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     Rick has known Shane since before he could crawl. Their mamas bein' neighbors an' all. Grew up together. Friends. Brothers, even. Able to finish each other's sentences. Mostly that were Shane talkin' over Rick. On account a Rick were the quiet one. But, Shane usually knew what Rick were thinkin'. Usually.

     The day Daryl Dixon showed up to class weren't one of those times. "He sure looks like trouble," Shane prodded Rick with his elbow as the teacher made Daryl stand up front to introduce the new kid. 'Course that were after she chastised him for bein' late. Talkin' right over his apologizin' for not bein' able to find the room. He may have been a senior, but he were new here an' all.

     Trouble were the furthest thing from Rick's mind lookin' at Daryl. Kid looked shy standin' there in his ill-fitting hand-me-downs looked like they ain't never been washed, head bowed, fiddlin' with the the frayed cuff a his ratty sweatshirt. Like he were used to bein' talked over. Paid no mind. Like he were wantin' the floor to swallow him up.

     "Alright, Daryl," Miss Dawson were proddin' the kid forward. Makin' him flinch. "Go find a seat so I can get back to the lesson."

     A couple kids slid their books over onto the few empty desks in the room. Lettin' Daryl know they ain't wanted him next ta them. The worst part were Daryl don't even look phased. Like it were how he were used to bein' treated.

     "Over here, Daryl," Rick pushed Ed Peletier's books off the empty desk beside him. Lettin' them crash to the floor as he dragged the desk closer. Right next ta him.

     Daryl slunk over to the seat. Ignorin' Ed's death glare. "Thanks, man," he mumbled around the thumb he were chewin' on. But, he don't make eye contact.

     "I'm Rick," he leaned over to look Daryl in the face. Up close Rick could see Daryl had the bluest, kindest eyes he'd ever seen. High cheekbones blushin' pink. Choppy blonde hair that looked like he cut it hisself. An' the mark beside his lip were a mole an' not a smudge of dirt like he'd expected. By all rights he were dirty. An' the most beautiful thing Rick had ever seen.

     "Daryl," the kid looked up at Rick, but he don't offer his hand. The faintest smile tuggin' at the corner a his lips.

     "Teacher already said you's Daryl," Shane huffed. Like Daryl were dumb instead of shy.

     "And this is Shane," Rick kicked him under the desk. "My ex best friend," he teased.

     Miss Dawson cleared her throat. Tapped her ruler on her desk. "Richard Grimes," she scolded an' Shane snickered at his full name bein' used. "Did you hear me tell the class to get out their books and turn to-"

     Daryl cut her off. Quiet an' all, but bold jus' the same. "He heard ya ma'am, he were jus' repeatin' it fer me." The other kids snickered now. An' Rick weren't sure if they thought Daryl were funny, the way he talked, or if they got a kick outta him sassin' the teacher.

     Rick's face burned red. Even Shane ain't never had his back like that. Ever. He pulled out his textbook. Noticed Daryl didn't have one. Or a pencil. Or anything. "Here," he slid the book over. Flushin' redder as Daryl leaned inta him. Shoulder to shoulder.

     "Page five," Glenn whispered from two rows back. An' it weren't lost on Rick that Shane ain't been the one ta tell him that.

     Rick don't remember nothin' from the rest of class. Nothin', but Daryl. Those eyes. That soft voice. The way his broad shoulders were accentuated when he hunched over his desk. The shy sideways glances he kep' givin' Rick. Like he were blinkin' out Morse code. An' Shane's elbow in Rick's side. To get him to stop starin' at the new kid.

     The next few classes Rick don't have with Shane. Just as well, because he did have them with Daryl. Without Shane jabbin' him Rick could focus on Daryl. Always made room for him. Made a point to smile an' walk with him ta their next room. Gave him his extra spiral notebook. An' his best pencil. Because, he thought Daryl Dixon with holes in his jeans, holes in his shoes, should have at least one nice thing.

     By lunch they's inseparable. Even sharin' Rick's locker to stow their books. Rick hoped it weren't jus' because Daryl ain't had nothin' a his own. Hoped they were friends. Because, Daryl had opened up more. They'd even gotten in trouble for talking. In every class. Rick had found out Daryl likes hunting an' fishing. Sounded like he spent all a his time outside. Like maybe home weren't the best place. But, he don't say that directly.

     The cafeteria were buzzin' like a hornets nest when it's kicked. Makin' Daryl shrink back inta himself again. Rick hooked Daryl's arm an' pressed inta his side ta settle him. "There's Shane," he pointed across the cafe. He could always find Shane. Showin' off for a crowd of girls fawnin' over his gun show. Though, if Daryl's arm looked anything like it felt under his sleeve, he could have givin' Shane a run for his money. But, Daryl don't seem vain in the slightest.

     "See ya later then," Daryl dipped his head. Stared at the holes in his shoes like they's the most fascinatin' thing.

     "I meant..." Rick caught Daryl's sleeve as he turned to leave. Like he'd been dismissed. "I was hopin' ya'd join me, Daryl."

     "Really?" Daryl looked up. Smilin'. Actually showin' his teeth. "Sure, I'll sit with ya," he bumped shoulders with Rick. "But, I ain't got no lunch."

     "No problem," Rick dragged Daryl over to his friends. Unpacked his lunch. "I got enough to share." He figured Daryl ain't never gonna have lunch. Would bring double tomorrow.

     Daryl chewed his thumb again, "Ya don't have ta do that." But, he were eyin' his half of the sandwich like he ain't ate in a week. "Ya already gi'me too much already." He tapped the pencil behind his ear. He ain't stowed that in the locker. Kep' it with him. Like he were proud of it.

     "I like sharing with you," Rick put the spoon and apple sauce between them. Signifying Daryl could share that, too.

     "Ya wanna hang out after school?" Daryl talked through a large bite of sandwich. Wipin' his mouth on his sleeve. "We could go fishin' at Johnson Creek an' I'll cook 'em up over a fire."

     Rick couldn't think of anything better. Bein' with Daryl was easy. In a way bein' with Shane never was. Daryl listened. An' not jus' 'cuz he was quiet. Daryl didn't tell Rick what ta think. He asked questions ta find out.

     Shane turned from the attention he was gettin' from Lori an' Sasha. Finally noticed Rick an' Daryl had joined the group. "Well," he snagged Daryl's pencil right outta his hair. Tapped it on the table. "If it isn't Richard Grimes," he did his best Miss Dawson impression. Which were pretty good on account a he had a crush on the woman. "Nice of you to join us."

     "Stop," Rick huffed. Grabbin' Daryl's pencil back. Slidin' it gently behind his ear where the kid still had his hand up like he were protectin' his face. Like he'd thought Shane were gonna belt him one or somethin'.

     "Sorry, kid," Shane jabbed Daryl's shoulder. Which did nothing to settle him. "Didn't mean ta scare ya," he planted himself on the bench next to Daryl. Unphased an' clueless as ever. An' that were about as good an apology as he were capable of.

     "So," Shane leaned inta Daryl hard enough to bump Rick. "Lori an' her friends got cheerleadin' tryouts after school today," he flashed his teeth. Like a wolf in a hen house. "Wanna come watch with me?" He don't even wait for an answer. "Think that one over there fancies ya a little, Rick," he pointed to Andrea Harrison.

     But, Rick don't fancy her. All blonde hair an' big smile. The blonde he fancied spendin' his time with was Daryl. Learnin' to fish. Talkin' an' bumpin' shoulders with Daryl. Makin' him laugh. Makin' him feel like he was worth somethin'. Learnin' more about his new friend.

     "You just wanna look up their skirts when they get tossed in the air," Rick sassed. "An' ya got a thing for the coach." He pointed her out in the cafe to Daryl, "Miss Daniels." Thirty goin' on sixteen the way she dressed. Showin' off her figure.

     Daryl huffed out a laugh. "Bet he'd like ta see up her skirt," he whispered in Rick's ear.

     Shane leaned over. "What makes ya think I haven't?" he bragged. Makin' obscene hand gestures an' noises to go with it.

     "Hah," Rick snickered. "Lori know that?" Might not be fallin' all over Shane if she did.

     That seemed to quiet him. Especially when Lori toyed with his hair, askin', "Do I know what?"

     Daryl squirmed in the awkward silence. "Shane was jus' sayin' he was thinkin' a tryin' out," he elbowed him.

     "Really?" Lori beamed. "With those arms I bet you'd be great," she gave him a squeeze before turning back to Sasha.

     "What?" Daryl shrugged. "Would ya rather I told her ya banged the PE teacher?"

     Shane considered it for a moment. "Guess I would have my pick of them," he grinned. Tore open his lunch bag. "I like you, Dixon," he winked at Rick. Like Rick needed his approval to be friends with him. "You can come watch tryouts, too."

     Rick took over, "We were actually goin' fishin' after school." That knocked the wind outta Shane's sails. Even though Rick ain't meant it to. But, Rick had learned Shane would recover after a good pout.

     Rick had learned a lot in high-school. Never so much as his first day of senior year. Learned what it was like to have a true friend. A friend he connected with. That had his back. And, maybe the most important thing he learned was that he was in love with Daryl Dixon.

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     Rick has always liked school. Learning. Spending time with his friends. But, for the first time he couldn't wait for it to end. Because, all he could think about was having Daryl all to himself. With no Shane jabbing his side and competing for his attention. An' no teachers shushin' them every five seconds with threats of sendin' them to the principal's office.

     It didn't help that his last class was political science. Which Rick couldn't give two shits about. Especially since he didn't have Daryl by his side. It was the longest forty-five minutes of his life listening to Mr. Horvath drone on an' on. And wondering how Daryl was getting on in shop class. Were the other kids being kind to him? Or immature dickwads like Ed Peletier? And, would Daryl remember to meet him after school?

     Rick was off like a shot as soon as the bell rang. Backpack already loaded. But, Daryl wasn't at his locker, their locker, when he stopped to offload his books. That just gave him time to empty his change into the vending machine and load up on Doritos, Hershey bars an' a Coke to share in case they didn't catch anything. And, even though he hated paying for water, he got a bottle of that, too.

     After ten minutes the parking lot was mostly empty. Even the busses were pulling out. And Rick had never felt more alone in his life. Not because everyone had gone, but because Daryl hadn't come. Something wasn't right. Couldn't be right. Rick had connected with Daryl. And Daryl seemed eager to show him the ins an' outs of fishing. Especially diggin' for their own worms.

     The thought of some kid getting Daryl in trouble enough to have to stay after had Rick tromping off across the quad ready to give the shop teacher a good talking to. The thought of some asshole jocks cornering Daryl for some kind of hazing had him wishing he'd kept his textbooks. Trigonometry was the heaviest. Could knock a fucker out cold. From behind anyway. With the element of surprise.

     His stomach churned at the thought of Daryl being hurt. Even though he'd felt his arm. His muscles. Knew he could probably take care of himself. But, for some reason Rick couldn't explain, he wanted to protect Daryl.

     His heart sank when he finally found him. Sitting on a bench with a girl. Arm around her shoulders. Carol, was it? Mousy little thing. Shy. Would not have been the one to initiate contact. Why that bothered Rick he couldn't say.

     "She won't tell me who did it," Daryl pulled a rag from his back pocket. Dabbed at the scrapes Rick only now noticed were all over her hands.

     "No one did it," Carol was shaking her head. Tears an' snot all over her face. "No one pushed me, I told you I fell."

     Rick sat down on Carol's other side. Dug out the bottled water for her. "It's alright, you can trust us," Rick soothed. About to press for more details, but Daryl cut him off.

     "I'm clumsy, too," Daryl whispered. Wiped her cheek. "Can we walk ya home er somethin'?"

   Carol seemed to shrink inside herself. "My boyfriend, Ed will. He's probably wondering where I am," she croaked. "He'll be worried."

     Not enough to come lookin' for her. "Can we-" Rick tried to speak, but Carol popped up. Spillin' the water on his lap as she fumbled for her books an' things.

     "I have to go," she clutched her bag to her chest like a shield. Ran off.

     Daryl pulled another rag out of his pocket. Dabbed at Rick's wet jeans. Every bit as gentle as he was with Carol. "She got ya good."

     "You're like a magician with those things," Rick teased. "Bet ya have one in every color." He let Daryl fuss at him. Instead of laugh and tease how he looked like he'd pissed his pants like Shane woulda done.

     Daryl shrugged. " 'F I could do magic I'd do away with fuckers that hurt people, make them assholes disappear."

     "Then why'd ya let her go without tellin' us who did it?" Rick knew it was a dumb question. Even before the words left his mouth. His dad was a cop. He'd heard stories.

     Daryl sighed. His broad shoulders somehow lookin' small. " 'Cuz most a the time tellin' jus' makes it worse at home even though people think they's tryin' ta help." His voice was quiet. And Rick couldn't tell which end of that problem Daryl had been on before. But, his heart ached just the same.

     "C'mon," Daryl stood an' offered Rick a hand up. "Them fish ain't gonna catch themselves."

     Rick took Daryl's hand. It was warm an' yielding in his. And it felt right holding another man's hand. Daryl's hand. "What about poles?" Rick finally pulled back when he noticed Daryl staring at him. Probably wondering why the fuck he ain't let go.

     "We'll have ta stop by my place 'n grab 'em," Daryl took Rick's backpack. Slung it over his shoulder as he led the way. "I live by the creek anyways."

     Having missed the bus it was a long walk to Daryl's. The houses getting further apart an' more run down as they went. But, Rick enjoyed every minute of it. Daryl was smart. An' funny. An' sassed Rick in a way that made him feel close to Daryl. Not belittled like Shane sometimes did. Shane never meant it, of course. He just didn't think sometimes.

     But, that was the thing about Daryl. He was always thinkin' of other people. Even Carol. Rick's dad was always quotin' some famous person that, the true measure of a man was in how he treats those that can do nothing for him. By all rights Daryl was a saint. Humble, too. An' his smile wasn't bad either.

     After what seemed like miles they were into the woods and Rick thought maybe Daryl forgot to swing by his place for the gear. But, they finally came to a shack that looked like it might fall over in the next wind. Covered in moss with the porch rotted out.

     "Um," Daryl stopped in front of it. "We only jus' moved in," he stared at the holes in his shoes. "Ain't had time ta fix it up er nothin'."

     Rick cringed at the thought of Daryl living here, but tried not to show it. It wasn't that he judged Daryl. Or thought less of him. It was because Daryl deserved better than this.

     "Looks fine to me," he pressed into Daryl's side. But, he wondered if it had heat or plumbing. Wondered if Daryl ever got a hot meal he hadn't had to cook himself. Over a fire. Rick's mom always made dinner. Lots of it. Surely she wouldn't mind if he brought Daryl over.

     Daryl seemed relieved Rick ain't run off. "Stuff's out back," he grabbed Rick's hand. Guided the way through the junk an' trash in the yard.

     Rick squeezed Daryl's fingers before he'd even thought that coulda spooked him into lettin' go. But, it didn't. "Do you need to introduce me to your parents first?" His mother always wanted to meet his friends, taught him manners. But, really he just wanted to make sure Daryl weren't left here on his own. Fendin' for himself.

     Daryl stopped dead in his tracks. The look on his face wide Carol's. He'd spooked him after all. But, he still didn't let go. Held onto Rick like he was never gonna let go. "Mama died when I's eight," Daryl finally said. Kicked at a beer can that looked like it had been used for target practice. "M' brother's at work an' m' old man ain't around much." He was payin' way too much attention to where that can ended up. "Down at the tavern mos' days."

     "Oh," Rick pulled Daryl close by the hand. And suddenly it all hit him. The way Daryl knew Carol hadn't just fell. The way he knew telling made it worse. And, she'd been hurt at school, but Daryl said it made it worse at home. And, I'm clumsy, too. Rick wondered what kind of asshole Daryl's father was. What bruises and marks Daryl was hiding.

     Rick had always known he was gonna be a cop. Like his dad. Like Shane's dad. But, he had never particularly wanted to. Until today. Because, he was going to do whatever it took to keep Daryl safe.

     He bent down to look Daryl in the eyes, "Then he won't mind me stealing you away all the time." And he would steal him away. Protect him. Feed him for fuck sake.

     Daryl stared into Rick's eyes. Like for once in his life he'd found someone he could trust. "I'd like that," he finally said. Not even tryin' to hide his grin. Or the way his cheeks blushed pink.

     He was beautiful like that. And Rick wanted to make him smile all the time. But, not because of what it did for him, made his mouth go dry an' his heart thud. He wanted to make Daryl smile for what it did for Daryl. The way it seemed to make him feel like maybe he was worth somethin'. Because, he was worth everything.

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     Rick hadn't realized they'd be diggin' for worms with their bare hands. On their knees in the mud by the creek. Rick's new school clothes were filthy. Almost as filthy as Daryl's had been all day. And he had dirt under his nails to match his friend. But, he'd never had so much fun in his life.

     And Daryl was beautiful in his element. The sun making his choppy blonde hair shine as he waded in the creek with his pants rolled to his calves. "Hotter'n I thought it'd be t'day," he took off his ratty black hoodie an' tossed it onto the bank. Bare arms an' shoulders exposed in the tank top he'd kept on.

     "Good thing ya brought this Coke," he bent to retrieve the can from where he had it cooling in the water. The faintest edge of a scar on his back visable under his shirt when it rode up as he squirmed to fish out the can. But, Rick pretended not to notice. Even though it broke his heart.

     "You get first drink," Daryl cracked it open. Coaxing Rick out of his trance.

     Rick stuffed the empty Dorito bags in his backpack. Rolled up his jeans. "Nah, you first." Daryl's clothes fit like hand-me-downs. Like he was used to being second. Or third. Or not thought of at all. And Rick wanted him to be first at something. Even if it was just sharing a stupid Coke.

     "Long 's ya don't mind m' cooties," Daryl sassed. Threw his head back and took a long drag.

     Rick couldn't help but be mesmerized by the way Daryl's Adam's apple bobbed as he pretended to chug the whole thing. "Don't mind a bit," Rick's mouth went dry. He wouldn't mind Daryl's cooties or anything else on him. Especially not Daryl's lips an' the gentle way they cupped the can.

     "Guess I'll let ya have the last sip," Daryl passed the Coke back. Barely short the small drink he'd actually taken.

     Brushing fingers to retrieve it made the hair on the back of Rick's neck stand up. An' maybe somethin' else, too. If he were bein' honest. But, luckily the water was shaded an' cold where he stepped in and all his blood rushed to his feet just then.

     Rick sucked on the Coke. Savoring where Daryl's mouth had been more than the cold drink. "So, how do we go about this?" It was only then he realized he had no idea how to fish. His dad was always too busy. And Shane hadn't cared for it. Probably because it didn't involve girls. Or an opportunity to show off.

     "First things first," Daryl snatched the can from Rick. Set it aside an' took Rick's hands in his. With a gentle tug he guided Rick to kneeling down to the water and went about washing his hands in the creek. He rubbed over Rick's fingers soft and careful until they came clean.

     Rick let Daryl fuss at him. Wondering how he could be so gentle after having had hate beat into him all his life. Staring over Daryl's shoulder he wanted to reach out and caress the scar he'd glimpsed earlier every bit as softly as Daryl worked his fingers.

     "Thanks," was all Rick could say. And it sounded stupid an' insufficient for the moment they'd just shared.

     "Well," Daryl pulled Rick's hands close. Wiped them dry on his tank top. An' it wasn't lost on Rick that Daryl could have just as easily used the rag he always had hanging out of his back pocket. "Can't send ya home too dirty er yer ma ain't gonna let us hang out no more."

