up Carl’s costume this week.

What did he decide to be? Daryl asked, feeling more at ease with the conversation.

A surgeon.

Very upstanding.

Not really, he wants to be covered in blood and he’s convinced Eliza and Louis to go as his unsuccessful heart transplant patients.

Daryl laughed out loud. Creative.

What are you doing on Halloween?

Daryl smiled warmly. Would this be another invite? Something to do? Somewhere to go?

I’d have to check my calendar but based on my memory- sitting in this couch and burning the roof of my mouth on a microwaveable pot pie.

Wanna come over and help me give out candy? Can’t stand the thought of doing it alone without Lori and if I turn out the lights and pretend I’m not home, I’ll get egged and toilet-papered. That’s a given.

Ok. Is trick or treating Friday?

Yeah. Starts at 6, but if you come early you can burn the roof of your mouth on an enchilada casserole before the doorbell starts ringing.

K. Thanks for the invite. Never really did Halloween before.

You haven’t gotten to do much of anything have you?

Not really.

You should do more stuff.

I know.

Chapter Text

Rick was miserable. But Rick was always miserable so it was starting to at least feel familiar. He grabbed a mini-bag of peanut M&M's from the bowl at his front door and started popping them, two at a time, until Carl came down in his surgeon’s outfit, all artistically bloodied with a concoction he made up after he claimed the “shit they sell at Walmart isn’t real enough.”

After a ten minute lecture about Rick’s lack of parental competence being no reason for Carl to decide that it’s ok to start cursing, they adjourned to the grocery section of the store and purchased corn syrup, red food dye and some other items that Carl researched on the internet.

“Do I look like I have dead on me?” he asked, completely serious.

“You look like a terrible doctor. I wouldn’t want you operating on me, that’s for sure,” Rick said, forcing himself to smile.

“Perfect! That’s what I was going for. I gotta go next door and check on my bodies.” Before he turned to leave, he looked his father up and down.

“You usually dress up to answer the door.”

“Yeah, I forgot. You coming back over for dinner before you go out?” Rick asked mostly to change the subject. “I’m making… well, heating up some of the enchilada casserole.”

“Nah, pizza at Louis’ house. I’ll be back with a boat-load of candy and I’ll let you have the peanut M&M’s, ok?” Carl said. It was clear he knew that Rick was having yet another rough “first.” His first Halloween without Lori dressed up beside him in outfits that matched. Indian boy and girl. Or vampire and victim. Or prince and princess. This year it was just widower in sweatpants.

“That guy’s coming over to keep you company?” Carl asked as if he was the parent, checking in on the child.

“Yeah. I’ll be fine. I’ll have company. You go terrorize the neighborhood and bring me back some candy.”

“I’d hug ya, dad. But it would mess up my guts,” Carl said affectionately.

“‘S ok, buddy. It’s the thought that counts.”

After Carl left, Rick got out the casserole and put it in the oven to heat it up. Daryl had mentioned at the graveyard the day before that he’d be over at 5:30 for dinner. He’d also asked if he should bring candy, which seemed incredibly thoughtful. Rick couldn’t imagine never having experienced so many simple pleasures in life. No Halloween as a kid. Probably no Christmas either. Poor damn guy. Such a nice guy too.

It was also confusing to the widower how Daryl could be so shy at work and in the rest of his life. So shy that he just didn’t have anyone. Because with Rick, Daryl was perfectly normal. He was funny and chatty and smart. He was interesting and Rick enjoyed his company. So maybe this evening shouldn’t be about Halloween without his wife. Maybe it should be about Halloween with his new friend. He made a decision to try his damndest not to mope tonight. He hated the onset of his total selfishness since Lori died. He wanted to make tonight about showing Daryl what Halloween was like. And to let him enjoy Rick’s company instead of being home alone.

When the doorbell rang, Rick was actually giddy with excitement. He wanted to see Daryl get a kick out of the costumes and snack in-between on the candy and watch a horror movie and root through the spoils that Carl would bring home later.

Rick opened the door to Daryl, who stood with three giant bags of mini-hershey’s assortments.

“Is this when I’m supposed to say Trick or Treat?” Daryl smirked.

Rick rolled his eyes, knowing the man well enough now to know that he was making fun of his own inexperience. “You didn’t have to bring candy, man. Told you I had plenty.” But Rick smiled and took the candy, dumping the new options into the giant oversized bowl he had out.

“Well, if you have leftovers, Carl can eat it.”

Rick turned around and looked at Daryl like he had two heads. “You really don’t know a damn thing about this holiday. Carl will be back later with a bag of candy bigger than that bowl there and it will last him a good six months.”

“Right,” Daryl nods. “You’re giving it out and he’s picking it up. Seems a little… redundant.”

Rick rolled his eyes again as the buzzer from the oven went off. “Well, it is. But it’s tradition.”

Daryl watched as Rick pulled a half-eaten enchilada casserole out of the oven. “Damn. That looks delicious,” he said, mouth already watering.

“Real home cooking,” Rick said. “I mean, not this home. But they cooked it next door.”

Daryl laughed as he handed one of the plates to Rick who spatula’d a portion of it onto the dish and then repeated it on the second.

The mechanic carried them to the table and Rick brought the silverware.

“Forgot to get beer, but I have a bottle of red wine that’s got dust on it. Interested?”

Daryl nodded. “Sure. S’posed to get better with age, right?”

Rick dug in several drawers before he finally pulled out the corkscrew and then he stood frozen, corkscrew in one hand and eyes on the bottle.

“You ok?” Daryl asked as he was getting ready to sit.

“I don’t know how to use this. Lori always opened the wine.” Rick’s voice was monotone and filled with emptiness. He looked to Daryl like a child asking for help and the mechanic bounced back up out of the chair.

“I got it, man,” he said softly as he gently took the corkscrew out of Rick’s hand. The air in the room grew thick with sadness and Daryl tried his best to clear it away with idle chatter. Not his strong suit. But Rick needed him.

“Used to work in a bar for a while after I first turned 21,” he said as he wound the twisted metal down into the cork. “Lasted six days. Wanna know why?” He held the wine bottle firm with one hand and twisted out the cork with the other.

“Sure, why?” Rick asked, letting his nerves settle and grabbing two wine glasses.

“Too shy. They said I needed to be more talkative with the clientele. Seriously, they used the word clientele. I’m talking about that dive down on Columbus called Ernie’s. Most of the clientele had less teeth than fingers and I opened more wine with twist off caps than ones needing the actual corkscrew.” Daryl poured the wine as Rick sat in front of one of the plates, tension turning into a smile at Daryl's story.

The mechanic couldn't understand why Rick had been complaining about all the casseroles. He thought the food was amazing. He wore a soft smile during the whole meal, eating two giant pieces of the spicy casserole and listening to Rick talk about the Halloween costumes Carl had worn in previous years. A cop. A boxer (bloodied from a loss), Superman, and all the way back to his first costume, a chunky little baby in a kangaroo outfit.

Rick tried a few times to pull a story or two out of Daryl, but he didn’t have very many holiday stories. Not ones he wanted to talk about anyway. His Halloweens had mostly consisted of watching the cartoon specials on TV and being hungry. He vividly remembered the Halloween after he turned twelve--Carl’s age. It was the first year he didn’t whine to Merle to try to sneak him out and let him go Trick or Treating. Twelve was probably too old and Merle wasn’t around anyway. He was at his own Halloween party, probably just starting to get into drugs around that time. Will Dixon was out at the bar, just like it was any other night of the year.

----------------

Daryl was home alone. He’d been left alone as early as six, so it wasn’t a big deal, but it was Halloween and after It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was over, The Shining came on. Daryl watched it mostly through the slits between his fingers as he held his hands over his eyes and pulled the blanket he sat with all the way over his head. It was scary on a number of levels, but Jack Nicholson getting drunk and trying to kill his family was petrifying.

Shortly after it was over and a Friday the 13th marathon started he heard noises outside the house. He heard whispers and thumps against the old rickety trailer. He wanted Merle desperately. Although the Dixons usually left the house unlocked (there wasn’t much to steal and Will Dixon had a habit of losing his keys) Daryl had run to the door and locked and bolted it. The screws on the bolt were loose as hell and the door itself was probably made of nothing more than weak plywood, but Daryl needed something to make him feel protected. He scurried back to his room, leaving the TV on, and he crawled into the bottom of his closet with his blanket and pillow. That was his hiding place, although Will always found him. And certainly any ghosts or monsters or vampires that were outside at the moment would find him too, but the extra layer of door between him and what lay outside gave some semblance of safety.

It was probably hours later when Daryl woke, not just to soft thuds like he heard earlier, but the sound of Will Dixon’s voice screaming and his boot kicking at the locked front door of their trailer.

“Goddammit, boy! You get out here! What the fuck are you doin' lockin' this door on me! You’re gonna get it good, boy ‘f you don’t get out here!”

Daryl shook in the closet, going through his options. He would get beat either way. And would one beating be less than the other based on whether or not he opened the door? Probably not. He was frozen in fear.

“YOU HEAR ME, BOY! IF I HAVE TO BREAK THIS DOOR DOWN I’M TAKING IT OUT ON YOUR ASS! AND YOU ALREADY GOT IT COMING FER LETTING THESE GOOD FER NOTHIN' SHITS SPRAY PAINT GRAFFITI ALL OVER MY HOUSE.”

Daryl prayed. He’d seen it on TV, when people asked God for help. He did that sometimes and it never worked. Never. But he was desperate. And he whispered out loud, “Please, Merle. Come back. Please.”

Finally the sound of cracking wood snapped Daryl into action. He flew out of the closet, knowing it would be the first place Will would look, and he slid under his bed. His father’s heavy boots came charging straight back to Daryl’s tiny room and Daryl heard the closet door ripped right off its hinges.

“You fucker,” Will slurred as he pulled the blankets and pillow out of the tiny space. Daryl watched as Will’s fingers curled around the bed frame and lifted the whole thing, pushing it up on its side against the wall.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl said, small, shaky, squirming back towards the wall behind him as Will leaned in and dragged him by his shirt into the kitchen.

“You tryin' to lock me out of my own house? You made me break two damn doors. Who’s gonna pay for that? Huh? Well?!? ANSWER ME, BOY!”

“I can... I’ll find some money. I’m sorry.” He tried to back away, but Will still had a fist grasped into Daryl’s hand-me-down t-shirt.

“You’re gonna pay for it, that’s for fucking sure,” Will said as he unbuckled his belt one handed, sat in his chair at the kitchen table and shoved Daryl across his lap. Daryl tried to escape. Not physically--he could never escape physically. He was too small. Too weak. But he tried to blank out his mind. To think about math problems. Times tables. He pictured himself sitting in class. Not that class was his happy place. It was just another place. Not here. In school, he got picked on mercilessly for being poor white trash with only three different shirts and not enough showers. But even sitting in class with spitballs hitting him every couple of minutes was a better place to be than over Will’s knee bracing for the belt.

Daryl still had purple welts along his ass and lower back from the beating he’d taken the other night for stealing Will’s cigarettes. Which technically, Daryl hadn’t done. Will had smoked them all. But sometimes denying it made it even worse. The first whack was explosive against his already damaged behind and he croaked out a sob.

“I try to teach you, boy. Try to tell you. Something as simple as turn off the TV when you’re done. Simple as don’t lock your old man out of his own home. How can you be so goddamn dumb?” Another whack followed and then Will’s words were only occasional and weren’t clear enough for Daryl to understand them. He wiggled his tiny frame again to try to get loose as the lashings grew more painful.

“Don’t you fucking fight me, boy. I own you. I’m the one says when you’ve had enough.” And Daryl felt his father yank down his hand-me-down, over-sized jeans and start whipping at his bare flesh with the belt.

Daryl heard his own voice like he was somewhere else, feeling sorry for someone else that wasn’t him. “Please, Dad. I’m sorry. Please.”

Will finally stopped, only because he himself was exhausted from handing out the punishment. And Daryl stood, tears streaming down his face, and his bare ass feeling the coolness of damp blood. He pulled up his pants in modesty even though the rough jeans over his raw wounds made him cry out again.

“Get the fuck out of my sight, boy,” Will said as he put back on the bloodied belt and went to the fridge for another beer. Daryl backed up, knowing that Will drank the last of it the night before. He was ready to run through open door if Will turned to him again. He would run. It hurt like hell to move, but he braced himself to move fast. And as Will turned with eyes on fire, daggering into Daryl’s, Merle walked through the door.

 

“What the fuck is this?” his brother asked in his raspy voice. Then he looked at Daryl’s face and the way he stood, holding on to his jeans.

“You hit that fucking kid again, Pop?” Merle asked. Merle could ask a thing like that because he was ten years older than Daryl and he was stronger than Will. Merle had his own share of permanent scars from his younger days, but now, he fought back. As the fight between his father and brother escalated, Daryl disappeared to his room, the first of about ten straight days where he was unable to lay on his back or sit. He stopped going to school. And no one even wondered where he was.

----------------

Daryl snapped back to the present as Rick poured them both another glass of wine. “Almost six,” Rick said. “Thanks for doing this. Might be kinda fun with someone, instead of doing it alone.”

“Sure,” Daryl nodded, physically flushed from the memory and trying not to show that his hands were shaking. The mechanic started doing the dishes and Rick smiled at him.

“Jesus. Thanks man, what a great house guest. ‘F your gonna do dishes you should come over every night,” the widower joked. Daryl flicked a bit of water over at Rick without thinking and Rick let out a goofy giggle that calmed Daryl’s nerves and brought a smile back to his face.

The doorbell rang as Rick was drying the silverware and he walked to the door and waved at Daryl to follow. “Sometimes they're kinda cute even though this whole thing is sort of stupid."

He opened the door wide with the giant bowl already in his hand.

A chorus of “Trick or Treat” filled the stilled autumn air. Before them stood three boys and a girl, or to be more specific, Ironman, a soldier, a vampire and a ballerina. Rick waved to the parents at the end of the drive and then dropped a few candies in each plastic pumpkin in front of him.

“Mr. Grimes, the ballerina whispered, “You didn’t dress up this year.” Rick looked down at himself. “I did, Daisy, I’m dressed like a cop on his day off,” Rick said with a smile and a wink.

As the doorbell kept ringing, they encountered several more Ironmen, dozens of Elsa’s from Frozen and a lot of zombies. A few were creative. One or two costumes were actually hand-made. Daryl was impressed with the boys who went all out with the gore and blood. One had even figured out a way to make it look like he was missing a leg.

Daryl just observed for the first few groups, grinning at how sweet the whole thing was. Halloween was so different here. But halfway through the designated neighborhood trick-or-treating hour, Daryl started handing out the candy. The looks of appreciation and the sincerity of the thank-you’s he got made his heart melt. Yes, they only saw him and thanked him because he was holding a literal ton of candy, but still, it was something new and Daryl quite liked it.

Rick watched as Daryl’s entire demeanor changed. He’d grown quiet and solemn at one point over dinner and Rick knew enough to see that he was having some unpleasant memories. But as the trick-or-treaters sifted through, Daryl was all smiles, giggling when some of the younger little girls asked if he wanted to hear them sing “Let it Go.” He always said yes and he paid complete attention, applauded and praised each one of them, looking to Rick with eyes asking if he could give them an extra bit of candy and Rick just nodded.

By seven, the doorbell had stopped ringing so often but a few minutes after, there was a knock. They went to the door and opened it to Carl, Louis and Eliza.

“Trick or Treat!” the kids shouted.

“Get in here,” Rick smiled, putting a soft hand on his son’s back to lead him into the house.

All three were practically dragging overflowing bags of candy. Carl’s unfortunate heart transplant patients looked fantastic. Both were in hospital gowns, with face paint to make them appear dead. One was holding a fake bloody heart and both were covered head to toe in blood.

“Nice blood,” Daryl said. “That ain’t the cheap Walmart stuff.”

Carl smiled like it was the best compliment he’d ever gotten. “It’s not, Daryl! I made this myself from a secret recipe on the internet.”

Rick chuckled at the thought of anything on the internet being secret.

“It tastes good too,” Eliza said swiping a bit off her arm and holding her fingers up to Daryl.

“That’s ok, sweetheart. I’ll take your word for it,” he said, grinning. She sucked on her own fingers. "Kinda like pancakes."

Louis’ cell phone beeped. “That’s probably mom. Come on, Eliza. She’ll think we’re dead if we don’t get home in the next ten seconds.” Louis walked two steps before he froze and scrunched up his face.

He turned to Rick. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean, like…”

“It’s ok to use the word dead, Louis,” Rick said softly. Jesus. This is what it had come to? Eleven-year-olds walking on eggshells around him, pitying him? He didn’t know what he wanted anymore, but he knew he didn’t want sympathy from children. Before he started drifting into thoughts of Lori, he caught himself and remembered that this night wasn’t about him. It was Halloween. It was for the kids. And it was for Daryl. He reached into the dwindling bowl of candy by the door. “Here,” he said as he put some in each of their bags.

“Thanks, Mr. Grimes,” Louis said, then turned to Carl. “See you tomorrow morning. We’re gonna play ‘Super Mario Brothers’,” he said, winking, clearly a secret message that meant they had a plan to sneak in Grand Theft Auto.

After Carl went upstairs to change, Rick grabbed his bag of candy and waved for Daryl to follow him into the living room.

“This is the fun part,” Rick said as he sat on the floor and patted a spot for Daryl to join him. He emptied the entire bag onto the soft beige carpet and started sifting through it piece by piece, checking each wrapper and putting it back into the bag. Except for the peanut M&Ms. They were all shuffled into a pile by Rick's leg.

"He allergic to peanuts?" Daryl asked as he observed the process.

"What? Oh, no. But I like Peanut M&Ms and he's got enough to spare. Lets me have 'em every year. It's tradition." Rick grinned.

After sorting through a few more, he looked back to Daryl. "What's your favorite? He'll let you have some."

Daryl pushed around a few pieces of candy as Carl bounced back down the stairs, cleaned up and in Star Wars pajamas.

He sat across the men looking over his spoils. "Find any razor blades or hypodermic needles?"

"Jesus," Daryl said. "Is THAT what you were doing?"

"Yeah, gotta be safe," Rick answered.

Daryl shook his head. "This holiday seems pretty risky."

Carl giggled. "It's worth the risk. Dad never buys me Mike & Ike's!" He shook one of several boxes. Carl continued to explain to Daryl. "And dad gets the Peanut M&Ms. What do you like? You can have some."

Daryl looked at all the loot again. "I like Milk Duds."

Carl picked through the pile and pulled together a handful of Milk Dud boxes. "Here you go. Happy Halloween."

Daryl looked at the boxes, perplexed. "Really?"

"Dude, I got plenty," Carl answered.

"This is amazing," Daryl said, looking back over the pile.

"Haven't you ever had Halloween before?"

"No. Not really."

"That's weird."

"Not everyone gets to grow up with all the luxuries you have, Carl," Rick chimed in.

Carl looked back at Daryl and cocked his head the same way Rick does. "How do you feel about Junior Mints?"

"They're good!" Daryl answered, feeling like a child sitting on the floor talking about candy.

Carl ruffled through his bag again and tossed a handful to Daryl. "I hate 'em."

A moment passed where the only sounds in the room were candy wrappers being ripped open. "Can you stay for the movie? Dad and I always watch a scary movie at the end of the night."

Daryl flicked eyes to Rick not wanting to overstay his welcome. "You have to," Rick said. "It's part of the Halloween experience."

"Ok," Daryl said with his mouth full of Milk Duds. "What movie?"

Rick nodded at Carl. "Carl wants to see the original Poltergeist."

Daryl grinned. "I haven't seen that in years."

"It's like wine," Rick said. "Gets better with age."

The three of them sat side by side on the couch, Rick in the middle, lights out and Poltergeist on the big screen. They munched on candy and talked over most of the movie. Carl jumped at least three times and each time Daryl and Rick burst into laughter.

On the ride home, Daryl hoped that this Halloween would become the one he replayed over in his head every year instead of the old one. He still tasted Junior Mints as he drove and still felt the comfort of kind eyes on him. Soft, gentle eyes that wanted nothing more from him than his company.

Chapter Text

As November progressed, so did their friendship. There were a few dinners and breakfasts together. Movie nights with Carl. They’d even gotten to the point where Daryl had started initiating more of their texts. The first couple times he would spend twenty minutes worrying about whether he was bothering Rick or if the man even wanted to hear from him. But now he did it without hesitation. Both men would text at the drop of a hat, as any thought popped into their heads that seemed remotely noteworthy. Their texts ranged from the random, like “What the hell is prosciutto,” to the serious, “I just found one of Lori’s earring backings while vacuuming,” to their evening ritual of watching Late Night with Jimmy Fallon at the same time and texting back and forth through the entire episode.

It was during Jimmy Fallon’s monologue when Daryl got the text he was hoping for.

What are you doing for Thanksgiving? Rick asked out of the blue.

Whenever Rick wanted to make plans, he would ask like that. Even though he knew Daryl never had any plans, ever. He always asked as if there was the possibility. Daryl thought that was kind. He thought a lot of things about his best friend were kind. He’d never known someone so sincere and nice and easy to be with. And after all the time they’d recently been spending together, Daryl was hoping this might be his first real Thanksgiving.

He responded slower than normal, not wanting appear too eager for some reason.

Having dinner with the Obamas. But I can cancel if you’re looking for company.

--------------

After their plans were set, Rick smiled at his phone. He had missed this all these months. What “this” was, he wasn’t entirely clear on. The laughing maybe? Having someone around that made him laugh? Having a connection? He was dreading Thanksgiving at his parent’s house. All his cousins would be there. Aunts and Uncles. Everyone he hasn't seen since the funeral. But that wasn’t the whole reason Rick wanted Daryl’s company. He didn’t want Daryl there as a distraction or a barrier to others anymore. He just wanted Daryl there.

He turned off the TV and sat in the dark quiet living room. The mere thought of being surrounded by everyone was making his foot bounce uncontrollably. He contemplated calling his mom and canceling. They’d understand. Wouldn’t they? His parents had started shifting from all pity and sympathy and concern to more of Shane’s line of thinking. Even to the point where his mom had called about a month ago because she “had a friend who had a daughter about Rick’s age.”

He sighed and instead of getting up to go to bed he pulled the recliner back out and stretched. It was way too late to call his folks. He looked at his cell and dialed.

The panic in his heart over thoughts of aunts and uncles and cousins and “You need to get back out there’s” stopped completely when Daryl answered the phone.

“Hey,” Daryl said. There was a bit of sleep in his voice and Rick imagined that he’d climbed into bed right after Fallon.

“Sorry. Is it too late to call?”

“No, man. Course not. Everything ok?”

Rick shrugged and when he remembered that Daryl wouldn’t see that through the phone he answered, “I guess.”

“First time you ever called me, Rick,” Daryl pointed out. “You sure you’re ok? I know you were upset about that Lip Synching contest tonight, but…”

“I just HATE that he’s doing it with everyone now,” Rick whined. “That was a Justin Timberlake thing. They were so good at it and now he’s just doing it with everyone. He’s like a total lip synch whore. Emma Stone was just a show off.”

“Are you calling me at 1:00 in the morning because Emma Stone is a show off?” Rick could hear the smile in Daryl’s voice.

“Just… I don’t know. All these holidays are coming up and it’s… You know I haven’t seen most of my family since the funeral?”

Rick heard the sound of a nail being bitten through the phone line. “You want it to be just you and Carl? Might be easier for you that way. I don’t have to go if you don’t want--”

“You’re the only one I want there. It’s not that,” Rick said. “I just… don’t feel like talking.”

“You’re talking now,” Daryl said, parroting similar words that Rick had used in the past, back when Daryl had explained that he was shy and didn’t talk much.

“Well, I wanna talk now. I don’t wanna talk then.”

“It’s a week away. Maybe you’ll feel like talking more then?”

Rick shrugged again. “I guess it’s more about not wanting to listen to what they have to say.” Through the phone, Rick could hear the squeaking of bedsprings followed by the sound of a refrigerator opening.

“I totally woke you up.”

“Wasn’t sleeping. It’s ok. What are they gonna say? Let me guess. That you need to get over Lori?” The sound of a soda can popping made Rick grin.

“Are you opening a root beer at one o’clock in the morning? That’s caffeinated y’know. You’ll never fall asleep.”

“I’m not climbing out of bed to talk to you about root beer,” Daryl laughed. “Why don’t you want to go?”

“What you said,” Rick said softly. “Sick of hearing it. Sick of feeling like I’m wrong for missing her. Like I’m doing it wrong.”

“You ain’t doing nothing wrong, man. Just...Y’know… go prepared to hear it and have a standard response. Like my grunt. I never know what to say to people so when they talk to me or want a response I just grunt.” Daryl grunted as an example.

“So I should grunt?”

“No. That’s my thing. Get your own thing. Like just tell everyone real simple ‘I’m just not ready to move on.’ Use that same sentence for everyone and then change the subject.”

Rick paused, biting his lip in thought, then asked softly, “But what if I can’t think of anything else to say?”

“I’ll be there. I’ll just follow you around and say “Who made the cranberry sauce? It’s delicious.’”

Rick chuckled. “Cranberry sauce comes straight out of a can. Like literally it’s in the bowl in the actual shape of the can it just came out of.”

After another half-hour of talk about Thanksgiving traditions, a heated conversation about Emma Stone’s lip synching abilities, which cousins Rick hates and which ones missed the funeral (they were the same ones), he finally felt better about getting through the next week. A conversation with Daryl made him feel like he might be able to make it after all. Worst case scenario, he’d steal the grunt and just stick with that. Daryl would be there right next to him. And it would be ok.

----------------

Daryl bought a new shirt for Thanksgiving. It was a bizarre thing to do. Hell, Daryl wasn't sure if he'd EVER bought a new shirt. Most of his clothes were hand-me-downs or thrift shop buys. He had no idea why he felt like he had to do it. Rick had told him that the event wasn't anything fancy and what he usually wore was fine. But he didn't want to show up to Rick's parents house in a ratty T-shirt, so he bought a nice blue button down with long sleeves.

He was too shy to ask the sales clerk to try it on, but it fit well enough. Just a little tight in the shoulders. He was a little nervous because he was always so shy around strangers, but when he was with Rick, he noticed that things were much easier. He could participate in conversations instead of just standing off to the side listening and biting a nail. He wasn’t sure if it was due to any breakthrough on his own part--probably it was mostly because Rick always pulled him into the conversation. Never ignored him, never let him feel left out. Always kept a close eye on him to make sure he was comfortable. Besides, Rick needed him.

Once he was dressed and had his leather jacket and gloves on, he grabbed a tupperware container full of chocolate chip cookies and stored them in the saddle bags before he kickstarted his bike. He’d gotten the recipe from the back of a bag of chocolate chips and made them himself, although he’d burned three dozen and had to throw them away before he got it figured out. Rick had told him he didn’t need to bring anything, but on all the TV shows he watched, people usually showed up with something for Thanksgiving. Rick had already mentioned that he had to bring some kind of sweet potato thing.

The mechanic had left with enough time to stop at Merle’s grave first. No one else was there on Thanksgiving. Daryl knew Rick had already come and gone earlier because they’d texted. He stood at the foot of the gravesite instead of sitting this time because he didn’t want his freshly washed jeans to be dirty.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Merle,” Daryl said. After the usual pause Daryl left between sentences, he continued. “I got a lot to be thankful for actually, you know that? I mean… not losing you. Worst fucking day of my life. Worst thing I’ll ever have to live through. But,” Daryl looked around the cemetery like he was about to tell a secret. “I have this thing now. Like a family? With Rick and Carl and it’s nice.”

Daryl paused again as he wondered what Merle would really think of this new friendship. “You think it’s weird?” he asked. “Two grown men texting like teenagers and having movie nights with a twelve-year old?”

Daryl sighed and looked at the ground, wanting so badly to sit for a deep conversation, but hellbent about not getting his pants dirty. “I don’t know what it is, Merle. I’ve never felt more… present. More here. More alive in the world. And I don’t know what these feelings are and I wish you were here to tell me.”

A cool breeze whipped around Daryl and he zipped up his jacket. “Going to his parent’s house today, Merle. I made fucking chocolate chip cookies. MADE them. Like with an oven. Who does that?”

Daryl waited for an answer. Nothing came but road traffic from holiday travelers. He looked again up and down the long rows and again behind him. He blocked himself from Lori’s grave like he specifically didn’t want her to hear.

His voice dropped to a whisper. “‘Member that time you kept trying to get me a girl? Told me you thought maybe I was gay and that you’d be ok with it? Is that what this is, Merle? Am I in love with him? Cause I don’t know what to do with that. Alls I know is that I’d do anything for him. That I want to be with him all the time. That I’d do anything he asked me to. Like ANYTHING, Merle. And that’s weird, right?”

Daryl started biting on a nail as his cell dinged in his pocket. His heart jumped like it did every time and he felt like that moment answered all his questions. He most certainly did feel something significant for Rick Grimes. Felt it with his heart and with tingles on his skin and with thoughts that never stopped of conversations they had or jokes they shared or just them sitting together on movie nights. Thoughts of Rick’s eyes when he looked at Daryl and Daryl felt so ...seen.

He opened his phone and read the message from a strange phone number that he didn’t have programmed. His first thought at the unfamiliar digits were disappointment that it wasn’t Rick, then curiosity.

Daryl, it’s Carl. Are you on your way? I think dad’s having like a nervous breakdown or something and I don’t know what to do.

Daryl’s stomach dropped. “I gotta go,” he said to Merle and practically jogged to his bike. He took a minute to type “OMW” into his cell and press send to Carl, then he sped off to the Grimes’ home.

Chapter Text

Carl opened the front door before Daryl even made it to the porch.

“He dropped that sweet potato casserole thing he was making and the glass dish it was in shattered and then he just started sobbing and saying he can’t do this anymore.”

Daryl bounded up the porch stairs and looked around for Rick as soon as he entered the home, Carl followed close behind him.

“I’ll finish cleaning up in the kitchen. But I don’t know what to say to him anymore. He’s up in his room. Can you talk to him or something? I mean, we don’t have to go to Nan and Pappa’s if he doesn’t want to. I don’t mind.”

Daryl walked towards the mess in the kitchen and picked up a shard of glass, dropping it with a ping into the trashcan that Carl already had pulled out in the middle of the room. He bit his lip, nervous about what the hell he could possibly have to say that would make Rick feel better. Daryl knew. There were no words. When you’re sad and overwhelmed, you are sad and overwhelmed. “I can try, kiddo.” Daryl finally said. He looked towards the stairs. “Which room?”

“Last on the left,” Carl said as he knelt down and went back to work on the kitchen floor.

Daryl took the steps slowly, procrastinating and trying to figure out what he could say or do. He knocked quietly at the bedroom door. “Rick? Your kid’s a little worried ‘bout ya. Can I come in?”

There was no answer.

“Well, I’m just gonna come in, ok?” He turned the knob and was relieved that it wasn’t locked because he didn’t have a contingency plan for that.

The burgundy curtains were drawn closed and Daryl could make out Rick’s slim form under the flowered comforter, a pillow over his head like he was hiding. The widower’s version of Daryl’s childhood closet. Daryl walked towards the bed. “Know you’re awake. You don’t sleep for shit and when you do, you wake at the drop of a hat. You told me that.” Rick still didn’t move, but Daryl watched his chest slightly rise and fall with breath.

The mechanic sat carefully and slowly on the side of the bed, the side that was probably Lori’s and when he considered that he stood back up quickly and walked to the side where Rick was. There was enough room on the edge for Daryl to sit and he did.

“Carl wants me to talk to you but I don’t know what to say. This shit’s awful and there ain’t nothin’ I’m gonna say to make it any better. Know you ain’t upset about dropping a casserole. Or burning it in the first place. Cause, yeah… I know you burned it. Smells like fire and brimstone down there. Probably dropping it did us all a favor if you think about it.”

Rick took the pillow away from his face and looked up at his friend. “Are you trying to make me laugh?” he said in a monotone croak, tear stains along his cheeks.

“No, not really.” Daryl said. They kept their eyes locked, sympathy and empathy passing between them. “You thinking about last Thanksgiving with Lori or thinking about this one without her?”

Rick wrinkled his brow. “Guess I’m thinking about the last one with her.”

“It was nice?” Daryl asked.

“It was perfect.” Rick said then he looked down, hiding his eyes from Daryl and the mechanic knew instantly it was a lie.

“It wasn’t perfect.” Rick admitted softly. “I was tired. Just came off a double shift and I was so tired. I wanted to stay home and she insisted that going to my mom and dad’s was tradition. Wouldn’t let me get out of it. Wouldn’t let me call in sick. I was mad at her. We were fighting while she had her famous casserole in the oven and it burned. My fault of course and she had to start another from scratch. Still had to go but we were late.”

Daryl listened closely. He hadn’t yet heard this side of marriage from all the conversations he’d had with Rick. “Were you mad at her all day? Was she mad at you?”

Rick sat up and scootched back to give Daryl a little more room on the edge of the bed. “No. We got over it before the turkey was even served. She told everyone she burned the casserole and that’s why we were late and never said a word about our fight or me trying to get out of the whole thing. Saw her alone in the kitchen after dessert and she kissed me on the forehead. Said ‘I promise you can sleep in tomorrow. I won’t make a peep until you’re ready to get up.’”

Daryl smiled. “Hardly a fight then.”

“Was for us,” Rick grinned. Then his smile faded and he looked back at Daryl with fresh tears getting ready to spill. “Don’t want to go today. Haven’t seen half my cousins and aunts and uncles and shit since the funeral. Know everyone’s gonna be thinking about it. Staring at me. Whispering about how I’m too fucked up about it still and probably fucking up Carl and…”

Daryl put a hand on Rick’s knee. An unexpected reflex because Daryl never reached for touch. Never wanted it and never wanted to give it, but it happened so suddenly that it stunned him to silence for a moment. Both of them actually.

“I’m a wreck, Daryl. Can’t go. I thought I could after we talked the other night, but I can't. I just can't. Carl’s gonna be so disappointed. You. It was gonna be your first real Thanksgiving and don’t act like you don’t care cause I know you were looking forward to it.” His voice grew softer. “I know you.”

Daryl was still staring at his mysterious hand that had somehow reached out to comfort Rick. It still laid there unmoving. “Carl don’t give a shit, man. Alls he wants is for you to be ok. He said to tell you we can stay home. I’m sure your folks would understand. And me? You know I don’t like no crowds anyways. Just excited to spend Thanksgiving not alone. You and Carl’s plenty."

Rick sniffed back some tears and wiped his eyes against the back of his arm. “I don’t have a turkey or stuffing or anything. It won’t be a real Thanksgiving.”

“Turkey don’t make a real Thanksgiving, Rick. Shit, I never had one and even I know that.” He patted at Rick’s knee in an attempt to comfort him. “You take a nap. Catch your breath. Carl’s getting the kitchen cleaned up. I’ll tell him to call your Ma. Say you're sick or whatever and Carl and I will run down to the Piggly Wiggly and pick up something to make for dinner.”

Daryl stood and tugged the burgundy drapes tighter together to block out the sun.

“I’m glad we met, Daryl. Glad you’re here,” Rick whispered.

“Me too, man.” Daryl said. “Take a nap. We’ll get you up in a while, ok?”

As Daryl walked towards the hallway, Rick asked, “Why? Why do you always do these nice things for me?”

“Fuck if I know,” Daryl answered with a smile. “Cause you’re sort of a pain in the ass.”

----------------

Rick slid back under the quilt and pulled the pillow over his face after Daryl closed the door behind him. The bundle of nerves in his stomach had lessened now that the decision was made just to stay home. Just spend the day with Carl and Daryl. He turned to the empty side of the bed and put a hand out against the flat comforter.

He did wonder how Daryl had the power to calm him down. To make everything ok. To take control when Rick had lost it. Rick always felt a little better when Daryl was around. Shane just made him anxious. Carl made him feel guilty. Phone calls from his folks made him crazy. Casseroles from the Moraleses made him feel incompetent. But Daryl. Daryl made him feel good. Sometimes even happy, if that was a thing that was possible anymore. As Rick drifted off his thoughts were more on Daryl than Lori. And that was weird. Wasn’t it?

Chapter Text

Daryl walked into the kitchen as Carl was just tying up the garbage bag.

"He ok?" Carl asked, real worry in his eyes.

"Yeah, kid. He's fine. Takin' a nap. You can call your Nan. Tell her he's got a bad headache but he'll visit another week."

"Ok," Carl answered obediently, pulling his cell phone out and walking into the other room.

Daryl looked the floor over extra carefully for glass. The kid did a great job cleaning up. Daryl pulled the trash bag out of the container and brought it to the outside trash can. He knew Piggly Wiggly was open until 2 p.m. even though it was a holiday. He figured maybe Carl could recommend what kind of food to buy. What Rick would like. What might cheer him up. An actual turkey was off the table--even Daryl knew it took like days to defrost and cook. But surely there’d be something turkey-oriented in the frozen food section. Stove Top. He’d made that before. Instant potatoes. Green beans. He knew from movies and TV that they were usually in a casserole of some kind but like… he could just heat up some green beans and maybe dump in some almond slices. He already had his cookies. But there had to be pie. He’d find some pie. Pie was important.

As he walked back into the kitchen Carl was sitting at the table. Daryl was surprised to see him just sitting. No gameboy or iPad or cell phone in his hands.

“I can heat up a casserole,” he said. “Hope you’ll still stay. Sometimes I think he does better with company. You at least. Like, once he shakes this off, he’ll probably be bummed if you’re gone.”

Daryl tried to hide his smile. He loved the feeling of being wanted. He’d never had it before and he didn’t think the feel of it will ever get old. “Ain’t goin’. But I told your old man that we’d go get some groceries and have Thanksgiving here. So no casseroles. No offense to Mrs. Morales, of course. I think they’re delicious! But I think Rick will be happier with an actual meal.”

“He doesn’t really care, Daryl.” Carl sighed.

“No. He doesn’t. But he wants US to have a nice meal. So we are going to do that to lift his spirits. How’s that sound?”

“Who’s gonna cook it?” Carl asked, close to be being on board.

“Has directions on it, right?’ Daryl shrugged. "I can read. You can read. We’ll figure it out.”

Carl grinned. “Ok. Does this mean I get to ride on your bike?”

Daryl laughed. “No, dude. Where we gonna put the groceries? We’ll take your dad’s car.”

“Dammit,” Carl muttered.

“I think you aren’t supposed to cuss,” Daryl said in an attempt to manage fathering in Rick’s absence.

Carl sighed. “Jeez, it’s like having TWO overbearing fathers,” and he stomped off to the coat closet to get ready for their trip.

----------------

Grocery shopping had gone smoothly. Stauffer's made sliced turkey with gravy that they could put in the oven and have ready in just 45 minutes. Instant potatoes and Stove Top had fairly easy directions. Daryl got his green beans and almond slices. And they got fresh rolls from the bakery and two pies--one apple and one pumpkin.

Somehow Carl had brought his father’s wallet and tried to pay at the register, but things had been good at the shop and without Merle draining more money than bringing it in, Daryl had been doing better financially, so he paid. He insisted that Carl put the wallet away and gave him a lecture about taking advantage of his father on the way home.

The mechanic was surprised at how well Carl seemed to respond to him. They’d spent a lot of time together too in the past few weeks and Carl listened to Daryl about as well as he listened to Rick--which meant he usually listened but sometimes threw a fit first. Daryl unpacked the groceries and started digging through cupboards as soon as they got home.

Carl sat at the counter and watched for a few minutes. “What do you need me to do? I can help.”

Daryl grinned. He was worried that his “your dad is going through a tough time so stop sneaking money out of his wallet” lecture was going to make Carl hate him. But that wasn’t how this family worked. There was never real anger or hate or hurting.

“Can you find us some pots for the potatoes and stuffing? Can probably do the beans in the microwave, y’think?”

Carl started pulling pots out of a low cupboard. “Yeah, that’s a good plan.”

Once the frozen turkey slices were in the oven and Carl and Daryl did some math on when to start the rest of the food, they found themselves with ten minutes of down time.

“You wanna go check on him?” Daryl asked, not sure what else to say. He hadn’t spent much time with JUST Carl. And Daryl didn’t know anything about Gameboy or Nintendo or whatever else those kids played all the time.

“Nah. Let him sleep. Gives him some time where he doesn’t have to see me,” Carl said as if it should be clear what he meant. But Daryl was puzzled. And pretty concerned.

“What the heck’s that mean?” he asked, tilting his head like Rick.

“Whatever, Daryl. Don’t try to tell me it’s any different than what it is. You always stick up for him. He don’t want to see me ‘cause all I am is a chore. And mom’s gone and now he’s stuck with me alone.”

Daryl almost felt the sting of a belt at those words. Did Carl really think that about his father? That he didn’t matter? That he wasn’t loved? That was bullshit. But if that’s how he felt, then it probably hurt like hell.

“Carl,” Daryl said, trying to keep his voice steady even though it wanted to crack. “Your father loves you more than anything in the world. You ain’t a chore. You’re his son. He wants to do better by you. Talks about it all the time. Says you’re the best thing he’s ever done.”

Carl listened but raised a brow as if in disbelief. “He’d be happier if I was gone and mom was still here.”

“Are you fucking crazy?” Daryl blurted out. “Don’t even say that, Carl. I’ve never seen a father care more about his son than Rick does.”

“You just think that because yours beat you,” Carl muttered.

Daryl stiffened and paled and the air felt like it was sucked out of the room. He didn’t realize that was something Carl was aware of and it left him speechless. He stood but didn’t move from his spot.

“I’m sorry,” Carl said, heavy with sincerity. “Dad told me so I wouldn’t make you nervous by patting you on the back or anything.”

Daryl nodded an okay and walked over to the counter to start with the stuffing.

“Daryl. I’m such a dick. I’m sorry. That came out really shitty,” Carl said again, clearly upset that Daryl stopped talking to him.

“‘S ok. And stop cussin’.” He ripped open the box and tried to think of a way to change the conversation. “Just wanted you to know that he loves you, ok?” Daryl mumbled quietly. “He’s a good man and I don’t want his kid thinking things that ain’t true.”

Carl came over with some measuring cups and got the milk and butter out for the potatoes, deciding without words that he would handle that task.

“If he talks to you about it so much,” Carl asked softly, “does he ever mention wondering what’s wrong with me? That I can get on with life without Mom. Like I’m not grieving right or something?”

Daryl stopped what he was doing and gave Carl all his attention. “No. Do YOU think there’s something wrong with the way you grieve?”

Carl shrugged. “No. I cried every night for weeks. And I still cry sometimes. I miss her. I say goodnight to her before I go to bed. But I don’t want to miss out on stuff. Don’t want Louis to find another best friend because I’m home upset every day. I want to play video games and go skateboarding and have fun.”

“That’s totally cool, kiddo. Nothing wrong with that and nothing wrong with you. Everyone has their own process. Nothing wrong with yours. Nothing wrong with your dad’s. Everyone grieves and heals in their own time.” Daryl almost shocked himself. That was more wisdom than he’d ever heard from his own voice. And he suddenly felt less weird about the way he spent so much time talking to air at Grove Meadows Cemetery. Everyone had their own way. Even him.

----------------

The oven dinged at the exact same second as the microwave and Daryl gave Carl a thumbs-up.

“Ok. Go ahead and get your dad up.”

“Dad’s already up,” Rick said as he walked into the kitchen. “It smells awesome in here, Jesus. Table’s set and everything. And I didn’t lift a finger. I’m sorry, guys. Selfish.”

“Rick, man. You gotta quit hatin’ yourself for the way you feel. It’s Thanksgiving. We’re supposed to be thankful today. That’s what all the commercials say.”

Rick smiled warmly at Daryl, then walked over to Carl who was just setting the potatoes down on the table and hugged him. “Sorry we didn’t go to Nan and Pappa’s, buddy.”

“I don’t mind, dad. Sometimes that long drive is a drag anyways,” Carl answered as he took his seat at the table.

“You’re too easy on me, Carl,” Rick said as he walked over to the oven. “Daryl, sit. The least I can do is put the food on the damn table.”

Daryl sat at the spot Carl had set for him and poured tea for all three of them as Rick brought the rest of the dishes to the table.

“Think it actually smells better in here than Nan’s,” Rick said.

“It does. They got four cats, Daryl. Four! They’re cute and all but it smells like an animal shelter over there and there’s usually cat hair in the pie.”

“Found it in the green bean casserole last year,” Rick chimed in. The sounds of spoons and scraping and plate passing filled the room until everyone had a full load of food in front of them.

“Do we like, have to pray or anything?” Daryl asked. “Remember, never had Thanksgiving before.”

“Nan makes us go around the table and say what we’re thankful for,” Carl said.

“Sounds kinda cheesy,” Daryl responded with a smile.

“It’s nice though. Thanksgiving tradition,” Rick said. “I’ll start.” He and Carl bowed their heads and Daryl looked from one to the other and then bowed his own.

“I’m thankful for Carl. For his patience with me. For how independent he is. For how good he is. And I’m thankful to have a friend like Daryl, who makes me feel like I’m not wrong all the time.”

Carl went next. “I’m thankful for my GameBoy and for Christmas coming and for the new zombie game that will be released on December 15th and is really popular and will sell out quick. Oh and also thankful for this dinner.”

Daryl opened his mouth to go next but Carl added one more quick sentence, “And for Daryl helping dad feel a little better lately. Ok you go now, Daryl.”

The mechanic blinked and cocked his head again looking over the table of food and this new family he’d found. He felt like he was in a Norman Rockwell painting. “I’m thankful…” He was nervous that everyone was waiting on him. He wasn’t sure he liked Thanksgiving. It was a little stressful. He felt thankful for so much he didn’t know how to Cliff’s Note it for this little tradition. He was thankful to have a friend for the very first time. Thankful to have people to talk to who wanted to talk to him. Who liked him. He was thankful that he could go to the grocery store and buy food with his own money instead of going hungry or having to hunt for it while his stomach growled and scared all the game away. He was thankful his father was gone forever. He was thankful for Merle. Thankful for all the ways he’d tried to help Daryl his whole life even though Daryl wasn’t his brother’s responsibility. He was even thankful to have a nice plot at Grove Meadows for Merle. Somewhere he could go and feel like he could talk to him still. The only person who knew him completely. But although he’d grown surprisingly comfortable with his dinner companions, he couldn’t say all that. It was too intimate. Too personal. So he just took a deep breath and said “I’m just thankful to be here.”

“Alright! Dig in!” Carl said, shoveling a forkful of potatoes in his mouth.

Thanksgiving wasn’t too bad afterall. Once the stressful forced-thanking was over, it was all about food. More of it than any human should consume at one sitting, including multiple pieces of pie and several cookies. Conversation about whether or not they had to watch football because it was tradition even though all three of them preferred baseball. Talk of Christmas and Grimes traditions that Rick had already started including Daryl in. Lori and Merle both came up in conversation, but tears were not shed. Instead, their mentions just brought soft smiles and nice memories.

Chapter Text

After the three of them cleaned the kitchen together--well, Rick and Daryl cleaned while Carl played GameBoy and told them where all the pots and pans went--they went into the living room to watch TV. They’d all agreed to opt out of football and flipped channels until they landed on Scrooged.

When Daryl woke from his food coma, Scrooged was over and they were half-way through A Christmas Carol. Carl was gone. Probably in his room on the computer or over at Louis’. Daryl had been stretched out on his side of the couch, recliner opened. He’d spent enough time at the Grimes’ lately that he had a “his side of the couch.” Rick had his recliner out too but he had slid down so that his head was on a throw pillow in the middle of the couch by Daryl’s thigh.

The widower was asleep for the moment but Daryl knew he’d wake in a heartbeat as soon as he moved a muscle. So Daryl didn’t move a muscle. He just looked down at Rick, face slack with sleep, eyelids REM’ing, curls of hair all over the place like usual.

He may have been on to something, he thought--what he was saying earlier to Merle about loving Rick. Daryl had never felt the place in his chest where his heart sat until he met this man. Now, he was fully aware of it lots of times, heavy and warm and thudding in his chest. Like when Rick laughed at something Daryl said. Or when Daryl noticed that Rick was smiling at him. Or when Rick said nice things. Sincere, affectionate things. Rick wasn’t afraid to say how he felt. To say he was glad Daryl was here, that he felt better when Daryl was around. That he didn’t want to do something if Daryl couldn’t come.

He cocked his head slowly and continued to examine Rick’s face. Crinkles in the corners of his eyes. Little bits of early grey speckled in his beard. Everything about him was soft and comfortable. He’d considered this love thing he felt. He’d been tossing it around in his head. But always this abstract love. This feeling of it. Never of touching or kissing or wanting like that. But in the dark room lit only by dusk and the flashing pictures from the television, the sounds of old music from A Christmas Carol, and the lingering smell of a Thanksgiving feast, Daryl looked at Rick and wondered what it would be like to be held. Careful. gentle. Not rough or scary. But nice. He thought he’d like to touch Rick’s hair. Wrap a finger around one of his curls just to feel it against his hand. But Rick would wake if he did it.

A car door slammed outside and Rick stirred but not all the way. Just enough to stretch out further and resituate himself so that his head was half off the pillow and half on Daryl’s lap and then the widower’s eyes opened and he looked up to meet Daryl’s.

“Shit, sorry,” Rick mumbled sleepily.

“‘S ok,” Daryl said quickly, hoping Rick would stay where he was. Their eyes stayed connected and they made a decision together not to move.

“Thanksgiving is also about naps,” Rick said. “That’s a very important part of the tradition.”

“Good,” Daryl said. “Then I wasn’t doing it wrong because I think I slept through an entire movie.”

Rick smiled and didn’t respond and didn’t move.

“You gonna sleep like this all night?” Daryl asked with a nervous laugh that came out as a snort.

“Thinking about it,” Rick smiled. “Comfy.”

Daryl moved a hand finally. Slow, cause that’s how he would want it. And Rick didn’t flinch at all. Daryl would have flinched if the roles were reversed and he marveled at Rick’s composure. The mechanic stuck his index finger into Rick’s wild hair and wrapped a curl around it, let the hair fall off his finger and then repeated it with another curl. Daryl wasn’t sure what to expect. Rick to smack him away? To jump off the couch? To ask him nicely what the fuck he was doing? He steeled himself for a reaction. He’d started playing with Rick’s hair before he’d considered the consequences. And just as his fear was ready to make him flinch and pull back before anything even happened, Rick closed his eyes again. He just laid still against Daryl’s lap and let the man twist fingers into his hair. Daryl did not remember seeing anything like this in Thanksgiving commercials or sitcoms. There was no twirling of hair. That was not a thing. But Rick shut his eyes and allowed it like it was completely natural.

“That feels nice,” Rick sighed.

“It does?”

“Yeah, like when you get your hair cut and they wash it and run fingers into your scalp. Don’t you like that?”

Daryl laughed. “Don’t get my hair cut, man. Trim it myself. Don’t want no one behind me touching when I can’t see ‘em. Holding scissors no less.” He kept twirling his finger and then changed it from one finger to several and ran them through Rick’s scalp like he’d described.

The widower moaned and the sound made Daryl’s cock twitch unexpectedly. He thanked God Rick’s head wasn’t all the way on his lap. The mechanic's whole body felt warm and tingly. He was a little jealous that Rick could lay there so calmly and let someone touch him like this. Eyes closed and not a care in the world that something bad could happen at any moment. After a few minutes more, Rick opened his eyes again. They were sleepy. Darker than usual.

“Let me do it. To show you.” He sat up slowly. He always made efforts to move slow when he was in Daryl’s close space, and Daryl appreciated that.

“I… umm... I don’t know if I’d like it,” Daryl stuttered.

“Ok. I won’t,” Rick answered, disappointment clear enough even though he tried to hide it.

“You can try for a second though, I guess.” Daryl stiffened and bowed his head to Rick, keeping an eye on him. He made it evident with his body language that there would be no laying down. Daryl needed to be able to get to his feet quick if something went wrong.

“You know I’m not gonna hurt you, right?” Rick said softly.

“Yeah,” Daryl said, still waiting, bracing himself.

Rick moved his hand slowly and kept it in Daryl’s line of sight the whole time. He reached Daryl’s cheek and slid his fingers in to brush hair back from his face. Daryl felt the feathery brush of fingers and of his hair falling back into place. It was nice, but he couldn’t fully enjoy it with his body so rigid with nerves that his muscles literally ached. Rick made the movement again and a pinky poked accidentally against Daryl's ear sending him to his feet immediately.

“I’m sorry!” Rick said, backing away to his side of the couch. “I’m sorry. I didn’t--”

“‘S ok, Rick. Really. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just high-strung ‘s all. You know that.”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to ruin your first Thanksgiving,” Rick said with an honest-to-god pout.