     Rick made no move to take his hand off Daryl's chest. The heat of him through his shirt and the fact Daryl wanted to see him again making Rick's pulse race. "She won't mind," he managed to squeak out. Might be a little pissed at the mess of laundry this was gonna create. But, she'd understand.

     Daryl dipped his head. Suddenly shy again. "Yer the only person I trust ta touch m' rod," he stood an' waded out of the creek to grab a pole.

     Rick followed suit. Missing the warmth of him. The closeness. Even if he was snickering at what Daryl had just said. Shane woulda made a joke about virgins, but all Rick could think about was actually touching Daryl. And how he' it.

     "I promise I'll be gentle," Rick assured him. And he'd be gentle with Daryl, too. If he ever got the chance. He would show him that touch could be nice, comforting. Not always something to flinch away from.

     "That's what she said," Daryl was the one to make the joke. Elbowing Rick. But, not like Shane always did. It wasn't at all a joke about Rick's experience or lack there of. Just a joke. Not about Rick at all.

     Rick watched Daryl stoop to sort through lures an' shit in the rusted out tin he'd had them stored in. Wanting to bend down and get close again. If only Daryl knew how he was luring Rick. "What does the pink one catch?" he asked for lack of anything better to say.

     "Fish," Daryl teased. Standing and ruffling Rick's hair. "But worms er the best." He worked one onto the hook and it flailed. "Ya want 'em ta squirm," he gave an apologetic look. Like he'd noticed Rick wincing.

     "That's what she said," Rick shot back. Trying to pretend he could handle the worm as easily when really he wanted to puke.

     Daryl just shook his head. Pulled another worm out of the cup. "I'll do yers, too." He took his time, but soon enough Daryl was pressed into Rick's side again. Going over the gear and his preferred technique to use it. He was confident like this, but not the slightest bit cocky like Shane always was. And for someone so particular about his method he was a kind and patient teacher.

     After what seemed like forever yet not long enough of having Daryl bent over him, hands gently, carefully adjusting him to teach him to cast they settled into the bank. Shoulder to shoulder. Hip to hip. Feet and lines in the cool water.

     "Are we supposed to be quiet?" Rick whispered into Daryl's ear. Whispy bits of Daryl's hair tickling his nose.

     "Ya are 'f ya wanna eat," Daryl seemed to lean into Rick every bit as much as Rick leaned into him. "But, I like talkin' with ya."

     Rick felt a tug in his heart. Pulled back as if it had been a tug on his line instead. Something about Daryl made him feel safe. Made him feel like...himself. Made him feel so many things he couldn't understand. But, most of all Daryl made him feel complete. "I like talkin' ta you, too," he bumped shoulders with Daryl.

     They talked about everything. Even things Rick couldn't share with Shane. Like how mortified he was freshman year when some senior pantsed him in the quad. He wasn't at all confident in that department like Shane was. But, Shane was confident in everything and wouldn't understand. And all Shane wanted to talk about was himself. Or girls. Or details about banging girls. Which brought Rick to wonder about Daryl...

     "So," Rick tried to mimic the wolfish grin Shane always had when he talked about girls. But, it just made Rick realize how little he cared about Andrea's long blonde hair. Or Lori's lithe figure. All he cared about was the choppy mess of rumpled hair on Daryl's head. All he could think about was Daryl's lean figure and how he could get his mom to put some meat on him, feed him. "Ya got anyone waitin' for you back in Clearwater?"

     Daryl snorted out a laugh. "Ain't nobody got no love fer me," he dipped his head. Stared into the creek an' idly cranked his reel. "How 'bout you? Bet them girls er all crazy fer a pretty boy like you."

     Rick gushed like a fuckin' schoolgirl, "You think I'm pretty?"

     Daryl's face was red. An' not from the sun. But, he don't answer. Which was answer enough. He was quiet so long Rick thought they were gonna focus on fishin' 'til they caught dinner. But, after awhile he cleared his throat. "Ya never answered m' question."

     "I took Lori to a dance once," Rick answered truthfully. "But, she payed more attention to Shane." Like they all did. And maybe it wasn't all Shane's fault. Maybe it was because Rick hadn't payed enough attention to them. Like, all his life he'd been waiting for something special. Someone special. Like Daryl.

     "Maybe ya jus' ain't found the right one yet," Daryl's voice was soft, but his eyes were slit. Like maybe, jus' maybe he were hoping Rick had found the right one. In him.

     But, that was stupid. Why would Daryl, with his muscles an' his fishing an' hunting and arms and shoulders that could get any girl in school, want to be with a boy? Why would he want Rick? "I like this better than a stupid dance anyway," Rick offered. "I like you better, too," he left it open. For Daryl to take how ever he wanted.

     The words didn't horrify or disgust Daryl. They made him smile. That sweet smile Rick loved. The smile that said, I'm glad I'm worth somethin' to you. And...wait? Rick loved Daryl's smile? Fuck. But, he did love his smile. His gentleness. Kind heart. He did love Daryl Dixon.

     "Like you better, too," Daryl choked out. Barely a whisper. An' had Rick not been so desperate to hear it, he might not have.

     As much as Rick had come to the creek to catch fish, catch dinner, he'd caught something far more important with Daryl. Something far more precious. And as clueless as he felt about what to do next he knew he had to find his confidence. Be the kind an' patient teacher. Like Daryl had been.

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     Rick had never started a fire before. Not without a match. But, Daryl was better than any boy scout. Showin' Rick how to build a pit with rocks. The perfect wood to scavenge an' how to stack it just right. An' he never made Rick feel dumb for not knowing shit. Took his time explainin' every detail until he had started the fire. He'd started a strange fire in Rick as well. Burning in his belly.

     "Starvin'," Daryl stood an' walked to the water where their poles were jammed in the ground on the off chance they might get another bite.

     "Me, too," Rick sighed. An' not just for the fish.

     Daryl waded into the water and pulled out the string with their haul. "Think this'll do?" he waved his knife at the fish. Crouched down on the bank.

     "Looks good," Rick poked the fire with a stick. Daryl looked good, too. All broad shoulders an' arms. His choppy hair plastered to his forehead in a sticky mess of sweat.

     "We did good," Daryl nodded. Givin' Rick equal credit.

     Rick hadn't caught a single fish. But, he was pretty sure he'd caught Daryl's eye. With all the shy sideways glances. 'Course Daryl coulda just been checkin' he was usin' the right technique. But, he don't seem critical at all. Daryl don't gotta correct Rick to doing everything his way like Shane always did.

     "Ya may not wanna watch this," Daryl slit a fish with his knife. " 'F ya thought hookin' the worms was bad, this 's worse," he shrugged. "Blood an' shit."

     "Please tell me there ain't actually shit," Rick huffed out a laugh as Daryl flung fish guts off the end of his knife. Daryl don't answer, but his smirk was answer enough. "Thanks for the warnin'." And he meant it. Shane woulda snickered at Rick. Called him a pansy ass or something. But, Daryl...Daryl gave him a warnin'. Without judgement.

     "Jus' lookin' out fer ya, Grimes," Daryl grinned as Rick risked a glance in his direction.

     It was a beautiful grin, uncontained since he was unaware he was bein' watched. An' Rick took the opportunity to take in all of his friend. Study him. His arms were all muscle, but not from workin' out. More like from workin' hard. Probably just to survive. An' Rick was captivated watching him. Fish blood an' all. He was beautiful.

     "How'd ya learn all this?" Rick wondered.

     "M' brother taught me," Daryl swished his knife in the water before setting to work on another fish. " 'S what we gotta do 'f we wanna eat." He looked up all wide eyed. Like he'd let somethin' slip. "Ya know, money bein' scarce an' all."

     Money weren't the only thing scarce. Daryl'd said his father wasn't around much. At the bar mostly. Rick couldn't imagine his own dad spendin' all their money on whiskey an' leavin' him and Mom to fend for themselves. Couldn't imagine him raising a hand against him neither.

     "Ready for the sticks?" Rick asked. Mostly because he wanted an excuse to get close to Daryl again. And to change the subject so Daryl could relax thinkin' he ain't caught on.

     "Sure, almos' done here," Daryl wiped his hands on the end of his shirt. Went back to guttin' fish. "Wanna hold them sticks while I skewer 'em?" Daryl cocked his head at him. He could've just as easily done it himself. But, maybe, just maybe, Daryl wanted Rick closer, too.

     Rick walked the bundle of twigs he'd collected over to Daryl. Crouched down beside him. Thigh to thigh. It was too hot to be that close, pressed together in the heat of the day. But, it felt right. And Daryl didn't flinch away.

     Rick marveled at his skill as he continued to work. "Ya make that look so easy," he fiddled with the sticks. Unsure of how to help.

     "Ain't hard 'f ya know what yer doin', could teach ya sometime," Daryl brushed fingers with Rick. Pickin' through the twig bundle he'd brought over. "Ya found some good ones," he praised. Not even mentioning the skinny fucker he tossed over his shoulder.

     "Well, I had a good teacher," Rick blushed. An' he ain't never wanted to impress no one more than Daryl. Ain't never been so interested in learnin'.

     Daryl seemed to shrink inside himself a little. Bowed his head. Like he ain't used to bein' complimented. Rick's heart broke knowin' Daryl could probably take a hit better than than he could take kind words.

     "I wish I was as smart as you," Rick leaned in to breathe the words in Daryl's ear. Make sure he heard them. Really heard them.

     "I ain't smart," Daryl shrugged. "You'll see when we start gettin' homework."

     Rick held another stick out for another fish. "Schoolwork ain't the only way to be smart," he assured him.

     "Yeah?" Daryl looked up. Met Rick's gaze. Hopeful.

     "Yeah, I mean, ya have impeccable taste in friends," Rick sassed. "An' there's this," he waved a hand at the fish an' the fire. "Honest ta god life skills, man," he moved slowly to pat Daryl's back. And, though Daryl braced for it, he did not flinch. "Math ain't gonna feed me or keep me warm." He left his hand on Daryl. Slowly rubbed over the tank top where it stuck to his back. Over that scar he'd seen. "Fuck homework, this is way better."

     "Them story problems is the worst," Daryl seemed to actually settle at Rick's touch. "Like I give a fuck which train gets ta Chicago first," he stabbed another stick through another fish. "I ain't never goin' nowhere anyways."

     "Me neither," Rick agreed. Though, he suspected Daryl meant in life in general. "Unless it's with you." He'd go anywhere with Daryl. Or stay put. In this shit town. As long as they were together.

     Daryl bumped shoulders with him. He don't even gotta say, me, too. An' just knowin' that made Rick move closer. Until they were sharin' the same air. He reached out. Took Daryl's sticky, dirty hands in his. Lowered them into the creek to wash them. Like Daryl had done for him. And he took his time, stroking over Daryl's fingers, between each one, as gently as he could until he had removed all the blood an' guts.

     Rick could tell Daryl was holding his breath, because as close as they were he couldn't feel it tickling his neck anymore. But, it wasn't out of fear or tension. Daryl did not pull away. He let his hands go pliant in Rick's. And when Rick checked for any signs of panic or disgust on Daryl's face he saw that his eyes were closed. Like he were enjoyin' it. Or maybe he was just embarrassed at bein' shown kindness.

     Daryl only opened his eyes after Rick had used his tee shirt to dry his hands. Not a word had passed between them. Just trust. "How 'bout we get our asses over ta that fire an' cook these fuckers up?" Daryl was the one to break the silence.

     "Which one of us ya think'll get there first?" Rick teased. Makin' Daryl laugh. But, they got there together. Like they did everything. If only all those story problems worked out so easily.

     Rick enjoyed the fire. Watching Daryl stack the sticks into a teepee over the flames. He enjoyed the food. Best fish he ever had. But, most of all he enjoyed the company. Being with Daryl was easy. Comfortable. Like they belonged together. Even when there was silence it wasn't awkward. Like it always was with Shane. An' Rick did not want the night to end.

     But, when it started getting dark Daryl jumped up. Kickin' dirt over the fire. Scrambling for the gear. A bit like Carol had been with her books an' things. "Jesus, I best get ya home 'fore yer ma sends out the cavalry," Daryl stomped out the embers.

     Rick suspected the panic had more to do with Daryl's father than with Rick's mom. But, he didn't let on. Just helped pick up while Daryl went about seeing to it the fire was properly out. "Good thing ya know these woods like the back of your hand since we forgot to bring a flashlight," he shivered at the loss of heat.

     Of course Daryl noticed. Like he notices everything. "Here," he took the poles from Rick and laid them on the ground. "Take this," he held out his hoodie. Ready for Rick to slip into it. " 'S mos'ly clean," he shrugged, like offering Rick his sweatshirt when he had no sleeves himself was no big deal.

     Rick pushed his arms in. Let Daryl help him on with it. With all the holes it would barely hold heat, but it warmed him. Mostly because it was Daryl's. "Won't you get cold?"

     "Nah," Daryl bent down for the poles. And there was the scar again as his tank top rode up. " 'M used to it."

     Rick's heart sank. Daryl should never be used to being cold. Being hungry. Going without. He was kind and generous. Deserved the best of things. Not the scraps. Which he'd probably had to fight for. And Rick was going to look after him.

     "How 'bout we share?" Rick pulled one arm out, wriggled up against Daryl as he held the side of the sweatshirt open. Waiting for Daryl to slide his arm in.

     Daryl hesitated in disbelief. "Yer a funny one, Grimes," he snorted. But, Rick could hear the smile in his voice even if he could not see it in the dark. "We gonna look like we's runnin' a three-legged race," he slung an arm around Rick's waist. The heat of his palm burnin' inta Rick as he worked his other arm inta the sleeve.

     It was a tight fit, but it was nice to be close to Daryl like that. And they'd both be warm. "Ya sayin' we gotta hurry back?" Rick tripped on a twig already. But, Daryl held him steady.

     "Somethin' like that," Daryl guided Rick with his hip. "Be carryin' ya on m' back with a broken ankle 'f ya keep that up," he sassed. But, it were a promise, not teasin'.

     Rick could only hope they'd scooped up all the gear so Daryl wouldn't get in trouble. But, his sassin' an' jokes had Rick forgetting how bad things could go. Laughin' his ass off as they stumbled back to the house.

     The back porch was dark. The house dead quiet. Like ain't nobody home. Rick smelled the smoke before he heard the voice croak out, "Whatchu think yer doin' bringin' strangers 'round here, Darlena?"

     Daryl pulled out of the sweatshirt. Away from Rick. But, his hand reached out for him in the dark. Rick squeezed Daryl's fingers to reassure him. He closed the gap until he was pressed into his side. And he could only pray it was Daryl's brother an' not his old man.

Chapter Text

     The only fights Rick's ever been in were with Shane. Roughousing mostly. An' he got his ass handed to him. Every fuckin' time. But, there ain't nothin' or no one in this world he wouldn't face to protect Daryl. Even the kid's old man. An' thinkin' of the scar he'd seen under Daryl's shirt an' all of the ones he didn't have to see to know were there made him mad enough he might be able to get off one good punch. Give Daryl a chance to get away.   

     "Who the fuck ya got there?" the voice growled from the shadows. And all Rick could see were the cherry of the cigarette he were puffin' on as the man tromped down the porch steps silent as a cat.

     "Jesus, Merle, don't be an asshole," Daryl sidestepped from behind Rick. Daryl mighta been skin an' bones, but he got muscle, too. Stronger than Rick for sure. An' it looked like he were tryin' ta take the brunt of it.

     Muscle an' all don't stop Rick from wanting to protect Daryl. And he moved in front of him again. Ready to face whoever was comin' at them. Cursing himself for never taking the time to ask his dad to teach him to fight. For being so dumb as to think he'd never have to face anything worse than Shane's teasin' and shiteating grin until the day he entered the police academy.

     Rick pointed the fishing poles forward. Best weapon he could think to improvise. Might be able to get the guy's eye or something. But, Daryl grabbed all the gear outta his hands. Seemed to relax. A little. " 'S okay," he whispered ta Rick. "Jus' m' brother." But, for some reason Daryl was still trying to put some distance between him an' Rick.

     "I ain't no asshole," Merle kept to the shadows. "But, I wanna know who ya got here nosin' 'round?"

     Daryl turned back toward Merle, "Jus' a friend," he shrugged. But, his sideways glance to Rick suggested more. "Rick Grimes from school."

     Rick's mom taught him manners, but somehow, pleased to meet you, just didn't seem the right thing to say at the moment. "Daryl was teaching me how to fish," he offered. Nothin' wrong with that. He went over the inventory of their supplies in his head. Makin' sure they ain't left nothin' behind.

     Merle was a big man. All shoulders and bare arms. Stepping out of the shadows with heavy boots he'd probably like to kick up Rick's ass. "Dixons ain't got no friends," he smirked. "So's you mus' be extra friendly, Kid, ta be hangin' 'round with m' baby brother," Merle looked him up an' down. "Jesus, yer ol' man gonna whoop me good fer bringin' ya home in this state," he flicked dirt off Rick's shirt. But, his big hands were surprisingly gentle.

     "He won't mind," Rick brushed at his jeans. Stopped himself from saying, he ain't like that. "He's always sayin' I need to get my nose outta books an' get outside more." And, with Daryl he actually wanted to.

     "Gettin' outside an' gettin' outside all over ya's two dif'rnt things, boy," Merle cackled. Punchin' Rick's shoulder like they'd known each other forever. "You's a damn mess!"

     Daryl tugged on Rick's arm, the one free of the sweatshirt. "I's gonna take 'im home on m' bike," he spoke up. Jabbing his thumb at the rusted out motorcycle along the side of the house.

     "An' wake Daddy with that noisy piece a shit?" Merle huffed out a laugh. "He only jus' passed out." He stomped out the cigarette. "Best I take Friendly home in m' truck." He turned his attention back to Daryl. Ruffled his hair and pulled him into a chokehold sort of hug. But, it was playful. The way Shane always does to Rick to remind him who's stronger. "Go on inside an' grab m' jacket so's ya don't freeze ta death."

     Daryl nodded and trotted off toward the house. Slow an' careful up the porch. Slippin' through the door without a sound. It weren't lost on Rick how Daryl musta had to practice that. Or why.

     Once Daryl was inside Merle turned serious again. "Now ya listen here, Friendly," he paced around Rick. Making him turn to keep eye contact. "You's gonna hear a lotta shit 'bout Dixons 'f ya ain't already." He tugged on the sweatshirt. At first Rick thought he were gonna rip it off, but he were assisting his arm back into it. "All a it's prob'ly true," he got right in Rick's face. Chuckled like he were proud of himself. "But, ain't none a it 'bout m' baby brother, ya hear?" He zipped Rick into the hoodie. Patted his shoulders. "He's always been the sweet one."

     "He's a good kid," Rick agreed. Kind. Practically gave Rick the shirt off his back. When he ain't even got one ta spare.

     Merle folded his arms over his chest. Cocked his hip to the side. Probably givin' Rick his best dont fuck with my brother pose. "Yer a real goody two shoes, ain't ya?"

     Rick stared dumbly. Unsure how to answer. He ain't never so much as got his name on the board at school. Always got good grades. But, he cussed. Even shared a beer with Shane once. Which jus' made him wanna puke. Kind of like now. But, that were probably just nerves.

     "What I mean is," Merle ruffled Rick's hair, "you's a good kid, like Daryl."

     Rick could only hope to be half as good an' kind as Daryl. "I'm his friend and I won't ever let him down," was all he could say. An' he never meant anything more in his life.