Daryl smiled, still standing. “Didn’t ruin nothing, man. Best Thanksgiving... Best day really I ever had.” He looked at the door and out the window. Planning an escape he knew he didn’t really need, but old habits died hard. “Better get home, though. Thanks for inviting me over.”

“Shit, thanks for making your own damn dinner and feeding me and my kid,” Rick said as he stood.

Daryl corrected him. “Carl helped.”

Rick nodded. “Off tomorrow?”

“Yeah.”

“Going to the cemetery?”

“Yeah.”

“Wanna have breakfast after? At the diner?”

“Ok.”

“Ok.”

Daryl drove home, the saddlebags of his bike filled with leftovers and his head filled with Rick and fingers and curls and wondering how love happens and what this means. Because if he was in love with Rick, that’s all there was. Rick has already had his “one.” And even if there was any way that someone who was married to a woman for 15 years would even consider loving a man, and even if that someone would be remotely interested in loving Daryl specifically… There was only one “one.” And Daryl was too late.

Chapter Text

Rick felt a bizarre inner peace as Daryl drove away. And he wasn’t really sure why. If he’d have woken like that on Shane’s lap, both men would have leaped to other sides of the room in a heartbeat. But Rick had felt completely comforted when he woke to Daryl’s eyes looking over him. Perhaps it was their shared grief that gave him such comfort in the moment.

The twirling of hair wasn’t something you normally did with a friend. None of it was--laying your head in his lap and leaving it there. Looking up at him like he was an angel sent to watch over you. With those innocent eyes that had looked at Rick so suspiciously when they first met but now looked at him with absolute trust. It's not normal. Rick's not stupid. He knows that.

There was just something about his friendship with Daryl that made him different than Shane or the Morales family or any of his other friends or neighbors or co-workers. They didn't spend their time talking about sports scores or complaining about neighborhood association rules, or talking about the latest local drug bust.

He and Daryl talked about real things. Life and death, but mostly death. Sadness and grief and selfishness. Fear and pain. Loneliness. But also stupid nothing things like the point of nose rings and the best type of donut and why licorice only comes in red and black.

After Daryl was out of sight and Rick grew cold leaning against the porch banister in the winter air, he went upstairs to check on Carl. The door was open and Carl sat on his bed, his Kindle open and his finger ready to flip the "page."

"Hey, buddy," Rick said as he entered, "Whatcha reading?"

"Antman," he answered as he tapped at the screen.

"That sounds like a terrible superhero,” Rick laughed as he sat Indian-style on the end of Carl’s bed.

“Actually, Dad. An ant can lift 50 times their body weight.”

“Ok, so he can throw an olive at me?”

Carl rolled his eyes and closed the flap of his Kindle case. “Did you need something?” he asked.

The bit of snark stung. “Do I have to need something just to come in to chat?”

“Usually.”

Rick looked down at the bedspread, hating to see the judgement that Carl rightfully had in his eyes.

“Just wanted to apologize again for putting you through so much. Not fair to you. I owe you so much, kiddo. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Carl looked at Rick perplexed, as if he didn’t understand the sentiment or didn’t believe it. “Actually, I wanted to ask you something.” Carl sat up straighter and took a deep breath. “Tomorrow is the last day to register for the camping trip. And--”

Rick ran a hand through his hair. “Carl, buddy. I can’t. I just can’t. I promise you once I get out of this first year, I’ll do bett--”

“Dad! Come on! I know you can’t do it. I’m not an idiot. I didn’t just get here. I’m not ASKING you to. I’m asking if maybe you think you could like… maybe ask Daryl if he could take me.”

Rick looked back up at his son, surprised.

“You said he’s lonely at home and stuff and I know he doesn’t like a lot of strangers but there will only be ten of us and the five grown-ups don’t really gotta do anything. He’s talked about hunting and fishing and sleeping out in the woods and stuff. Maybe he’ll like it.”

Rick twirled a finger into his hair subconsciously at the mention of Daryl. “Um. I guess I can ask, but don’t get your hopes up. I mean, shit,” Rick said, dropping his head again. “That guy’s done so damn much for me and I haven’t done anything for him. That’s not the way a friendship should work.”

“You invited him to Thanksgiving,” Carl shrugged.

“Then I cried on him and made him cook it.”

Carl giggled. “We had fun shopping and cooking. It was ok. Will you ask him? I’ll understand if he can’t. But just thought, y’know… he’s been around a lot and we get along and stuff.”

Rick stood up and stretched. “We’re having breakfast tomorrow, buddy. I’ll toss it out there, ok?”

Carl smiled. “I know he’ll say yes.”

----------------

Rick’s morning visit to Lori’s grave was unusual. He’d been sullen and quiet during his visits the past few weeks, but the morning after Thanksgiving he was all words and memories and laughs and tears. He talked about their last Thanksgiving. The one before that. The one before that. And the first one when Carl was just a baby. He told her about what a mess he was the day before, how much he still missed her. But then it all turned to Daryl.

He’d mentioned Daryl before, of course. Quite a few times, actually, just as mentions about what Rick had been up to. But this time, he talked about the whole day together with Daryl and Carl. The meal. The joking they did as they ate. The way Daryl comforted him when he first got there and Rick was falling apart. Then he moved on to some of the other times Daryl and Rick had gotten together. Some funny things Daryl said. Some things Daryl did that made Rick laugh. Some things that Rick said that made Daryl laugh.

He told her about Daryl’s background and how angry it made him at a man who was already dead. And suddenly he found himself quicksand-deep in a conversation where he was just describing Daryl… and Rick had no idea how he’d gotten there. Why would Lori care about how long his hair was or how soft? Or how he’s got blue eyes like Rick and Carl but just a touch darker? Or that he bought a new blue shirt for Thanksgiving that Rick noticed but didn’t say anything about? Or that it fit him really well because it hugged his shoulders instead of being a size too big like most of his T-shirts? Or that most of the time he stood in a way where he curled in on himself, but sometimes if it was just him and Rick, his posture relaxed?

When he caught up with the weirdness of his conversation, he looked over and noticed that Daryl had arrived without Rick even realizing it and he was already sitting at the foot of Merle's grave. Rick let out a deep sigh.

“Carl wants to see if he’ll take him on that camping trip. I should go. I should take him.” He reached out and ran fingers over her death date on the granite--December 4, 2014. “I promise you, Pumpkin. I’ll be a better dad once I get through the 4th. I swear. The second year… I'll make you proud of me. ‘Cause I know you aren’t. I know you’re disappointed in what you’re seeing. The way I fall apart. Forget shit with Carl. Don’t take care of myself. I don’t know if you noticed… but I have a beard!” He smiled and rubbed at the unruly mess of brown and grey.

Rick stood and stretched. He knit his brows. “I feel like I need you to know that no one and nothing will ever replace you. And I will never stop loving you. Never. And I’ll be back tomorrow to remind you.” He kissed his fingers and ran them over her name. “Love you, Pumpkin.”

Rick walked towards his car trying to go a little wide by Daryl to give him privacy. Daryl turned and Rick said, “See you over there. No rush.”

----------------

Daryl nodded. Normally when they’d make plans for breakfast he’d cut his visit off when Rick was ready to go. But circumstances were different and he needed Merle more than ever.

The mechanic watched Rick out of the corner of his eye until his car was pulling out of the cemetery and then he went back to his conversation.

“So I need to know, Merle. How did you do it? How did you get most of what I got from the end of dad's belt and you could still, like… be with people and not be scared? It was a pinky finger… and a fucking earlobe, Merle. And I almost pissed myself. Jesus.” Daryl shook his head, disgusted.

“I mean, I guess it don’t really matter anyways.” He lowered his voice. “I know what Rick means now. ‘Bout all his feelin’s for Lori. I feel it. So that means he’s my only one and so there won’t be no one else that I even have to worry about touchin’. And after last night, I don’t think Rick will even want to do friend touches like that again.”

Daryl stood and dusted off his jeans. He turned to leave and then turned back. “That was kind of a weird thing for a friend to do, wasn’t it? Wanting to brush his fingers in my hair like that? Do you think he knows? From when I was playing with his hair and he knows and he was just trying to comfort me to keep me from being sad cause he don’t feel exactly the same?”

“Wish you’d talk more, Merle,” Daryl said after a minute of silence. “Jesus. I never thought I’d ever utter those words.” He turned and headed for his bike and for probably a really awkward breakfast. Damn those stupid curls. He should have never touched one.

Chapter Text

Daryl was so stupid. He should have known that nothing would change. This was Rick, his best friend. His new family, whether or not Rick realized he thought of it like that. When he walked into the restaurant, Rick was sitting there in their usual booth. As Daryl slid in, Maggie dropped off two cups of coffee.

"You boys having the usual breakfast?" she asked with her normal perky smile. Both nodded and thanked her.

"I didn't want to say anything in front of Maggie, but your dinner yesterday was way better than the turkey special," Rick whispered.

Daryl grinned. He remembered that first meal here with Rick. How good it was. But Rick was right, yesterday's was better. Daryl wasn't so sure, though, that it was any magic he or Carl did with cooking. He imagined it had more to do with the company and comfort that had developed between them. Even after Daryl was caught red-handed springing Rick's curls, here they sat. Comfortable.

"Not even sure I'm hungry. Still full from all that food."

Rick picked up his coffee. "I got up at midnight and made a turkey sandwich," he admitted.

"How did you have any room? Didn't you have three pieces of pie? AND almost all my cookies?" Daryl laughed at the guilt that crossed over Rick's face. He was actually glad though to see the man eating. Daryl and Carl had talked before about how he didn't eat enough.

"The midnight turkey sandwich is a Thanksgiving tradition. You should've stayed over for the full experience."

Daryl looked down bashful. Christ. Staying over? He was already clawing at the man's scalp watching TV in the evening. What would he have done lingering around sleepy in the kitchen at midnight? Try to hold his hand? Try to kiss him?

"I slept like a log," Daryl responded trying to shake thoughts out of his head that shouldn't be there. "Was Carl up eating midnight sandwiches too?"

"No actually," Rick said as Maggie put two plates of food down in front of them. "I'm actually supposed to talk to you about something for him."

Daryl froze in mid-chew, pancake growing spongy and soggy on his tongue before he finally remembered to swallow. Was Carl mad at him? Mad because Daryl snapped at him for thinking Rick didn't care? Daryl shouldn't have raised his voice like that. He should have said it softer. It was an important thing to correct though, he thought. Wait--Was it telling him not to cuss? Was that overstepping a line? Daryl wasn't the kid's father, maybe it wasn't his place. The wallet thing? Maybe Rick lets him get his own money out of it. He felt a heavy sadness come to rest on his chest. Did Carl not like him? Did--

Rick cut off Daryl's thoughts after his first bite of eggs. "You totally don't have to do it. Seriously. I mean it. You do so much already and I feel like it's getting one-sided. I need to be a better friend and do more things for you."

Daryl wanted to scream ‘What!?! What is it? He don't want me to come over no more?’ The mechanic’s fingers tightened so nervously on his fork that the silverware threatened to bend in his hand.

"There's this camping trip coming up..." Rick started.

Daryl cocked his head. This wasn't the direction he expected. "The one on the 4th?"

"Yeah," Rick answered, surprised. "He's mentioned it to you?"

"He's mentioned it to furniture. He talks about it all the time. You need me to, like, house-sit or something?" Daryl paused. "Wait--I'm kinda surprised you decided to go."

Rick looked down and ran his fork through the dark yellow of an over-easy egg. "Nah. You know I can't," Rick answered and then looked up at Daryl. "He wanted me to ask if you'd take him."

Silverware scraped against plates. The cash register chimed. The bell on the door jingled as a family with three kids came into the restaurant. Daryl stayed silent. He was so surprised that his mouth may have even been hanging open.

"What?" he asked.

"It's just gonna be ten people. Five dads--well, y'know, four dads and you. And the five kids. Kids will sleep together in the big tent and you could use my pup tent so you could sleep alone. I totally understand if you can't or even if you simply don't want to. I mean, Jesus, I'm embarrassed I'm even asking for such a big thing, but I'm already a terrible father for not going. I have to at least follow through with my promise to a--"

"I can do it, man," Daryl said softly.

It was Rick's turn to drop his jaw. "Really?" he asked, the pitch in his voice going up dramatically at the end of the word.

"Yeah." Daryl's voice was still small and shy. "Never been campin' for fun. Usually just for runnin' away from my old man for a few days here and there."

"It's four days, Daryl. It's--"

"I got time. Lots of it, actually. Never took a vacation. Never had anywhere to go."

"Carl is gonna freak out, man. I owe you. Big. Huge. I gotta do something for you, man. You see this trend?" Rick asked as he pointed at Daryl with a fork. "Everything is always about me. We need to do something for you. Think of something. Anything."

"Don't need nothin'," Daryl said around a mouthful of pancakes.

"Not acceptable. There’s got to be something. Have you finished cleaning out Merle’s room? Do you need help with it? Do you want need to battle any demons? Burn down the trailer you grew up in? Cause I’ll burn some shit down. I’m a cop. I know how to hide shit.” Rick grinned as he waited for Daryl’s reply.

The mechanic smirked back. “Merle already burned it down. He knew how to hide shit too.”

Rick nodded to the waitress for a refill of coffee. “Y’know, I think Merle and I would’ve gotten along better than you’d think.”

 

“He hated cops.”

“I hate criminals.” Rick shrugged. “But we both care about you so that would’ve trumped everything else.” He hid behind his coffee, wondering if ‘caring about you’ sounded too dorky and needy. Rick hadn’t quite expected the words until he heard them coming out of his own voice. But he did. He cared about Daryl.

“Actually, there was somethin’ I thought of doin’. But I don’t know.”

“Tell me,” Rick insisted, elbows on the table and listening intently.

Daryl leaned back in the booth, his belly full of pancakes, and bit on his thumbnail before he started talking. “I’m the kinda guy should have a tattoo, right? Like I ride a bike. I’m a mechanic. I know I ain’t like a tough badass or anything, but I always thought it would be cool to have one. Never thought too much about it because I didn’t have anything meaningful I could think of to get. But like, I thought maybe I could get Merle’s birth and death dates. Y’know?”

Rick nodded, eyes soft and affectionate on Daryl’s. “Yeah. That’s a good idea. But, you do know I don’t know how to tattoo, right?”

Daryl snorted a laugh. “I just mean come with. I’m…” He leaned forward a bit and nibbled at his thumb again. “You know. ‘Fraid to be held down by a burly guy I don’t know with a tattoo gun. Thought maybe it’d be easier if you were there.”

Rick smiled wide. “Yes! That’s it! We’re gonna do that. How about Thursday after work? Then you can stay over and you and Carl can leave at 6 a.m. for the trip. Does that sound good?”

Daryl shrugged. “Yeah. I guess. Long as you won’t be mad if I chicken out once we get there.”

Rick’s phone dinged as they started pulling out wallets to pay. He looked up at Daryl and smiled. “Carl.” He read the text: “‘Did you ask him yet?’”

Daryl smiled. He was pretty sure it was mostly about being able to go on the trip, but at least a little bit had to mean that Carl liked Daryl’s company. And that was a nice surprise.

“I have his number from when he called yesterday,” Daryl said and pulled out his phone and tapped out a message, saying it as he typed for Rick to hear.

Hey kiddo--Friday 6 a.m. Be forewarned. I do not carry backpacks when 12-year-olds get too tired.

“You’re gonna make him happier in one text than I’ve made him all year,” Rick said, both pleased at Carl’s current happiness and disappointed in himself for the lack of it over the past twelve months. He felt optimistic though. December fourth would be a turning point for him to be better. Better to Carl. Better to Shane. Better to everyone. Even better to himself. The sound of an incoming text dinged from Daryl’s phone, most likely a very enthusiastic response, and Rick cocked his head and grinned as the mechanic giggled.

Chapter Text

Thursday rolled around WAY quicker than Daryl realized. He’d talked the tattoo over with Merle at the cemetery and Merle’s response, by way of Daryl’s memory, was “Don’t be a pussy. Just do it.”

He’d packed all his gear for the camping trip and an overnight at the Grimes home. Rick had picked him up since he had no way to get all his shit over to his house with only the bike. Their plan was to stop at the tattoo place on the way back.

“You still good?” Rick asked, for the tenth time that week. It was a double question: Good for the camping trip and good for the tat.

“Yeah to both,” Daryl replied rolling his eyes.

Rick had started really being able to read the mechanic well, and he could tell Daryl was nervous. His posture was different. “Remember, I got police training. All the guy is gonna do is do the tat. He even looks like he might lean in too fast and I’ll have him on the ground with a boot on his throat before you even realize he’s moved.”

Daryl couldn’t decide whether to frown or grin. He didn’t like the thought of Rick violent like that, but he did like the thought of Rick protecting him. Coming to his rescue.

As they got closer to Abe’s Ink, Rick looked at him. “Decide where? Bicep? Back?”

“God, no. Can’t let anyone see my back. Over my heart, I think,” he answered.

“Shit, sorry. Didn’t think about…” Rick sometimes wondered how much anger and sadness would overwhelm him if he ever saw the physical scars this poor guy had to carry around. Made him sick enough to know that a man once existed that could put so much fear into a child that he grew to be so cautious and timid. The more they got to know each other, the more Rick felt incredibly protective of his friend. This guy should not ever have to know hurt again. And he wouldn’t. Not while Rick lived and breathed. He’d be sure of it.

“‘S ok,” Daryl responded softly, eyes on the bright red neon lights of the sign for Abe’s. When they walked in, Rick felt better to see there were no other customers. He figured the less crowded, the better for Daryl. A muscled, tatted-up gym rat with close-cropped, dyed-red hair nodded at them from behind a newspaper.

“Y’all just thinkin’ or doin’?” he asked without moving.

“Doing,” Rick said. The walls were covered with drawings and sketches and ideas for the customer who hasn’t quite decided yet. “Knows what he wants already. We don’t need to look around.”

“I’m Abe. I’ll hook ya up, brother. Take a seat,” he said as he folded up the paper and patted the chair. “What are we doin’ today?”

Rick sat on the chair next to the one Daryl was instructed to sit in. He watched Daryl close in case his eyes reached over for help, but he answered on his own. “March 15, 1968 - August 4, 2015. Here,” he said motioning above his shirt.

“Any special color?”

“Nah, just whatever is regular,” Daryl answered.

“Font?” Abe asked handing him a piece of paper with the words ‘Never Forget’ in about two dozen different styles of writing.

Daryl looked them over and then up at Abe and pointed to his tat that read ‘Motherdick’ across his bicep. “Like that is fine.”

“Alright then! We can do that. Get your shirt off and we’ll get started,” he said as he leaned over to load up the tattoo gun.

Daryl’s eyes shot to Rick’s. He planned for it though, so he shouldn’t panic. He’d worn that new blue button-down from Thanksgiving so he could just open the front. Rick nodded to him for support and Daryl unbuttoned slow and shy and opened it wide on just the one side where his heart was.

Abe looked back casually and said, “Take it off all the way so the material don’t get in my way.”

Rick saw Daryl curl in, debating on whether or not to leave. But they’d talked a lot about this during their evening Jimmy Fallon texting sessions that week and Rick knew how bad Daryl wanted it.

“He gets cold. He can leave it on,” Rick said. Abe met Rick’s eyes and the cop used the convincing, no-questions gaze he’d learned from years on the force to explain, unspoken, that Abe will proceed with the tat and the shirt won’t be mentioned again.

Abe then proceeded with the tat and the shirt wasn’t mentioned again. Daryl didn’t cringe at the needle. It wasn’t the pain from the tat but the closeness of the artist that made him tense and stiff. Rick tried to talk about the camping trip and the latest casserole he got and a weird sound the Subaru was making. Anything to keep Daryl present and with Rick instead of alone and scared two feet away practically under someone he didn’t know.

When Abe got to the 19 in 1968, he paused, shook at the gun and went to get more ink. Daryl let out a breath that he must have been holding for half an hour.

“You ok?” Rick asked, lifting an eyebrow in genuine concern.

“I wanna be done,” Daryl said. Not whining. Not complaining. Just stating a fact.

Rick looked at him and cocked his head in sympathy and understanding. “You know what? You want this to celebrate his life, right? Just get the 6 and the 8 and be done. You don’t need the death date.”

Daryl took a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said enthusiastically. “That’s a good idea.”

When Abe returned, Daryl explained the change of plans and the quiet artist nodded.

Rick watched the last two numbers get etched into Daryl’s skin. “You know what? I want one.”

“What?” Daryl and Abe asked incredulously at the same time.

“You do NOT want a tattoo,” Daryl said with a laugh.

“Christ buddy, I don’t even know yah and I can tell you ain’t a tattoo kinda guy,” Abe said.

“My money’s not good enough?” Rick asked with a light-hearted smile.

“Whatev’s dude. I’ll take your money. Almost done here.” Abe winked.

Daryl looked over at Rick with puzzled eyes. “I’ve been thinking about this for years. You’ve NEVER talked about wanting a tattoo until ten seconds ago. I think that’s a bit rash.”

Rick shook his head and pulled his shirt off, leaning back bare chested in his chair as Abe blotted at Daryl’s finished product. Daryl swallowed hard. One eye was on Abe, making sure he wasn’t going to move towards him too fast and the other was on Rick’s bare chest. It was the first time he’d seen it. And he hoped to God that Rick didn’t notice the gasp that escaped him when he laid eyes on it. He had strong muscles in his stomach and a broader chest than Daryl had realized. He had little curls of hair on his chest and his nipples were hard. Daryl thought about twisting his fingers into those chest curls.

He was so distracted by Rick’s bareness that he didn’t even flinch when Abe stood up quickly and walked over to Rick to situate himself for another job.

“You sure, Rick?” Daryl asked one last time.

“I am 100% sure. You don’t have to worry that I’ll regret this.” Rick assured him. And the two walked out forty minutes later with birthdates forever over their hearts.

---------------------------------

Daryl had been so focused on his nerves over the tattoo and the impending camping trip that he didn’t realize until they pulled into the Grimes driveway that he forgot to be nervous about staying overnight. In Rick’s home. In the home where Daryl had played with curls on the couch just a few days ago. His thumbnail went instinctively to his lips as Rick opened the driver’s side door to get out.

“Nervous about the trip?” Rick asked with one foot on the driveway and one still in the car. “I don’t want you to do it if you think it’ll be too much. I can-”

“No. I’m fine. It’s fine. Ain’t gonna bail on Carl,” Daryl said confidently as he got out of the car and collected his bags from the back.

After they ordered and devoured a large pizza and watched Big Bang Theory, Rick chased an extremely excited Carl off to bed. Daryl stayed on his side of the couch as a show came on that he didn’t recognize. He bit nervously at his lip. Should he just go to bed now? His bags were in the guest room. He knew where it was. He did have an early morning. If he was gone he wouldn’t have to worry about his fingers going rogue or doing or saying anything weird. Cause what Daryl wanted to say was how much he liked touching Rick’s hair. And he wanted to do it again.

Rick came back from tucking Carl in and plopped back into his side of the couch. He turned the volume down on the TV and looked over at Daryl.

“You have no idea how much I appreciate you doing this with Carl. Like I would never be able to explain how much it means.”

Daryl shrugged. “No problem. Ain’t doing anything else.”

“The dad’s are all nice enough. I’ve been to a few of these. None of them talk much. It’s mostly just the kids talking non-stop and you guys just sitting and listening.” Rick's big blue eyes swirled with concern and appreciation and guilt. “This is like a big thing for you. All the strangers. I’m selfish again, Daryl. Making you jump a hurdle because I’m not ready to jump mine yet.” Rick sighed and looked away from the mechanic and back to the TV. “I really hate that about myself.”

“No, man. I’m glad I can help. It’s not selfish. Tomorrow is…” Daryl let the words fall away.

Rick nodded, eyes still back on the TV. “Yes. Tomorrow is.”

“You gonna be ok?” Daryl asked softly, his voice filled with worry and a little more affection than he intended.

Rick nodded, eyes still on flickering TV pictures that meant nothing to him. “Made it through 364 days already. Can make it one more.”

They sat silent as a series of Christmas commercials started. They didn’t say anything for a half-hour. TV at a volume too low to really understand and one show they didn’t know switching to another.

“I should probably get to bed,” Daryl said, starting to wonder if the widower wanted to be alone.

Rick looked over, eyes begging for him to stay. “You don’t want to stay up for Fallon? We won’t have to text for once.”

Daryl smiled. “No, yeah… If I ain’t bothering you sitting here…”

“I like having you sitting here, Daryl.” Rick grabbed the remote and changed the channel to Fallon. There was only a few more minutes until it started. Then he grabbed his throw pillow and leaned in again to lay on it. His legs stretched out on the recliner and his head on the pillow in the middle of the couch. Just like before. Like he was asking for it. Daryl tasted blood as he nibbled his thumbnail down to the skin.

“I’ll be glad when you guys are back, though,” Rick said. Daryl grunted in agreement.

Rick shifted again and the top of his head just barely whisper-touched against Daryl’s leg. The mechanic couldn’t fight his urge. He dropped a hand to his own thigh and then let his pinky finger circle around a curl. Rick sighed at the touch and Daryl took that as a sign that it was ok. That this was a thing they would do. So he put more fingers in and stroked at Rick’s hair as they watched the opening monologue. Daryl didn’t hear a word of it. His brain was overflowing with Rick, the feel of his hair, the soft sighs. Daryl saw that Rick’s eyes were closed as he laid on the couch. His body seemed to be responding to Daryl’s touch like a purring kitten. Completely comforted and totally at peace.

For the first time since they started their nightly Fallon ritual, they didn’t text or even talk. They just watched together quietly. Rick allowing himself to be comforted by Daryl’s soft touch. And Daryl closing his eyes to thoughts of Rick that were even more physical. Like lips and hands instead of just fingers and curls. And both drifted off on the couch, waking only when they heard Carl turning on the shower the next morning.

Chapter Text

December 4, 2015--This was the day. The day he'd been dreading for months. It had been one year since he got the call, since he found out his wife was dead, since he became a full-time grieving widower.

Rick sat at the kitchen table alone. Completely alone. It was 6:03 in the morning and Daryl and Carl had just left for four days. Lori was gone and now so were the only other people that mattered. Granted, they weren't as gone as Lori. They would be back in four days. They could text or call if the cell service wasn't bad at Lincoln National Park. But the house suddenly seemed like a coffin of its own. Chills ran up and down his spine from the emptiness of the home, the complete and utter silence. He stood and rubbed at the back of his head and then unbuttoned his uniform shirt again to look at his new tattoo and he smiled as he read it upside down.