     Daryl came out of the house with Merle's leather jacket hangin' off him. He don't say a word, but sidled up to Rick. Pressed in hip to hip. An' that said more than words ever could. Said he felt safe with Rick. Trusted him.

     "Alright, ya little shit," Merle adjusted the coat over Daryl's shoulders. "Le's get Friendly home 'fore the cops come sniffin' 'round here thinkin' they c'n add child abduction ta the list a shit Dixons done."

     Daryl led the way to Merle's truck. "We had lots a fun t'day," he perked up. Like he ain't never had fun in his whole life. He yanked on the door until it damn near fell off. Held it for Rick.

     Rick climbed in. "I learned a lot," he gushed. And not just about fishing.

     Merle got behind the wheel. Closed the door so quiet Rick weren't even sure if it latched properly. "Well, 'f there's one person who d'serves a little fun 's you, bro."

     Daryl slid into the truck. Thigh to thigh with Rick. Easing his door closed just the same. "I hope we can do it again," his fingers poked out of the long jacket sleeves searching for Rick's as soon as the cab light faded.

     "I'd like to do that every day," Rick agreed. Grinning like a fucking idiot since Daryl wouldn't be able to see his face in the dark. Or Merle.

     Merle reached out and for a second Rick thought he'd been caught. But, he moved his arm over Rick to thump Daryl's head. "Ya idiots catch anythin' er we gotta stop by Hardee's?" He cranked the engine to life. "They got a two fer one special goin'."

     Daryl squeezed Rick's fingers. Gave him a sly look. "Maybe we should get fries."

     Rick enjoyed the breeze through the broken window. Cold as it was once the sun set. The way it rustled Daryl's hair. He enjoyed the feel of Daryl against his side. And the banter between the two brothers. And all the way home he kept thinking how he could get his mom to give him extra for his lunch tomorrow so he could feed Daryl. And how his Dad could teach him to fight. Because, whatever it took, he was going to take care of Daryl Dixon.

Chapter Text

     Sharing fries with Shane almost always turned into a competition to see who could eat the most the fastest. But, with Daryl it was equal. It really was about sharing. And brushing fingers every time they reached in the bag.

     Everything about the day had been perfect. Their instant connection. The fishing and the patient way Daryl taught him. The way the sun made Daryl's hair shine. The way sweat had made Daryl's tank top stick to his chest. The way his shy smiles had turned into full on grins. Everything about this day was perfect, because everything about Daryl was perfect. And Rick did not want to say goodbye. Even for the evening.

     "That was the most fun I ever had," Rick fished around in the Hardee's bag. Making sure to grab Daryl's finger by mistake.

     "Me, too," Daryl talked through a mouthful of fries.

     Rick felt around in the bag for the smallest fries. Hoping Daryl wouldn't notice he was trying to leave him the most. "I can't wait to do this again tomorrow."

     "Whoa there, Friendly, don't go gettin' 'head a yerself," Merle jabbed him with his elbow. Stole a fry right outta his hand. "Ya don't even know 'f yer daddy gonna let ya near 'im 'gain once he finds out he's a damn Dixon."

     Daryl seemed to shrink inside himself at that. Started chewing his thumb. And Rick wanted nothing more than to have Daryl's hand back in the bag. Their greasy fingers touching. "No way," Rick reached up to rub the back of Daryl's neck. "My dad will be glad I have a friend as good and kind as Daryl."

     "Well," Merle eased the truck along the curb. Set the parking break. "Guess we'll find out."

     Daryl grabbed Rick's backpack off the floor. Slid out of the truck and held the door for him. Even offered his hand to help him down. Shane woulda been halfway to the porch by now. Instead of pressed to his side like Daryl, backpack over his shoulder. So they could go together.

     "Thanks fer what ya said back there," Daryl hung his head. Stared at the holes in his shoes like they was the most fascinatin' thing.

     Rick pressed in closer as they walked to the door. "I meant it, Daryl." Every word.

     Daryl was beautiful in the porch light. Cheeks as pink as cotton candy. And not from all the sun they'd gotten earlier. He was blushing. "I ain't never had a friend b'fore," he passed Rick his bag. Looked at his shoes again. "But, man, ya's worth the wait." And with that he turned to go. Like a cat when it's spooked.

     "Daryl," Rick called him back. Catching his hand and spinning him into a hug. It was awkward at first. Like Daryl didn't know how to be held. And it broke Rick's heart. But, after a second he relaxed under Rick's touch. The heat of him warmed Rick. But, not as much as the way Daryl finally let his body mold to Rick's. Or the way his hair still smelled like their campfire. "I'll see you tomorrow," he breathed the words into Daryl's ear like a promise.

     Daryl pulled back. Hesitantly. Like maybe, just maybe, he'd wanted the contact to last forever. Like Rick did. "See ya, Grimes," he skipped down the steps. Climbing into the truck and clanging the door closed. It was not lost on Rick how silently the brothers had done that back at the shack. Or why.

     They pulled off into the night with a wave. Leaving Rick feeling empty. Like half of him was gone. With nothing left of Daryl, but his sweatshirt. And the strange warm feeling it gave him. Like nothing Rick had ever felt before.

     Rick slipped in the front door as quiet as he could. Because it was late, not out of fear. He pulled off his boots and left them in the hall to minimize the mess he was going to make. Wondering how many times Daryl had done the same. For different reasons.

     "Mom," he caught sight of her at the kitchen table. "I had the best day," he padded over to her.

     Rick's mom tugged on his dirty shirt. "I can see that," she gave him a kiss on the forehead. And Rick wondered if Daryl's mom had ever done the same when she was alive.

     "Sorry I'm late," he poured his mom another coffee. Knew she was waiting up for his dad to get home from work. "Didn't mean ta make ya worry," he offered. Wondering if anyone ever worried about Daryl. Like he was worrying now.

     His mom shook her head, "Shane stopped by and told me you were with the Dixon boy." She sipped her coffee like she was choosing her words carefully. "Do you know what I heard about him?"

     Rick's heart sank as he remembered Merle's words. Yer gonna hear a lotta shit 'bout Dixons. But, Daryl wasn't like that. Didn't deserve the shame of his family. "Mom," he tried to interject. But, she patted his knee and waved him off. He let her finish, because he knew he could explain the truth to her and she'd understand. Because, she was good and kind like Daryl.

     "You know old Mrs. Connelly from over by Fir Street? The one ain't got no one to take care of her?" His mom waited for him to nod. 'Course he knew her. Stubborn old lady. Don't like no one. "She ran into Daryl on the way home from the market, thought that boy was gonna knock her down an' run off with her purse on account of he looked homeless," she snickered.

     "But," Rick tried to stop her. But, she put her fingers to his lips to hush him. Like she used to do when he was little an' pitchin' a fit.

     "But, do you know what he did?" She don't even wait for an answer. Even though she let her fingers slip away from his face. "He walked her home and carried her groceries even though he lives miles in the other direction."

     Rick's heart swelled with pride. "He's a good kid."

     "Wouldn't take a thing for his troubles neither," his mom grinned. "She finally twisted his arm inta takin' a cold Coke for the walk home." She finished her coffee. "That oughta teach her not to judge a book by its cover, don't ya think?"

     Rick gushed, "I really like him." Probably more than he should. More than was decent. "We should have him for dinner some time." His mom could put ten pounds on Daryl easy.

     "Any time you want," his mom agreed. "Now you get on up to bed, got school again tomorrow," she patted his head and dirt fell out. "Shower first," she winked.

     Rick ran upstairs and stripped down. Jumped in the shower. He scrubbed away the dirt and somehow it felt like he was washing Daryl away, too. He felt a pang of need for Daryl to be at his side. Laughed out loud at the thought of them naked in the shower together. But, the thought made him hard.

     He washed quickly. Before he could give in to the temptation to relieve the pressure by touching himself. And thinking of Daryl. Because, that would mean...that would mean he was turning into Shane and thinking with his dick. Or...he was in love with Daryl. Not just his heart, his kindness. But, his blue eyes and broad shoulders. The mole on the side of his lip.

     Daryl was a part of him. Felt more natural at his side than Rick's own arm. And he did not want to ruin things by wanting what he could not have. Daryl was his friend and he would give him everything. And ask nothing in return. So he tried to ignore the thoughts, the feelings, creeping into his heart.

     After he dried off and got into his boxers he rifled his dresser for a sweatshirt to bring Daryl. So he could keep his. That's when he saw the light flashing from Shane's window next door. Their signal everyone had gone to bed and it was safe to use the walkie talkies. Rick picked up the flashlight on his nightstand. Signaled back.

     "Glad ta see ya got home okay," Shane's voice crackled over the radio.

     Rick held his walkie close to speak quiet. "Sorry we ditched you." And he did feel bad. But, being with Daryl felt right. Felt a lot of things Rick couldn't understand. "Did ya make the cheerleadin' squad?" He huffed. Imagining Shane tossin' girls into the air so's he could look up their skirts.

     "Naw, man," came Shane's reply. "But, I got me a date with Lori," he gloated. Silence for a second. "Listen, man, it's okay ya did your own thing today. I mean, I got Lori now got Daryl."

     Rick held his breath. Did Shane know? But, he could not speak. Could not deny it. And even if he did Shane would know it was a lie. And, while there were things he could not tell Shane, he never lied. Not ever.

     "You're still my brother," Rick finally spoke through the lump in his throat. It's just that Daryl was so much more.

     "Always, man," Shane called back. "Family."

     "Goodnight, Brother," Rick signed off. And crawled into bed. He set his alarm for ten minutes earlier than normal. So he could make an extra sandwich to bring for Daryl. Then he lay down wondering if Daryl got a hot shower. If he was tucked into bed, warm. And for the first time he understood, truly understood why his mom always waited up for Dad. Why she could not sleep until she knew he was safe.

Chapter Text

     Rick lived in Daryl's sweatshirt. It became a part of him. Like Daryl. And Rick loved everything about it. The frayed cuffs, the holes. It was worn around the edges, but it was soft and beautiful. Comfortable. Like Daryl.

     Rick spent every day after school fishing with Daryl. And the rest of the week passed quickly. Without incident. Except for on Friday when Rick's mom had caught on to the extra sandwiches he'd been getting up early to make.

     But, she never said a word about it. That wasn't her way. She just set Rick's alarm back to normal and watched him scramble into the kitchen to find she'd packed him two already. And two bags of Cheetos. But, only one Coke, because that shit rots your teeth and they could just share that.

     Daryl had loved the meatloaf sandwich. It was far better than the peanut butter and jellies Rick was capable of. Yet, somehow Daryl had preferred those. Maybe because they came from Rick. But, the meatloaf was good enough Daryl wasn't so scared about meeting Rick's mom. Or staying over for the whole weekend since Merle agreed to cover for him. And Daryl couldn't stop talking about the fried chicken and mashed potatoes he was promised.

     But, the one thing Daryl wouldn't talk about was shop class. Probably because Ed Peletier was a dickwad and was giving him trouble. Probably the same kind of trouble he gave Carol. It was Daryl's last class of the day and he was quiet on the bus. Fidgeting with the hood strings on the sweatshirt Rick had given him in trade for his old one. 'Course, Daryl coulda just been embarrassed he had nothin' to bring for a sleepover. No clean clothes.

     Rick just pressed into Daryl's side for the ride. Didn't press him to talk. Spent the time going over all the things his dad had just managed to teach him that week about fighting bigger guys. Like pressure points to take them down quick. Because, Rick knew he might have to knock some sense into Ed someday. With a swift right hook. Or a twist to his wrist.

     "Here we are," Rick finally said as the bus came to his stop. He slid out of the seat and offered a hand to Daryl.

     Daryl took it. Squeezing gently. Let Rick help him up. "Wow, this street looks even fancier in the daylight," Daryl slung the backpack over his shoulder as he came down the bus steps. "I ain't dressed fer this neighborhood," he hung his head. Pulled the hood strings again. "I mean, 'cept fer this." Only thing he had on ain't got no holes in it.

     "Ya belong here, Daryl," Rick wrapped his arm around Daryl's shoulders. Pullin' him close. He belonged with Rick. "Besides, once my mom meets ya, she'll expect ya for dinner every night." She'll put a few pounds on him. Make those hand me downs actually fit.

     "Pfff," Daryl blushed. Kicked at a pebble. He stopped short of the porch. Fished something out of his pocket. "I, uh...made this in metal shop," he handed it to Rick like it was nothing more than pocket lint.

     Rick turned it over in his hands. It was a tin star. Sheriff's badge. Even had a pinback soldered to it. And it was inscribed, Sheriff Grimes. King County's finest friend. Rick's eyes stung with tears and he could not speak through the lump in his throat. It was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever given him. Most thoughtful. And all he could do was shove it back in Daryl's hands and beg him to pin it on him. Which he hoped he took as thanks enough since he wasn't fit for proper words at the moment.

     Daryl's fingers were gentle searching out the perfect spot on the old sweatshirt. A place with no holes. Even though it had been his for so long he probably knew every inch by heart. But, Rick hoped that maybe Daryl had just wanted the contact.

     Daryl was careful not to stick Rick as he secured the badge to the hoodie. His hair tickling Rick's nose as he worked. "Yer gonna be a good cop, Grimes," he patted Rick's chest. Over his heart. "The kind that helps old ladies cross the street an' shit."

     Rick thought back to his mom's story about Daryl walking an old lady home. Miles out of his way. "I hope so," Rick stared into Daryl's eyes. Savoring the hope and trust there. Though, the kind of cop he most wanted to be was the one to keep Daryl safe.

     "C'mon," Rick slipped his hand between the book bag and Daryl's back. Over where he knew the scar he had seen before was. Gently guiding him up the porch steps. "Let me introduce ya," he threw the front door open and they were hit with the smell of fried chicken and biscuits.

     "Damn," Daryl sucked in the smell of food. Slipped off his shoes. Probably out of habit. To be quiet. To hide.

     Rick made no mention of it. Did the same and slid the backpack off Daryl. Leaving it on the floor. Homework could wait. "Mom, we're home," he called to her. Leading Daryl to the kitchen by the hand. And it felt good to say we and home.

     "There's my boy," Rick's mom kissed his forehead as she shooed him back from the chicken spattering in the skillet.

     Daryl looked small hunching over. Chewin' his thumb. But, he did not let go of Rick's hand. He bowed his head as Rick's mom put her hands slowly on his shoulders like she knew to do otherwise would have spooked him. "And this fine young man must be the Daryl Dixon I keep hearin' so much about."

     "Yes, ma'am," Daryl mumbled around his thumb. But, he don't look up.

     Rick's mom leaned in to give Daryl a kiss on the forehead, too. Pausing only slightly when she noticed him scrunching up his eyes and shoulders like he was bracing for a hit. "Well, Daryl," she shoved a fresh biscuit oozing butter and honey at him, "I sure hope you two have worked up an appetite at school today."

     "Yes, ma'am," Daryl said again. Like he didn't know what else to say.

     Rick swooped in to rescue him. Added another biscuit to Daryl's plate before easing him into a chair at the kitchen table. Nudging him to signal it was okay to start eating. "Look what Daryl made me," Rick puffed out his chest. Showed off his badge. Grabbed a biscuit for himself.

     "My that is a fine badge," his mom admired it properly before serving Daryl two large pieces of chicken and placing the bowl of mashed potatoes in front of him. "Looks like it was made with a lot of love."

     Daryl turned red as a tomato. And Rick weren't sure if it were because his mom had praised his work or because she said it was made with love. "Weren't nothin'," Daryl shrugged.

     "It's everything," Rick beamed. Bumpin' shoulders. And he would forever be proud of it. More so than the badge he'll get when he graduates from the Academy next year. Because, this badge signified Daryl's trust and friendship. To what ever end Daryl loved him, friend or possibly more, it was genuine. Special.

     "Eat up, boys," Rick's mom ruffled Daryl's hair. "Your dad ain't gonna make it home 'til late and I don't want any of this to go to waste," she smiled. Knowing full well he weren't gettin' off his patrol until two in the morning.

     Rick pulled up a chair next to Daryl. Scooted in thigh to thigh as he served up a mountain of potatoes for Daryl before serving himself. "Don't worry, we'll finish it," he sassed.

     Daryl had already wolfed down a piece of chicken and a biscuit. Sucking his fingers noisily. "Been a long time since I got ta eat a dinner I ain't had ta catch er shoot first." Or cook himself, but he don't say that part. "Thanks, ma'am," he went to work on the potatoes.

     "Any time, dear," Rick's mom smiled at Daryl. "Rick told me all about how you are teachin' him to fish."

     "Taught," Daryl talked through a mouthful. "He's a quick learner."

     Now Rick was blushing. Like a fuckin' schoolgirl. "I'm still workin' my way up to guttin' 'em."

     "You'll get there, Rick," Daryl praised. And kind words came so easily for someone who'd only ever had hate beat into him.

     "More potatoes?" Rick's mom plopped another spoonful onto Daryl's plate before he could answer.

     "Just make sure to save room for dessert," Rick tried to slow him down before he got a stomach ache. Probably the most he'd eaten all week.

     "I hope you're not allergic to strawberries," Rick's mom patted Daryl's hand. "I thought we could make shortcakes with the extra biscuits."

     Daryl moaned with pleasure as he scarfed down his first home cooked meal in god knows how long. And the sound went straight to Rick's dick. Makin' him wonder what other sounds he could get out of Daryl someday. But, for now the priority was feeding Daryl properly. Without letting him get sick.

     By the time dinner was over Daryl had opened up more. Sassed Rick in front of his mom, even. That way he did that was almost...flirty? And though he seemed at ease, he still had the pinkest blush to his ears and cheeks that made Rick want to devour him more than any shortcake.

     "I'll do the dishes," Daryl said when his plate was empty. "Jus' gi'me a minute so's I c'n stand up," he rubbed his belly where it poked out. "Ain't never ate so much in m' life."

     "You're our guest, dear," Rick's mom patted Daryl's shoulder as she started clearing the table. "Why don't you boys just go out and enjoy the nice night?"

     Rick hoisted Daryl up. "My back yard ain't as nice as bein' in the woods, but we got a porch swing an' sweet tea," he smiled at Daryl's yawning. "We could just sit and wait for the stars to come out."

     "Sounds nice," Daryl followed Rick to the screen door. Makin' sure it closed silently instead of clangin' shut like it always did.

     Rick sat down on the porch swing. Grinning when Daryl settled down next to him, burrowing in like a cat seeking warmth. "You ever wish on a star?" Rick looked up at the sky, still too bright to see any. Though, he had never wished on any star in the sky as hard as he was wishing on the one pinned to his chest.

     Daryl's only answer was a soft snore in his ear. His head heavy on Rick's shoulder. "Well," Rick pressed a kiss to Daryl's mess of hair, "all mine came true the day I met you."

Chapter Text

     Daryl must have slept two hours at least. Tucked into Rick's side like he belonged there. And Rick held him. The way such a sweet boy deserves to be held. Protected. Wrapping his arm around Daryl's shoulders and using his other hand to stroke Daryl's hair while he kept the porch swing gently swaying.

     There were still no stars in the sky to wish on. But, in that moment Rick had everything he could ever want. Daryl was safe and close. Properly fed. And the only star that mattered was pinned to Rick's chest.

     When Daryl finally stirred he didn't even seem embarrassed to have been so close, so intimate. To have had his face buried in Rick's neck. Lips pressed to his skin. He just sat up, stretched and patted Rick's shoulder where his head had just been. "Hope I didn't put yer arm ta sleep," was all he said about it.

     "Looked like ya needed a good sleep," was all Rick could think to say. And it broke his heart to think why. He let his arm slide off Daryl's shoulders and down his back. Because, to leave it there now Daryl was awake would have just been awkward. Wouldn't it? Though, Daryl gave no indication he minded in the slightest as Rick searched his face for any sign on his feelings about it.

     "Yo," Shane broke Rick's concentration. Slipping through the loose fence board between their yards. Like he always did. "I just talked to Lori," he had a wolfish grin. "Gonna pick her up and drive out ta the quarry." He cut across the grass like he was mowing it with his boots. Pleased with himself.

     "Ain't that where kids go ta make out?" Daryl sassed. Jabbing Rick with his elbow and making kissy faces at Shane.

     "There's gonna be a bonfire, too," Shane insisted. And drinking. But, he don't say that part. "Most of the cheerleaders will be there, wanna come?" He flashed a sly smile, "Bet there's a hot blonde who'd wanna make out with you in the back seat, Rick."

     "Andrea?" Rick huffed. He looked to Daryl. His choppy blonde hair sticking out every which way after laying on it. His blue eyes still blurry with sleep. And he could not think of anyone more beautiful. Anyone else he'd want to make out with in the back seat. Daryl's lips had a softness to them, even as they were set into a pout at the mention of Andrea. Was he jealous?

     "Told ya I don't want Andrea," Rick waved Shane off. And Daryl seemed to settle at that. His lips might have even turned up into the slightest grin. Either way Rick wanted to taste them. Feel them. With his own lips.

     "Shit," Shane kicked at the ground. "Gonna be a lotta people there, man. It'll be fun," he scrubbed a hand over his head. "You two comin' or not?"

     Rick and Daryl snickered in unison, "That's what she said." But, Shane didn't get their joke, or maybe he just didn't find it funny. Or maybe it just bothered him that Rick and Daryl had their own jokes, like Rick used to have with Shane.

     Daryl seemed to catch on to that. Choked back his laughter. "Sure, we'll come, man," he surprised Rick with his answer. "If only ta be yer chaperone," he punched Shane's arm.

     "Great," Shane seemed relieved. Like maybe he'd missed having Rick around as much even if he had Lori. "Meet you in my driveway in five?"

     Rick couldn't stifle a sigh. He'd wanted to spend his time with Daryl. Not fighting off cheerleaders Shane might push his way. But, that was probably selfish. Maybe Daryl would want to chat up a few girls. The thought had Rick running over excuses in his head. But, Shane took off before he could put up a fuss.

     "You sure about this?" Rick stared at his shoes. Envisioning his night consisting of watching the girls all fawn over Daryl. Stealing him away. And while Daryl deserved to be happy, to be loved, none of those girls were worthy of his kind heart.

     "Sure," Daryl layed back on Rick's shoulder. Almost as close as he'd gotten in sleep. "'Sides, they got rabbits up there an' I bet I c'n teach ya ta snare one with nothin' but yer shoe laces."

     Rick felt all his apprehension drain away. Daryl had wanted the same thing. An evening together. Just the two of them. "Ya think?" Rick studied his laces. Unable to control the smile on his face.

     "I know," Daryl patted Rick's knee. "Ya think they'll mind 'f we cook it up over that bonfire, though?"

     "Who cares?" Rick squeezed Daryl close. "Let's do it anyway." He didn't care what the rest of them thought or did. As long as he could spend the night getting to learn more from Daryl. Learn more about him.

     "So..." Daryl was staring at his shoes now. Chewin' his thumb. "How come ya don't like Andrea?"

     "I don't know," Rick shrugged. And it was the truth. She was pretty enough. Nice enough. And popular. He should like her. But, he didn't. "Guess I just don't know her is all." And he had no draw to get to know her either. "If I kiss somebody I gotta mean it, gotta know an' trust 'em." Like he knew and trusted Daryl. "Gotta be friends first."

     "Yeah," Daryl agreed. "Best friends," he tapped the badge on Rick's chest. Blushed pink.

     Did he mean what Rick hoped he meant? King County's finest friend. Did Daryl mean he'd kiss Rick? His heart fluttered at the thought of feeling the warmth of Daryl's lips. Tasting the strawberries from earlier. Breathing the same air. Taking in whatever Daryl would give him and giving Daryl back all of himself. Sharing a kiss. Like they shared everything else.

     "C'mon," Daryl stood. Patted his pocket. "Merle gave me a couple a bucks, maybe we could stop fer ice cream first."

     "As long as he thinks it will score him points with Lori he'll do anything," Rick laughed. Shane was all about wooing women. Bribing them was more like it. "Ice cream is a perfect date."

     Daryl bit his thumb to bleeding. "I ain't got no game, but I hear the soft serve at the Tastee Freeze is real good."

     "They got a cone a mile high," Rick gushed. And suddenly he really wanted one even after the chicken and biscuits. But, more than that he wanted Daryl to experience it. Daryl deserved a bit of frivolousness and not always just getting by. Barely at that, by the looks of him.

     "My treat then," Daryl beamed. Proud he could do something for Rick. Like he didn't realize every little thing he did breathed new life into Rick. Stirred feelings in him he'd never felt before.

     Rick looked back at the house, "Let's let Mom know." And he liked talking about her like they shared her. And he knew they did.

     Of course Rick's mom was okay with them going out on a Friday night. Even though the only elaboration was to say they were going rabbit hunting. She trusted Rick. And she trusted Daryl. She did however agree Shane needed looking after and that ice cream was a good idea.

     Rick slid into the back seat. Leaving the door open for Daryl, he scooted all the way over. Behind Shane. "Daryl and I are gonna hunt rabbits," he buckled himself in. Smiling as Daryl climbed in and crawled over to take the middle seat. Pressed up to Rick's side instead of all the way against the other door.

     Shane whistled as he started the car. "You best be careful in them woods, ya might wander upon some couple doin' the..." he banged on the steering wheel suggestively, biting his lip and grunting like an animal. "Doin' a sexual act." And Rick knew he meant him and Lori. "Might be goin' at it like rabbits," he chuckled at his own joke.

     "Yer the ones need ta be careful," Daryl snickered as they pulled in to Lori's house a few streets over. And his fingers brushed past Rick's as Daryl moved to look out Rick's window. They remained touching even as Daryl sat back. Like it was the most natural thing. And really, it was.

     Shane hopped out and hooted and hollered and fawned all over the girl as he helped her in the car. His noisy greeting making Daryl flinch beside Rick. "That's how m' brother flirts," Daryl whispered inta Rick's ear. Makin' him shiver. "He's had The Clap last longer'n mosta his relationships," he shook his head.

     Rick swiveled his head, finding himself face to face with Daryl. Lips almost touching. And it was not lost on him that that had not made Daryl flinch. "Real smooth aren't they?" He breathed the words into Daryl like he was giving him mouth to mouth.

     The hollering continued as Shane peeled out. Jarring their faces apart and back against the seat. And as much as Shane probably wanted to use the rear view mirror to try to look down Lori's blouse he spent most of his time watching Rick and Daryl in the back seat when he could spare a glance.

     But, Rick was sure Shane could not see their hands. Still entwined. At least he did not say a word about it. Though, it would have been hard to get a word in edgewise with Lori going on and on about cheerleading practice.

     Finally Shane pulled in to the Tastee Freeze. "Daryl suggested a pit stop," he made it sound like they were stopping at a gas station to take a piss. "You mind?" He slid his hand up Lori's thigh. She ain't got her cheerleadin' uniform yet, but her skirt was just as short.

     "I'd love to," Lori beamed. Bounding out of the car to make Shane chase her. 'Course he followed. Pinning her from behind and kissing her neck until she squealed once he caught up to her in line.

     "That what love is?" Daryl squeezed Rick's hand. "Coppin' feels an' shit?"

     "Nah," Rick slid out of the car. Held the door for Daryl. "I think love is trust and kindness. Like friends, but more."

     Daryl took his place at Rick's side once he was out of the car. "That's sure what I'd want it ta be," he followed Rick up to the line.

     "For you, my lady," Shane made a show of presenting Lori with her cone. Which of course she ate up. More than the ice cream. "Damn this was a good idea," he went to work wolfing down his own ice cream.

     When Daryl had gotten their order and turned away from the window, dripping mile high cone in hand, he made an exaggerated bow. "For you, good sir," he snickered. Imitating Shane. "I's gonna offer ya the first lick, but it kinda melted a little," he looked down at the spot on his shoe. Ears pink as he held the lopsided monstrosity out to Rick.

     Rick leaned in for a taste. Putting his hand over Daryl's to steady the cone. The ice cream was sweeter than it had ever been somehow. Perhaps because Daryl had bought it for Rick. Or maybe it was that Rick was putting his lips where Daryl's had been. It might not have been a kiss, but it made him feel closer to Daryl just the same.

     "Look at them sharing," Lori whined and elbowed Shane. "Why didn't we do that?" She pouted.

     Shane deflated like a tire with a slow leak. "Those two share everything," he jabbed his ice cream in her face, but she didn't take the bait.

     "Shoving it in my face after the fact isn't sharing," Lori stomped off back to the car.

     Rick wanted to add that shoving his dick in her wasn't love either, but he kept silent. When he caught Daryl's eye Daryl winked as if he'd understood his every thought. Without Rick even having to speak it.

     "Well," Shane tossed his half finished ice cream in the trash can. "Guess I better go fix things."

     But, that's just it. Love ain't about having to fix things. Love was being considerate in the first place. Love was always thinking of the other person and their needs. Love was sharing. Not because you had to or were supposed to, but because you wanted to. Love was everything Rick had with Daryl. If only he could tell him that.

Chapter Text

     Daryl had enjoyed eating the mile high ice cream every bit as much as paying for it. Even if it was almost enough to make them sick. Rick had enjoyed the smile on Daryl's face and bumping noses as they raced to eat the thing before it melted all over their shoes. And there was a moment Rick's tongue brushed Daryl's making him giggle a girly sort of sound that made Rick's stomach flop. More than the mountain of ice cream had after dinner and shortcake.

     Once they piled back into the car Daryl pulled the end of his tee shirt out from under his hoodie and wiped his sticky hands, careful not to get any ice cream on the sweatshirt Rick had given him. Like he treasured it. "Mine's already dirty," he shrugged, offering the end of his shirt up to Rick as well.

     Rick accepted the offer if only to get closer to Daryl. Brush his fingers against his bare belly. Feel the heat of him. "We're both gonna be dirty after rabbit hunting," he flashed a smile.

     Shane paced outside the car. Pleading with Lori. And it took awhile for him to convince her to get back in after their fight over the ice cream. When the two of them finally climbed into their seats Rick could tell her lipstick was smeared and her hair was a mess. So, really Shane's idea of fixing things was pawing at her until she forgave him. Not really an apology at all. But, then what those two had wasn't really love either.

     Rick couldn't imagine treating Daryl like that. Hurting Daryl's feelings, even unintentionally, would hurt Rick. He would certainly apologize. With words. And talk it out. Make sure Daryl was okay. Instead of grope him until the slight was forgotten in the heat of the moment. Glossed over like it never even mattered at all.

     Rick and Daryl said nothing the rest of the way to the quarry. Not with words. But, they communicated just the same. With sideways glances and gentle hand squeezes every time Shane and Lori verged on another arguement. Saying to each other, I will never treat you like that. And, I know.

     By the time Shane had pulled in to a spot overlooking the water it was almost dusk and there were a lot of cars. And a lot of people milling about. The girls were gathering wood from close by while the guys stacked it for the bonfire and argued about how to do it best while chugging beers.

     Rick helped Daryl out of the car while Shane abandoned Lori to put his two cents in about the fire. "Bet you could show them a thing or two," Rick bumped shoulders with Daryl. Proud. But, the thing is, Daryl didn't have to show them anything. Didn't have to prove he was better like Shane always did. And that was one of the many reasons Daryl truly was better.

     "They ain't worth the time," Daryl bowed his head. Trying to hide the way he was blushing pink. "They's jus' doin' it ta impress them girls." Puffin' out their chests like some damn mating ritual. "Only one thing I wanna catch." And Rick hoped to God it was him as Daryl kicked at a rock and bit his thumb. Suddenly shy. "Gonna teach ya ta snare a rabbit."

     Lori spotted Andrea and ran to her. Probably to gossip about her fight with Shane. But, it was not Shane that Andrea looked at. It was Rick. And he got a sick feeling as he realized Lori might try to set her up with him. Because, Rick was not interested in the soft curves of Andrea's hips or boobs. Or her smile. The only curves Rick cared about were not soft at all, and they were hidden under the sleeves of Daryl's sweatshirt.

     "Over here," Shane called to them, inviting them to join him.

     But, Daryl hung back. Avoiding the raucous crowd and watching the fire starting fiasco with awe. With his hands in his pockets his shoulders jutted out and showed just how broad they were. He was beautiful like that. And Rick was drawn to him. Wanted him.

     But, not to ravage him in the grass like Shane was going to do with Lori. Rick wanted to take his time with Daryl. Taste him. Breathe him in. Touch every inch of his skin. Every scar he did not have to see to know was there. Caress him soft and careful. Show him love and kindness.

     But, for now he settled for sticking to Daryl's side. Ready to ward off anyone who might fuck with him. "They got more wood than they know what to do with," Rick huffed as the stack kept getting bigger.

     "Yeah, but 's the wood in their pants them girls gotta worry 'bout," Daryl snorted.

     Shane came back with a six pack. And a sly grin. "Here, have your own," he slapped a cold beer into each of their hands before shoving the rest at Rick. "You two ain't gotta share everything." And it weren't meant as a dig for making him look bad with Lori. More like friendly teasing.

     "Thanks," Rick choked on a sip. It was bitter and horrible at first. But, he could not help wonder how much better it would taste if he were sharing with Daryl. How it would taste on Daryl's lips.

     "Listen," Shane punched Daryl's arm. It was his way of being brotherly, including him, but it still made Daryl flinch a little. "I got plenty of blankets and flashlights in the trunk if you, uh..." he took a swig of beer. "Ya know, if either of ya decide ya wanna hook up or somethin'." It seemed like he wanted to say more about it. But, he don't.

     He just jabbed Rick's chest with his beer bottle. Loudly tapping on the badge Daryl had made him. "Rick's got keys ta my car if ya need anthing." With that Shane turned on his heel and tromped off back to the crowd. Hooting and hollering until he was the center of attention as he lit a match and dropped it into the fire.

     Rick looked to Daryl who was transfixed on Andrea. Daryl was either suddenly very interested in her or willing her to stay the fuck away from Rick. He couldn't tell which. But, he wished on his tin star that it was the latter. And he breathed a sigh of relief when she waved and Daryl did not return it. Neither did Rick. They just swigged beer nervously. Staring at their shoes.

     "Ya know they're just gonna get louder and more obnoxious the more they drink," Rick huffed. Acutely aware that Daryl had probably already learned this lesson the hard way from his father.

     "Usually the way it works," Daryl shrugged and kicked at a rock.

     Rick did not want any part in it. Would not let Daryl suffer through any part of it. He pulled out his keys. Opened Shane's trunk. "I know what I wanna do," he grabbed a blanket and flashlight. Noticing the way Daryl's face changed. Like he was bracing for disappointment. Heartbreak? Like he really thought Rick might chose Andrea over him.  "That rabbit ain't gonna snare itself. Ya with me?"

     Daryl choked on his breath. Relieved? "Hell yes," he took the flashlight. And though he did not say it with words, the way he melted into Rick's side said, always.

     Rick let Daryl take the lead down the embankment toward the water. He was a patient guide. Using the flashlight to take a step down, then pointing the beam back up the bluff to light Rick's path. And they slowly picked their way down hand in hand.

     Rick only slipped once. But, the strength in Daryl's arm as he caught him and held him to his chest panting made Rick want to lose his footing over and over again. He would fall a thousand times into those arms. Truth be told he had already fallen for Daryl Dixon. Hard.

Chapter Text

     The embankment was steep and full of loose rocks. And the water was further down than either of them had anticipated. But, they kept pace together. Hand in hand. Steadying each other. Only stopping to remove their sweatshirts and tie them around their waists as they worked up a sweat. And Rick was careful to make sure his badge was still securely in place.

     "Don't even wanna think 'bout the climb back up," Daryl shined the flashlight up the cliff and followed the path of a loose rock sliding down. Gripping Rick's shoulder tightly with his free hand so Rick wouldn't slide down just the same.

     Rick wiped sweat from his brow. Fought the urge to do the same for Daryl. But, in the end he gave in and did it anyway, because Daryl deserved the kindness. The gentle touch. And Daryl did not flinch away. Even in the dark when he did not see Rick's hand moving for him. Because, he trusted Rick. Which made Rick's heart swell. Because, he knew Daryl did not give his trust easily. And Rick would forever do his best to be worthy of it.

     "Maybe we can send up a flare and have Shane drive down to get us," Rick teased.

     Daryl huffed out a laugh. "No shit this place has a road down ta it?" He pinched at Rick's side. "We are definitely takin' the road back up," he sassed. Snagged Rick's hand and started climbing down again.

     By the time they got to the water Rick's heart was racing. But, not from the descent. It was all Daryl. His arms. His chest. The sweet way he guided Rick by the hand. The way the moon had turned him into a silhouette of arms and broad shoulders. He was beautiful. And kind. And Rick wanted so badly to tell him that.

     "Lost too much light ta hunt rabbits now," Daryl sighed, still squeezing Rick's hand as the water lapped at their shoes, almost invisible in the dark. "Don't think I could eat no more anyways."

     "That was a lot of ice cream," Rick grinned. But, Daryl had deserved the frivolous splurge of it. The chance to overdo it for once. Instead of going without all the damn time. "Besides, ya better save room for breakfast tomorrow." Rick knew his mom would feed Daryl proper again.

     "Ya think she'd mind makin' waffles?" Daryl asked softly. Hesitantly. Like he was used to having his wants and needs go unheard. Or uncared for. "Always liked waffles," he pressed into Rick's side.

     Rick knew his mom would do anything for Daryl, but he'd figure out how to make them himself if he had to. "Sure she will," he assured him. One way or another Daryl was getting waffles.

     Daryl kicked at a rock and chewed his thumb. Like he does when he retreats inside himself. "Sometimes when I's a kid an' Merle would get extra money from side jobs an' shit he'd wake me up early like we's goin' huntin', but drive me out ta the Waffle House instead." Rick didn't have to see Daryl to know he was smiling at the memory. Probably the only fond memory he had. "We'd have us a hot breakfast, hot coffee an' jus' talk fer hours."

     "Sounds nice," Rick pressed into Daryl's side. "Sounds like Merle is a good brother." And Rick was glad for it. Because, he could not bear the thought of Daryl alone in that house with his father.

     Daryl was still looking out over the darkness of the water. "'Course when we came back empty handed m' ol' man were always pissed," he trailed off. "Merle always took a couple a whacks fer it."

     Rick had liked Merle. Known Merle had to have had the scars, too. But, to know he had taken a few hits for Daryl made Rick like the man even more. "Daryl," Rick pulled him close, but he did not know what to say. Not with words. So he let his arm around Daryl's shoulders, his hand stroking through his hair, speak for him.

     "Shouldn't a told ya that," Daryl breathed his words out like they'd choked him. "But, I trust ya."

     "You can always trust me, Daryl," Rick squeezed his shoulders. He remembered Daryl telling him about Carol and how people interfering, trying to help, always made it worse at home. Rick would never do anything to make it worse for Daryl. Ever.