There would be plenty of time this weekend to consume himself with Lori and he planned to, so as he waited for Shane to pick him up for work, he thought about the evening prior instead of the day ahead. Carl had talked non-stop to Daryl about the trip and Daryl just listened, completely immersed in every word. Rick had never met anyone who was such an active listener before. There were a lot of things about Daryl that made him different than anyone else he'd ever known. His ability to comfort Rick was an obvious one.

Watching TV the night before, just the two of them quietly, had been so peaceful. And there was a rightness about Daryl's presence there. Rick was slightly ashamed at his totally obvious plea for comfort. Lying down again with his head on the middle cushion of the couch like that. Jesus, it was a miracle Daryl didn't just burst out laughing at him. Almost as desperate for the comfort of touch as Daryl was desperate for the lack of it.

Rick knew not to put hands on Daryl. Daryl liked to be comforted with soft words and eye contact, like during the tattoo. But the mechanic has shown several times that he was okay giving out a compassionate reassurance to Rick by way of physical contact. Like the pat on his knee during his Thanksgiving meltdown. Or the... was there a word for it? Running fingers through his hair sounded a little too intimate for friends. Scalp massage? Rick shrugged at his inability to put a name to it.

The house creaked like it was mocking Rick with its emptiness and it distracted his train of thought. The empty house came roaring back to the forefront of his mind. Even when Carl and Rick were both home, it still felt empty. It still felt like a piece was missing. A whole year and a piece was still missing.

He heard Shane pull up in the driveway and honk. Rick tried to snap out of his daze and left the house trying hard to focus and not forget anything. He locked up. Had his keys, his cell, his wallet. He felt for his holstered gun and reached up to feel the brim of his hat. He had everything. It was going to be an incredibly long shift with nothing to look forward to afterwards. Just a visit with his dead wife, gone an entire year now and a frozen pot pie that Daryl had given him to prove a point about how good homemade casseroles are.

When Rick opened the car door, Shane started talking immediately.

"What's up with the ride? Your car in the shop?"

"No, out on loan," Rick mumbled, closing the door. He wasn't sure if Shane would remember what day it was. He was a good guy and meant well. Really, he did. But Rick had known him since they were children and he had a way of pushing Rick's buttons, and Rick was not up for conversation today. Not today.

"Loan to who?" Shane asked as he backed out of the driveway.

"Daryl. He's taking Carl on that camping trip," Rick said matter-of-factly.

The few moments of silence from Shane meant he was working on a comment, putting some extra effort towards his normal lack of tact. Rick knew him well enough to know that no matter how long he took to be careful with his words, it would most likely piss him off.

"You let him take your kid camping? How long you known this guy? Shit, Rick. I'd have taken him if you were that worked up about the timing."

Every word of Shane's response pissed Rick off. The judgement. The cavalier reference to “the timing.” The condescending tone like Shane knew more about parenting than Rick did. "Carl asked him and he said ok,” Rick said simply.

There was more empty silence between the exchange.

"I'm just saying, how much do you know about him? When did you first start hanging out with him? Like four months ago? Did you run him through the system? Check him out?"

"I don't run new friends though the system, Shane." Rick scowled. This wasn't the kind of annoying conversation he wanted to deal with all day. Not today.

Shane turned the car onto Main towards their precinct.

"Just saying. He could have a record. Child abuser or sexual predator or something and you just sent your kid into the woods with him."

Rick gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. And when the widower didn't respond, Shane just shook his head and sighed.

Rick was furious. How DARE he accuse Daryl of something like that? Daryl! Of all people. Rick was aware that Shane had only met him once. But how could he not trust Rick’s judgement? Rick was a father. A police officer. How could Shane not trust him after all the years they’d known each other? Rick has never been one to make poor decisions. Shane should know this. He should know that if Rick let them go, it was because there simply was no question, no remote possibility that Daryl would ever lay a hand on Carl. Rick knew this. Knew him. He would bet his life on it.

"He's a good guy. Had those kind of shitty parents so believe me, he would never raise a hand to Carl. Or anyone. He's not like that," Rick said in a monotone, purposefully trying to keep his voice from sounding angry.

After he parked the car at the station, Shane climbed out and mumbled, "Abused kids can become abusive adults. I’m just sayin’, if I was you, I wouldn’t trust some dude you’ve only known a few months, especially if he’s got a fucked up past himsel--"

Rick stalked to the driver's side and swung a fist into Shane's face before the sentence was finished. Blood dripped from a split lip and Shane opened his mouth to respond, fire in his eyes, but Rick talked over him.

"It’s none of your business how long I’ve known him. You’ve known me my whole life and you don’t trust me with my own kid? Daryl wouldn't hurt a fly. I know this as fact. I know this like I know water is wet. But I, on the other hand, would break both your legs if you ever say anything like that again."

----------------

Rick borrowed the Morales' SUV to get to the cemetery that evening. Shane had apologized. Rick had apologized. But they didn’t talk much for the rest of the day, and that was what Rick wanted. He wanted quiet and silence and the feeling of lonely. He wanted to embrace it. Let it consume him and take him completely.

He opted to pass on the bench he always sat on and he planted himself on the ground Indian-style right in front of Lori’s grave, his back leaning on the headstone as he saw things from a different point of view for the first time at the cemetery. He had no agenda. Nothing specific he wanted to say. One year. One year without her. Without her laugh. Without her love. Without her hands on him. Without her voice.

Rick rested his head back against the marble and looked to the sky. “I miss you.” It was dusk but still light enough to see that no one else was nearby. “I don’t know what to say today, Lori. Been leading up to this day like you were going to die all over again on it. But it was just any other day. Went to work. Shane pissed me off. Took a shower. Came here.” He sighed heavily, exhausted from just the effort it took to breathe. “Haven’t cried yet today, but I imagine that’ll come tonight, laying in bed alone without you. For the second time on a December 4th.”

Time passed. A car stopped and a woman he never noticed on this other side of the cemetery jumped out hurriedly and changed out flowers from one of the plots. She didn’t even stand there long enough to think an “I miss you.” Graveyards were strange places. People either came because they needed to or came because they thought they had to. Rick wouldn’t come just because of guilt or feeling like it was expected. Hell, most everyone he knew expected him to stop coming. He came because he missed Lori. He missed his wife. He missed his life. He put a hand over the sting of his still-fresh tattoo and somehow a gentle smile softened his face.

The sky grew darker before Rick’s eyes and the street lights popped on simultaneously around him. Rick wanted to talk about Daryl, but he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to say. Or why. “Got a tat,” he laughed. “Went with Daryl to get his and did the same. Birthdate.” He touched the spot over his heart.

“You would’ve really liked him, Lori. You really would have. I do. He’s been such a good friend these past few months. So good with Carl. Reminds me to live, y’know. I like seeing him. Can talk to him about anything or just sit on the couch and zone out to TV together. Something about that makes me remember how to feel good. In a way that I haven’t felt since you were alive. I don’t know what that means really.”

Rick’s phone dinged in his pocket and he pulled it out to read the text. It was Daryl.

Twelve-year olds talk A LOT!

Rick smiled and thumbed a response into the phone.

Let me guess- Video games or horror films?

Blondes!!

Rick sat up straighter. “What?!” he said out loud. He looked up into the black sky. “Lori, are you seeing this!? Our kid is talking about GIRLS!” Rick smiled and shook his head. “I can’t believe it.”

Rick started typing a response, wanting to ask if these were any blondes in particular or just blondes in general, but another text from Daryl came through.

How did you do today? Where are you?

Still at the cemetery. Rick responded.

Shit, dude. Shoulda told me. Just wanted to let you know all is fine. And to see if you needed to talk or anything. I’ll let you go.

Rick typed quickly back before Daryl put his phone away or maybe shut it off completely to conserve the battery. Don’t need to let me go. Just sitting here and you know Lori doesn’t talk much.

It harder today?

It’s surprisingly just the same amount of hard. Not worse at least. Rick waited a moment then added, I miss you guys.

We miss you too. Well, I do. Carl is really focused right now on a conversation about bra sizes. The other dads said it’s ok to let them talk like this at twelve. What do I know? I’ve never had a conversation about bra sizes.

Rick smiled. Daryl’s innocence and naivety made him feel like he was alive for the first time in a really, really long time. The comfort of conversation with him, the easy moments of quiet, the way they could talk with just their eyes.

Lori barely needed one- LOL. But it’s not just about what’s in the bra. It’s who’s behind the eyes and behind the smile.

Rick hunched over his cell, the bright light from it glowing a warm circle around him in the dark graveyard.

Uh oh! It's about a specific blonde. Daryl typed as if he'd read Rick's mind a moment ago. You know a Beth?

Rick grinned. His old babysitter from down the street. Does he know you're reporting all this back to me?

A few moments passed before Daryl responded.

He does now. Wants to know how you're doing today.

Rick suddenly missed Carl like crazy, with an emptiness in his heart that almost hurt. He'd been neglecting his son. And Carl still loved and cared about him despite a million reasons Rick has given him to be angry.

Rick typed. Just tell him I miss him. And I'm doing fine.

And Rick was doing fine. He was smiling and he had something to look forward to. Carl and Daryl in four days. Sometimes the loss of something made you realize its importance. And sometimes what you have, you take for granted. He stood, dusted off the back of his jeans and looked back down to the inscription on Lori’s headstone.

“I have to start doing better, Lori. I have to… I have to be able to live. I’m gonna take Carl camping. Just me and him. I’m gonna focus better at work. And I need to stop directing so much of my anger at Shane. I know he means well. Just wants to help and I’ve been making it so damn hard on him. Haven’t seen my folks in months. Didn’t even make it over for Thanksgiving, but you knew that. Been feeling sorry for myself non-stop, Lori. Selfish. I don’t want to be like this anymore. I want to feel ok again. But I don’t want to leave you.”

A light snow started to fall, wind swirling the flakes into tiny white spirals as they danced their way to the ground. Rick’s thoughts drifted back to Carl and Daryl. Did he pack Carl’s longjohns? He did. He remembered. Did Daryl have enough to stay warm? The widower did a mental inventory of all the blankets and camping gear he packed. And he remembered. There would be enough. He did better at remembering to do things when Daryl was around. Wasn’t as forgetful. Was a little more focused. He wanted more of that. Of doing things right for Carl. And knowing he was doing a good job at being a father. And he wanted… he wanted to feel better more often, like he did the night before. Just laying quietly with Daryl. Being comforted. Being not alone. Being comfortable and almost at peace.

"Listen Pumpkin, if I don't visit as much in this next year it's not because I'm not thinking about you. You are in my heart forever. You are in Carl. In his laugh and his smile. I see you there every single day. And it's beautiful...what we made together."

He kissed his fingers and touched them to the marble, then walked back to the SUV to head home.

Chapter Text

Daryl sat on the edge of the lake, a fishing pole in the water and a tackle box open between him and Carl. The other kids and their fathers were at various spots around the lake. This morning was about getting a badge for fishing and the boys were taking it incredibly seriously. Daryl wished he’d have had something like this when he was younger--other kids to hang out with and activities and goals and fresh air.

He was surprised at how easy this was. How easy the conversation was in the car on the way to the campground, just him and Carl. How easy it was being introduced to everyone. Daryl still didn’t talk much--mostly just nods and “Yeah’s” as they were setting up camp. But as long as he kept everyone in front of him, he wasn’t too terribly afraid. He hated that people scared him so much. He wanted to be more like Rick who could go out wherever, whenever and be comfortable talking with anyone. He didn’t want to be broken anymore. He had someone to look up to and admire. Someone he wanted to be like. Someone he wanted to be with.

There was a splash down by the bridge where Sam and his father, Pete were. When the boy reeled it in there was no fish on the line and Pete and the kid argued about how to reel it in properly. Daryl straightened and tensed. It wasn’t the first time Pete had been yelling at the poor kid. It made Daryl nervous as hell. He noticed Carl watching him out of the corner of his eye and turned to meet his gaze.

“Don’t worry. Sam’s dad’s just an asshole. He don’t hit,” Carl said with a tone in his voice that was way more empathetic than one would think possible for a kid his age. The mechanic nodded and looked back out at his line, tugging at it a bit to entice some fish. Carl copied the same movements.

“How do you know?” Daryl asked.

“How do I know what?”

“That he ain’t gettin’ beat?”

Carl looked out at the lake and then back over at Sam. He shrugged his shoulders. “I mean, I guess I don’t know for sure. But…” He paused as if deep in thought and then looked back to Daryl. “You’re right. I don’t know. I’ll say something to him. Make sure he’s ok.”

“You’d do that? Might make the kid mad. I don’t know what I woulda done if someone asked me point blank.”

“I’ll be subtle. Make sure he has my number and remind him that my dad’s a cop.” Carl grinned.

The mechanic smiled and looked back out to the water. This was a good kid. A damn good kid. And Daryl felt a little better already on Sam’s behalf. He would have something that Daryl didn’t: good people like the Grimes family. People who were watching.

Daryl felt a nip at his line and reeled it in to find that his worm was gone. “Damn,” he sighed as he dug another one out of a styrofoam cup of dirt.

“You think my dad’s ok without us this weekend?” Carl asked.

“Yeah, kiddo. He’ll be fine.”

“You text with him more last night?”

“A bit, yeah. How are you doin’? Yesterday bother you?”

Carl looked back out at the water instead of at Daryl. “Nah. Dates don’t mean nothing. Miss her. Think about her no matter what day it is. Mostly though, I just want my dad to be happy again. He’s finally started smiling and laughing again since he met you. And now this ‘big day’ is like sweeping him under again.”

Daryl watched Carl the whole time he talked, paying close attention like he always did when he listened.

“Wish dad was here with us, too. Might remind him what he used to like about me. Make him think about me instead of always about mom.”

Daryl dropped his head and shook it. The kid just didn’t get it--how important he was. And Daryl knew Rick made it hard for him to see it. “Wish you’d understand how important you are to him even though he’s having such a hard time. Didn’t he tell you about the tattoo?”

Carl rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Mom’s birthday. Am I supposed to think he’s super cool now instead of a mess?”

Daryl cocked his head at Carl with a puzzled look on his face. “He said it was your mom’s birthday?”

Carl looked back over to Daryl. “Said you both got birthdays over your hearts.”

“Carl,” Daryl said softly, “It ain’t your momma’s birth date. It’s yours. March 2, 2004.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Told ya, man. You mean the world to him and it kills him that he ain’t been doin’ right by you. I think he’s gonna start doin’ better. I really do.”

“He got MY birthdate?” Carl said, still surprised. “What about mom’s?”

“What about it?”

“Did he get hers too?”

“No. Just yours.”

Carl was quiet for a long while and was only brought out of his pensive stare over the lake when his rod was tugged and he caught his first fish.

As Daryl stood by coaching him through, he saw the other campers and dads looking over. The mechanic wondered what they saw. Carl had introduced him as a “friend of the family,” but he felt like so much more as he stood by Rick’s son, cheering him on and feeling so proud of a kid that wasn’t his. He wanted to brag to Merle and he thought about the next visit to the graveyard. Merle would like to hear a fishing story. And Daryl would like to tell it. How they sat talking for hours by the side of the lake. How excited they were at Carl’s catch. And how Daryl felt like he was part of something so much bigger.

-------------------

By the third night, Daryl was really eager to get home. Well, not home. Home was lonely and empty and nothingness. He wanted to get back to Rick. They’d texted for a few minutes each night of the trip--Rick checking on Carl, but also checking on Daryl. Asking if the dads were ok. If anyone was bothering him. If he wanted Rick to join them. Daryl could tell the widower was feeling a little better. And maybe the time away from Carl was serving as a reminder of exactly what he hadn’t lost.

He sat against a tree back from the campfire circle. The kids were telling ghost stories and several of the dads had already turned in. A couple were not outdoorsy and the trip was clearly wearing on them. He looked at his cell again. He and Rick had been texting each night around nine and it was 8:58 when the first blip of a text came through.

You sitting there waiting for 9? I feel like that’s what you're doing.

Daryl grinned. He hated that Rick could tell things like that, but at the same time, he loved that someone knew him that well. Could tell what he was thinking or doing. But it did make him cautious. He’d have to be extra careful about his secret. He didn’t want Rick to see through that. To know that Daryl was in love with him. Daryl in love… it was really such a ridiculous concept that the mechanic felt fairly secure that Rick would never figure it out.

I’m listening to ghost stories… with my phone out.

Are you getting sick of kids?

Nah, they're fine. You missing Carl?

Yeah. So glad he's having fun, but man, am I looking forward to you guys getting back.

Rick's words warmed Daryl despite the chilly December air. It wasn't just Carl, it was both of them that Rick wanted home. Daryl had been given something he'd never felt. Worth. He liked it. The feeling of being someone. Someone important. Someone whose absence was noticeable. Daryl looked at the screen until the light went out and the sudden darkness made him feel alone despite being surrounded by giggling boy scouts.

He clicked the button to light the phone back up and typed.

What are you watching?

Rick responded quickly. Home Improvement reruns.

Loved that show. Was always what I wanted. A family like that.

Rick didn't respond right away and Daryl worried that his friend was lost for words. Pitying him maybe when it was unnecessary. He typed again before Rick could. And there's something to be said for "hitting your thumb with a hammer" humor. I could watch it all day. That's one thing I had over Tim Taylor. I can fix shit.

You can. Fixed my car. Fixed Thanksgiving dinner. Fixing me.

Ain't doing nothing to fix you Rick. You ain't broken. Grief don't mean you're broke.

You are always so zen.

Daryl chuckled out loud and Carl turned to him with a quick smile. The mechanic looked back at his phone but Rick typed more before Daryl could respond.

I know you. I know what you carry. But you still have such a calm around you. An acceptance about everything. I wish I could be like that.

Daryl's jaw dropped and his brows furrowed in confusion. Rick wanted to be like him?? Rick continued to type before Daryl could even think about how to respond to something like that.

You could've become someone who hates everything and everyone and you'd have every right to be that way. But you aren't like that at all.

I hate spiders. Daryl typed quickly, unfamiliar with how to respond to praise and compliment.

Well, those fuckers don't deserve compassion so they don't count.

I'm scared of everything. People. Loud noises. Touch.

But you still get through each day. You survive. You live. Look at you now with a bunch of strangers in the woods. Take a compliment, Daryl. I admire your strength :-)

Daryl blinked rapidly at his phone. Rick just called him strong? Daryl!? He had proof all over his back that said strength was not one of his assets. But then he looked around the campfire. One of the fathers had been lamenting about an impending divorce the day before and Daryl had listened like he always does. He got a slap on the shoulder in thanks and although it made him panic for a moment, made his whole body stiffen in fear, he composed himself and went about his day collecting firewood. He didn't run and hide like he would have as a child.

He watched Carl, laughing so hard at something that he was holding his stomach. He talked to him about his mother. About Rick. Not easy conversations. But he had them. Maybe he was stronger than he thought.

Tim just hit his thumb with a hammer. Thought you should know.

Chapter Text

Rick did not expect to be giddy with excitement. He didn’t think he’d feel that way ever again. But it was Monday and Daryl and Carl would be back to the house by four. He was in such a good mood that he even relaxed with Shane while they were on patrol. Talked about things he hadn’t in a long while. The Braves and how the team was looking for next season. Shane’s latest conquest. A few memories of high school. But one thing that didn’t come up all day was Lori. Not because Rick wasn’t thinking of her--she was always in the back of his mind--but today he was interested in more than just melancholy.

Shane dropped Rick off and he saw the Subaru in the driveway. He all but ran to the front door.

“Hey guys, you back?” Rick yelled as he walked in.

“Kitchen!” Daryl and Carl yelled in unison. Rick walked in as Carl was laying down a hand of cards and jumping out of his chair.

“What is this? There a Poker Badge in the Boy Scouts now?” Rick asked, grabbing Carl in a hug. “I missed you so much, buddy. You have no idea,” he whispered as Carl held on extra long.

“I wish you could’ve come dad. I got the biggest fish in the whole camp. Bigger even than any of the dad’s even and we had s’mores every night. And told ghost stories and learned how to build a fire. Daryl was really good at the fire. He was the first one by a mile to get one going. I think all the other dads were jealous.”

Rick smiled at Daryl over Carl’s head. His boy was so happy and he'd almost denied him this because he wasn’t living in the present. It wouldn't ever happen again. Rick missed seeing Carl so happy and excited. So… like a kid. “Wish I would’ve come too. How about we do it again? Just you and me? Next weekend. What do you think?”

“Yeah! I can make the fire myself and show you how.” Carl said with all the enthusiasm a twelve-year old should have. Excitement in his voice that Rick hadn’t heard in months. Carl put a hand over his pile of cards on the table and looked back at Rick. “Daryl can come too, right?”

“Yeah, sure if he wants to,” Rick said grinning over at Daryl.

“How about Louis too?” Carl asked, clearly seizing on the opportunity to get as much out of Rick as he could. Rick figured he definitely owed the Moraleses. It’d be a nice gesture. “Good with me. You interested, Daryl?”

“I guess I better go or you’ll starve. Kid may have got the biggest fish, but he only got one. I got five.”

“Mine was still bigger than all five of yours,” Carl bragged. His smile was infectious and Rick couldn’t stop mirroring it. “I’m gonna go tell Louis!”

Rick nodded and Carl was out the door before he could follow it up with words.

“I haven’t seen him this happy in over a year,” Rick said with a long exhale. “Thank you, Daryl.”

“‘S fun, actually. Too many damn marshmallows though. Everything I touched in the evenings was sticky with marshmallows goo. Messy to eat too. I just ate the chocolate straight.”

Rick’s grin still hadn’t left his face. They sat in the quiet for a few moments and Rick flipped over Carl’s hand of cards that were left laying on the table. Daryl flipped his. “You win,” the mechanic conceded.

“Feel like I did,” Rick murmured. “Got past something this weekend, I think.”

“Good, Rick.” I’m glad.” But Daryl wasn’t sure if he really was glad. Because maybe this friendship was only about getting Rick over the hump and then he wouldn’t be needed any more. He pushed his chair back and stood up. “Well, better get back to the house. Make sure it’s still standin’.”

“Wait,” Rick said, not sure what to say next. He just knew he didn’t want Daryl to leave. He'd just gotten back. “Let me take you to dinner. As a thank you for this weekend.”

Daryl shrugged and bit at his thumbnail. “Alright.” He was relieved. The thought of going home and being alone after four days of company was unbearable. And the thought of leaving Rick after just coming back to see him was nearly debilitating.

Rick looked at his watch and then through the windows at the Morales'.

"Somewhere nice. A real thank you. Not the damn diner or anything. I'll drive ya back now so you can get unpacked, then I'll be back at 6:30 to pick you up.”

Daryl nodded and chewed at a nail, trying to figure out how to ask his question. But Rick answered it before it was even asked.

"Just jeans and a nice shirt. Like that new blue one you got."

On the short ride to bring Daryl home, the mechanic wondered if it meant anything that Rick had noticed his new shirt.

----------------
After Rick got back from dropping Daryl off at home, Carl returned from next door with Mr. Morales.

“Rick,” Morales said, extending his hand. Rick nodded and gripped his hand firmly. “You sure you’re ok taking Louis on this trip? I just wanted to make the kids weren’t cooking something up. I know they’ve been sneaking in Grand Theft Auto. We’re working on that,” the man said, shaking his head and smiling.

“It was a legitimate invite, man. Thanks for checking.” Rick turned to Carl. “Go on up and unpack your stuff, buddy.” Carl headed up the stairs, and Rick turned back to Morales, who was still smiling at him.

“Great. Appreciate it. We aren’t the camping types, so Miranda and I are totally happy to have Louis get the camping experience without us having to actually do it.” Morales laughed, deep and casual, but he kept an eye on Rick like he was trying to get a better read on him.

“I owe you both a lot more than a camping trip,” Rick said somberly as he ran a hand through his hair shaking his head, ashamed at himself. “I haven’t been here for Carl this past year. You guys have.”

Morales started waving him off. “You’d have done the same for us, Rick. No doubt in my mind.”

“Well, I just want you to know that I’m grateful.” They stood in silence for a moment before Rick added. “I’m going to do better this next year. Promise.”

The neighbor shook his head like it didn’t matter one way or the other. “We’re always here, Rick.” He turned to leave, then stopped with his hand on the door and looked back. “Carl said your new friend… Daryl is it? He’s going too?”

Rick nodded, his mouth dry and palms getting sweaty. He wasn’t sure where the line of questioning was going and he didn’t want to have to add Morales to the list of guys he’d punched this week. “Yeah.”

Morales smiled and the response surprised Rick. “Carl really likes that guy. Says you’ve been doing a lot better lately too. Rick nodded again, lack of words prohibiting much more of a response than that. Morales grinned. “Good. Good for you, Rick.”

Morales opened the door and called back, “Ok if Carl comes over for pizza tonight? Kids missed him.”

“Yeah. I was gonna run out with a friend anyway. If he could hang out til I’m back, that would be great.”

“Good for you, Rick,” Morales repeated, like he knew something Rick didn’t. And he shut the door behind him. Rick stood in the empty kitchen a little in shock. He was truly a lucky man to be given some of the things in life he’d been given.

When he walked into Carl’s room a few minutes later, the backpack was empty, the hamper was full and a new rock collection was spread out on the floor. “I got these cool rocks, wanna see?” Carl asked.

Rick sat down Indian-style and paid attention to his little Boy Scout explaining what each kind of rock was and where he found them. In the middle of a sentence about a piece of smoothed sandstone, Carl paused. He looked up at Rick and cocked his head just like his father.

“Hey, can I see your tattoo?”

Rick smiled, slowly but full. “Yeah, buddy.” He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled the side back away from his heart. Carl looked at it.

“I thought you got Mom’s until Daryl said something.”

“No, yours.”

“But Daryl got Merle’s. So I thought you both…”

Rick shook his head. “You were the best day of my life, buddy. We wanted tattoos that reminded us what made us able to live each day. Merle protected Daryl all his life. Probably wouldn’t be here without him. And you… you are what makes me able to live every day. You are the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Carl looked down and rolled a dark black stone in his hand. He swallowed hard. “Thought you… were sick of having to deal with me.”

Rick eyes widened and an overwhelming sadness filled him. “Carl, if I ever gave you reason to think that, I am so sorry. I need you to hear me, Carl. I love you more than anything. I have not done well. I messed up. A lot. This whole past year… I did it all wrong.”