     And Daryl did not pull away from Rick even as the hooting and hollering from up above echoed through the canyon. Making Daryl shudder. "Listen ta them fools up there with that fire," he snorted. "Gonna burn the whole place down ta the ground."

     Rick could care less if they did. He had everything he ever wanted standing next to him. "I'm glad I'm down here with you," Rick whispered into Daryl's ear. Just the two of them.

     Daryl chewed his thumb and Rick didn't have to see his face to know he was blushing. "Me, too," Daryl agreed. "Want me ta start us a fire of our own?"

     But, Daryl had already started a fire in Rick. It burned in his belly, his bones. In his heart. "Sure," Rick shook the blanket out. Spread it over the flattest part of the ground he could find by what little light was reflecting off the water.

     Daryl grabbed another beer out of the carton they had carried down. Twisted off the cap and took a swig before passing it to Rick. It was understood they'd go back to sharing now that they had finished the beer Shane had given each of them. And Rick was relieved. Made a point of brushing fingers with Daryl as he accepted the bottle.

     "You're all I need," Rick took the flashlight and aimed it at the ground so Daryl could see what he was doing as he crouched down to put some rocks together for their fire pit. "You and me and the stars."

     "You an' yer wishes," Daryl snorted as he reached out to pat Rick's leg beside him.

     Had he heard Rick back at the house? About being all of Rick's wishes come true..."You ever wish on a star, Daryl?" Rick looked up to the sky now full of them. And they were beautiful. But, not as beautiful or full of hope as the one pinned to his sweatshirt.

     Daryl shifted on the ground, "Ain't never seen the point. Ain't like it'd change nothin'." He tossed a few twigs and some grass into the ring of river rock he'd made. Rubbed two sticks together. "But, I got you so's I don't need ta now," he leaned in close and blew into the pile until it glowed. Probably unaware the embers gave off enough light to show the blush creeping up his cheeks.

     Rick felt his cheeks burning, too. Along with the need to be nearer to him. He dragged the blanket closer to the fire. Crouched down next to Daryl. Thigh to thigh. Shoulder to shoulder. Fitting together like they were made to. And the heat of him warmed Rick more than any flames ever could.

     "We got each other," Rick passed the bottle back to Daryl as they eased themselves from hunkering over the fire to sitting on the blanket and settling into each other. Legs overlapping and tangled together Indian style.

     "Too bad about the rabbits," Rick fiddled with his laces before kicking off his shoes. "We could strip down and go swimming, though."

     Daryl choked on the beer. "I-I can't."

     "I'll teach ya," Rick offered. After all Daryl had taught him plenty. Just about every kind of survival skill there is. But, most of all Daryl had taught him the kind of person he wanted to be.

     Daryl wrung the end of his tee shirt in his hands. "I-I c'n swim..." he sputtered. "I jus' can't..." but, he don't finish. His face was as red as a tomato. And not from the fire.

     "Oh," Rick's breath came out like he'd been sucker punched. And he hurt just the same. The scars. Daryl was ashamed of the scars. As if they had somehow been his fault. "Daryl," Rick reached out his hand to touch the small of Daryl's back. Caress it. Gently. "I know he's hurt you," he breathed the words into Daryl's ear. "But, it ain't your fault...and ya don't have to show me," he brushed at Daryl's cheek, his choppy hair. "I ain't gonna make you do anything ya don't wanna do." Ever.

     Daryl said nothing for so long Rick thought he would never speak again. But, he had slumped back into Rick's hand. Like maybe he was wishing the circles Rick was rubbing were erasing every mark.

     "Ya can't tell nobody, not even Shane," Daryl mumbled around his thumb. Letting his head fall on Rick's shoulder. "Or they'll take me 'way an' put me in foster care or send me ta live with m' uncle in Louisiana an' I'll never see ya 'gain," he shuddered. "Don't wanna lose ya, Rick." Now he was pleading.

     "Don't wanna lose you either," Rick hugged Daryl close. "I promise I won't tell." And he meant it. But, he could not promise he wouldn't kill the bastard himself if he ever laid a hand on Daryl again.

     "'Sides, he ain't been as bad since 'm older' stronger," Daryl leaned over and tried to look Rick in the eye, but it was too dark, even with the fire. "An' when I turn eighteen 'm leavin' an' ain't nothin' he c'n do 'bout it. Merle been savin' money so's we c'n get a place a our own."

     Rick could barely talk through the lump in his throat. "How far away are ya goin'?" Daryl deserved to be safe. To be far from the asshole. But, Rick could not bear to lose him. Daryl completed Rick. Made him a better person.

     "Don't know," Daryl shrugged. "I hear rent's cheap over off Franklin Street. An' 's close ta Merle's work."

     Rick collapsed into Daryl. Relief flooding over him as if the water at their feet had risen up over the bank. "I believe the rent is very cheap over there." Might be the shittiest part of town, but it wasn't hundreds of miles away. And it was still a damn sight better than the shithole his father had them living in.

     "So," Rick bumped shoulders with Daryl, "is that a yes to swimming?"

     Daryl fiddled with his shirt. "Jus' warnin' ya I got more'n a few scars," he squirmed. Lifting the shirt up slowly. Like he expected Rick to be disgusted by them. "They's ugly so's I c'n put it back on 'f they's too much fer ya," Daryl whispered as he struggled to get the tee off.

     Rick reached out. Helped him out of it. Slowly. Letting Daryl set the pace and keep the shirt in his hands once it was off. So Daryl would know he was in control of things. There were more scars than Rick could have imagined. Long pink and white stripes covering his chest. And something that may have been cigarette burns. And Rick was disgusted. Disgusted with Will Dixon. But, his heart ached for Daryl.

     Rick lifted Daryl's chin. Looked him in the eye. "I don't see anything ugly," he took in every mark crisscrossing Daryl's chest and belly. Visible even in the firelight. He looked to Daryl for permission and touched each one. Feeling the warmth of Daryl and the way each scar raised up from his skin. Letting his fingers softly trace every inch of them. "What I see is strength," he ended with his finger resting over Daryl's heart. "And that's beautiful."

     Everything about Daryl was beautiful. His heart. His smile. His scars. More so because of what it took to survive. To stay good and kind even though he'd had hate beat into him all his life. And Rick loved him. Every part of him. And one day Rick would tell him that.


Chapter Text

     Rick wasn't sure if it was the beer they'd had, his compliments, or his fingers tracing over Daryl's skin making his friend smile. But, it was a beautiful smile. Wide and not at all restrained like usual. And Rick felt like it was just for him.

     "I ain't never had no one tell me nothin' 'bout me were beautiful b'fore," Daryl leaned into Rick's touch. Like maybe he were encouraging it. "Least a all m' scars."

     Maybe the beer was getting to Rick as well. Giving him confidence. Or maybe it was Daryl's smile encouraging him. Or the trust they shared. "They are part of you and everything about you is beautiful," Rick gushed. And it felt good to confess it. To say it out loud. Because, they were words Daryl deserved to hear.

     "Nah, I ain't pretty like you," Daryl bit his lip. Hung his head. But, he did not pull away from Rick's hand.

     "Well, I did get all dolled up for ya," Rick sassed. Still unable to remove his hand from the warmth of Daryl's chest. It was only then that Rick realized he'd never touched another boy like that before. But, it did not feel weird. Or scary. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. Because, it was Daryl.

     Daryl huffed out a laugh. "I c'n see ya got on yer best tee shirt fer me," he tugged at it leaving dirty fingerprints. And maybe some dirty thoughts in Rick's mind. "Real classy," he scoffed. "But, ya don't even need ta try," his voice was suddenly quiet. Barely a whisper. "Not with eyes and a smile like you got."

     Rick felt a grin splitting his face. And he hoped Daryl could see it in the firelight. "I'm pretty and don't forget, I got waffles," he teased. Hoping to make Daryl smile again.

     "Believe me, I ain't forgettin' that," Daryl patted Rick's hand still on his chest.

     "S-Sorry," Rick blushed. Rubbing over Daryl's scar one last time before pulling his hand back. "I probably shouldn't keep..."

     But, before he could find the words Daryl cut him off, "I don't mind." He scooted closer to Rick. Snagged his hand and put it back over his heart. "You touch nice," he shrugged. And although he did not use the words, his eyes said, safe. "I like it," he put his forehead to Rick's. "I like it, 'cuz...I like you."

     Rick felt his heart squeeze and his mouth go dry. "I like you, too, Daryl." More than anything.

     "Listen," Daryl got to his feet and kicked off his boots. "I know it's too late ta hunt rabbits," he unbuttoned his jeans and wriggled out of them. Shivering in his boxers. Completely unaware of how beautiful and mesmerizing he was to Rick. "But, ya c'n still try ta catch me," he took off running into the water. Whooping and hollering like he was competing with Shane and all the guys up on the bluff. Splashing everywhere.

     Rick struggled out of his clothes. Losing time as he made sure his badge was still safely secured to his sweatshirt. "You can run, but you can't hide," he teased as he plodded into the water. Well aware of the lead Daryl had on him.

     "I ain't runnin', 'm swimmin'," Daryl teased, his voice echoing off every side of the canyon. Not even a help to his location. He could have been anywhere in the dark. Knowing Daryl he was probably half way across the lake.

     By the time Rick had picked his way over the gravel bottom and waded neck deep he was far enough from the fire to be completely blind to his surroundings. Stilling himself he tried to put all Daryl's lessons to use. But, now there wasn't a sound nor a ripple on the water. Daryl definitely could hide from him.

     "Marco?" He called out. Feeling around in the water uselessly.

     "Polo!" Daryl surfaced from out of nowhere and before Rick knew it there were strong arms hugging around his neck and water was dripping in his face from Daryl's hair. But, he did not try to push Rick under like Shane would have done. They just clung to each other like a lifeline. So close their bellies touched and their hearts boxed each other.

     "Guess you win," Rick conceded as they bobbed together. Though, he'd never count being in Daryl's arms as a loss.

     Daryl spit water. Careful to turn from Rick as he did it. "Do I get ta collect m' prize then?"

     "Ain't got nothin' to give ya," Rick sighed, teeth chattering. Though, he'd give Daryl the shirt off his back. If he were wearing one at the moment. Anything. Most of all he'd give Daryl his heart.

     "Psh," Daryl blew in Rick's face. "Ya gonna keep wishin' on them damn stars er let me do somethin' 'bout it?" He smarted off. And before Rick knew it Daryl's lips were on Rick's. Warm and soft. Breathing new life into him.

     It was electrifying. An awkward clashing of teeth and noses in the dark at first. Nervous and clumsy. And Rick was sure he'd chipped his front tooth. But, it was sweet and gentle as their lips wrestled and every bit as good as Rick had imagined it would be. The kiss ignited something in Rick that burned from his lips all the way out to his fingers and toes. Made his hair stand on end.

     By the time Daryl pulled away Rick was breathless. Speechless. And a little hard. But, they were pressed so close he could tell he wasn't the only one enjoying it. "I'm pretty sure I'm the one that got the prize," he finally said when he could speak again. Kissing Daryl's forehead and brushing his wet bangs back.

     "We'll call it a tie," Daryl moved in to suck Rick's lips again.

     And suddenly the lake didn't seem so cold anymore. And time sped up, because the next two hours of swimming and kissing flew by. Too soon Shane was barreling down the gravel access road. Honking the horn from a mile out and screaming, "Last call!" All while he banged on the driver's side door.

     Rick was careful to shield Daryl from the headlights approaching as they crawled out of the water. Crouching over him to hide the scars from Shane and Lori while he and Daryl felt around on the ground for their clothes.

     "Take this," Rick picked up the first shirt he could find and pulled it over Daryl. It wasn't until after they had put out the fire and piled into the car that he realized they were wearing each other's clothes. But, it felt right to share.

     "I don't know 'bout rabbits," Shane cranked up the heater, eying them in the rear view mirror as they huddled close, "but you two sure look like you caught a cold."

     It was a long drive back and Daryl's head was getting heavy on Rick's shoulder as he nodded off. Of course Shane noticed. "Told you ya'd have a blonde all over ya in the back seat," he smirked. And Rick wasn't sure if he were teasing or he had meant Daryl all along.

Chapter Text

     Rick had never thought blondes were his type before. All perky and pretty and soft like Andrea. But, then he'd never seen Daryl's ratty bedhead before. His smile, especially the one he only smiles for Rick. He'd never seen his broad shoulders. He'd never seen his gentleness before. His scars.

     'Course he'd never thought boys were his type either. But, then he'd only asked Lori to the dance that time, because he thought he was supposed to. Because, she talked to him. Turns out she just wanted an in with Shane. And Rick wasn't even mad. Because, as it turns out Rick's type was Daryl. Strong, kind, beautiful Daryl. So, it was nice having a "hot blonde all over him in the back seat." Because, it was Daryl. Fitted to his side like he was made just for Rick.

     Shane talked the whole way home. But, if he noticed the grin plastered to Rick's face or figured out exactly what put it there he did not say a word about it. Which was unusual for him. He just kept teasin' and flirtin' with Lori. Had that girl eating out of the palm of his hand until he dropped her off.

     "You two ever catch any rabbits?" Shane made eye contact with Rick in the rear view mirror as he pulled away from the curb at Lori's house. "I kep' waitin' for ya'll to come climbin' up over that hill all dirty an' ratty an' throw 'em on the bonfire like a couple" he cut himself short. Musta realized their ain't no way to end that sentence without insulting Daryl. And that were new for Shane, too. Thinkin' about how his words sounded. How they affected people.

     Rick thought about his answer. They ain't even tried for the rabbits. But, he'd caught somethin' so much more important. "Bet you didn't need no rabbits foot to get lucky," he turned things around on Shane.

     "Oohwee, you know it," Shane pumped his fist in the air. Banged on the wheel. "Ya know," he made a point of staring at the road ahead. "One of these days we gotta get your dick wet, man." He squirmed in his seat. Like he ever been shy talkin' sex. "Think ya'd like it if ya ever gave it a try."

     Rick choked on his breath. He'd sure like it with Daryl. Soft and slow and gentle as Daryl was with everything he did. Feelin' the weight of him pressin' down. The warmth of him. "Well, I sure got my dick and everything else wet swimmin'." He licked his lips, still swollen from kissing.

     "Swimmin's fun, too, don't get me wrong," Shane conceded. Finally makin' eye contact again in the mirror. "I'm just sayin' it might change your whole life when ya finally get your bell rung."

     Rick huffed. Ain't never heard it referred to like that before. "I ain't gonna be jinglin' my bells at just anyone," Rick squeezed Daryl close. The only one he trusted enough, loved enough, was Daryl. Fuck if he knew how it all worked with two boys, but he'd sure like to figure it out with Daryl.

     Before the conversation got awkward, more awkward than it already was, Shane pulled into Rick's driveway. A courtesy he hadn't even offered Lori. He turned around and reached over the seat to pat Daryl's knee with a gentleness that wasn't like him at all. "Wake up, Sleepin' Beauty," his voice was quiet. Like it wasn't even Shane's. "You're home."

     Daryl jolted awake. Though, not as much as he would have with Shane's usual jabbing. "Already?" He rubbed his eyes. Settled back into Rick again.

     Rick slid out of the car. "Thanks for the ride, brother," he patted Shane's shoulder through his open window before leaning back into the car to help Daryl out.

     "Listen, I'm glad ya came tonight," Shane ran a hand through his hair. Bit his lip. "Both a ya."

     "I'm glad we came, too," Rick smiled and steadied Daryl beside him as Shane fought the gearshift into reverse.

     "But, you didn't come like I," Shand banged the wheel and grunted. "Like a sexual act," he bragged.

     "And just like that the moment is ruined," Rick sassed. Waving goodbye and leading Daryl up the path to the front porch. But, it was nice to see Shane and spend a little time with him. Most of all it was nice to see Shane being good to Daryl.

     Daryl seemed to perk up. Probably on alert like he always had to be when going in and out of his own house. He crept through the front door as quiet as a cat and slipped off his shoes. Shot Rick a horrified look when he realized the kitchen light was still on.

     But, Rick knew his mom was just waiting up for his dad to get home safe. Not to scold him and Daryl for missing curfew or some other shit. Not to hurt them. He slipped his hand into Daryl's to settle him.

     "It's just us, Mom," Rick lead Daryl through the house. Making a point to hit every creaky floorboard. To show Daryl he did not have to hide. Or fear anything in Rick's house. In Rick's presence. Because, he would never let harm come to him. Ever.

     His mom looked up from her game of solitaire spread over the kitchen table as Rick paraded Daryl into the room. "Good grief, you're soakin' wet," she stood to rake her fingers through their damp hair. Careful as could be with Daryl so he wouldn't flinch. She filled a mug of coffee for each of them. "This'll warm you up," she guided them to sitting at the table. Making sure Daryl would be right next to her. She was already mothering him and Rick was grateful for it.

     "Thanks, ma'am," Daryl slid into the seat. Warmin' his hands on the cup. Mostly so he had something to keep them occupied from fidgeting. Or maybe to keep from seeking out Rick's hand to hold.

     "Dear," Rick's mom threw open the fridge and rattled around inside. "It's either Marianne or Mary," she backed out with an armload of chicken and biscuits. "Hell, ya can even call me Mom if ya like, but none of this ma'am business," she spread her haul in front of Daryl and patted his shoulder. "Afterall, you're a Grimes now."

     Daryl squirmed. Squinted up at her, chewin' his thumb. "Ya think 'Ma' would be okay?"

     "Anything for you, love," she bent down and kissed his forehead. And he only flinched the tiniest bit. "Anything," she said again just so he was sure.

     "How about waffles?" Rick gulped his coffee, winking at Daryl. He was gonna get Daryl all the waffles he could eat. "Daryl loves waffles for breakfast," he pleaded with his mom even though he knew she would do it.

     "I'll make ya the biggest pile of waffles you ever seen," she tousled their hair. "But, you go on and eat up this chicken now, 'cause I bet ya worked up an appetite huntin' those rabbits." She looked them over all wet and filthy and wearin' each other's shirts. "Looks like ya had all sorts a trouble."

     "We went swimmin'," Rick prodded a chicken leg at Daryl. And a biscuit. "I didn't even know I liked the outdoors so much." He dragged the jam across the table and started slathering it on the biscuit for Daryl.

     "Honey," Rick's mom took a seat next to Daryl, "I bet there's more than a few things ya didn't even know ya liked."

     Like boys. Daryl, anyway.

     Rick's heart caught in his throat. Daryl's mouth hung open. Full of chicken and all. Jesus, had she figured shit out? Did she know? Did Shane know? Did everyone fucking know? Rick moved his mouth to speak, though he could not think of what to say. Thankfully Daryl snatched the biscuit he'd been fixing and shoved it into Rick's mouth.

     "Yeah," Daryl finally swallowed his bite of chicken. Licked his fingers noisily. Which did nothing to diffuse the situation the way it mesmerized Rick. "Like, he don't know he's gonna love campin' overnight in the woods." Good one, Daryl. That don't seem suspicious. The two of them alone in a tent together. But, yeah, Rick'd like that.

     Rick's mom sipped her coffee. "You know, Rick was conceived in a tent," she blushed at the memory.

     Rick was just flat out blushing. "Mom," he whined. But, he stopped protesting when he noticed Daryl wanted to hear the story.

     "Oh hush," she swatted Rick's hand playfully and kept going, "Your dad and I went camping for our honeymoon and it rained and rained the whole time and we were stuck in that little tent." She looked down at her cards like they were the most fascinating thing. "It was our first time."