“There’s no wrong way to do it, Dad. Everyone has their own way. And it’s ok.” Carl paused and picked up another rock. “We really going camping together this weekend?” he asked optimistically.

Rick smiled and answered without hesitation, “Yes.”

----------------

The mechanic had enough time to unpack and shower before he sat on the couch without the TV on, nervously waiting. He'd gotten so comfortable with Rick. So close. But now these confusing feelings were making him hesitate and worry.

He got up and paced a bit then checked himself in the mirror again. He had his new shirt on and his best jeans. He picked up his comb again and brushed at his shaggy hair. How much of a pussy would it make him if he asked Rick to come to the barber shop with him, he wondered. Rick being there had worked for the tattoo. But that guy was in front of him. Daryl could keep his eyes on him. A barber would be behind him, too close to his back. Too far out of his periphery. Even over him to wash his hair wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be the same as the way Abe hunched over him. Abe had a tattoo gun. Relatively harmless. But at a barber? Washing his hair? Standing over him with a hand holding his head under water? Daryl flashed to a quick mental picture of his father holding his head down in the tub because he had splashed too much. The surprise of it. The gasping and struggling and fear. It had been a long time since that particular memory haunted him, but it still made shiver at the thought and he unconsciously gasped for breath as he shook his head and dismissed the memory.

It would be nice to get a real haircut instead of hacking at it himself, but not everything can be overcome. He thought about how Rick described it. Fingers massaging his scalp, and the vague thought of it seemed nice. But picturing a stranger close behind him and touching that way brought the usual feelings of dread.

Then he swapped out the thought of a stranger doing it and imagined Rick. Standing behind him and slowly spreading fingers into his wet hair, scrubbing into his scalp. It wasn't as nerve wracking. It was almost calming, the thought of Rick over him. Protecting him from the rest of the world.

The sound of the Subaru pulling into the drive snapped him out of his daydream. He jumped up, grabbed his jacket and his wallet and walked out to the SUV.

He was surprised to open the door and see the backseat empty. "Carl ain't comin'?" he asked as he climbed in.

"Nah. Hasn't seen Louis and Eliza in four whole days. He's over there for dinner."

Daryl grunted in an ambivalent response.

"He couldn't stop talking about the trip. And he's already planning everything he wants to do next weekend," Rick said with a smile. A real smile, Daryl noticed, that went all the way up to his eyes. "You sure you're up for another trip? Being around pre-teens can't be your idea of fun."

Daryl laughed. "Never had an idea of fun before. I had a good time. Be even better with you there," Daryl said and then squeezed his eyes shut in the dark car, embarrassed at how gay that sounded. But that was it, he guessed. He must be gay if he felt this way about Rick. That was one mystery solved.

The radio was at a low volume, the music nearly imperceptible over the sound of the engine and the tires circling over the asphalt.

In the not-that-uncomfortable silence Amazing Eyes by Good Old War came on.

"Like this song," Rick said and he turned up the volume.

They listened in silence until that song melted into the next.

"Where we goin'?" Daryl asked, as he tried to remember what places were out at that end of town.

"La Bella Italia, I thought. That sound ok?" Rick asked, like he'd be happy to change the plans if it wasn't.

"Hell, yeah. I love spaghetti."

"Yeah, I remembered that," Rick said, smiling.

Hell, Daryl barely remembered mentioning it. As selfish as Rick always thought himself to be, he was still paying close attention to everything Daryl had to say. Being seen and heard by another human being? Being wanted in this way that Rick seemed to want him? It was the best feeling in the world. This would be enough for Daryl. He could love Rick, and that was fine. He didn't need to be loved back. He was liked back. And that was enough. It was more than he'd ever had before. And suddenly he was completely comfortable again.

Chapter Text

Daryl got spaghetti and meatballs and Rick got lasagna. They shared a bottle of red wine. Daryl told Rick every detail about the camping trip. Rick told Daryl everything he did during the days they were gone.

And by dessert, they had changed directions and were talking about childhood--what things were like when they were Carl's age. Cartoons. The music that was on the radio. The lack of video games. But then it went from broad overarching memories of the decade to the more specific events of Daryl’s childhood.

Rick wasn't sure how exactly the conversation had turned. He didn't want Daryl upset or reliving the past. He had only known broad strokes, a general idea of what his childhood was like. But he wanted to know everything about this man so he didn't try to course correct the discussion. He just made a mental note to change the subject if his friend started getting too uncomfortable.

"How often?" Rick asked softly, like the question itself was as horrible as the act.

"More nights than not. 'Less I could stay outta sight. He was a drunk. Mean one." Daryl took a bite of his cheesecake and swallowed, surprised at how he was able to talk about this with Rick. Feeling like maybe it was better if the man he loved understood why Daryl was so broken.

Rick nodded. "When did he die?"

"Not soon enough. I was 17. Merle had just gotten out of a short stint in jail and I’d been taking the brunt of it while he was gone. Was still small and the few times I fought back were the worst. Merle's the one that called to tell me he was found on the side a' the road. Went through the windshield. Drunk as shit. Best day of my life and worst day of my life, both because of death- my father’s then Merle’s."

Rick didn't respond, just nodded, leaving room for Daryl to keep talking.

"Thought some of those beatings would've been the worst day ever," Daryl said softly, rubbing at the back of his neck, fingers glossing over the raised skin from one of his worst scars, "but, the day I found out Merle died? I'd never felt so defenseless and naked and alone."

"I get that," Rick said, keeping his eyes on Daryl, taking inventory of his body language as he talked. Trying to learn what he could about what was ok and what was not ok. He thought back to the way the mechanic jumped and trembled at just an accidental jab to the ear. He didn't ever want Daryl to feel like that around him.

"Just hate that it's like he still controls me. Made me the way I am. Afraid of handshakes, terrified of people, suspicious of everything. Always expecting to be hurt. Wish I could control that. Stop being that way."

Rick figured that this was the emotional equivalent of vomit. Daryl’s words kept coming and as painful as Rick was certain they were, he could tell Daryl was feeling better as they left his body. He straightened more in his chair. His shoulders relaxed. He met Rick’s eyes more often instead of looking down at his plate while he talked. Daryl really didn’t understand- since Rick’s known him, he’s witnessed him time and time again clawing past those very stumbling blocks. He was controlling that. He was climbing out of his father’s looming shadow and he didn’t even realize it.

"You aren't terrified of me," Rick said.

"No, I'm not terrified of you," Daryl answered as he took the last bite of his dessert.

----------------

On the drive home, Rick wondered how this all had happened. How one day he was grieving his late wife and then, in the blink of an eye, he was in a car, on what all of a sudden appeared to be a date with a man he met barely four months ago. A man who was kind and honest and giving. Who doted on Carl as if he were his own. Who had eyes the color of the sky when it first brightened after a dark storm. Who had careful, gentle fingers when he curled them into Rick's hair. And then there it was--the shocking realization that he wanted Daryl in every way there was to want another human being.

He wanted to spend time with him and hated when they had to part ways. He wanted to talk to him. Constantly. He wanted to touch him, hug him, wanted to show his affection. Wanted to see him and hear him. He didn’t want Daryl to get out of the car. Didn’t want to go home. No- It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go home. He didn't want to go home without Daryl. Didn't want to leave him here all alone in an empty house with nothing but ghosts and loneliness.

Thinking of Daryl lonely hurt Rick. Physically. His heart ached from it. Maybe Rick was just as lonely. Maybe that was what these urges were. A lonely man whose body was screaming to be touched again. To feel alive again. To remember what the brush of joy felt like against it.

Rick stopped the car at Daryl's place and turned off the engine.

"Thanks, Rick. You really didn't have to do this. I had fun on that trip. Didn't need to be paid back for it," Daryl said, not making a move yet to get out of the car.

"Wanted to," Rick replied.

Daryl reached for the handle of the door slowly, as if he were trying to think of a reason not to leave. "You want to come in and have a beer before you go?"

"Yeah, ok." Rick got out of the car, having no idea what he was doing. He was buzzing with affection for this man. He knew Daryl was terrified of touch and had never been close with anyone on the planet, but Rick was overwhelmed with the need to touch him. To show him how nice it could be to have someone close.

As Daryl walked ahead up the porch steps, Rick's thoughts tumbled out into words. "I like being with you."

Daryl stopped and turned.

“Just feels good to know you I guess is what I mean. To be with you.” Rick said, feeling even more awkward if that was even possible. He was so confused. This guy. This man. Daryl. His friend. He’d done so much these past few months and never expected anything in return. He was loyal, honest, understanding. Rick wanted to spend time with him. It was just that simple. Wanted to be with him. He looked up at Daryl who was still standing awkward on the porch, Rick just a few inches below him on the steps. Rick wanted to hug him. To touch him. He wanted to express himself that way but he knew even a nudge to the shoulder or a high five or a pat on the back would be unwelcome and startling. Rick wanted Daryl to understand what a kind, affectionate touch was. How it felt to have hands on you that weren't there to cause pain. The silence between them was filled in with the sounds of crickets and nervous heartbeats. Their eyes stayed glued in place, a dizzying pale blue in Daryl’s and a dark cerulean in Rick’s.

“I... kinda want to touch you. But I know you don’t like that,” Rick said, not sure what he expected or even hoped for in a response.

Daryl looked at him curiously and bit on his lower lip. “Why?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t really know.”

Daryl took a deep breath. “You can. But not fast or scary.”

Rick’s heart throbbed at the tenderness of Daryl’s words. The innocence. The bareness of them, openly surrendering himself. Rick took the next step and stood equal to Daryl as they both kept their eyes on one another’s, afraid to look away and lose a moment they’d both become incredibly invested in.

Rick reached a hand up slowly and Daryl tried his damndest not to flinch. He felt his body stutter, but he forced himself to stand upright and not shrink back or curl in. This was Rick. His very best friend. His only friend he ever had and he knew Rick wouldn’t hurt him. He felt sure of it.

And Daryl wanted it. He wanted to know what hands felt like that were there for affection instead of abuse. He wanted Rick's hands. To feel them against him and to not be scared.

His heart thudded harder against the prison of his chest like it wanted to escape. Rick wanted to touch him, he thought. What did that mean? Daryl’s eyes dropped away and landed on Rick’s hand, cautiously watching it even though he wanted to trust him implicitly.

He caught himself holding his breath and forced his lungs to function properly. To breathe in and breathe out and he reminded himself again that this was Rick. It's Ok. This was Rick.

“On your upper arm?” Rick asked. He understood how difficult this was for Daryl. And yet he saw how much he wanted it.

Daryl nodded and Rick finally put a soft, careful hand on Daryl’s bicep. The mechanic tensed and swallowed hard.

“Thank you for the camping trip.” Rick said softly, stepping a bit closer. Slowly. Cautiously. And still not sure why. He was closer than two male friends would stand. He was Lori-close. And when her name came to his mind he felt a peace. He felt like she was with him smiling. And so Rick smiled.

“Is that ok?” Rick asked nodding his head towards his hand still lying gentle on Daryl’s upper arm.

“Yes. It’s warm. Nice.” Daryl finally stopped gaping at the shared touch and looked back to Rick. He was lost. Rick could see it in his eyes. A mixture of confusion and curiosity, of want and wonder.

Rick slowly reached for Daryl’s other arm and he pulled it toward him with his free hand. He uncurled Daryl’s fingers and pressed them up under Rick’s shirt on the spot right above his jeans against his bare hipbone. Daryl’s eyes again took leave of Rick’s to watch his hand as it touched bare against a part of Rick that was now covered over again by his shirt.

Rick leaned in slowly, chest to chest, in what may have been the most awkward and at the same time, the most electric, hug in the history of the world. His head was now next to Daryl’s and the mechanic was standing frozen in place.

“You need me to back away, Daryl? I will if you need me to,” Rick murmured softly, lips so close to Daryl’s ear that he could feel tickles from the other man’s hair against his cheek.

“No,” Daryl whispered.

“Promise you’ll stop me if you want me to stop,” Rick said.

“Promise.”

Rick turned his head slightly. One of his hands still on Daryl’s bicep, the other still holding Daryl’s fingers to his hip. And Rick brushed his lips gently over the stubble on Daryl’s cheek.

The mechanic was trembling. Rick started to slowly back away, but then he felt Daryl’s fingers grip onto his hip on their own. Felt Daryl’s other hand slowly rise and awkwardly mimic Rick, by placing it gently on the officer’s bicep, so Rick let himself lean back in. He moved his hands slow from Daryl’s fingers to the man’s chin, sliding a few fingers into his too-long hair, careful of his ear and letting his thumb rub gently and comfortingly over his cheek.

“Rick,” Daryl whispered. “Are you gonna kiss me? On the lips?”

They had no eye contact because their faces were still too close, Rick’s lips near Daryl’s ear and vice versa.

“If you’ll let me,” Rick said, whisper-soft but husky.

“You know I ain’t never done that.”

“I do.”

They still whispered intimately in their careful embrace.

“So I ain’t gonna know what to do when your lips hit mine.”

“There’s nothing to know,” Rick said and he pressed soft lips to the spot on Daryl’s neck right under his ear. Then moved slightly to kiss his jawline. Then to the corner of his mouth. When they were facing each other again, their eyes met, Rick’s pupils blown wide and Daryl’s filled with apprehension and determination at the same time.

Rick’s mouth was a breath from Daryl’s. The mechanic felt the other man’s exhales against his own lips. Smelled the sweetness of the red wine they shared. And Daryl wondered if he’d taste it too. So he leaned in and pressed his lips to Rick’s, closing his eyes as they touched and Rick instantly, but slowly, took control of the movements. Daryl let Rick lead in the dance of lips and mouths and soon enough even tongues. It wasn’t anything like television. It wasn’t like earthquakes and lightning and cannons of confetti. It was private and small and intimate and slow.

Rick tasted like the wine and the chocolate mints he ate right before they left the restaurant. Daryl suddenly realized that he was harder than he’d ever been in his entire life and since they’d stood so tight and so close he could feel Rick responding in the same way.

Rick took a step back, gasping for breath, and Daryl slowly rocked forward trying to keep Rick from leaving his mouth. But they parted and both men breathed hard and heavy, pupils now blown on both of them.

"Rick," Daryl whispered.

"Yeah?"

"I don't actually have any beer," he admitted. "But you can still come in if you want to."

"I want to." Rick answered quickly, but he didn't move. This wasn't fair. It was selfish. Selfish to push this on Daryl when it was a thing that was very complicated for him. “But I think I better go. It’s a work night and Carl and all…” Rick slowly took his hands off the mechanic and stepped back slowly.

“Yeah, I understand. ‘S ok,” Daryl responded attempting to keep his expression from giving away his disappointment."Thanks for dinner." Daryl fumbled with the keys for a moment as Rick said you're welcome. Then the mechanic let himself in, closed the door softly behind him, and leaned back against it, listening for Rick’s footsteps leaving the porch, walking down the stairs, waiting for the sound of the Subaru’s engine. For the sound of Rick leaving forever. Because Daryl was convinced that Rick was going to just disappear.

He was the one who pulled away. He decided to go home. He must have had a change of heart, suddenly realized he was kissing someone utterly broken. A man no less. And someone that wasn't Lori. How would he explain that to her? Why would Rick ever want more of that? Daryl didn't know how to kiss. Didn't know how to make it feel good.

Maybe Rick didn't like it and that's why he left and now he'll feel awkward around Daryl and everything will be gone. Daryl reached up and ran his thumb over his lips, trying to memorize the feeling of Rick's mouth on his. If it's the only kiss he ever gets in this life, he wanted to be able to replay it in his memory. The buzz of excitement Rick's lips had brought, his hands, his soft words, it was suddenly all being replaced by worry and self-doubt. Daryl pulled away from the door and went straight towards his room to hide forever under the covers.

After a few minutes alone on the porch with the crickets and a confusing jumble of thoughts like a shaken box of puzzle pieces, Rick left the house and drove home. He said goodnight to Carl, who had been eyeing him suspiciously ever since he’d walked back in the door. He changed to his PJ’s, sat on the side of the couch that was usually Daryl’s and put on the channel for Jimmy Fallon.

He would text Daryl like normal, he decided. Wouldn’t mention the kiss. Wouldn’t mention his feelings. Wouldn't mention the way his body felt when they were close, the flood of emotion when their lips first met. Rick wouldn't let his selfishness ruin anything else. This drive to put hands on Daryl… it was all about Rick and what Rick wanted. Daryl allowed it for a few moments on the porch, but this was a man not just unaccustomed to touch, but downright petrified of it. He wouldn't do that to his friend. Make him feel like he had to do something he didn't want to do. Because Rick was certain enough that Daryl very much wanted this friendship. And would be willing to do things he may not want just to hold on to it.

When the Tonight Show started, Rick found the quickest reason to text.

-----------------------

Daryl was curled up in bed feeling sorry for himself. His thumbnail was bloody from worry as he ran through the evening in his head a million times.

He was so convinced that he'd never see Rick again that Merle was his first thought when he heard the sound of a text. But one look at the clock told him Jimmy Fallon had just started and a wave of hope swept over him. He tripped out of bed reaching for his phone in the dark room. It was Rick.

Paul Rudd? As a superhero!?

Daryl's heart was hammering in his chest. Back to normal. He could do that. He could put everything back to normal and keep the friendship. That kiss and that closeness. That was just a thing that happened. A weird thing. Daryl hadn't given away his secret, hadn't told Rick that he was Daryl's "one." No damage was done.

He stubbed his toe on the recliner as he felt his way into the dark living room, feeling for the remote on the coffee table. He finally clicked on the TV and the set of the Tonight Show came to life in the empty room.

Daryl sat on the recliner, not realizing until he was situated that all he had on was a pair of worn boxers. He quickly responded.

Barely. I don't know that Antman counts as a superhero. What's he gonna do? Throw an olive at me?

And then he held his breath, hoping that the conversation would ease them back to normalcy.

Omg- I said that EXACT same thing to Carl last week! He's reading the comic.

The mechanic smiled, pulling Merle's blanket from the back of the chair down and wrapping himself into it. And they texted back and forth until Daryl fell asleep in the recliner.

Chapter Text

Rick sat on the ground again at Lori's grave. He'd called in sick for work. His mind was too much of a mess to concentrate. Shane texted him to check in, but after a stretched truth about a migraine, he got dressed and went straight to Grove Meadows.

He sat Indian style on the ground, rocking a bit as he talked, shivering from the cold December air.

"I felt you. There with me on the porch smiling like you were happy for me. So I know you know what I did." He paused in that awkward way as if giving her a moment to reply. "Do you know why I did it? Cause I sure as hell don't."

He zipped his coat up tighter and put his hands in his pockets. He looked over at Merle's grave and to the parking lot without even thinking about the action. No Daryl. But that made sense. He was working.

"I don't deserve to be happy again, Lori. I know you'd want me to be. Shane tells me that all the time and I know he's right. I miss you. And I want you back. But I'm alive and I'm stuck on this earth without you. And these feelings? This thing with Daryl? I don't know what it is. Maybe I've just gotten close and comfortable with him and my body wants something physical again."

Rick rose to his feet and paced, trying to shake off the numbness in his ass from sitting on the cold hard ground.

“But it isn’t right and it can’t happen again. He’s been hurt so bad, Lori. It would bring you to tears. Can’t stand being touched. I know he was shaking and nervous last night. He doesn’t want me that way. He wants my friendship and I want his so I just need to get over these feelings.”

Rick stood for several minutes just staring at Lori’s name engraved in the marble. “Not looking for a replacement, Pumpkin. I’m not. There’s only one Lori Grimes. Only one. It’s just… It’s just something complicated. But touch is off the table now. So it’s not even worth talking about. We stay friends. We text. We get together and do things like the camping trip this weekend and we don’t kiss or touch or hug or cuddle. Even if that’s what I feel like what I want. It’s not. Because it’s not what Daryl wants. And I don’t want to risk scaring him away.” After a few more moments he finished with simply, “I’m so confused.”

And then he walked away deep in thought. No kiss to his fingers and no touch to the marble stone. His mind a swirl of Daryl’s turbulent blue eyes and the ghost of his fingers touching Rick’s hip.

-----------------------------

That evening Rick wrote up a list of what Louis should pack for the camping trip. If Morales wasn’t a camping man as he’d mentioned, he might not have any idea about what the boy would need. Carl already had his homework completed and was next door hopefully not playing Grand Theft Auto. Rick walked over with his scribbled list on a the thin sheet of looseleaf and knocked at the side door off the kitchen. Morales opened it up quickly. “Rick, come on in,” he said in his usual jovial voice.

Rick looked around the kitchen and realized he hadn’t been over in an extremely long time. “Didn’t it use to be yellow in here?” he asked.

“Miranda painted last summer. Apparently ‘burnt orange’ is in now,” he shrugged as he pointed to a chair at the kitchen table. Rick heard Louis and Carl giggling as they played some video game that must have involved sword fighting by the sound of it.

Rick sat, still looking around the room that he used to frequent almost weekly. Morales grabbed two Heinekens from the fridge, put one in front of his neighbor and pulled up a chair across from him.

“Where’s Miranda?” Rick asked as he took a sip.

“Book club,” Morales answered quickly. “What’s with the paper?”

Rick knew the rushed change in conversation was out of consideration. Lori had been in that book club. But he shrugged off the haunt of memory and smiled at his paper. “Said you weren’t a camping guy so I made you a list of what you can pack for Louis this weekend. We have all the gear. But, y’know,” Rick pointed to the list, “extra flashlight, long johns, that kind of stuff.”

Morales smiled and took the list. “Great, thanks! He’s so excited. Been talking about it nonstop.”

Rick laughed, “Yeah, kids their age pretty much talk nonstop about everything.” Morales smiled and took a sip of his own beer.

They were quiet for a moment. And Rick finally asked, “The other day... why did you seem so happy for me?”

“You seem to be doing better. Makes me happy. And makes me happy for you. I mean look at you. Stopping over for the first time since the kitchen’s been orange? Carl sees it too.”

They both took another sip of beer.

“You think I shoulda gotten over losing her sooner?”

Morales shrugged and took his time taking another guzzle. “Rick, do I wish you could have gotten over it sooner? Yes. Do I think you should have? I’ve never been in your shoes. I can’t even imagine it, man. Can’t even imagine.”

Rick peeled the paper off his beer bottle. He fumbled with a question in his mind that wasn’t fully formed. Tried to parse out words that fit together, but they were jumbled and he started and stopped several times before he could spit out any kind of sentence. “I’ve been alone a long time now.”

Morales nodded slowly. “Got Daryl over there pretty often I hear. Not as alone anymore, right? That's good."

Rick looked up with suspicious brows. “What are you seeing? Carl say something to you about Daryl?”

Morales smiled again. He had a way of smiling that made everyone else in the room want to smile just because it looked like so much fun. So Rick smiled then felt goofy for it considering the question he’d just asked and covered his face in his hands. “Nevermind. I just came to drop off the list.”

He picked up the bottle and stood, guzzling what was left in a sudden rush to disappear. He felt like a kid with a high school crush asking 'do you think he likes me? Likes me likes me?’

“Anything that makes you feel less alone is a good thing, right?” Morales asked. “Don’t need to question things that are making you happy. Are you happy?”

Rick put the bottle down and looked over at his neighbor. “Happier than I’ve been in a long time,” he answered quietly.

“Well, then. There’s the answer to the question you haven’t been able to put words to.”

Chapter Text

Daryl felt much better about things after the Antman text. It was an hour and a half of ant-related puns and jokes about tiny weapons. He’d laughed out loud all alone in the quiet house and the stark sound of it against the constant silence made him realize that before he met Rick, he wasn’t certain if he ever laughed.

His first post-kiss visit to Merle’s grave was exhausting. Daryl talked for nearly an hour straight. About how it felt and how worried he was afterward and how excited he was at the text. About how he wanted more. How he was feeling braver and thought he could do more. Could touch and be touched. How badly he wanted to try that again with Rick. And then finally how he wouldn’t. How the moment was a fluke and Rick wasn’t looking for a new love. And Daryl convinced himself, or at least pretended to, that he was ok keeping his secret. Keeping his feelings for Rick private. Just between him and Merle.

As the week passed, he went to work and home, visited Merle and texted with Rick every evening and several times throughout the course of the day about stupid pointless things, just like they had been. They hadn’t, however, been lining up at the right times for some reason and they missed each other at the graveyard all week. If it weren’t for the kiss and the emotions that had been building up in Daryl, he probably wouldn’t have been bothered by it at all. He still had the texts. But Daryl missed having Rick in his sight. Missed seeing those curls and the crinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiled. Missed the soft, calm sound of his voice. So when Friday came he could barely contain his excitement at work. He wished someone would talk to him and ask him if he had plans for the weekend, because he desperately wanted to talk about going camping with Rick and Carl and Louis.

On the day of the trip, he packed up and waited patiently for the sound of the Subaru, trying not to think about how long it had been since he’d been able to see Rick in person. In fact, it had been during the kiss. But enough texting and Jimmy Fallon and planning for the trip had happened that Daryl was certain he could move forward without seeming suspicious about his secret. The mechanic sprang to his feet at the familiar sound of tires on his gravel driveway. It wasn’t a sound he heard often.

The kids were in the back seat playing Gameboys, and Rick had explained to Daryl loud enough for them to hear it that there weren’t going to be any electronics once they hit the campsite. The 40-minute drive was nice. Daryl felt so comfortable in the back-and-forth dialogue with Rick and Carl. And even Louis was a nice enough kid. He picked up a CD container that was tucked in the passenger side door compartment and started flipping through it.

“Arctic Monkeys! I like those guys. Can I put it in?” he asked.

Rick’s smile faltered. He looked to the dash where Lori’s Ed Sheeran CD was still in the car after an entire year. He’d listened to nothing BUT that CD for the first eight or nine months. Then he’d listen to the radio on occasion, but he still hadn’t taken it out, as if the removal of it would bring a more permanent end to something that had been long gone already. But Daryl’s sweet, soft voice asking for something so simple, clearly excited about such a minor thing--it was too much for Rick to say no to. He enjoyed making Daryl happy. If he couldn’t hold him, he’d do whatever else was needed to make him feel Rick’s affection. He’d give him anything he wanted. So Rick pushed eject. And the CD slid out.

Daryl played Do I Wanna Know and he murmured the lyrics under his breath. The whisper-soft song on Daryl’s tongue made Rick unexpectedly and uncontrollably rock hard.