     "Mom," Rick whined again. This was worse than the sex talk. But, at least she weren't talking about him and Daryl having sex. Or tellin' them not to.

     Daryl force fed Rick more biscuit, lettin' her continue. "I'm just sayin' I didn't even wanna go, what with all the dirt and bugs and all those murder movies takin' place in the woods," she laughed. "But, sometimes the things you're scared of turn out to be the best things in your life."

     Daryl was certainly the best thing in Rick's life. Only, Rick weren't afraid of being with Daryl. Of being gay. Or called names. Or picked on. But, he was afraid for Daryl. Of his old man finding out. And suddenly he realized that the best thing to ever happen to him in his whole life could possibly be the worst thing for Daryl. And he did not know what to make of it.

Chapter Text

     Apart from asking Lori to the "spring fling" last year Rick had never dated. But, that was one dance and one watered down cup of punch. And maybe two words passed between them. Not a lasting thing. And he did not kiss her. Did not want to.

     But, kissing Daryl was like coming up for air after drowning. Like coming home. And it did not make things awkward between them. It made things better. Closer. Like it was just another way to say with their lips all the things there weren't words for.

     And Rick could not wait to have Daryl all to himself. Alone in the woods together. Learning about tracking and trapping. And just being with Daryl. Sassing, flirting. Kissing. If they could ever sort through the mess of camping gear Rick's dad had stored in the garage.

     "Ya know," Rick pulled out a box while Daryl held the wall of junk from falling on his head. "Before I met you the only fishing I ever did was the card game."

     Daryl shrugged his broad shoulders. That Rick could now allow himself to notice just how much he liked without feeling guilty. "Ya mean Go Fish?" Daryl snorted as he helped Rick open the box he'd pulled out. Crouched down to start sorting. "Merle ain't never taught me nothin', but poker. Mos'ly how ta cheat at it," Daryl huffed. "Not no kid games an' shit like that." And he did not have to say it was because he'd never had much of a family. Or childhood.

     Rick knelt next to Daryl. Thigh to thigh. Bumped shoulders with him. "I could teach ya," he offered. Because, Daryl deserved to know the stupid game. To have a little bit of kid stuff. Even if he was almost eighteen.

     Daryl side eyed Rick, picking through the old pots and pans. "Well, we gonna need somethin' ta keep us occupied in that tent," he sassed. Blushing.

     Rick choked out a laugh. "Better take this then," he dug out the dented coffee pot. Jiggled it to make sure it still had the percolator inside. "Might get awful cold at night and you're gonna need somethin' to keep ya warm," he winked.

     "Damn, Grimes, cards and coffee," Daryl quirked a smile. Flirty as ever. "Sounds scandalous."

     "Sure is," Rick teased. "People gonna talk." But, that stopped them both cold. Probably because it was true. And dangerous.

     Daryl's eyes turned serious. Pleading. But, he did not look away from Rick's gaze. Because, he was not afraid of what he'd find there. "Listen, Rick, I ain't ashamed a what we done, but," he chewed his thumb. "Ya can't tell nobody. Not even Shane." He hung his head. "M' ol' man would kill me."

     And Rick believed it. He'd seen the scars. And he would not let the man put another one on Daryl. "Hey," he whispered. Leaning in to touch their foreheads together. Brushing at Daryl's choppy hair. "I will always do whatever it takes to protect you." Always. And he'd never meant anything more in his life. "You know that, right?"

     Daryl nodded against Rick. Pressed his lips softly to his cheek before pulling back to sort more gear. "I ain't even tellin' Merle," he shrugged. And this time his shoulders looked small. "Jus' ta be safe."

     Merle seemed a decent brother, if a little gruff. But, Rick understood Daryl's concern. "No one," he reiterated. So Daryl was sure he meant it.

     Rick pulled his old sleeping bags off the shelf. "Definitely going to need these," he dropped them next to their pile. "Star Wars or GI Joe? Your pick." They were old and ratty, and maybe even too small, but Rick wanted Daryl to have first choice of anything he had to offer. "Sorry all I got is kid stuff."

     Daryl jabbed the GI Joe bag. "I like the camo on this one," he grinned. "Kinda always wanted one a these when I's eight."

     "It's all yours," Rick handed it to him. Glad he could give Daryl something he had wanted. Even if it was ten years late. "Still got some of my old GI Joe comics stored out here, too if ya wanna read 'em," he searched the wall of boxes.

     Daryl was speechless for a minute. Mesmerized by the tattered old sleeping bag. Like it was precious. But, his hand patting Rick's side said thanks more than words ever could. "Best bring 'em all," Daryl finally cleared his throat. "Like I told ya, gonna need somethin' ta do out there in them woods all alone," he sassed.

     "Yeah," Rick winked. Thumbing through a thick stack of comics. "Ya got a lot of reading to catch up on." He sank back down next to Daryl with his haul. Eager to read them together.

     But, Daryl still seemed interested in the sleeping bag. "I should prob'ly take this in fer t'night," Daryl hugged it to his chest. "I c'n sleep on the floor," he bit his thumb. "Used to it."

     No one should be used to sleeping on the floor. Least of all someone as good and kind as Daryl. "I was thinking we'd share the bed," Rick offered like it was the most natural thing. Felt like it.

     Daryl fidgeted with the ties holding the sleeping bag together until it sprang apart in his lap. "That 'cuz I kissed ya?" He leaned in for a quick peck on the cheek. Like he was afraid someone would throw the garage door open and catch them. Whoop their asses for it. His eyes slitted as he pulled back, his cheeks pink. "Wait," he croaked. "Were ya thinkin' a kissin' me, too then?"

     Rick was blushing now, too. "Been wanting to for awhile." He kissed Daryl square on the lips. Took his time. Because, he could. And it was every bit as soft and warm as kissing the love of his life should be. "But, I was too scared." He took Daryl's hand in his. Squeezed. "I just thought since we share everything else..." He looked down at their fingers entwined like they were the most fascinating thing. "But, I was sure gonna enjoy it."

     Daryl nodded. "I like sharin' with you." And for someone who had so little he had so freely given to Rick.

    "I like sharing with you, too," Rick hummed. "I like this thing we got."

     Daryl blinked, "Guess this makes us high school sweethearts."

     Rick couldn't keep the smile off his face. "Do I get to call you that?" He leaned in close. Whispered the name in Daryl's ear, "Sweetheart."

     Daryl shivered at Rick's breath on his neck. "I been called a lotta things." Probably none of them nice. "But, ain't never nothin' like that," he was getting redder by the second. But, his smile was getting wider, too.

     "You really are a sweetheart," Rick gushed. And really he could think of no one kinder. "But," Rick considered the name, "I think I like Darlin' better."

     Daryl was full on red as a tomato now. And smiling so all his teeth showed. "What do I get ta call you?"

     "Lucky," Rick grinned. Because, he could not imagine a finer thing than always having Daryl by his side. Digging in the dirt and fishing every day after school, doing their homework together, pressed in side by side. And maybe taking him to the diner sometimes. And the Waffle House. Just knowing Daryl, trusting him, sharing with him. Sassing and flirting. Kissing him. And doing his best to make Daryl feel safe. Feel loved.

Chapter Text

     Rick had never seen the inside of Daryl's house. In all the times he'd been there, fishing in the creek out back. And he was never sure if Daryl was just keeping him from seeing the shitty way he lived or if he was protecting Rick from his old man in case he came home. But, Rick did not have to see it to know it wasn't nice. Wasn't what Daryl deserved.

     So even though Rick was never very messy he had cleaned his room special that morning before school. Tidied his desk. Picked up his dirty laundry. Even put fresh sheets on the bed. So everything would be perfect. For Daryl. Because, besides having a place with Rick that was safe Daryl deserved a place that was nice.

     And Daryl was in awe of it. The books lined up alphabetically. The toys Rick had outgrown, but could not bear to part with all carefully displayed on his shelf. Daryl moved in close to inspect the Hot Wheels, fixated on the the gold Camaro. But, he did not touch them.

     "Ya take real good care a things, Rick," Daryl chewed his thumb. "M' brother were always breakin' what little shit I ever got."

     Rick huffed out a laugh. "Shane was the same way, blew up damn near all our G.I. Joes with firecrackers." He pulled the mini Camaro off the shelf. Put it in Daryl's hands to show him he trusted him with it. "I'm pretty gentle with anything I care about." Most especially Daryl. "I'll take good care of you, too, Darlin'," he clarified. So Daryl would be sure what he meant.

     Daryl blushed as he let Rick raise his hands until he was holding the car in front of his face. "Merle used ta have one a these, I mean fer real, not no toy." He suddenly got bashful again, "M' old man ain't never let us have no 'baby shit' like toys." He squinted at the tiny car, "An' it weren't near 's nice as this one, but Merle used ta take me fer rides sometimes jus' ta get us outta the house."

     Rick imagined Daryl in the car with the wind in his hair, a smile on his face. Safe and free. And he knew that one day he would drive Daryl away from his old man for good. "You can play with it," he cooed.

     Daryl blinked back at him. Hand shaking a little. "That's what she said," he tried to make light of things.

     Rick snorted, trying to make light of things, too. "Go on, take a look under the hood."

     "Seriously, Rick?" Daryl snickered. "That's what she said, too." But, he did as he was told. And his fingers were slow and careful. And Rick could not wait to have them all over him.

     "Doors open, too," Rick demonstrated his favorite feature of the car.

     Daryl opened the door on the other side. "More'n I c'n say fer m' brother's. Used ta haveta climb in his door an' slide all the way over."

     He seemed to be smiling at the memory. Like maybe he'd had some good times afterall. Getting out of the house with Merle. "I want you to have it," Rick offered. Closing Daryl's hand over it.

     "No way, man, it's too nice," Daryl thumbed over the the cheap thing like it was precious. "It'd only get busted at my place er..." but, he didn't finish. And he did not have to for Rick to know his old man would belittle him for having 'baby shit' and throw it away.

     "I'll tell you what's too nice," Rick smiled at Daryl's wide eyed look. "You're too nice." And he deserved nice things. Rick scooped the car out of Daryl's hand and replaced it on the shelf. "You can keep it here if ya like, but it's yours," he nudged Daryl's side gently. "I like you havin' things here." He liked having Daryl in his room, too.

     Daryl nodded. "I'd like that, it'll be safe here," his voice was quiet. "I feel safe here, too," his lips quirked into a tiny grin as he reached up and closed the little doors as carefully as he always closed the doors on Merle's truck at home. But, not out of fear. It was out of respect. "I like all a that chrome in the engine. Ya think I could leave the hood up?" He toyed with it before deciding to close it and leave it as it had been.

     "It's yours, Darlin'," Rick admired Daryl more than the car as he lifted the hood back up. "You can do what ever ya want with it."

     Daryl's face was pink as he dropped his head. "I like takin' care a things I appreciate, too," he whispered. And Rick knew Daryl meant him.

     "Well...I'm also yours," Rick put his hands on Daryl's hips. Pulled him flush against his chest. And he was lost for words as their noses bumped. Because, their cocks bumped as well and all his blood rushed from his brain. "You can do what ever ya want with me, too," he finally sighed into Daryl's mouth. Giving himself up to him. Because, he trusted Daryl to be gentle. To be kind.

     Daryl took Rick's bottom lip in his mouth. Sucking the air out of his lungs and breathing new life back into him. "I'ma take ya ta bed is what I'ma do," he hummed as he pulled away and swatted Rick's ass. "Gotta get ta bed so's we c'n get up fer them waffles," he teased. Stripping to his boxers.

     Rick was gonna get up, alright. Looking at Daryl half naked. All scarred and beautiful. "Such a tease," he snickered. But, he stripped down to the same and turned out the light before he crawled into bed, folding the covers back for Daryl. It was getting late. And tomorrow they would have the tent. And privacy. Because, he had no idea how to do all of the things he wanted to do to Daryl. Or how he was going to keep quiet when Daryl put his hands on him.

     Daryl stood at the side of the bed, unmoving in the dark. And Rick did not have to see him to know he was hanging his head and chewing his thumb. "Ya sure yer Ma ain't gonna mind us bunkin' t'gether?"

     Rick sat up and felt for Daryl's hand. "She ain't gonna mind a bit," he tried to ease Daryl forward.

     Daryl was silent for a minute, unyielding. And when he finally spoke it was so quiet Rick might not have heard it had he not been waiting for the reply, "What 'bout yer old man?"

     Rick rubbed his thumb over Daryl's hand in his. Jesus, Daryl hadn't met Rick's dad so he feared him. Like his own. "Dad's still on patrol, but he'll be happy to meet ya tomorrow over waffles." He felt Daryl melting toward him slowly. "Ain't nobody gonna bother us tonight, or care," he cooed.

     "Ya sure?" Daryl huffed, but he started moving for the bed. And Rick hoped it was because he trusted Rick to tell him the truth. And to protect him. "I'ma haveta get awful close 'f we's both gonna fit," Daryl's hair tickled Rick's face as he climbed over him in the dark and settled in.

     Daryl was warm and pliant against Rick. Arms searching him out under the covers. And Rick grinned as Daryl molded to him. Like every angle, every curve of Daryl, was made just for him. "This isn't awful at all," Rick sassed.

     "Feels nice," Daryl hummed into Rick's neck. "Kinda like huggin'."

     Rick squeezed Daryl with one arm. Wriggled the other free enough to stroke through his choppy hair. "I could get used to this," he sighed. And he meant it. Sleeping with a boy was not weird at all. Daryl felt good against him. Right. Like a lost piece of himself that had always belonged there. And Daryl must have felt the same, the belonging. Safe. And he drifted off to sleep in Rick's arms.

Chapter Text

     Rick woke first the next morning, but he did not move. Did not want to disturb Daryl. He lay perfectly still. Enjoying the the way their bodies touched from head to toe, no space between them. The heat of Daryl. The weight of Daryl draped over his chest. The snuffling into his neck. And the trust that passed between them for Daryl to let his guard down to sleep so deeply.

     Rick just stroked Daryl's hair and held him. Until Daryl was finally roused by the smell of waffles. And voices downstairs. Rick's dad's in particular. It was not loud or angry, but it was male and unknown to him and Rick could tell by the way his whole body tensed that it was terrifying to Daryl. And he was ready to spring out of bed.

     "Hey, Darlin'," Rick soothed, rubbing over Daryl's back. His scars. "You're safe here, I promise," and it was a vow he would keep for life.

     Daryl raised his head. Balanced his chin on Rick's chest. "I trust ya," he chewed his thumb. "Jus' reflexes, I guess."

     And it broke Rick's heart to think why. He raked his fingers through Daryl's hair. "I will always keep you safe," he said it again, because Daryl deserved to hear it.

     Daryl blushed. Looked over his shoulder at the tiny Camaro on the shelf. "You'll keep me all pristine like that car," he sassed, fighting the smile on his lips. "I had a dream we's ridin' in it, jus' you an' me." He layed back down. "I like jus' you an' me."

     "Me, too," Rick sighed. Nuzzling in. Daryl was everything he ever needed. "But, we best get downstairs for waffles if we wanna head out soon." Though, he could stay in bed with Daryl forever. Even though his arm was numb and he had to take a piss.

     Daryl slid out of bed and picked his jeans up off the floor. "I smell bacon, too," he quirked a grin. "Man, how ya stay so skinny with yer ma cookin' fer ya like that all the time?" He pinched at Rick's side.

     "The waffles and bacon are for you," Rick reminded him as he pulled on some sweats and rifled his dresser. "She's just goin' all out 'cuz she likes ya so much." And she were trying to put some meat on him. But, he don't say that part.

     Daryl's face turned pink at the thought of someone lookin' after him like that. He shook his jeans out trying to smoothe out the wrinkles. "Bet I could eat a whole stack."

     Rick hoped he would. To make up for all the meals he would miss at home. "Here, wear these," he handed Daryl one of his tee shirts and a pair of his sweats like the ones he had on. Tossing Daryl's dirty jeans into the hamper. "I'll find ya some better clothes to wear for camping after breakfast."

     He put his hands on Daryl's sides. Pulled him close. "Your hips are a little broader than mine," he caressed Daryl's skin with his thumbs, and by all rights he should not be able to wear the same size pants if he wasn't so underfed. "Your shoulders are definitely broader, too." Which he loved. "But, I think I can find ya somethin' that will work." Even if he had to raid his dad's closet.

     Daryl dressed quickly. Eager for food. And to get into the woods. Alone. With the small tent. Underfed and all Rick's shirt stretched over Daryl's chest and biceps making Rick want to rip it off him. But, first things first. He led Daryl out of his room by the hand. And promise of food and all Daryl hung back in the hall. Checking over their gear piled by the front door. And Rick knew he was really just putting off meeting his dad.

     "Come on," Rick pulled Daryl up from tying the sleeping bag for the third time and eased him toward the kitchen. "It will be okay." And he knew it would be. His dad was a cop, but the good kind. Like he wanted to be. The kind that inspired trust and confidence. The kind that old ladies and scared kids loved. And Rick knew Daryl would love him to.

     Rick's mom turned from the waffle iron and helped get Daryl all the way inside the room. "Morning," she poured them two mugs of coffee and passed them out. "How did ya sleep, Daryl?" She kissed his forehead.

     Daryl kept his eyes locked on Rick's dad at the table behind the morning paper and positioned himself behind Rick. Falling back to his old ways of trying to be unseen. Unheard. He chugged coffee to keep from having to talk. But, when Rick slung an arm over his shoulder and moved him hip to hip he settled. A little. "Better'n ever b'fore," he finally croaked.

     "Good," she brushed his bangs back. "You can stay with us anytime, okay?" She didn't wait for him to nod. "Any time."

     "Dad," Rick squeezed Daryl close. "I want ya to meet my friend, Daryl." And somehow friend seemed to fall so short of describing everything Daryl was to Rick.

     Rick's dad looked up from the paper. Folding it carefully. Quietly. Like he could tell Daryl was spooked and he was making every effort to keep him from bolting out of the house. "Have a seat, Daryl," he made his voice soft and did not stand to shake Daryl's hand. But, Rick knew it wasn't to disrespect Daryl, but to make himself less threatening. Like when he talks to lost kids. On his knee at their level. "You know, Mary's been goin' on about you like we got us a second son," he pulled out the chair next to him, "so it's nice to finally meet ya."

     Rick eased Daryl into the seat. Went to the counter to get the first plate of waffles for him. "We're going camping today," he placed the food in front of Daryl before taking the chair next to him and scooting close. And he wasn't sure if Daryl started eating because he was starving or so he wouldn't have to talk.

     "That tent sure has memories, don't it, Mary?" Rick's dad winked at her as she served up waffles for the rest of them. And Rick couldn't wait for him and Daryl to have fond memories of it as well. "You know, your mom and I-" but Rick cut him off.

     "We know, Dad," he huffed out a laugh. "The stories that tent could tell," he sassed.

     "Oh hush," Rick's mom shoved a piece of bacon in his mouth before sitting down. She turned back to Daryl, "You boys just tell me what food ya want me to pack for ya."

     Daryl cleared his throat, but he still don't look up. "We was gonna fish mos'ly." He was halfway through his waffles and already she was serving him up more. "An' I's gonna teach Rick ta trap rabbits," he talked through a mouthful. Like he were relaxing more. Feeling at home again.

     "We're gonna catch 'em with my shoe laces," Rick bumped shoulders with Daryl. Proud of his boyfriend and wishing he could call him that.

     "Sounds like a lot of fun," Rick's dad offered Daryl more bacon. "Might get awful cold out there tonight, Daryl," he sipped coffee, examining him in Rick's clothes. "I'll see what I can round up for long sleeves and a sweater for ya."