Daryl continued murmuring the words under his breath as he gazed out the window “Been wondering if your heart's still open and If so I wanna know what time it shuts. Simmer down and pucker up. I'm sorry to interrupt it's just I'm constantly on the cusp of trying to kiss you…”

“Saw them in concert once,” Rick said, attempting to redirect his thoughts.

“Man, I’d love to see them. Was it good?”

“Yeah, they sounded good live and put on a great show. Went with Shane and a few other guys, God, probably ten years ago,” Rick answered.

“I saw Tool with Merle once.”

“You did?” Rick asked, surprised. “Wouldn’t have thought you’d like that kinda thing. Y’know, crowds and all.”

“Made me nervous, that’s for sure. But Merle was there. That helped. He knew how much I liked the band. Got the tickets from his dealer. Could’ve brought his girl at the time--he probably would have enjoyed it more. Wouldn’t have had to ‘handle’ me the whole time. Knew I was skittish and he had to keep pushing people back from me. Stayed close protecting me every time we got up to get another beer or take a piss.”

Rick glanced over at Daryl. “I think if he really wanted to bring that girl he would’ve. He wanted to bring you.”

Rick saw Daryl smile at that out of the corner of his eye. “Yeah, maybe. I guess. We had fun I think,” he said softly.

“I’ve been to tons of concerts.” Rick said, looping the conversation back. He could sense that the loss of Merle was heavy on Daryl’s heart from the memories. “Never saw Tool though, even though I like them. Mostly went with Shane when we were younger. Saw Tom Petty six times. Dave Matthews. Van Halen. All kinds of stuff.”

“I liked it,” Daryl said. “Seeing music live like that. Didn’t have to talk to nobody even though there were so many people around. Just got to watch and listen. Knowin’ it was ok with Merle there. Kinda felt like you were part of something.”

“We can go to one sometime. See a show together. Might be fun if you wanted to try it again. I’d… you know… I’d make sure you were ok,” Rick said.

“Yeah,” Daryl answered, biting at a nail. “Maybe.”

Rick imagined what it would be like taking Daryl to a concert. Thought about how close the mechanic would want to be, keeping Rick as a barrier to the strangers around them. Thought about protecting him. Then, although he’d been consciously trying not to, he thought about the kiss again and the feeling of Daryl’s fingers on his hip. That kiss. It was so awkward but so comfortable and right at the same time and Rick bit at his lip as he remembered it. He glanced over to his friend tucked in the passenger seat of the Subaru, looking like he belonged there. In a seat next to Rick. And he wondered what Daryl had really thought about that moment on the porch. He was afraid of crowds, but wanted to experience a concert. Liked it even and might want to go to another. Maybe if Rick didn't push, but just found a way to bring it up without making it seem like he was completely desperate for the feel of Daryl's skin against his own--Maybe he would want another moment like they had on the porch again too. Just like the concert--something a little intimidating to start, but nice once you got settled with someone you trusted.

At the campground the kids were completely useless, chasing lizards and toads while Rick and Daryl set up the tents themselves.

“Shit!” Rick hissed.

“What’s the matter?” Daryl asked moving quickly to his side ready to offer whatever help he might need.

Rick stood with tent poles in one hand and one of the bags in his other. “I wasn’t thinking! I only brought two tents! Usually it was just me and the kids, Carl and whoever. Me in the small tent and the kids in the other. Shit. I didn’t even think about that.”

Carl was just walking up behind them with something clearly alive cupped in his hands. “Louis and I can take the small tent. It’s ok,” he said like it was the easiest resolution ever. He opened his hands to show Daryl. “It’s a toad,” he whispered.

Daryl nodded and smiled. “Actually that one’s a frog,” he said.

“How can you tell?” Carl asked and they continued with their biology discussion as Rick stood, still uncertain with tent parts in his hands.

Stuck in a tent together? Even the “big” one was small. Close quarters. It was like putting a gallon of ice cream in front of someone who was lactose intolerant. They would be sleeping so close he’d hear Daryl’s breaths. He’d be able to watch him sleep. He’d be close enough to reach out and touch. Rick shook his head and started working on the tent again. He could not. He could NOT take advantage of Daryl. He wanted to protect this man. Take care of him. Be taken care of by him. He couldn’t risk giving in to what his body was begging and pleading for. He needed Daryl. He knew that much for certain. Needed him in his life. Needed his company and his companionship and his friendship. And if that couldn’t include more, couldn’t include moments like their night on the porch steps, then that would be ok. As long as Daryl was with him.

Rick considered again bringing up a conversation about that kiss. Maybe after the kids were in bed. Maybe just apologize for it and observe how the mechanic reacted. See if there were any signs that maybe, just maybe Daryl didn’t think it was a terrible disaster. But was it the right time to do it when they’d have to share a tent afterwards? The officer ran a hand through his hair as he watched Daryl hunting for frogs with the boys, Carl looking up at him in awe of whatever he was showing them. He just didn’t want to lose this. That’s all he knew for sure.

After some unsuccessful fishing, they sat around the fire drinking hot chocolate and eating s'mores while Daryl told his best ghost story. Technically it was a story he lifted from an episode of Scooby Doo, but it served the purpose. Daryl's favorite part about telling campfire stories was seeing Rick out of the corner of his eye. The officer kept an affectionate gaze on him, watching him closely.

Daryl’s body had been buzzing like the subtle hum of overhead lights, constant and quiet, but always there. He stayed by the fire making sure it was completely out as Rick went to make sure the boys were settled in their tent for the night.

He would offer to sleep outside. That way Rick wouldn't be uncomfortable and Daryl wouldn't have to suffer with the confusion of lying six inches from someone who he suddenly wanted to press against as he slept. Someone he had felt. Whose lips had been soft and gentle on his. Whose hands had carded through his hair. Who had whispered intimate talk of kisses into his ear. He'd sleep outside. It wouldn't be the first time. Hell, he'd slept on the cold, hard dirt without even a blanket or pillow when he was young and running away. He wasn't young anymore, but he wondered if this would still count as running away.

Chapter Text

"Fire out?" Rick asked above him, looking like the personification of home. Familiar and warm and comfortable. They were both already in thermal underwear and sweats for bed and Rick in sweats looked so... touchable.

"Yup. We should be good." Daryl swallowed hard and looked up. "So, if you have a few extra blankets, I can just camp out here. Don't mind being under the stars."

Even in the darkness, with just moonlight for vision, Daryl could see the officer's face fall.

"No, man. Tent thing is my fault. If you're uncomfortable sharing, I'll sleep out here."

Daryl stood so he could see Rick's face clearer. Maybe read his expression. His intent.

"I'm not uncomfortable. Just thought you... Might not want me too close."

"You bite?" Rick asked with a smirk.

"No,” Daryl answered, stifling a grin.

"Then no big deal, right?" Rick asked.

Daryl's thumbnail slowly found its way between his teeth as he chewed nervously, wondering what he should do. What he should say.

"Maybe we should talk about what happened last week," Rick said softly. Then he eyed the dying fire. "Kinda chilly out here now though without the fire. Plenty of blankets in the tent. I promise I won't invade your space. Let's get settled in and then we'll talk, ok?"

Daryl hid his frown with the thumb he was chewing. He'd seen enough television. This would be bad. "We need to talk" was always bad.

"Talk about how you don't want to do that no more?" Daryl asked, certain the disappointment was clear in his voice. He walked towards the tent so he didn’t have to see the look in Rick’s eyes when he told him that it was all a mistake.

"No. What? No," Rick answered, confused. "I want... I want to do that. I just know that you don't like being touched and I need to be sensitive of that. And I can be. I'll respect your boundaries. I don’t want to lose what we have.”

Daryl unzipped the tent and then stood back to let Rick enter first, habit to always keep people from being too close behind him.

The only sleeping bag was opened all the way to serve them both as a mattress. There were several blankets tossed around and two pillows. The officer crawled over to his spot and laid down on his back, hands folded over his belly and watching as Daryl sat Indian-style, off to his side.

“Why do you want to do it again?” Daryl asked, once he sensed Rick still waiting for him to respond. It was a stupid question and the mechanic regretted it instantly. What kind of answer did he expect? What was he hoping to hear? That Rick was in love with him, too? Daryl knew that wasn't a possibility. He’d accepted it and asking a question laced with want of returned love was ridiculous. So he did what he always did in life and averted his eyes, thumbnail tucking itself back at home between his teeth.

“Because I like you. And it felt good being close to you,” Rick said quietly, like he was trying to hide his truth among the crickets and toads and the sound of curious animals scampering past the tent. “Did you hate it?”

“I didn’t hate it,” Daryl said.

“Don’t want you to think that I’ll be upset if you can’t do things like that. I still want to see you. I want this. Whatever this is. Whatever we can make of it.” Rick kept his body still, his hands still folded over his stomach.

Daryl didn’t respond and Rick could barely make him out in the little bit of moonlight dripping in through the vented openings at the top of the tent. Rick wanted to see him better. Wanted to be able to take inventory of body language, wanted to know if he was smiling or frowning. He reached for a small battery operated lantern and turned it on. A soft yellow glow lit the tent and Daryl squinted at the sudden light. Wordless minutes ticked by. And then Rick was lost for a moment in eyes that were nearly black now. Pupils blown wide despite the light and Rick was suddenly drowning in the vast innocence of those dark blue eyes. Darker than the midnight sky above them and infinitely more intriguing.

“I want to,” Daryl said, simply. But he didn’t move, he just sat staring into Rick’s eyes.

“Want what?” Rick asked, noticing his voice drop an octave.

“Want to touch you.”

Rick’s heart raced at the words. At the thought of Daryl wanting him like that. So afraid of everyone, so nervous about touch, but wanting it with Rick. Just the idea that Daryl felt that serious about Rick made the officer’s heart pound in his chest like a deep bass drum, setting the tone for everything else. The thought of tasting Daryl’s lips again slowly became a real possibility.

“You can do whatever you want, Daryl,” Rick offered, keeping himself as submissive and non-threatening as possible, stretched out long and flat on his side of the tent and letting his hands drop to his sides.

The mechanic lifted a slow shaky hand to Rick's hair. The officer closed his eyes and took a deep breath as Daryl looped curls around his fingers again.

As he played with Rick’s hair, he watched the man's face and he thought about that kiss. It had been so close and intimate and affectionate and it felt like something Daryl had never had and always wanted. It was like being wrapped up safe and warm in a blanket. Like listening to music in the dark, a favorite song playing like that was all there was in the world.

"I want to be normal," Daryl whispered. "I want to feel what it's like to let someone hold me and not be scared. Want you to hold me."

Rick opened his eyes and suppressed the urge to jump up and crash into Daryl with kisses and comfort and raw animalistic need. He wouldn't rush this. He wouldn't take from Daryl, this man who was his best friend and could be his lover at any moment. He would not take, but he could give.

"You hold me first," Rick suggested softly, "And when you're comfortable, tell me. And then I'll wrap my arms around you, ok?"

Daryl hesitated for just a sliver of a second and then scooted closer to Rick. "I don't know how. I don't know where to put my hands."

"You can touch anything you want, Daryl. And it will be ok with me. I won't move a muscle unless you say it's ok."

Daryl slowly slid down so that he was lying next to Rick, facing him, letting Rick's affectionate gaze give him confidence. It was the first time ever that Daryl craved hands on him, wanted the feel of another person against him. Wanted to put his hands on someone.

Rick still laid on his back, with his head tilted to the side so he could watch Daryl. There was no reason to be afraid. Rick would never hurt him. Not physically or emotionally. He would never love Daryl either, but the mechanic could accept it because the strong connection and affection that was there would be enough. He had nothing but emptiness in his life. And anything was better than nothing.

Daryl finally moved. Slowly at first and then with purpose as he decided what he wanted to do. He rested his head carefully on Rick's chest and closed his eyes. He felt the thud of Rick's heart and took notice when it started to quicken its pace. Then Daryl took Rick's hand in his and raised it up and let it rest gently in Daryl's own hair. "Touch," he murmured softly into Rick's chest.

Rick obliged. Slowly and carefully brushing back his hair, twisting fingers into it like Daryl had done to him. The weight of Daryl's head resting against him was like the warmth from a fireplace in a familiar room.

"More," Daryl purred.

Rick restrained himself. "I need you to be in charge of this, Daryl, so I know I'm not taking advantage," he whispered and took the chance of a slow kiss to the top of Daryl's head. "Tell me what you want. Anything. I'll give it to you."

"You can put your arms around me," Daryl said, holding a breath after. It was Rick. Rick had ridden on his bike pressed up against him before and Daryl had survived it. There was nothing to fear in this space in the world they have together--everyone and everything was outside the nylon walls that surrounded them. The only sounds were organic and natural and unintimidating. A breeze swirling through their camp site. An owl who'ing in the distance. The sound of Rick's heartbeat and soft breaths that Daryl could also feel at the top of his head.

There was nowhere else in the world Rick wanted to be in that moment than where he was, with Daryl growing more comfortable, his body becoming pliant and molding softly against his own. Waiting and wanting for Rick to hold him.

Rick slowly moved his arms to wrap snug around his friend. His lover? His boyfriend? Rick let the wonder of titles fall from his thoughts. The only thing that mattered was the feeling of clutching each other on the cool December night, bathed in soft yellow from the dying lantern. Feeling Daryl open up to him.

It was like the blooming of a flower. Beautiful already when it was curled in on itself. Bright and pretty. Full of life. Then the sun hits it and heat and time give it the opportunity to grow, to bloom, to blossom into widespread petals, delicate in touch but powerful in symbolism and meaning. And it becomes something different, but is still ultimately the same beautiful thing it once was, just more open. More exposed.

Daryl tensed a bit at first from the feel of wrapped arms around his back, but it was paired with soft breaths and the rise and fall of Rick's chest below him and that made it ok. He was surrounded by this man that he loved, curled inside him protected, comforted and wanted.

"You ok?" Rick whispered.

"Yes. Feels nice," Daryl murmured. He slowly peeled himself off Rick's chest to meet his friend's eyes, hovering just inches above him, the officer's arms loosely wrapped around his waist. "Can I kiss you again?" Daryl asked, his voice low, like distant thunder on a clear night.

"Please," Rick whispered. He made no moves for it. He let Daryl lead, take what he wanted and give what he was comfortable giving. The mechanic leaned in slowly, eyelashes fluttering as he closed his eyes and pressed his lips firm against Rick's.

The officer parted his lips, allowing Daryl access to whatever he wanted and he whimpered as he felt Daryl's tongue lick gently at his own. The mechanic's movements were bashful and shy but still eager and interested.

Rick responded to Daryl, his tongue, the feel of his soft dry lips moving more confidently, feasting on Rick's mouth, their lips entwined and shifting together like the coordinated movements of butterfly wings.

Daryl felt like he was dreaming as he sucked and nibbled at Rick's lips, trying to taste and feel as much as he could before he woke. He was close enough to smell the shampoo Rick used, a smell that would probably make him hard instantly if he ever smelled it again.

In fact, Daryl was already hard. He knew his length was pressed up against Rick's leg, obvious and screaming for attention. His instinct was to grind his body into Rick's leg, catch the friction, let himself explode. He writhed against Rick, noticing his soft panting cries before he could stop himself from making them.

Rick kept his hands loose and light against Daryl's waist. He wanted so damn bad to roll him over and grind both their rock hard cocks against each other. Bodies moving frantic until both came together and collapsed. The soft whimpers from Daryl as the urgency in him increased was nearly enough to make Rick spill just by hearing it.

Daryl suddenly pulled his lips off of Rick and buried his head into the crook of Rick's neck, trying desperately to stop his pelvis from pressing up and down Rick's leg. He tried to still his body. He didn't want to fuck this up. Take it too far. Come in his own damn pants like a teenager.

"Daryl, don't stop what you're doing,” Rick panted desperately. " You can keep moving against me. I want you to feel it. Want you to feel that way against me." He dropped his voice lower. "You can come."

Daryl gasped at the sound of intimate words like that in Rick's familiar voice. Words that were meant only for him.

Rick's hands slipped down to rest on Daryl's hips and the scars on the mechanic's back tingled with need. Need to feel the same soft touch that was making the skin on his hips want to burn through the clothing so he could feel Rick's warmth.

Daryl’s mind was swimming. He was so close. He bucked back into Rick after the officer’s encouragement. He had moments of concern, of worry. Should he be reciprocating somehow? Should he stop? How awkward would it be afterwards? But none of the thoughts stuck around long enough for him to make better decisions based on them. All his mind registered was the closeness of his orgasm. The build deep inside him. His mind suddenly blank of all things except Rick and his leg and the hand he now had carefully cupped against Daryl’s hair, petting and encouraging him as he kept his face still tucked into Rick’s neck. The mechanic kissed at Rick’s throat, still rocking his body faster. Feeling Rick everywhere. One hand on his head, the other on his hip, his leg against Daryl’s hardness, his chest and shoulder against Daryl’s face. And he felt him deeper, in his heart as it pounded like a fire alarm for his body, a warning of the coming ecstasy. And it spiraled out from his core, into his balls and his cock and he threw his head back and moaned long and low as his hips sputtered to a stop.

Rick held Daryl close as the mechanic’s body shook violently from his explosive orgasm. Daryl was still gasping for air, his hands now in fists gripping onto Rick’s shirt as he came down from the high. As his body started to still, he kept his head ducked under Rick’s chin, now mortified.

Rick brought a hand slowly up to his face and brushed at his hair, keeping him tucked close. His other arm slid carefully around the mechanic so Rick could squeeze him affectionately.

“That feel good?” Rick asked, kissing again at the top of Daryl’s head.

The mechanic couldn’t even find a way to form words. And even if he could, he wouldn’t know what to say. He was stunned at the intensity of what he just had. Hands and kisses and soft words and gentle touches. What do you do after that? What do you say?

Rick kept him wrapped up tight, not wanting to let him go. Not wanting the cold night air to touch his lover’s body, ruin the boneless peace of him. Rick would hold him like this all night and if Daryl wasn’t ready to talk that was just fine. He was here. He was tight against Rick’s body and the officer’s heart flooded with emotions. With the desire to give this man anything he wanted. Not even concerned that his own cock strained untouched against his boxers.

Moments passed and Rick kept Daryl pulled close.

“Well, that was incredibly embarrassing,” Daryl finally whispered.

Rick giggled. “Embarrassing? That was hot as shit. I almost came just from watching you and hearing the sound of your breath.”

Daryl tried to tuck his head even further into the crook of Rick’s neck.

“Aww..” Rick chidded, “Don’t be bashful, gorgeous. I loved it. Loved seeing you fall apart in my arms.”

Daryl kept his face hidden and murmured, “I don’t usually have them like that. I mean… I’ve never had one next to someone, obviously. But I must not be good at jacking it because I have never felt that. Where everything disappeared but you.” Daryl finally lifted up and looked Rick in the eyes, Rick’s hand still petting at Daryl’s tousled hair. “But you ain’t got any...relief,” he said, looking down to the obvious bulge in the officer’s sweats.

“No, let’s just leave it like this for now. I don’t want to overwhelm you. I can’t lose you,” Rick said softly, so sincerely that Daryl didn’t doubt him for a second.

But Daryl wanted it. Wanted to touch Rick there. To be responsible for something like what Rick just gave him. So he gathered his courage and slid his hand over Rick's pelvis, cupping him. Rick gasped and the sound of it shot through Daryl's body like an aftershock.

"Show me how," Daryl asked.

Rick cupped his own hand slowly over Daryl's and moved them together up and down his shaft, stifling a groan as he did it. Then he stilled their hands and rocked himself into Daryl's open palm, keeping eye contact the whole time.

"I'm so close," Rick whispered. "Can you kiss me?"

Daryl leaned in immediately. He'd already been thirsty for Rick's lips but was unsure if it would be ok to take them again. He kissed at Rick's open gasping mouth and felt the officer whisper his name into the gentle kiss as his body rocked up and stiffened, his head falling back and Daryl felt a warm dampness coming through Rick's pants. After Rick's body shook and relaxed, he brought Daryl's hand to his mouth and kissed it.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"Pfft," Daryl laughed shyly. "Thank YOU!"

"We're still gonna have everything we have, right?" Rick asked in a whisper. "But now this too... if you want it again."

"I want it again," Daryl answered before the question had even fallen off Rick's kiss-swollen lips.

Rick smiled. "Can I lay my head on your chest for a while?"

Daryl answered only in his movements, lying back flat and holding out his arms. Rick curled into him and fell asleep to the sound of Daryl's heartbeat and the feel of his lover's fingers twisting slowly and gently in his hair.

Chapter Text

The camping trip was cut short. Carl twisted an ankle while rock climbing by the falls and although he insisted he was fine, Rick refused to let it go without an X-ray. He took the tents down with Daryl as the boys sat on a log, Gameboys back out and digitized music disrupting the sounds of nature.

Daryl had been smiling all morning. Hell, so had Rick. He woke well rested, his head still on Daryl's chest. They shared bashful glances and giggles as they worked, acting like high schoolers over unintentional tent-related innuendo like "give me that pole" and "if it doesn't fit, just push harder."

There were no touches once they got up because the kids were always in sight, but Daryl wondered what it would have been like if he and Rick had been alone. Would there be hand holding? More kisses? More of what they did that night? He bit at his lip, trying to tamp down his grin. More kisses, he thought. He wanted more of them. More of everything.

Once they were packed up and heading home from the ER, sprain confirmed, Rick watched Daryl quietly from the front seat. "It's Saturday night. You wanna come over? For a movie... Or something?"

Daryl grinned and kept his gaze bashfully out the window. "Yeah," he replied. It was just one word, but Rick heard in the sound of it and saw in Daryl's movements that it meant so damn much more than just 'yes.'

----------------

Daryl was dropped off at his house with plans to head over to Rick's around seven. He showered and unpacked and immediately got on his bike and rode over to Grove Meadows.

He marched over to Merle's grave with purpose and excitement instead of grief. He was here this time not so much to grieve but to talk about what it felt like to truly be alive. He needed someone to talk to and be happy for him. He needed his brother.

Daryl didn't sit down but paced nervously, taking inventory of other visitors to the cemetery and preparing to keep his voice soft enough to not be overheard.

"Merle. You won't believe what happened!" he whispered excitedly. He wondered--would this be something he'd have talked to Merle about when he was alive? Or is it just now that he's gone and risen to the level of guardian angel that Daryl can dictate the alterations of their relationship? Before he said more, he thought long and hard about this as he paced.

"Merle, if you were alive, I'd just tell you the overview. But you're not. You left me so now I'm in charge of the conversation and you are going to listen to every damn detail." He laughed to himself.

"I know, Merle. I know you'd be so happy for me. Happy that I found someone special that I'm not afraid of who I can touch and who can touch me. You'd be glad that some of Dad was being erased from me. You'd interrupt my story to talk about how much you wanted to kill the old man yourself. I can hear you now.” Daryl smiled at the memory. “But I’m in charge of talking anymore. And today I don’t want to talk about dad. I want to talk about Rick.”

He heard a car door slam and whirled around hoping to see best friend, his new lover, but it was pillbox hat. Disappointed, he looked back to the marble stone.

"I don't even know where to start, Merle. He let me touch him, however I wanted. Kissing and holding and... and hands in each other's hair. And he didn't touch back until I was ready and it was amazing. Amazing to feel warm skin against my own." Daryl paused and thought. "No wonder you always talked about it so much. You know, sex and stuff. But this was better than that. It wasn’t just someone you barely know and getting off. It was RICK. It was Rick and it was the most amazing fucking orgasm I’ve ever had."

Daryl grinned and bit at a nail as pillbox hat walked back past him, then he finally gave in and sat down. He picked at a blade of grass, then another. "All the time growing up you wanted me to be able to experience things like you were able to. Things I couldn’t." He picked at another blade of grass and rolled it between his fingers as he spoke. "I'm sad now to know that you probably never got this feeling. Really loving someone like this. I wish you could have known it. I don’t know much about your drugs, but I feel sure that this is better than anything you pumped into your veins.”

Daryl was surprised that his visit, expecting it to be pure joy, had turned sad. He looked at Merle’s name etched in the stone and sighed. He wanted so desperately to see his brother smile. To hear words.

“I know you’d be so happy for me.”

----------------

Rick was in the best mood he’d been in for ages, despite Carl being laid up with a sprained ankle in the living room. He was feeling like his old self again. Whole. Complete. He was eager to dote on Carl, bringing him a late lunch and tucking him in blankets, putting on a Star Wars marathon, icing his ankle and just sitting with him to watch the movie.

They chatted about absolutely nothing in particular and Rick couldn’t remember the last time he gave Carl this much of his attention. He thanked God that he had such a good kid. That Carl still loved him and wanted this special time with just the two of them. They sat close sucking on popsicles despite it being winter. Lori had always given Carl a popsicle when he was hurt, so this was tradition.

They were watching the second movie of the new trilogy. “The originals from the 70’s were way better,” Rick said, his tongue becoming purple as he licked at the grape-flavored treat.

“You loved them all, Dad. Don’t deny it. You were more excited to go to these movies than I was!”

“Yeah,” he conceded. “But the original three… they were the ORIGINAL! It was the first time anyone had seen anything like it. There was so much excitement.” Rick smiled remembering the first time he saw the movies as a kid.

“We waited in line for three hours to see these newer ones. It may not have had the epicness of being the first, but it still was Star Wars.”

Rick grinned at him and ruffled his hair. “You have a good point, little man.”

The third installment of the movie trilogy was just finishing around 6:30 when Rick let his mind bounce away from the focus he’d been putting on reestablishing his relationship with Carl.

“Daryl’s coming over tonight. Thought maybe we could just order out pizza and watch a movie. Sound good to you?” Rick asked, Carl now leaning against him like he used to more often when he was younger.

“Yeah,” he said sitting up looking down at his foot as he tried to circle it around and stretch it out. “I like, Daryl. Just so you know.”

Rick grinned but asked, “What’s that mean, exactly?”

Carl shrugged. “Just means I like him. He can come over whenever you want him to.”

Rick stood and stretched. “I’m going to jump in the shower and change,” he said, only slightly aware of how much more that made it sound like a date instead of a dude just coming over to hang.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“I like you like this.”

“Like what?”

Carl thought for a moment, trying to explain something that probably didn’t really have words. “Here. Happy. Just hanging out with me. Like normal again.”

Rick nodded. “I like me like this too.”

Chapter Text

After the three of them gorged on green pepper and pepperoni pizza, played three rounds of Uno and watched The Maze Runner, Carl hobbled up to bed. Before he followed his son upstairs to tuck him in, Rick asked if Daryl wanted to hang out for another movie and the mechanic just nodded and sat back down on his side of the couch to wait.

Rick came back downstairs to see Daryl lit up only by the flicker of the TV, comfortable in his spot. He was beautiful. Those innocent eyes always so alert and interested. Rick’s eyes grazed over the mechanic’s body. He was more aware of every peak and valley of it after having Daryl pressed tight to him the previous night. After having him come undone against Rick. His shaggy hair framed his face perfectly, a face that Rick had grown so familiar with that he hungered for it when it wasn’t in his sight.

Daryl stood and walked towards Rick with confident movements that hadn’t been there before last night.

“Can I kiss you again?” Daryl asked in a desperate whisper, finally showing how badly he must have been squirming for Rick over the past four hours.

“Please,” Rick answered, equally as wrecked. And this time it was more of a crash. Rick with hands on both sides of Daryl’s head, knowing that his hair was a safe zone, but his back may not be ready for too much yet. Daryl’s hands slid up Rick’s sides and back down, repeating the motion as their kiss grew passionate and deep. Daryl experimenting with his lips. Nibbling on Rick’s lower lip and tugging it, opening his mouth wider and teasing at Rick’s tongue until the officer slid it into Daryl’s mouth to sweep across teeth and lips and tongue.

“The guest room’s on the other side of the house. Carl won’t hear anything. Stay,” Rick said, a few words at a time between lips joining back together like magnets.

And then they were in the room, Daryl unbuttoning Rick’s shirt without even asking. Feeling something in his body, in his bloodstream, something snaking down his spine that was pure need and urgency. Rick shrugged off his shirt and went back to kissing earlobes and the base of Daryl’s neck and licking along his throat. He started to slide hands under Daryl’s shirt, eager to press himself bare against his lover. To feel the tingle of skin on skin. But Daryl backed up, Rick following along with him, lips still attached, until the mechanic’s back was against the wall pinning his shirt in place.

Rick registered Daryl’s nerves. Could feel the tensing in his body and he pulled back. “Sorry, sorry,” Rick whispered, pulling hands off Daryl and trying to stand before him without touching, a task more difficult than he could have possibly imagined.

Daryl shook his head. “No, it’s ok. It’s just... I got a lot of scars, man. I don’t look good.” He shoved his thumb between his lips as his chest heaved, still clawing at air he’d been missing after all the kissing.

“I think you’re beautiful,” Rick whispered. “And you don’t ever have to take your shirt off if you don’t want to. But I want you to know all I see is you. Don’t care about scars. I know you. I know what’s happened. I just want to be with you. Feel you. You can leave it on, but I need to keep kissing you.” Rick laughed a bit at the sound of desperation in his own voice.

Daryl looked at him, chest still rising and falling like the steady swell of waves. He reached down and held the hems of his shirt with both hands. He wanted Rick to know him. Wanted him to know everything. To have him completely. So he pulled it slowly over his head and dropped it on the floor, his back still protected against the wall behind him.

“I want you to know everything. So you can change your mind now if you need to. Before it gets harder for me if things have to stop,” Daryl said softly.

This man could make Rick’s heart shatter into pieces more than anything else in his world. He looked at Daryl’s perfect chest. Broad in the shoulders and narrower at the waist. Pale but perfect. He already saw the snaking of a few scars that rounded his shoulders, just the tops of them slithering around to his front. Neither man moved. Their eyes were blown and fixed on one another. And Daryl slowly turned and put his hands up on the wall behind him to steady himself from the dizziness he felt as he bared his back to Rick for inspection. And he braced himself for rejection. For being too broken and too much trouble to deal with.

Rick stood frozen. His eyes followed raised scars that criss-crossed his lover’s back like a giant roadmap. He was caught between intense affection, the desire to grab Daryl up in his arms and never let him go, and a rage towards the man's father that may have brought out even more violence in Rick than the senior Dixon had showcased here on his son’s back. But nowhere in that range of emotion was the desire to abandon this man. In the moments of silence, Daryl bravely unbuttoned and unzipped his pants and lowered them slowly. It hadn’t even dawned on Rick that his backside would be covered in the same patterns.

Daryl placed his hands back up at the wall after he dropped his pants, his cell phone clunking out of the pocket as his jeans hit the floor. He was squinting his eyes shut, bracing himself, unsure if it was more in anticipation of a belt or of words that would strip him down even more naked than he already was. This is Rick. This is Rick. Daryl kept repeating the mantra to himself. Maybe he can just always stay dressed when they mess around so he’d never have to see it again. But Daryl needed him to know. Needed him to know he was damaged goods.

“Daryl,” Rick whispered. “Can I come closer? Please?” The mechanic nodded, his head turned to watch Rick approach, no eye contact, just a sorrowful glance at Rick’s feet, watching as they took each careful step.

Rick walked slowly and reached around the mechanic to take his hands in Rick’s own and he pulled Daryl’s back against his own bare chest.

“Relax,” Rick whispered. “All I see is you. And you already know how much I want you.”

When Daryl didn't respond, Rick asked softly, "Is it ok if I kiss you, here? The back of your neck?"

“Umm...there’s scars there,” Daryl answered.

“I want every bit of you, Daryl. Want you to know that. Every piece of you. But I won’t if you don’t want it.”

Daryl concentrated on his breathing. He tried to absorb the sincerity in Rick’s voice. His back was already pressed tight against Rick’s chest. He’s seen it all and wasn’t repulsed. And if Rick really wants to… Daryl will let him kiss anywhere he wants.

"Yes, you can kiss me anywhere, Rick." Daryl said with a shaky whisper, feeling a weight lifted that had been so heavy he might float away now that it was no longer bearing down on him. He gripped tighter to Rick's hands, feeling so wanted in his arms.

“Promise you’ll stop me anytime you get uncomfortable,” Rick said as he leaned his forehead against the back of Daryl’s head and squeezed him tighter.

“Promise.”

Rick pressed a soft kiss to the back of Daryl's neck and the mechanic dropped his head to encourage more. And Rick gave him more because Rick was going to give him anything he wanted, forever. His lips kissed along Daryl's neck and shoulders, eliciting low groans.

Daryl was overflowing with emotions--relief, comfort, love. Rick saw him. Saw everything. And still wanted him. It was more than he could have hoped for. And Rick had him pulled tight to him, Daryl's back against Rick's chest, protected.

"I want to make you come again," Rick purred into his ear. And the whisper of his words made the muscles that held Daryl's head up limp, his head falling back to Rick's shoulders in supplication, throat now bared and cock growing hard.

Rick walked Daryl backwards towards the bed, stopping quickly to strip out of his own pants, then sitting down and leaning against the headboard as he guided the mechanic to settle in between his legs and rest his back into Rick's chest again.

They sat like that, quietly, as Rick showered him with attention and affection, kissing gingerly at his neck and shoulders. Rubbing their hands together, twining their fingers and rubbing slow circles with his thumb against Daryl's wrists.

Daryl let himself relax and he took what was given to him. Soft touches, warm lips against his skin and quiet moans from Rick that shot through his body like a bolt of electricity. He was bare. Had even kicked off shoes and socks as they made their way to the bed. He'd never been naked with someone before. So vulnerable and exposed. But with Rick's arms around him, Rick's mouth on him, the sound of Rick's breath by his ear, he felt covered and comfortable.

His hands tangled together with Rick's and they bumped into his cock, now completely erect, straining.

Rick slowly untangled fingers and started sliding one hand over the mechanic’s stomach, up to his chest.

"Is this ok?" Rick asked.

"Yes."

"Tell me what you want," Rick whispered between neck kisses.

Words were getting difficult for Daryl. His body was screaming for more of everything. The mechanic was afraid to open his mouth to speak, worried that sobs of emotion would escape him and give out the wrong impression, because he was content. More than content, in bliss--sitting against Rick, feeling him, hearing him, smelling the shampoo again. Finally Daryl took Rick's hand, the one that wasn't currently spread open and sweeping over Daryl's chest, and he guided it to his swollen, ready cock.

As soon as he felt the warmth of Rick's hand grip him firmly, a low moan tumbled from the back of his throat and his body shivered with anticipation.

"Yes," Rick whispered as he kissed at Daryl's ear. "Can I do this?" he asked as he moved his hand slowly up and down Daryl's shaft.

"Please," Daryl groaned, head falling back against Rick's shoulders again, ducking under the officer's chin.

Rick took his time slowly moving his grasp up and down Daryl's erection. Swiping a thumb over the head after every few pumps, the way he liked it. His other hand had stilled, palm open, fingers spread over Daryl's heart.

The mechanic had his fists gripping at the bed sheets, his head back, his breaths ragged, his hips starting to rock into Rick's hand.

"That's it," Rick whispered. "Do whatever feels good. Show me what feels good."

The softness of Rick’s voice turned Daryl into putty. He wanted to give Rick everything. He wanted to take everything. He didn’t ever want to move from where he was, tight against Rick, so close that even their thoughts were touching, warm hands on him, Rick’s chest warm against Daryl’s back, any concerns about the damage there disappearing. There was just not enough space in his mind because it was overflowing with Rick.

Daryl kept rocking his hips up, getting a rhythm with Rick’s hand. His body was thudding, his heartbeat in synch with Rick’s. He could feel Rick’s heart pounding against his back, echoing into his own body. He felt the build of his approaching orgasm and he chased after it with gasping breaths and quicker movements of his hips, Rick’s hand knowing exactly how tight to hold him, how fast to slide up and down, how to coax a flood of relief out of Daryl.

“Jesus, Rick!” the mechanic groaned softly. It was barreling in on him faster, the sweet explosion throbbing through him and then he was coming and gasping and whimpering “oh God, oh God, oh God.” He felt it warm and wet against his belly as Rick’s movements slowed, milking the last bit from him.

“I love doing this to you,” Rick whispered as Daryl became boneless in his embrace. “Love making you feel good. Making you forget about everything but here and now.” Rick grabbed one of the nearby pillows and flicked it out of its cover, using the pale blue pillowcase to clean up Daryl’s stomach and Rick’s hand.

Daryl felt selfish and greedy. Twice now getting off before Rick. Without Rick. Next time he wanted to do it together. But now they were sitting against one another and Daryl could feel Rick hard behind him.

“Let’s switch spots so I can do this to you,” Daryl said in a low voice.

“Only if you want--”

“I want to,” Daryl interrupted.

“Ok,” Rick said with a smile, discovering that Daryl’s voice speaking so confidently about what he wanted was an incredible turn-on. He slid out from behind Daryl keeping eyes fixed on his as the mechanic scooted to the headboard and pressed his back against it, spreading his legs for Rick to sit in front of him.

The house was silent, not even noises from the neighborhood reaching them. The only sounds were the creaks of the bed as they moved and their excited breathing.

Rick slid into Daryl’s arms and rested back against his chest, the mechanic’s arms coming around him in a tight hug. He felt Daryl’s head nuzzle against his neck, bashfully feather-kissing a spot on his shoulder. The officer had been so focused on Daryl the past twenty-four hours that he hadn’t taken time to acknowledge how vulnerable he was himself. How lost he’d been and how found he felt in Daryl’s embrace. How much he needed the gentleness they were sharing with each other. For so long he felt alone, absent, like he was trapped in a maze that had no exit. And now Daryl was here. Daryl was his way out. Out of twists and turns and back into the world, back into life. Into feeling and seeing and wanting again.

Daryl nervously ran his hands up and down Rick's chest holding the man tight, possessively. He watched as Rick's length hardened at just the feel of Daryl's hands spreading across his chest. The mechanic was still coming down from his orgasm. He ran a hand down to Rick's thigh but he paused there. He wouldn't be able to do it. It wouldn't be any good. Daryl knew this. Every time he'd done it to himself he feels sick afterwards. Disappointed almost. He'd never given himself what Rick had been giving him. He didn't want to fail Rick in any way. He was going to fuck this all up.

As if Rick was reading his mind, the officer murmured, "Want me to show you what I like?"

"Please," Daryl whispered, the sound of apology in his voice.

"It's ok," Rick responded. "I can tell you're nervous. I don't want you to ever feel nervous with me. I'll show you." He took himself in his hand and stroked long and slow as both of Daryl’s hands came to rest at Rick’s hip bones. The officer felt Daryl’s shallow breaths ghosting across his shoulder. The feel of being with someone, being with Daryl, made his body scream with the need to release everything that had been barricaded for so long. His heart felt open and needy. He had goosebumps raising up along his legs where Daryl’s hands touched him. His cock was only seconds away from exploding, already nearly there just from watching Daryl come undone just moments before.

“I’m so close. Was already worked up just watching you and feeling you…” Rick said, breaths coming quicker, his hand speeding up on himself. Daryl stayed quiet, not wanting to say or do anything to pull Rick away from how close he was. He studied the movements of Rick’s hand, his fingers, his pace. The officer groaned so loudly that Daryl worried it would be heard down the hall and then he whispered Daryl’s name as he pulsed out streaks of white onto his belly.

Afterward Rick used the same pillowcase to clean himself off, they stayed like they were, their hands intertwined and resting together on Rick’s stomach. He was so comfortable. So sated. So at peace with Daryl’s arms around him. He started drifting off as Daryl rubbed his thumbs along the tops of Rick’s hands. Rick's last thought, there but then gone like a whirl of leaves disappearing in the October wind, was that he hadn’t been to Lori’s grave in two whole days.

Rick fell asleep in Daryl’s arms and the mechanic had no intention of waking him when he looked that peaceful and content. Rick had his face turned towards Daryl and his head resting softly on Daryl’s chest, like Rick was truly his. He gave Rick everything he could, but he still held on to his secret. He didn’t like that. Didn’t like having a secret Rick didn’t know about. He wanted to tell him. Wanted him to know that he was completely in love with him. That Rick was his “one.” That he understood it was one-sided, but that he wanted Rick to know how deeply he was cared for.

He would tell him. Because he wanted to give Rick everything he had.

Chapter Text

Daryl bolted awake at the sound of morning birds out the window. They had both somehow shifted in sleep and now lay flat, Rick curled up to Daryl’s side. The mechanic blinked at the brightened room and quickly remembered that Carl was right down the hall. He didn’t want to ruin that relationship by being caught here, making any of this more confusing for Carl than it had to be. Hell, it was confusing enough for Daryl. He slid out of bed, careful not to wake Rick and dressed quickly.

He tip-toed down the stairs and had a hand on the front door before he remembered that he didn’t have his keys. He stepped carefully through a web of squeaky floorboards cursing each one under his breath to get to the chair in the kitchen that had his leather jacket tossed over it. He grabbed it and turned back towards the front hall.

“Mornin’ Daryl,” Carl said from the breakfast bar. Daryl turned to him slowly as if he still might be able to think of a way to disappear.

Carl sat with a bowl of cereal and his Gameboy opened in front of him.

“Oh, hey. I, uh. I forgot my jacket last night and just popped back over to grab it,” Daryl lied, feeling horrible for it instantly.

Carl smiled affectionately. “No you didn’t. I’m not an idiot. I know you stayed over.”

“I stayed in the guest room.”

“I know.”

Daryl breathed a sigh of relief. That was simple. It was that simple. It got late so he stayed over. In the guest room. Where guests stay. It made total sense.

“And so did dad,” Carl said as he shoveled another spoonful of Apple Jacks in his mouth.

Daryl opened his mouth with the intent of responding but nothing came out.

“It’s ok, y’know. I like you. I like that you’re around. He’s better with you, needs you,” Carl said firmly. “Don’t let him push you away, cause he’ll try. That’s what he does.”

Daryl was still standing voiceless with his jacket in his hand.

“I won’t,” He responded softly.

Carl smiled. “Ok, good. Can you come over for dinner tonight?”

“I’m not sure if your dad was planning on that.”

“I don’t care. I’m inviting you because I want you here. And trust me, he does too.”

Daryl put his jacket on and looked back to Carl. “Y’all can text me later about dinner if you want. I gotta go.”

And Daryl made it as far as the front lawn, just a dozen footsteps from his bike before the front door opened and shut and Rick came out in sweats and a t-shirt, a full night’s sleep evident in his mop of curls, matted to one side of his head and springing wildly on the other side.

“Hey,” Rick said as walked quickly to catch up. “You didn’t want to, like stay for breakfast? We can tell Carl you just got here.”

“Carl’s already up and he caught me. He knows,” Daryl said. “I’m sorry, I tried to be quiet.”

Rick looked over his shoulder to the house and then back to Daryl. “What did he say?” Rick asked, running a hand through his hair, suppressing a grin that showed he wasn’t too terribly upset about it.

“Nothin’,” Daryl answered. “Just stuff. Thangs.”

“You ok about everything this weekend, Daryl? I don’t want to overwhelm you. I just… I just really like having you around. Being with you,” Rick laughed at himself and shook his head, “Hell, I’m actually, like, devastated that you have to leave.”

”No, It’s good. I’m good,” Daryl said as he took the final few steps and put a hand on the seat of his bike, trying to focus on practical, purposeful movements to keep himself from grabbing at Rick and kissing him in his front yard in front of his neighbors and the whole world.

“Can you come over for dinner tonight?” Rick asked as he took a few steps closer to the bike.

“The kid already invited me,” Daryl said, smiling.

Rick laughed again. “Ok, good. Ok. I want to make sure you’re happy. That you want to be, you know, spending time with me.”

They both stood looking at each other, not wanting to move. Not wanting to be apart.

“I do.”

As Rick nodded and started to turn away, Daryl called over to him, hands tight on both handlebars as he stood awkwardly by his bike like it was his security blanket. Words tumbled out of him faster than they ever had before.

“Rick. I’m in love with you. Just so you know. So you don’t have to worry about me not wanting to be here. I need to be here. You’re my ‘one.’ I don’t know a lot about these kind of things, but I know that. I feel it.” Daryl gave Rick a second to process it as he gripped tighter to his handlebars and looked down to his bike because he couldn’t bear the surprise in Rick’s eyes. He waited with a hope he pretended wasn’t there that Rick would respond with a similar sentiment even though he knew it was impossible. “I know you already had yours," he continued, "I know this is just a nice thing for you. Being with me. And I’m ok with that. I just thought you should know.”

Rick stood, jaw dropped, looking at Daryl with wide eyes. He hadn’t known really how to think of this thing. He was confused. Everything in him wanted to walk to Daryl and kiss him deep and love him back, but this was just a… a… a friendship. With benefits. Daryl never had anything physical before and Rick hadn’t felt hands since Lori. The two of them were so close, it only made sense to turn their affection into touches and kisses. He loved Lori. He was married to Lori. He and Daryl… it wasn’t that. It wasn’t. He didn’t think it was. It was something different. Maybe something words weren’t invented for yet. It was serious. Intense. It meant something. But…

Daryl swung a leg over his bike and got ready to leave. When Rick registered his movements, he walked quickly towards him, with a hand in the air to reach out. To stop him from leaving because Rick had something to say--he just wasn’t sure what yet. But the quickness of Rick’s steps, the silence Daryl had sat through and the sudden sight of a raised hand near him made Daryl cringe and flinch away.

“Shit,” Rick said pulling his hand back to his side. “I didn’t mean to move so fast. I just… I’m not ready to…”

Daryl kick started the bike and it growled to life. “It’s ok, Rick. I understand. I won’t come over for dinner unless you text me. If you don’t want me around cause of this…” Daryl swallowed his words, remembering Carl pleading with him not to let Rick push him away. “I’ll do whatever you want, Rick.”

Daryl backed the bike out and Rick stood frozen. Afraid to move too quickly again towards Daryl. Afraid to say the wrong thing. And mostly afraid of what this thing actually was. He stood looking towards the empty street after Daryl disappeared around the corner. After he finally registered that he’d walked out without socks or shoes, he turned to go back inside and defrost his feet.

He walked into the kitchen and sure as shit, Daryl was right. Carl was sitting there bright-eyed and alert, ready to start his day. When Rick slumped into the chair next to him, Carl turned off his Gameboy.

“What did you do, dad?” he asked, disappointed.

“Nothin’. It’s just. It’s complicated. It’s grown-up stuff.”

“You mean about being in love with Daryl?”

Rick looked over to Carl. “What? I’m not in love with him. We just... We’re just… Well, since this weekend I guess we…”

“Just since this weekend?” Carl asked. “I thought you guys were dating since before Thanksgiving.”

“What? Why would you think that, Carl? I'm married to your mother,” Rick asked.

“No, dad, you're not. Mom’s gone. You aren't married to anyone. You're alone. And you were miserable until you met Daryl.”

Rick sat quietly, letting minutes tick by hoping something would happen that would change the track of the conversation. When nothing did, he asked “You’re ok with it? With me… I don’t know, dating him?”

“I like him. Thought you were well aware of that.”

“Don't you think it's odd that... he's a guy?” Rick asked, finally putting into words something that had been perplexing him for weeks.

“I don't know what to tell you dad, shit happens. You fell in love with a guy. It is what it is.”

Rick caught himself before his laugh completely materialized. “A. Don’t cuss, and B. I’m not... It’s not love.”

“Then what is it?” Carl asked.

“I don’t know,” Rick muttered after some thought. He reached into the open box of Apple Jacks and took out a fistful, popping them into his mouth one at a time. “Think you can hang out at Louis’ while I run out?” Rick asked between bites.

“You going to the cemetery?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I come?”

Rick was completely taken off guard. “You wanna go with me?”

“Yeah, sure. Unless you were only going ‘cause you were hoping Daryl was there and you wanted to fix whatever you just messed up.”

Rick grinned and ruffled Carl’s hair. “Just going to see your mom. And I didn’t mess things up. Not totally. I mean, I don’t think I did.”

Chapter Text

Rick stood over Lori’s grave with Carl by his side. “What do you do here all the time?” he asked.

“Just talk to her.”

“Does she know about Daryl?” Carl whispered, as if the whisper made a difference.

Rick sighed. “She knows what she knows.”

“Dad?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Can I have a few minutes alone with her?”

Rick squeezed his shoulder. “Yeah, I’ll be over there.” He motioned towards Merle’s plot. “You take your time.”

The officer slowly circled Merle’s headstone as he watched Carl squat by his mother’s grave, talking low to the marble. It was bittersweet to see Carl so intimately talking with Lori. A boy and his mother, but at the same time, a boy without one. Rick finally dropped his eyes to Merle’s grave and kicked at an acorn.

“Your brother. I care about him. A lot.” Rick looked over to the parking lot, feeling a hole in his heart at the empty parking spot where Daryl’s bike usually sat. "Just thought you should know… that I got this. You're not here to take care of him anymore. But I'm here and I'll take care of him."

Rick leaned against the nearby tree, thumbs tucked into the front pockets of his jeans.

"And he'll take care of me," Rick said softly. "Cause I'm every bit as fucked up. And... I need him." Rick bit at his lower lip. He pictured Daryl sitting here at Merle’s grave, right on the ground with his arms around his knees. He thought about the look of suspicion in his eyes when Rick had offered the umbrella. The way he tried to politely order the cheapest thing on the menu on their first trip to the diner. The delight in his face when he sat on Rick’s living room floor looking over the bag of Halloween candy. The memory of him putting turkey on the table with Carl at Thanksgiving. Patting his leg when Rick was losing it. Waking up on the couch with Daryl just watching over him, then twisting fingers into Rick’s hair. The sound of his soft, quiet voice after days of just texting. The sound of his laugh. Their first kiss and the feel of Daryl’s chest breathing heavily against his own--nervous and timid but kissing back. And then camping and the feel of Daryl’s body stretched out against him and the soft whimpers as he came. The boldness in his movements the night before. Wanting to kiss. Showing Rick his back. Giving Rick everything he had. “I need him,” Rick repeated.

He looked up to see Carl walking towards him, eyes puffy.

"You can go now. I brought my Gameboy," he said, sniffling. Rick hugged him tight.

"I love you, buddy. I don't tell you enough."

"I know dad. I never forgot that."

Rick walked hesitantly over to Lori and sat on the nearby bench like he's done almost daily for over a year.

"Hey Pumpkin. Something's happening," he said.

----------------

Daryl crawled into bed as soon as he got home, shedding his clothes down to a t-shirt and boxers. He pulled the sheets up over his head and hid.

He felt so alone in bed without the heat from Rick beside him. Only two nights of being with him and Daryl was already hopelessly addicted to his touch. How ironic to go from one extreme to the other. The complete aversion to physical contact and now he lays there with his skin screaming out for Rick.

He shouldn't be so disappointed. What did he expect? That all of a sudden after fifteen years of marriage Rick would be madly in love with him? He thought he'd prepared himself better to be able to handle this dynamic. The one-sidedness of things. But before last night he hadn't been planning on revealing his secret.

It wasn't the end of the world. Rick didn't love him back, that was clear. But he liked Daryl. He'd want to talk about it. Daryl already knew this. Rick liked to talk and understand things and he might even make Daryl say it all again. He took a deep breath, sighed and wiggled deeper under the covers. No, Rick wouldn't make him talk. Rick never made him do anything. But he'd want to talk. And Daryl would give that to him.

He thought about Carl and he was glad to have the boy on his side. Rooting for him even though it was his own mother's space in this life that Daryl was in. Standing where she should be standing. Laying where she should be laying. And Daryl winced at the thought. If Rick started to see it that way, he'd be done with Daryl for sure, and Daryl definitely didn’t want that.

After falling asleep for several hours, he burned the day away cleaning the house while he pretended not to be waiting for a text about dinner. It wasn’t until after five that he decided to check and make sure he didn’t miss the sound of a message swooping in. His coat pockets were empty. So were his jeans. He suddenly remembered the thud from when he dropped his pants the night before and the image of his cell phone on the floor of the guestroom was clear as if it was right in front of him.

“Dammit,” he whispered to himself. If Rick even had texted he wouldn’t know. Now it was going to be on Daryl to make a move about dinner, or go back over to get his phone at the very least. Daryl paced and now that he knew his phone was missing, he felt nearly naked without the weight of it in his pocket. He ran a hand through his hair in what he recognized immediately as a mirror of what Rick does when he’s stressed out. He checked the clock again and it was rapidly approaching six. Daryl knew, because he had been becoming part of the family, that dinner at the Grimes house was usually around seven. He didn’t know what to do. Felt a surge of bashfulness sweep over him. Something he hadn’t felt with Rick for months. He’d been nothing but comfortable. But this recent development, telling him straight out that Daryl was in love with him? It changed things.