     "That's real kind of ya," Daryl finally looked up. Made eye contact with him.

     Rick's dad reached out to put a hand on Daryl's shoulder. Slow and careful. Every bit as gentle with him as Rick always was. "You're the one who is kind, Daryl," he smiled. "I've heard all about ya from Rick and you bein' so good to my boy makes ya family." He also dished up another waffle on Daryl's plate.

     Daryl ain't had no words. But, Rick could read him like a book. Daryl ain't never had nothin' like this, family lookin' after him and he don't know how to process it. But, Rick would spend the rest of his life making sure Daryl was looked after. Knew his worth.

Chapter Text

     Rick has always admired his dad. And even before he had wanted to be a cop, really, truly wanted to be a cop, he had always wanted to be like him. Good and kind. Patient. But, he was never so proud of his dad as he was watching him with Daryl.

     Rick's dad was every bit as good with Daryl as he knew he would be. Bending low to make eye contact every time Daryl tried to hide his face. Making his voice soft and low. Coaxing him to talk by asking him specific questions about hunting and tracking.

     And it did not take him long to zero in on the fact that the one thing Daryl could talk about with ease was Rick. How good and kind he thought he was. How proud he was of his quick learning. And if his dad figured out exactly why that was he did not say a word about it. His demeanor did not change at all. And he did not forbid Rick from going on the trip. Sharing that tent.

     And Rick wanted it bad. Wanted Daryl alone in that tent. Watching Daryl loosen up and start enjoying himself with family was doing things to Rick. Melting him into a puddle like the butter on all those waffles he kept pushing Daryl's way.

     "You know, Daryl," Rick's dad refilled their coffees and sat the pot on the table. "If you ever run out of squirrels in the woods we got a few out back always diggin' up Mary's flowers that we sure wouldn't miss," he winked.

     "He's our son not our cat," Rick's mom sassed. Reaching over the table to pat Daryl's hand. And offer him another waffle even though he'd slowed down considerably and was having a hard time getting through the one left on his plate.

     Rick squeezed Daryl's knee under the table, "You're their favorite son just so ya know."

     The smile on Daryl's face was so wide and open and beautiful that it was jarring when Daryl flinched as the screen door slammed shut behind them when Shane slipped into the kitchen. Daryl jerked back so fast he spilled his coffee all over the newspaper on the table. Rick's dad's newspaper. And suddenly Daryl's eyes were wide and he was bowing his head. And Rick felt him shaking beside him.

     Rick instantly swept Daryl into his arms. He wasn't sure if Daryl had been more jarred by the sudden noise or if Daryl had really expected his dad to jump up and smack him one for spilling and making a mess, ruining his paper. Or maybe he had thought his own father had slammed the door and was coming to beat him and snatch him away. A million reasons flashed through Rick's mind as he put his lips to Daryl's ear whispering, "You're safe here." Over and over.

     "Mornin'," Shane bellowed. Loud as ever as he made himself at home stealing Rick's coffee from behind them. Unaware of the effect his presence was having until Rick's mom pulled him aside.

     Rick's dad was on his feet. But, he did not jump up from the table. Did not tower over Daryl. Instead he chose to kneel beside him. Bending low to meet his eyes. "Looks like you could use a refill, son," was all he said. And reaching for the coffee pot in front of them he made sure his palm was up as if he were showing Daryl he meant no harm.

     Rick's dad poured the last of the coffee into Daryl's cup. "That's better, son," he whispered, making deliberate use of the word son again. To remind Daryl he was family. Standing painfully slow he reached for Daryl. Palm out again. And he ruffled his hair. Gently. Before sliding his hand down to the back of Daryl's neck. Giving a little squeeze to show everything was ok. And Daryl must have believed it, because he leaned into the touch.

     "I'll get the cream," Shane was the one to break the silence. Of course. But, it wasn't for attention like usual. It was like he had actually realized something had just happened. 'Course Rick hadn't released his protective grip on Daryl so that probably clued him in. And when he closed the fridge he did not even slam it.

     Shane said nothing about the soaked newspaper as he sat the half and half in front of Daryl. He merely shot Rick a knowing look and scooped up the dripping mess of it and tossed it in the garbage under the sink.

     "Listen," Shane rinsed the ink off his hands and leaned back on his elbows on the counter. Like even he were trying to make himself smaller for Daryl. "I ain't gotta pick Lori up for awhile yet, ya know how long girls take ta get ready, so I thought I'd offer you two a ride to wherever ya wanted" He flashed a wolfish grin in apology.

     "Thanks, man," Daryl sat straighter and Rick finally stopped squeezing him for dear life. Let his hand fall to Daryl's knee under the table. "I was thinkin' it'd be nice ta camp in them woods over by m' house since I know 'em like the back a m' hand," he shrugged, looking to Rick for approval. "But, after all them waffles I ain't up ta hoofin' it that far," he rubbed his belly where it poked out. "'Specially since we gotta hike in a ways once we get there 'f we don't wanna be bothered."

     And Rick knew exactly what that meant. To be far enough from the house that Daryl's old man was not a threat. Would not catch them in that tent. In the act. "I'd like ta have ya get ta know me like the back of your hand," Rick whispered into Daryl's mop of hair. And Daryl shook again. Only this time it was more of a shudder. Of wanton need.

     "Told ya, Rick, we's gonna be busy playin' cards," Daryl's breath was warm and quiet in Rick's ear as he sassed. It was like foreplay. "But," he stroked his thumb over the back of Rick's hand under the table, "guess there is such a thing as strip poker."

     Rick's heart was pounding. Filled with a thousand emotions. The fierce protectiveness he felt for Daryl. The love he had for his kind heart, his smile. The fear of being found out. Not for his sake, but for Daryl's. And his heart swelled for Daryl. Like it was going to bust out of his chest. And if Daryl kept sassing and flirting his dick was gonna bust outta his jeans, too. Before they even got to the tent. And to all the stuff and thangs he wanted to do with Daryl.

Chapter Text

     Driving to Daryl's house even Shane had to figure it weren't gonna be a nice place. Least of all judging by the other shacks falling into the ground. And the fact the road ain't even paved. But, he did not say a word about it. And he did not mention how they left the passenger seat open and both sat together in the back seat either. He just kept talking about girls. Lori this and Lori that.

     Daryl stopped Shane short of his house. Probably because he was embarrassed by it. And Shane's car was loud. They'd have a better chance of sneaking off into the woods without drawing attention to themselves if they didn't have a noisy muffler and Shane slamming doors out front.

     "Ya sure I can't take ya all the way?" Shane offered, to be nice. But, he seemed to understand Daryl's reasons every bit as much as Rick did. "No trouble," he hopped out leaving his door open and went for their gear in the back.

     "Trail's jus' up a ways," Daryl slid out and closed his door without a sound.

     Rick did the same. Moving for the trunk before Shane had a chance to slam it shut. "Thanks for everything," he bumped shoulders with Shane. And he seemed to understand that Rick meant for more than just the ride.

     Daryl helped Rick on with his pack. Secured the sleeping bag so it wouldn't flop around. "Ya ready?"

     And it was a silly question. Rick had never been more ready for anything in his life. He couldn't wait to get Daryl into the woods. Alone. Not just to get his hands on him, explore every warm inch of him. It wasn't about selfishness or taking from Daryl. It was about connecting. Sharing. Giving Daryl love. Saying with his body all the things he could not find the words for.

     "That's a nice sweater ya got there, Daryl," Shane eyed him in Rick's dad's clothes. But, he wasn't making fun. "Still think you two gonna have ta keep each other warm tonight, though," he winked and climbed back in the car. Making a show of turning it around slowly and quietly. Not once revving the engine the way he liked to do to show off. "See ya," he saluted out the window as he left them in a cloud of dust.

     Daryl snorted. Waving away the dirt and exhaust in his Face. Asking silently, He know 'bout us? Rick could not say for sure and shrugged a silent reply that seemed to satisfy Daryl. "He always like that?"

     "You kiddin'?" Rick wanted to sling his arm around Daryl's shoulders as they started off, but he settled for melting into his side. He did not want to out Daryl. Least of all in front of his neighbors. Or his father. "That was Shane on his best behavior."

     Daryl veered into the woods. Tromping out a path behind the shacks. Wriggling out of his pack as they came upon his house. "I uh...should stop an' get m' huntin' knife fer all them rabbits ya's gonna get," he toed at a rock in the path. "Wait fer me?"

     It was obvious he didn't want Rick inside. Like always. And Rick didn't want Daryl in there either. "Can't we just use the Swiss Army knife my dad gave us?" He knew he was whining. But, he didn't care.

     "At this hour he's still gonna be out cold, I'll be alright," Daryl shrugged. "Done it lots a times." 'Course he'd been beat lots of times, too, so that didn't put Rick's mind at ease at all. "Wanna leave Merle a note in our secret spot, too," he passed Rick his bag like it was settled. "Wanna let 'im know 'm okay...happy."

     The smile on Daryl's face when he said happy was all the convincing Rick needed. Jesus, it broke Rick's heart and melted it all at the same time. Made his insides go all twisty. Love was funny shit. "If there's any sign of trouble I'm comin' in," Rick huffed. Pulled the Swiss Army knife outta his pocket so he could have it at the ready in case Daryl needed him.

     Daryl moved in slow and gentle and kissed Rick's cheek. "Won't be long," he crawled through the trees.

     Rick shimmied out of his pack and followed.

     "What er ya doin'? Ya can't walk silent fer shit," Daryl groused in a whisper. But, the corners of his mouth were fighting a grin. Like maybe he liked Rick being so protective.

     "Don't worry, I'm not gonna set foot on the porch," Rick urged Daryl forward. "Just wanna be as close as I can if ya need me."

     Daryl settled. Stopped shifting foot to foot. Moved like he might kiss Rick's cheek again. But, thought better of it in the open now. "I ain't goin' through the front door neither," he pointed to a cracked window along the back of the house. "Gonna slip in through m' room."

     With the broken glass Rick wondered how Daryl stayed warm at night. Wondered how Daryl stayed safe. And he could not bear the thought of Daryl unable to do either. "Five minutes and I'm comin' in after ya," he warned.

     Daryl nodded. Creeping quiet as a cat on the prowl. Pointing out every stray twig or beer can Rick might have stepped on. There was not a sound in the house. Not a single light on. And Rick was not sure if that had more to do with Will Dixon passed out dead drunk or not paying the bills. Neither one made Rick feel better about Daryl going into the house. But, he offered him a leg up.

     Daryl hopped up and perched on the sill. Jimmied the window pane until it damn near fell out. He gave a wink and slipped inside without a sound. Not even a creak of the floor. Like he never even landed. Rick could not hear him, could not see him. And he couldn't stand not knowing if Daryl was okay.

     Rick knew one way or another he was going to steal Daryl away from this place. Going to drive him off somewhere safe. Wind in his hair. Like Merle used to do in the Camaro. Only it would be for good.

     Time ticked by so slowly Rick thought his watch had stopped. Every second away from Daryl stretched into eternity. Until finally he heard scrabbling against the wall. Like Daryl was clawing his way back up to the window. And finally Daryl emerged into view. Huffing as he held up a bag. Signaling Rick to be ready for the drop.

     Rick put his knife away. Caught the bag and tossed it aside. His mind was on catching Daryl. Getting him out of there. But, Daryl's ass was a fine sight as he wriggled into position to dangle out the window, distracting Rick with the way it now filled out the back of his pants a bit better. So when Daryl let go and fell backwards into Rick he toppled them both over.

     Wordlessly they checked each other for injuries before scrambling for the bag and picking their way silently back to their gear in the tree line. Rick's heart was pounding. And it was not from the hike. He'd been terrified for Daryl.

     "That's one way to knock me off my feet," he teased when they were far enough from the house to safely use words.

     "I got a couple a other ways in mind, too," Daryl sassed. Feeling free enough now to slip his hand into Rick's as they walked through the woods.

     "What's in the bag?" Rick picked leaves out of Daryl's hair as they kept up the pace.

     Daryl shrugged. "I ain't no drunk like m' old man, but I got the last a his whiskey ta keep us warm." He winked and shook the bag until the bottle sloshed around.

     Rick slitted his eyes, "I thought you were gonna keep me warm." The blush on Daryl's cheeks sure warmed him.

     "Also got cigarettes 'f ya don't mind me smokin'," Daryl shrugged again.

     "Wouldn't mind sharin'," Rick grinned. He wouldn't mind anything that involved fitting his lips to where Daryl's had been.

     Daryl nodded. "I'll always share ev'rythin' with you."

     "Me, too." And Rick had never meant anything more in his life. "And I'll follow you anywhere."

     Daryl picked up the pace, pulled Rick by the hand, "C'mon then."

     And off they went into the woods with that little tent. Side by side. Hand in hand. And Rick knew that with every step they took it was not just the lake they were heading for. It was their future. Together.

Chapter Text

     Daryl had picked the perfect spot for their tent. Level ground under the shade. Close enough to the lake they could hear it lap against the shore with every breeze. He crouched down and took his time sorting the poles methodically. Laying them out with care. And Rick could not wait to have Daryl lay him out. To have Daryl's hands move over him as gently and carefully.

     Watching Daryl had Rick pitching a tent of his own. In his jeans. "For someone who usually just sleeps under the stars ya sure look like ya know what you're doin' with that tent," he praised. Pushing away the thoughts of why Daryl would choose to sleep outside some nights.

     Daryl bit his lip and shrugged. "I really don't." His voice was soft and trembling. And Rick knew he was talking about more than just putting the tent together. "But," he glanced up at Rick. Meeting his gaze. Unafraid of what he'd find there. "I wanna figure it out."

     "We will, together." Rick assured him. Snapping two pieces together for effect. Only so many places to stick your dick so he was pretty sure he had it figured out. It was the part about making it good for Daryl, making Daryl feel safe that he was afraid of fucking up. But, he would go slow and be every bit as gentle as Daryl deserved.

     Daryl's face was as pink as Rick's cheeks felt as he passed him a tent piece and stood. "Here, hold m' pole."

     And Rick did not say it, their joke. That's what she said. Because, this, what he had with Daryl, and all he was about to have with Daryl, was real and good and nothing to joke about. "I aim to," he winked.

     Daryl looked away. But, it was not out of fear. Rick knew Daryl wanted this, needed it, the connection, same as he did. It was as if Daryl did not want Rick to see that he was afraid he did not deserve it. To be loved. And Rick could not let that thought go unchecked. "Hey," he stood to meet Daryl's eyes, cupping his cheek. "You are everything to me." He put his forehead to Daryl's. "All my wishes come true, remember?"

     "You an' yer stars," Daryl tapped the tin one on Rick's chest. Over his heart. "Make a wish," he breathed in his face. Noses touching. And when Rick's eyes closed he wasted no time pressing their lips together. Soft and sweet. And for someone who had never been shown love or kindness he had so much of it in his heart. When he finally pulled back, leaving Rick breathless, he whispered, "Yer m' ev'rythin', too."

     Rick had wished for forever with Daryl, keeping him safe. But, it was so much more than a wish. It was a promise. "Come on," Rick took Daryl's hand in his as they surveyed their progress with the tent. Hip to hip. "Help me get it up."

     Daryl snorted and slapped Rick's ass. "I aim to."

     And they finished the job together. Rick passing Daryl poles from the organized piles Daryl had made. Or holding the frame while Daryl raised the tent and secured each corner to the hooks. Not a word passing between them. They communicated with a look. A touch. And with every anticipation of the other's need met their nerves melted away. Both knowing that is how they do everything. And making love would be the same.

     Because, they had been doing it all along. Reading each other. Comforting each other. Loving each other. In every touch. Every time they had held hands. Brushed shoulders. So Rick was ready, so ready to share the tent with Daryl. Just like they shared everything else. And he knew he could do right by Daryl, because he could read his every need. Just like always.

     He crawled into the tent once it was finished. Unrolling the sleeping bags. "Barely big enough for two, but I like bein' close with you," Rick scrabbled to make room for Daryl as he slipped in behind him. Both on their knees in the confined space. "Should we get the fire goin'?" He gave Daryl an out in case he wasn't ready as he took Daryl's hand and put it to his chest. His heart pounding out I love yous in a language Daryl understood.

     "Fire c'n wait," Daryl hummed. His hand reading Rick's heart like Braille. "Rather you kept me warm," he shimmied in closer. Until every part of them touched.

     Rick nodded. The only fire he needed was burning in his belly, his heart. For Daryl. "I love you," he put it to words to be sure Daryl understood. Because, they were words Daryl deserved to hear. And he reached for the hem of Daryl's sweater. But, he did not lift it. Only sought permission.

     And Daryl gave it. "Wanna be with ya," he whispered. Raising his arms over his head. "Love ya," his voice was as confident as Rick had ever heard him. "Trust ya."

     Rick eased Daryl's sweater and shirt up. Slowly. Setting the pace. Letting Daryl know his every intention was about Daryl. What he could say to Daryl with his body. What he could give Daryl. Not at all about what he could take.

     And Daryl understood. Wriggling his head and arms free of the clothes. And setting to work stripping Rick with all the care and attention to detail with which he did everything. It was a slow process. Their hands exploring and warming every new inch of skin as it was exposed. Until they were naked and panting. Cocks brushing and bumping each other.

     Rick could see that Daryl was every bit as hard as he was. Could feel it against him. But, he had been every bit as patient and careful, too. Every bit as tender. Making Rick melt every bit as much as the heat of him did as he pressed against Daryl. Easing him back into the sleeping bags. Carefully he slid into place over Daryl's legs, making every effort not to make him feel pinned down. And judging by Daryl's fingers caressing his thighs he knew he understood.

     "You are so beautiful," Rick took in the sight of Daryl. All chest and shoulders and arms. And that smile that he only had for Rick. Open and unreserved and trusting. And Rick moved his palms over Daryl's chest. His scars. Rubbed over his hips and belly. And he could feel it on him more than see it, that all the lunches he had brought, all the meals his mom had made, were putting some meat on his bones. Making Daryl healthy.

     Rick took his time with Daryl. Every bit as much to savor the feel of him, the warmth of him, as to show Daryl touch could be gentle. Could be kind. Touch could be safe. Touch could be love.

     And Daryl gave love back. Pulling Rick close. Until their lips pressed together, their hearts boxed and their cocks ground into each other. His hips bucked into Rick's and his arms squeezed every bit as tight as Rick thought muscles like that could. As if he were trying to pull Rick into himself. Make them one.

     Rick was speechless, but with every kiss his lips silently said, I love you, as his palms burned the message into Daryl's skin. And with every bit of friction between their hips making his dick ache he rubbed out the same. I love you. I love you. I need you. Until he spilled out between them, Daryl coming a second later. Their mess as entwined as their bodies as they lay breathless. Connected. Body and soul.

Chapter Text

     Being naked with another boy, touching and being touched by another boy, was not weird or scary. It was magic and fireworks and all the bells and whistles people always talked about. Because, it was Daryl. And what they had was real and pure and good. What they had is love.

     It wasn't about getting their rocks off. At all. Touching Daryl was just another way to say, I love you. Your smile, your sass, your kind heart. Another way to say, I need you. Your friendship, your teasing, your...everything.

     And Rick could have stayed in Daryl's arms forever. Enjoying the warmth of him. Skin on skin. And the weight of him pressing the breath out of Rick's chest. But, Daryl was shivering. On top and exposed to the cooling air.

     "Guess we should get that fire goin'," Rick stroked through Daryl's choppy hair with one hand. Rubbed over his back with the other. Trying to warm him.