But even so, the mechanic couldn’t decide if he even regretted it. He thought back to the driveway from that morning. It felt good to say those words. To love someone like that and to say it out loud to the world. He was glad Rick knew. He just hoped the officer wouldn’t be weirded out by it.

“Merle,” Daryl said flatly. And then with anger, “Merle!” He slammed the palm of his hand to the wall. “Why are you gone when I need you so much!? I don’t know what to do,” he yelled into the emptiness, his voice echoing against cold walls. He marched to Merle’s room which was much neater than it had been. Papers and personal stuff organized. Clothes in piles. CDs stacked up on his night stand. In an uncharacteristic show of anger, Daryl slammed his arm into the CDs and they flew into the wall, a cacophony of cracks and clunks against the drywall and the slow collapse as they fell to a stop. Stark silence against the burst of noise.

Daryl walked back out the living room, grabbed his coat and got on his bike.

Chapter Text

Rick paced the kitchen, the sound of the football game on in the living room. Carl had suddenly decided that he wanted to get into football because Louis was getting into it, and the sounds of the crowds and the obnoxious announcers were driving Rick nuts. It was 6:30. He checked his phone again. Looked at his own text history to make sure all his messages were sent.

3:03 p.m.- Hey, Will you please come to dinner tonight? 7:00?

3:28 p.m.- I need to talk to you. I was a dick earlier. I know that. I’m sorry. Please come to dinner.

4:05 p.m.- Daryl, Please don’t be mad at me. You have every right to be, but please, let me explain. Just five minutes to talk. If you don’t want to come for dinner, I can come to you.

Rick had called instead of texted four times between 4:30 and 5:00. Then texted again.

5:20 p.m.- Daryl, you’re starting to worry me. If you’re pissed please at least answer your phone or text me back and tell me you’re pissed.

And then four more phone calls between 5:30 and 6:30.

Rick pressed a button and held the phone to his ear again.

“Hey, man. What’s up?” Shane asked, answering quickly on the first ring.

“Shane. I need a favor.” Rick said quickly.

“Jesus, yeah. I’ve been trying to get you to ask me for help for a year man. What can I do?”

“Come over for a while and stay with Carl. The Moraleses are out of town and I have somewhere I need to go. Like, now. It’s an emergency.”

“You got it, brother. I’ll be there in ten.” Shane hung up without even asking any questions and Rick, for the first time, felt guilty for pushing him away all this time. Shane had been a good friend. Before Lori. During Lori. And after Lori. And Rick was lucky to have what he had in this world. People who still cared deeply about him even though he’s been a selfish asshole. A son who forgave him, almost daily. Who understood on a level that a twelve-year-old shouldn’t have to understand. Shane, who may not have always phrased things with the most eloquence, but he cared. And he wanted to be there. The Morales family. Most people weren’t still getting sympathy casseroles a year later.

He was sick of pushing people away. He didn’t want to be alone anymore. More specifically, he didn’t want to be without Daryl. And the radio silence had him petrified. Because Daryl was not the type to hold a grudge. He was not the type to be angry or upset. There was a reason he wasn’t answering. And just not wanting to answer wasn’t it. If he was in an accident who would they even call? He had no next of kin. Rick paced impatiently waiting for Shane. It was almost seven. Daryl had to be upset. He had just given Rick everything--his body and his heart both in the span of hours and Rick just… just stared at him. Rick didn’t believe that Daryl was the type to hold a grudge or use the silent treatment. But if he was upset while he was driving...

The officer bit nervously at his nail as he pictured the windy roads between his house and Daryl’s. The section of guardrail that was missing on the bend near Woodbury Street. The four way stop at Terminus Boulevard that people run through almost every day. He’d responded to half a dozen accidents there just this year. He pictured the wounded look in Daryl’s eyes when he said it was ok that Rick didn’t love him. How could he not have responded to that? How could he be so stupid for so long? How could he let Daryl just ride away after that?

Rick dialed two hospitals and asked if they had a Daryl Dixon in the ER while he continued waiting for the longest ten minutes of his life then he grabbed his coat and went into the living room.

“Dammit, Ryan! Throw the ball!” Carl yelled at the TV.

“Hey, Shane’s coming over to watch you. I gotta run out.”

Carl paused the game and gave Rick his full attention. “He hasn’t responded to you either?”

Rick cocked his head. “You been texting him, too? What for?”

“Probably for the same reason you have. To tell him you’re a dick and to come over for dinner so you can make it up to him.”

Rick dropped his head. This cursing thing had to end. It was that damn Grand Theft Auto. “I am a dick, but I’m your father, so maybe don’t call me that, ok? You want me to be engaged again in parenting then you are going to have to start listening to me. I haven’t forgotten how to ground you.”

Carl nodded. Then, more somber than he’d been letting on, he said, “You think he’s ok?”

Rick’s stomach sank like a stone. If Daryl had been leaving and was upset and was in an accident, Rick and Carl both would be going through it all again. The loss. The emptiness. He pushed aside the fear and tried to put on a brave face for Carl.

“I’m sure he’s fine. I’m a dick. I’m going to fix it, I promise.”

Rick heard the sound of Shane’s car squeal into the driveway. He kissed Carl on the head. “Be good, ok?”

“Call me when you find him,” Carl said, trying his damnedest not to seem worried. Rick passed Shane on the front walk.

“He’s watching football. Shouldn’t be any trouble. There’s leftovers in the fridge to heat up for dinner if you guys get hungry.”

Shane nodded. “You gonna tell me about this later?”

“Yeah,” Rick answered. “I’ll tell you everything.”

He drove with complete disregard for the speed limit, knowing that any cop pulling him over would be one he knew. He pulled into Daryl’s drive, stomach already in knots, tight and taut. His bike wasn’t there. Rick hadn’t seen or heard from him for almost twelve straight hours and that was unheard of anymore. They texted constantly. They saw each other almost daily. The officer got out of the car and held back from pounding too hard. He didn’t want to startle Daryl if he was home. Maybe the car was in the shop? ...But Daryl fixed the bike himself, he was a mechanic for fuck’s sake. Maybe it was stolen? Maybe it broke down somewhere and Daryl had to walk home?

He knocked softly. Then rang the bell.

“Daryl! You home, man?” He shouted, followed by louder knocking. There was no answer. He stood on the porch in the dark feeling completely helpless. Lost. Frightened. Like the night Lori was so late coming home. The night she never came home. His stomach dropped, that same sinking feeling he’d had just over a year ago as if his entire life was swirling like water down a drain. The empty feeling of losing everything. He remembered standing alone at the morgue doors to identify the body, the feeling of loss still so new at the time. He looked back to where Daryl’s motorcycle was normally parked and he felt that loss swirl in his stomach churning into a mix of panic and fear and desperation. His eyes burned with tears he was trying to control until finally a glimmer of hope slipped through the raw cracks of his breaking heart. He remembered the cemetery. “He’s at Grove Meadows,” Rick whispered to no one, and he ran back to the car and jumped in.

When Rick pulled in, his headlights swept over the cemetery, bouncing shadows all over the dark graveyard, then finally lighting up the silhouette of Daryl’s bike in its normal spot.

“Thank god,” Rick murmured to himself. “Thank god, thank god, thank god.” He slammed the car to a halt, parked crooked over two spots and jumped out. His heart hammered against his chest as he took in the sight of Daryl sitting on the ground with arms wrapped around his legs. And he forced himself not to walk too fast, not too intimidating. Just slow and steady. He was here. He was fine. Rick could fix everything now.

As he got closer, Daryl stood. “Hey, Rick. You ok?” Daryl could tell the officer was wrecked. His face was wrinkled with worry, he had two different shoes on and his shirt was untucked.

Rick stopped about ten feet from the mechanic. Catching himself. Not wanting to move too close or too quickly after the incident that morning, even though every bone in his body wanted to crash into Daryl and kiss the ever-loving shit out of him, to have him safe in his own arms. To feel him there and know he was ok.

“I am now,” he answered. “I’m just glad you’re ok. Been worried as shit cause you won’t answer my calls. I know I was a dick but--”

“Left my cell at your place. Think it’s probably under the nightstand from when… you know,” Daryl said, blushing.

“You’re not mad?” Rick asked, the sound of relief clear enough that even the dead around them could hear it.

“No, man. Told you I wouldn’t be. I understand--”

“Can I come closer?” Rick interrupted.

“Yeah,” Daryl answered softly.

Rick walked slow until Daryl was within his reach. “I understand now. I’m in love with you, too.”

Daryl grinned and looked down. “You ain’t gotta say that. I know you like me well enough. Ain’t gonna get mad at ya for not loving me. I know Lori’s your ‘one’ and I’m totally ok with that.” Daryl’s eyes went back to Rick’s.

“She’s not my only ‘one,’ she’s my first one.”

The cemetery was silent, not even so much as a cricket chirping or a branch bending from the breeze.

“Because of being in love with her, I know what it is. This feeling. Wanting to spend every waking moment with you. Talking to you about anything. Wanting to know everything about you and wanting you to know me. Feeling empty when you’re gone.” Rick took another small step closer.

He dropped his voice lower, to an intimate whisper. “This is a different life now without Lori. And I want to live again. And right here, right now--in this new world… this new life... Daryl--you are my ‘one’.”

Daryl blinked rapidly, brows furrowed as he tried to absorb all of this. His heart felt like a helium-filled balloon that was ready to lift him completely off his feet. Rick loved him? Loved him back? Wanted him completely? He was not someone this happened to. Not someone who got everything they ever wanted. He was a Dixon. The kid who got picked on mercilessly in school. Who got beat near to death at home. Who had no one in his whole world but a brother that was no longer walking the earth. He wasn’t a guy who got to love and be loved back. But Rick’s eyes, bright blue like tropical waters held his gaze like a drowning swimmer to a lifeboat. And he saw in that desperate gaze that he was loved and wanted. And he felt like he was Rick’s life. And Rick was his.

“Can I touch you?” Rick asked quietly.

Daryl blinked again. He realized suddenly that he hadn’t spoken. He parted his lips to respond but words couldn’t come quickly enough. He just wanted Rick to know he was there and he was feeling the same way and he was so very much in love. And the only way he could think to communicate the intensity of that emotion was with his hands and his lips and his tongue. Daryl closed the space between them in a single step and slid his hands into Rick’s hair as he confidently pressed eager lips to Rick, his mouth parting instantly in invitation as Rick mirrored Daryl’s hands, sliding his own into his lover’s hair, both men holding tight like a sudden windstorm might separate them.

They kissed long and slow. Passionately. Bodies tight together. Hands cupping one another’s heads as they tangled lips and tongues and breaths. When oxygen grew short they parted, just enough so they could breathe, hands still on each other, bodies still close.

“There’s a diner down the road,” Rick said. “They have a pretty good turkey special. Can I buy you dinner?”

Chapter Text

~~Right After~~

Rick had called Carl's cell before they got in the Subaru to head over to the diner together.

"Dad? You find him!?" Carl asked as soon as he answered.

"Yeah, buddy. He's good. We're good. Gonna go to dinner first and then I'll be home. Can you put Shane on?"

"To dinner--just you two? You mean like a real date?"

Rick rolled his eyes to Daryl as they stood against the car, fingers twined as Daryl tried to suppress a grin.

"Yeah. Like a real date. Put Shane on."

There was a muffle on the other end of the line as Carl's voice murmured something he was clearly trying to make sure Rick didn't hear.

"Heyyy, brother," Shane said in that way of his. Rick could practically see his familiar shit-eating grin. "You calling to tell me to stay overnight?"

"No man. Just going to dinner first. You guys ok with the leftovers?"

"No way man, I ordered us pizza ten minutes after you walked out the door. I don't do leftovers. But I got this. Take as long as you need."

Rick could tell Shane was holding something back. He let a few seconds tick by, giving him the opportunity to spit out whatever was on his mind.

"Carl told me everything," he said, simply.

Rick sighed. He wasn't in the mood for a long drawn out conversation. He just wanted to be with Daryl. Touching him, talking to him, looking into those deep blue eyes and drowning happily inside them.

"I'm so happy for you, Rick. Really. You deserve to be happy again. And Daryl? Well, I really only met him that once but Carl talks about him like he walks on water, so... He's got my seal of approval."

"You aren't going to be weird about, you know--him being a guy?"

"Fuck no," Shane whispered into the phone. "You kidding me? It's like every chick's dream to turn a gay guy straight. And straight chicks LOVE going to the gay bars. So I'm counting on you guys to invite me out."

"Oh my god, Shane. You're a pig."

"I've always been a pig. And you've always been a guy who's really good at being in love. You do your thing and I'll do mine."

Rick smiled and leaned into Daryl. "It's a school night. Make sure Carl's in bed by nine."

"Stay out as late as you want, brother,” Shane said, suddenly serious. “I'm glad to be able to help. Finally."

~~That First Christmas~~

By Christmas, Daryl was staying over at the Grimes home more nights than not. The mechanic much preferred the warmth and activity and comfort of being there rather than being alone in his quiet, small house. He was once a man who steered clear of people. Hated noises. Was afraid of his own shadow if it caught his periphery the wrong way. But things had changed a little. He craved the sound of Carl and Louis stomping up and down the stairs. The sound of Rick calling his name from the front door when he got home from work. Sitting together around a table to eat dinners together and talk.

He liked kisses that came just from passing in the hall. He liked when Rick walked in to trim his beard at the sink while Daryl was in the shower. He liked standing beside Rick and doing the dishes together. Fucking dishes! Merle would die all over again if he saw that. But he’d die happy, because Daryl was becoming his own man. He was finally a few steps ahead of the shadows of his father. And aside from a few nightmares and a bad memory here and there, he felt cleansed. The scars were there. They always would be. But he allowed Rick to comfort him and accept him. He still tried to turn away when his shirt was off. Still tried to keep his back towards the closest wall, but it was more out of old habits than out of crippling fear. He trusted Rick completely.

Daryl finally met the famous Moraleses. Rick had them over for dinner a few days before Christmas as a thank you for a year’s worth of watching and feeding Carl, sending over casseroles and apparently mowing the lawn, which Rick didn't even realize they were doing at the time. He'd been so destroyed all those months, it never even registered that somehow his yard stayed well-manicured despite the fact that Rick didn’t even remember where the lawn mower was.

Rick and Daryl cooked together for that meal. When they worked together, they didn’t burn things. Daryl took work in the kitchen very seriously, following directions and setting the buzzer, checking on pots and tasting things as they cooked. And Rick, who used to be overwhelmed in the kitchen, feeling lost in it without Lori, did a good job when he was in there working with his lover. Following his instructions, handing him measuring cups, watching him concentrate with that so serious expression that turned Rick into jelly.

Rick was happy. He couldn’t even remember ever being so happy. Losing something once made you really appreciate what you had when you found it again. Thanks to Daryl’s support and love, he grew back into the man he used to be. Reconnecting with the Moraleses. With his parents. No longer pushing Shane away--and being so relieved to find that he supported Rick’s new relationship. Shane grew to care about Daryl just as strongly as he cared about Rick. In fact, even the Moraleses and Rick’s immediate family were supportive of this new relationship. Not just supportive, but thrilled for him. Rick was eager to be a good parent again. Carl had never lost faith in him and Rick would be eternally grateful that his dark days didn’t ruin his relationship with his son. He would forever have Daryl to thank for that.

On Christmas Eve, Carl was shooed off to bed and Daryl and Rick put gifts around the tree, including the video game that sold out in hours--the one Carl had been wanting. The one Rick, still a little too consumed with recent events, had forgotten about. Daryl tucked the package towards the back. He’d had to wait in a crowd for two hours to get that video game. People way too close. Strangers. People he didn't trust. But he stayed in line until he walked out with it. He wrapped it and labeled it so it looked like it was coming from Rick.

They sat in the living room with the blinking multi-lights sparkling from the tree. They sat snug against each other, wordless for quite a while--because they didn’t need words. Rick held his lover’s hand and brought his knuckles up to his lips, brushing soft kisses to them.

“What do you think about about selling your house? Almost a waste since you’re here all the time.” Rick said quietly, ducking his head to make eye contact through Daryl’s long bangs. Rick still hadn’t been able to convince him to go to an actual barber. But that was ok. Some things would never change for Daryl. And that was fine with Rick. As long as he had him. As long as Daryl kept loving him back.

When Daryl lowered his head, trying purposefully to hide deeper behind his shaggy hair, Rick slowly brushed it back with gentle fingers. “Will you move in with me? Us? I already asked Carl if it would be ok and he’s over the moon about it.”

Daryl bit at a nail and looked up through his eyelashes. “Worry you might get sick of me still. Ain’t sure how much I’ll… I’m not real good in the bedroom and I don’t know how much more I can--”

“Daryl--Jesus. Please tell me you know this is more than just sex.” Rick smiled, affection clear in his eyes. “I love what we have in the bedroom. I don’t need anything more than what we’re comfortable with. But that’s not the only reason I want you with me.”

Daryl leaned in and rested his head on Rick’s chest. Sometimes he needed to be reminded of how real this was. And Rick never minded telling him.

They didn't move in together that Christmas because Daryl just wasn't ready. It's not a perfect world. In fact it's damn imperfect, but anything worth wanting that bad is worth waiting for.

~~Next Christmas~~

By the next Christmas, Daryl's house was empty and on the market.

Over the course of their first year together, they’d grown even closer. They started going night fishing together that summer in Daryl’s favorite spot, just the two of them. They both doted on Carl like he was the center of their universe. One or the other of them signed up for every Boy Scout event and they took turns volunteering as chaperones for each school field trip.

Daryl even got his hair trimmed that year. Not by a barber--that was a fear that Daryl was not able to shake. But Rick would wash his hair for him in the shower, scrubbing the shampoo in with strong fingers to show him how nice it feels. And then Rick tried his best to trim it as Daryl sat stone-still in a chair in the middle of the bathroom afterwards. Rick talked to him the whole time. Kept him comfortable and made him laugh. And ten minutes later the too-long strands were less long and it wasn’t even too terribly lopsided.

Thanks to Rick’s love, Daryl became more confident in general and even started talking more at work, developing some of his own friendships. Even having Dale and Glenn from the shop over for dinner a few times.

Rick and Daryl spent more nights together than apart. They learned each other over those twelve months until they knew each other better than the sun knows the sky. It wasn't perfect. There were fights like in any relationship. But when they did argue Rick was always careful to keep his voice low, his movements limited.

Rick still grieved for Lori. Of course he did. And when that happened, Daryl gave him space or doted on him even more than usual depending on what he could sense his lover needed. And although Daryl now had more people in his life than ever to talk to, sometimes he just needed Merle. And that was fine too.

Parts of them both were broken, but together their shattered pieces fell into place and they could live, no longer trapped like prisoners inside the thick, smothering loneliness that had consumed them both for way too long.

They would still have their moments of grief. It was not a perfect "happily ever after" world and the pain they suffered in their lives would always be a part of them. But as time passed, it wasn't the biggest part anymore. It was just a small wisp of past and pain that circled around them on occasion when the wind blew the wrong way.

~~Their Third Christmas~~

By their third Christmas they’d been living together for a year. That one had been complicated by outside events. A week before Christmas Eve, Carl had gotten a call from his friend at Boy Scouts just as Rick was coming in the door from work. Carl had his talk, the one he promised Daryl he’d have, with Sam years prior after the Boy Scout camping trip. Sam and Carl stayed friends through Boy Scouts and Carl had made sure the kid had his number and reminded him on several occasions that his dad was a cop. Carl had noticed black eyes and damaged wrists and always came home to tell Rick and Daryl about it. Rick had been making Shane drive them by the Anderson house frequently on their patrols doing his best to find a reason to assist. He hated the look in Daryl’s eyes when Carl would report in on Sam’s latest injury.

But when he finally got a call, specifically asking for help, Rick had every reason to act. Carl came running down the stairs, Rick still in uniform, Daryl still covered in grease and oil from the garage. Sam was on the phone under his bed. His mother and brother were being beaten and his father was drunk and had his gun out and loaded.

Rick immediately got in the Subaru and called it in, letting dispatch know he was en route. He called Shane who met him there. The chaos was typical of a domestic call. Yelling, gun waving, screaming and crying. Rick and Shane were focused as they tried to talk Pete down. But sometimes it’s just not enough. Shane was shot. When the bullet left Pete’s chamber, one also left Rick’s and Pete Anderson hit the floor, dead.

It was a small town and the police department didn’t get tons of calls that ended that way. But it wasn’t the first person Rick had had to shoot. And he felt surprisingly at peace with it. He felt, in a way, like he was saving another Daryl. Another Merle. Sam and Ron were younger than the Dixons were when their father was finally gone, so maybe they’d have more time to heal. A better chance in life than the Dixon boys did.

When he got back home, some of Shane’s blood still showing on his uniform, Daryl and Carl had been waiting nervously on the couch together, eating popsicles and not really watching whatever was on the television, Carl leaning against Daryl like he sometimes did to Rick when he needed comfort. And Daryl allowing it. They both jumped to their feet as Rick kept repeating that he was ok and that Shane would be fine. The bullet just winged him in the arm, nothing more than a new scar to show off to the ladies. Neither of them seemed to be too broken up at the news that Pete was gone.

And that incident served as another reminder about how short and uncertain life was. That Christmas Eve, Rick slid down on one knee in front of Daryl on the sofa, blinking Christmas lights surrounding them and the soft sound of Christmas music from the stereo, and he put his forehead to Daryl’s knee.

“I know there’s a chance you might say no. I know I move faster than you’re able to sometimes and I’m going to be ok with no, if you aren’t comfortable. Because I already have you. I know that. But,” Rick opened a ring box and held up a black titanium ring that he’d picked out the day after Shane was shot. The day after he was reminded that life moved so fast. “I love you. And I was hoping maybe you’d want to marry me.”

The expression on Daryl’s face was unreadable. An emotion so deep he may not have ever had to process it before. Rick kept his gaze on Daryl’s, patiently waiting for him to respond. His eyes sparkled against the flashing of the lights from the Christmas tree. Rick waited, heart thudding, the ring in his hand and the future in his heart, and he held his breath.

Daryl put a hand into Rick’s curls and leaned forward from where he sat on the couch. Their mouths met, kisses soft and gentle. “Yes,” Daryl whispered, and he rested his forehead to Rick’s.

And to Rick that one word, whispered softly against his lips on Christmas Eve, meant everything. It meant love and family and forever and future. It mean they would both live again. Together.

Chapter Text

The door opened and Shane slid inside, pulling it quickly shut behind him. Daryl looked up, nervous, a thumbnail between his lips and a bowtie that looked like a four-year-old knotted it.

“You gotta quit biting that nail, man,” Shane said.

“If there was ever a time to bite this nail it’s now! I’m getting married!”

“Well, you got a point. I’d be nervous too but for other reasons.” Shane still hadn’t broken his record of going out with the same woman for more than three months. Daryl had lost a fortune on bets with Rick. Every time a new woman entered the picture, Daryl would be optimistic. Excited for him. Thinking this was going to be his “one.” And each time Rick would insist that he’d known Shane forever and he knew it wouldn’t be the one. At five dollars a bet, over the past almost two years, Daryl calculated that he’d probably lost over a hundred bucks hoping for this guy.

Daryl looked in the mirror and untied his tie for at least the tenth time. “Shouldn’t you be over with Rick? Is he doing ok?”

Shane waved his hand through the air, “Fuck no, he’s a wreck! Had to get out of there.”

“Is he nervous? Changing his mind?” Daryl asked, but even as the words left his mouth he knew there was nothing to worry about. Rick loved him. He knew that as fact.

“Jesus no,” Shane said, rolling his eyes and slowly reaching up for Daryl’s tie. “Something about fucking cufflinks or that the flowers in his lapel aren’t as blue as he wanted or some shit. I don’t know.”

Daryl stood rigid as Shane looped the bow tie for him, with slow, small movements. In the time that had passed, Daryl had finally gotten to a point where certain other people could touch him like this. But they always knew to be gentle.

Once the bow tie was on properly, Shane backed away and pointed to the mirror.

Daryl looked. “It’s ok?”

“It’s ok,” Shane answered in a rare moment of sincerity. And they stood a moment in silence. “Better than Rick’s cufflinks, that’s for sure. Don’t stare at them or he’s gonna freak.”

Daryl smiled. That was the Shane he was used to.

There was a knock at the door and Carl walked in without waiting for an answer.

“Shouldn’t somebody be with Rick!?” Daryl asked, worried about his lover being nervous, alone and dressed up with the wrong cufflinks.

“Yeah. You should be,” Carl answered with a grin, his voice deeper now than it had been when they first met. “They’re ready to start.”

Shane and Carl went out ahead of him and Rick came in, a smile on his face that reached past his eyes if that was even possible.

“You look amazing,” Rick said softly, taking Daryl in his arms and pressing a kiss to his lips.

“I don’t think the kissing part comes til later,” Daryl replied after long minutes of soft gentle kisses.

Rick giggled against his lover’s mouth. He pulled away just enough to look into his eyes. “You nervous?”

“Nervous about walking down the aisle in front of like fifty people? Nervous about tripping? Nervous about speaking in front of everyone and not messing up the words? Nervous about your two asshole cousins when the dude says the part about anyone objecting? Hell yes I’m fucking nervous!”

Rick grinned and ran a hand slowly down the jacket of Daryl’s tux.

And Daryl continued, “Nervous about saying yes to you and getting you forever? Not a damn bit.”

As they walked together down the aisle, they passed Rick’s family, the Moraleses, Sam and his family, a half-dozen cops, Daryl’s friends from the garage, and then they stood facing each other. Shane by Rick’s side as his best man. And Carl by Daryl’s side as his.

And Daryl didn’t fall. Didn’t forget any words. No one objected to the wedding. And they said their “I do’s”.

Yes, the lapel flowers weren’t as blue as they could be. And yes, Rick’s cufflinks weren’t the ones he’d bought to match Daryl’s. And yes, several cousins murmured about gay marriage destroying the world at the reception. And yes, Shane got drunk as hell and hit on Rick’s mother by accident. Life was not perfect. It never would be. But Rick and Daryl had each other now forever. And that was all they truly needed.

Six months later, the things that consumed them the most were loving each other, Carl getting his learner’s permit, and the phone call they were waiting on. News on the birth of a baby girl they were adopting. Because despite his struggles during the aftermath of Lori, Rick was a damn good father. And so was Daryl. And they lived, happy way more often than not. And their love continued to blossom more every day, blooming like a summer flower in the sun.

Illustrations provided by lucife56

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