     "Better set them traps, too 'f we wanna eat. Ran so fast from m' place we forgot the fishin' gear." Daryl balanced his chin on Rick's chest to look him in the eye. "But, it ain't too far an' I could run back fer it in no time."

     Rick tensed at the thought of it. Of getting caught. Of Daryl getting hurt. "No way, man, I don't want ya back there." He didn't want Daryl near that house. That bastard. Ever. "We ain't goin' back, I'd rather starve."

     Daryl blinked wide eyes at, we. Like he weren't used to concern. Kindness. Being thought of. Looked after. "I c'n handle it," he offered weakly. Willing to face anything to provide for Rick.

     "I know ya can," Rick sighed. "But, I don't want ya to have to handle anything," he squeezed Daryl tighter. "Just want you to be safe."

     "Yer too good ta me, Grimes," Daryl's cheeks turned pink. He was the picture of humility, kindness and everything good. And Rick would protect him. Forever.

     Rick's insides twisted under Daryl's stare and his belly flopped. "I ain't half as good as ya deserve." Daryl deserved the best. To be put first in everything. And Rick would live his life to show Daryl how much he was worth. How much he was loved. And still it would never be enough to express it. "Besides," he sassed, "we can still fish...I brought the cards."

     Daryl snorted, "Go Fish? Best I teach ya trappin' 'fore ya teach me cards er ya really will starve," he sassed. But, Rick could tell he really did want to play.

     "How do we get started trappin' rabbits?" Rick was excited to learn from Daryl. Watch him in his element. Confident without a hint of the cockiness Shane always had when he was good at something.

     Daryl scrambled to get to his knees without knocking the tent down. Dug in the bag for the whiskey. "Think we best warm up first," he uncorked it with his teeth. "An' maybe rinse off in the creek."

     They were a sticky mess and Rick couldn't argue with that. He sat up and accepted the bottle from Daryl. Knocked back a shot. Sure enough it warmed him from the inside out. But, not as much as Daryl did.

     "C'mon," Daryl backed out of the tent. Bare ass first. Dragging the bag and a pile of their clothes with him.

     By the time Rick had maneuvered out of the tiny opening with as much dignity as he could muster Daryl had found and lit a cigarette. Sucking on it until his cheeks hollowed out as he watched Rick. Daryl was beautiful in the sunlight. A solid wall of muscle with a grin that betrayed just how gentle he could be. He was not laughing at Rick or teasing him for being clumsy and damn near pulling out all the tent stakes. It was almost as if he was marveling at him for it. Loving it.

     Rick accepted his hand up and traded the whiskey for the cigarette. "You really think I can get us a rabbit with just my shoe laces?" he puffed. "Me?"

     Daryl swigged whiskey and guided Rick over the rocks to the water. "I know it," he squeezed encouragement as they waded into the water hand in hand. Did not let go even as they hunkered down to scrub off.

     Rick traded the cigarette for the bottle again. Tried to fit his lips over it as his teeth chattered. "I can't feel my feet." And he wasn't sure if it was the whiskey or the temperature of the water. But, it did not matter. Not when Daryl softly touched him.

     "Ain't gonna feel a whole lot more'n yer feet in a second," Daryl teased. Splashing water in Rick's lap as he carefully rinsed him clean of the mess they had made together.

     They hurried out of the lake the second they were scrubbed off. Stumbling and fighting to help each other dress. Rubbing arms and shoulders to warm the other as they sat in a heap by the water's edge. Not a word passing between them. Their fingers entwined said all they needed to say.

     "I've always loved it out here," Daryl finally broke the silence. "This place's always been my escape from ev'rythin'. Ev'ryone." And he didn't even have to say why. "But," he bumped shoulders with Rick, nuzzled into his neck. "Its better with you, Rick. Ev'rythin's better with you."

     Rick melted into Daryl. Squeezing his hand. "Everything is better with you, too, Darlin'."

     "This mean we's goin' steady now?" Daryl asked. And Rick did not need to see his face to know he was grinning. He could hear it in his voice.

     "Daryl," Rick pulled him close. "Truth be told we've been goin' steady from day one."

     And he meant it. Daryl was like a part of Rick that he hadn't even realized was missing until he'd found it. Found Daryl. He was proud to be Daryl Dixon's boyfriend. Wanted to tell everyone how lucky he was. But, he would keep that secret from Shane, his mom, from everyone. Not out of shame. But, because, what mattered most was Daryl. Protecting Daryl. Because, the only hands that should ever touch him were Rick's. Soft and kind and gentle. Praising. Loving. Not his old man's beating hate into him. Leaving marks.

Chapter Text

     Daryl went about trapping the way he did everything. With great attention to detail. With all the patience, care and respect he was never shown in life. And Rick was in awe of him as they sat on a log, Daryl drawing his plan for a snare in the dirt with a stick.

     He was beautiful in his ill-fitting hand-me-downs. His broad shoulders the only part of him filling them out properly. But, Rick vowed to keep him well fed. For once in his life. And it was a promise he would keep forever. He'll never be the hunter Daryl is, but surely he could support him on a deputy's salary when he graduates the Academy next year. Just like Dad supports Mom.

     "Ya make it look so easy," Rick toed Daryl's diagram with his boot. But, most of all Daryl made it seem okay to fail. Rick knew there would be no teasing or bitching. Like there always was with Shane.

     Daryl's cheeks turned pink under Rick's gaze. "We jus' gotta put yer snare somewhere's a rabbit's likely ta go." His eyes blinked back at Rick, like he genuinely had no idea how perfect he was.

     "Where's that?" Rick wondered out loud. Pretty sure Daryl had already told him while he was marveling at him earlier.

     "They like tunnels," Daryl slid off the log and hunkered down at Rick's feet. Worked the knot out of Rick's boot lace with gentle fingers. "Covered paths through brush er grass work best," he looped the lace into a noose and handed it to Rick to hold up as he stuck his hand through it. Demonstrating how pulling tightened it.

     Rick pulled Daryl's hand into his lap with the snare. Loosened it enough to pull it out. And hold it. Fingers soft and warm in his. "I don't know about rabbits, but I'm sure glad I caught you." And he would hold onto him forever.

     Daryl chewed the thumb of his free hand in that way that made Rick's heart ache. "But, with you, I don't feel trapped," Daryl wrapped both hands around Rick's. "I just feel..." he shrugged. "Connected."

     And that was the perfect description of it. "Me, too," Rick agreed. Pressing his lips to Daryl's forehead.

     Daryl tugged on the shoe lace. "Ya think ya c'n 'member what I showed ya?" And there was no hint of challenge in it. Like there would have been with Shane when he was better at something than Rick. Just a simple question. Softy spoken to assure Rick he was more than willing to show him again. And again, if need be.

     "Like this?" Rick went through the motions. And while his snare was not as neat as Daryl's it did nothing to diminish the grin on Daryl's face.

     "Perfect," Daryl eased it out of Rick's hand to hold it up for a better look. Genuinely admiring the lopsided thing. "Le's get us some dinner, 'm starvin'."

     Daryl even let Rick pick the spot to place it. Happily following him tromping through the woods. Saying, "Take yer time, I could follow them bowed legs a yers an' that fine ass all day."

     "Pfff," Rick swatted Daryl. But, if he swaggered his hips a little to entice Daryl all the more, who could blame him? But, he hurried and set the snare. Wanting Daryl back beside him. Equals. Not following behind.

     Sure enough, when they checked the snare after building a fire and getting in a few hands of Go Fish and a few more belts of whiskey, Rick had caught a rabbit. Fuck if he knew what to do next. Or if he could even follow through with it. Thankfully Daryl moved in to handle it.

     "This'll feed us pretty good," Daryl sat on the ground by the fire. His legs forming a wall around the rabbit as he skinned and gutted it.

     There really was no way to hide the blood and gore from Rick as close as they sat together, but he appreciated the gesture just the same. "Thanks for believing in me," he melted into Daryl's side. Careful not to jar him too hard while he worked with the knife.

     "Ain't nothin' ya can't do, Rick," Daryl encouraged as always as he skewered the rabbit on a branch he'd prepared and sat on his heels while he positioned it over the fire.

     Rick swatted Daryl's ass as he bobbed it around and stole the rag out of his back pocket. Tested the water in the percolator wasn't too hot before pouring it out onto the rag to wipe Daryl's hands clean. Soft and slow with every bit of the gentleness Daryl deserved.

     "That why ya ain't put the coffee in yet?" Daryl side-eyed Rick. Brow furrowed.

     Rick shrugged. "Didn't want your hands to be too cold," he kept wiping until Daryl's fingers were clean. "That creek is freezing."

     "Thought ya jus' didn't know how ta make coffee in that thing," Daryl huffed. Touched by the simple gesture. His lips spreading into a grin as he watched Rick work. "Ya really are sweet, Rick," his voice was low and quiet. Even though they were alone.

     "Well," Rick squeezed Daryl's hand in his. "I'm sure sweet on you." He draped the wet rag over a rock near the fire to dry and fumbled with the Folgers tin. Finally adding the grounds to the percolator. "That would have been some weak ass coffee," he snickered.

     "Make it real strong," Daryl urged. Bumping shoulders with Rick. "I wanna stay up all night an' enjoy this 's long as I can."

     And Rick knew Daryl meant so much more than the camping. He meant the being alone together, just the two of them. Free to kiss and be in love. Show their love. He meant the night of their first time.

     Rick added a few more spoonfuls of coffee to the pot and stuck it in the fire before settling back into Daryl's side. Where he belonged. And they sat in silence. The warmth of Daryl seeping through his sweater, his arms around Rick saying more than words ever could. Saying, I love you. And Rick answered back with a squeeze. Always and forever.

Chapter Text

     By the time they'd finished the whiskey, the rabbit and the junk food Rick's mom had snuck into their packs, the stars were out. A million of them glistening in the sky. But, not one of them was as beautiful as the one pinned to Rick's chest. As beautiful as the love that went into it. Or the sweet boy who made it.

     And Rick wanted nothing more than to take Daryl to the tent and hold him in his arms until they fell asleep. Protect him. From his father. His lot in life. From everything.

     "I think that whiskey was stronger than the coffee," Rick stifled a hiccup. "Might be time to turn in."

     "Hey, Rick?" Daryl poked the fire with a stick. Stared into it. "That thing ya did fer me..." He don't even gotta say warming the water to wash the rabbit guts off his hands. "I ain't never had no one look after think a me like that b'fore." He made no move to get up. "Not even m' own Ma."

     The thought broke Rick's heart. Daryl was gentle and kind and deserving of being cared for. Looked after. "I will always think of you," he hugged him to his shoulders.

     "Ya make me feel like..." Daryl turned to look Rick in the eye. Even in the dark. Like it was important to him Rick understood. "Ya make me feel like I matter. An' I ain't used ta that, but I like it." He bumped shoulders with Rick. "I like you an' I wish we don't gotta hide it, but..." he stared into the fire again. "He'd kill me."

     Rick breathed his words into Daryl's ear. To be sure he heard them. "I like you, too." Love was a better word for it. But, even that wasn't enough to describe all he felt for Daryl.

     Daryl shrugged. "Jus', when we get back ta school an' gotta act like nothin' happened in that tent...I don't want ya thinkin' I's ashamed a nothin' we done." He reached out to pat Rick's knee. "I ain't ashamed a you. Er us."

     "Hey, I understand," Rick soothed. He knew all too well that Will Dixon would not approve of two boys loving each other. He would probably think Daryl unworthy of it even if he could. And Rick did not know which hurt him more.

     "But, right now, out here, we don't have to worry about that shit," Rick stood. Swaying a little from all the whiskey. Once he steadied himself he gently tugged Daryl up beside him. "Let me take my boyfriend to bed while I can."

     Daryl stomped out the last of the fire. Let himself be pulled along towards the tent. He stumbled over the rocks as he looked up at the stars. Probably just as much from the whiskey as the distraction. But, Rick was there to catch him. Always there for each other.

     "Clear sky like that means 's gonna get awful cold t'night," Daryl squeezed Rick's hand.

     "Good thing we had all that whiskey ta keep us warm," Rick sassed, toppling over on his ass when he tried to bend down to unzip the tent. But, Daryl lunged forward. Breaking Rick's fall with his lap. "Look," Rick snorted, making himself at home on Daryl. "We've fallen for each other."

     "Pfff," Daryl hiccuped in Ricks ear. Squirming under him. But, it was not like he wanted Rick off him. Probably just trying to get comfortable on the gravel. "If ya wanted ta break my ass I c'n think of a better way," he groused. And Rick did not have to see his face to know he was grinning. Could hear it in his voice.

     Rick snorted out a laugh as he settled into Daryl. "Whiskey sure makes you sassy." Flirty. He hiccuped again. "I like it."

     "So long as it don't make me mean like m' old man," Daryl sighed. Laying his chin heavily on Rick's shoulder. "I ain't never wanna hurt ya." He clutched Rick, his hands clumsy and uncoordinated from the alcohol, but gentle as always.

     "Hey," Rick damn near busted his knee cap on a tiny rock as he scrambled around to face Daryl. "You are kind and gentle and nothin' like him, Daryl," he soothed. Crouching over him. "Nothin' like him," he repeated it to be sure Daryl understood. Whiskey and all.

     "Whiskey sure makes you chatty," Daryl bowed his head until their foreheads touched. "But, I like what ya say." He put his hands on Rick's sides and looked up at the sky. "Last chance ta wish on them stars 'fore I drag ya in that tent an' fall asleep on ya."

     Rick tapped the tin star on his chest. The only one that mattered. "I already got everything I need, everything I want," he pulled Daryl in for a kiss. Giving up everything of himself to Daryl as they fumbled their way into the tent. Nearly taking it down with their lack of coordination. Collapsing into the sleeping bags. Into each other.

     There might have been a few sharp rocks and twigs poking Rick through the bottom of the tent. And there were certainly bugs. And bites. But, it was the best sleep he ever got. Because, there were stars and moonlight. But, most of all there was Daryl. His loyalty, his friendship, his sass. His kind heart. And there was love between them. Real and true and good. And in the woods, tonight, they did not have to hide it.

Chapter Text

     Packing up camp did not take long. Rolling up the tent, the sleeping bags. Stomping out the fire. If only it were so easy to pack up his feelings for Daryl. To keep their secret. But, they had always been close, from day one. Attached at the hip, all the kids at school said. So, at least their closeness, their chemistry, those things Rick could not hide, would not betray them. Because, those things had always been there.

     The hike back was long. And Rick walked slow. But, it was not his pack that was heavy. It was his heart. He had been able to be so free with Daryl. So close. In the woods. And he did not want that to end.

     Daryl must have felt the same. Finding every excuse to stop along the trail. "See that path there?" Daryl pointed it out with a stick. "Merle said one a the neighbors told 'im that if ya hike that 'bout five miles ya c'n find the best wild strawberries ya ever had."

     "I do like strawberries," Rick beamed. And he liked Daryl. Would follow him anywhere.

     Daryl's cheeks turned as red as the fruit. "Guess that's too far ta go jus' ta see where they's gonna grow this summer, though," he hung his head. It was more than not wanting to get home to his father. It was not wanting to leave Rick. Even just for the night until they had school in the morning.

     Rick squeezed Daryl's hand. Not sure he would ever be able to let go. "You can show me next weekend for sure," he grinned. He didn't care it was just an overgrown bramble right now. If Daryl wanted to show him, he wanted to see it. "And we'll pick 'em and eat 'em until we're sick this summer."

     "Sure," Daryl agreed. Bumping shoulders with Rick as they made plans for everything they would do together. 

     Rick grinned as they walked hand in hand. Because, there would be time for all the things they planned. Because, Daryl was his future. His forever. "Maybe I could even borrow Shane's car," he pulled Daryl into his hip. "We could drive as far as a tank of gas will take us, someplace nobody knows us." Someplace nobody cares. "Find us a Waffle House."

     Daryl perked up. "Ya mean like a real date?"

     "I mean," Rick was the one blushing now, "it's still the South and we gotta be careful, but yea, a real date." Close as they would ever get.

     Daryl smiled big and wide at that. And Rick could not wait for the day he graduated the Academy so he could buy his own car and drive Daryl away from his old man for good. Windows down, wind in his hair. Just like in that gold Camaro. And Daryl could be free to smile like that all the time.

     They talked about camping trips. Fishing trips. Hunting trips. Daryl had a crossbow and it would require just the kind of hands on training and sassy flirting Daryl was so, so good at. But, Daryl started getting quieter the closer they got to his house. Until they said nothing at all. Their fingers entwined saying more than words ever could.

     "Hey," Rick whispered. Pulling Daryl to a stop. "I had the time of my life," he cooed into Daryl's ear. Careful not to let it look as intimate as it felt.

     "Jus' wait 'til next weekend," Daryl sassed. Staring into Rick's eyes. The air between them electrified. And had they been anywhere but ten yards from Daryl's back porch their lips would have connected just as tenderly as their souls had just done.

     But, the back door swung open. Slamming back shut so loud it set a flock of birds to flight. And Rick and Daryl to dropping flat in the tall brush. Because, with that noise they knew it wasn't Merle.

     "Darlena, where you at, ya lazy, no good son-of-a-bitch," Will Dixon stumbled down the back steps. Drunk before noon. "That's right, ya heard me," he hiccuped. Pointing the neck of his bottle into the woods, but missing them by a long shot. "Yer mama was a damn bitch ta have the likes a you." He swayed over the fire pit with a few smouldering embers and Rick wished he would fall in. Burn up. "I see ya there, Boy," he shouted.

     Rick could not breathe. Afraid doing so would give away their position. If the pounding of his heart hadn't already done that. But, it was Merle the old bastard had seen. And he tromped right past them on the ground like they weren't even there. And Rick could not even guess where he had come from. If he had followed them. Or, Jesus, if he had heard...

     "Simmer down," Merle slammed a string of squirrels onto a rickety table by the fire. Damn near collapsing it. Though, it would not have taken much. "He's still out there, but he did get ya these." Merle poked the embers in the fire pit with a stick. Dropping himself into one of the lawn chairs beside it. "Now, why don't ya go inside an' have yerself another damn drink 'til he gets back."

     Will Dixon was a big man, far as Rick could tell without moving to get a better look. Bare arms and broad shoulders poking out of his greasy overalls. Even as drunk as he was he looked like he could do some damage. Even to Merle. And Rick felt for the hunting knife clipped to Daryl's side. Hoping against hope he could get off one good swing first if the old bastard charged them.

     "Go on now," Merle picked up a beer bottle from the pile beside his chair. He made a show of ignoring the work to be done skinning the squirrels. "I'll make sure he takes care a these."

     Will tromped back up the steps. Letting the screen door slam behind him. It was another five minutes before Rick dared to breathe. Or relax his hand. His fingers aching from clutching the knife so tight.

     Daryl stayed still, save for risking to turn his head enough to search out Rick's eyes. His face a mix of horror at Rick having witnessed that, and awe at the protectiveness Rick had shown.

     Merle had been still, too. He finally stood and pissed on the fire until it was nothing but smoke. Picking his way past the mine field of broken bottles and cans silently he finally came to a stop. Looming over them in the brush. Arms across his chest.

     "Well now, Darlena," he crouched down. Gently touching Daryl's hair. "I think it best ya not hang 'round here an help me with them squirrels." He jabbed a thumb at the knife in Rick's hand, "Even though it looks like Friendly here's ready ta help."

     "Always ready to help," Rick slipped the knife back into the sheath on Daryl's hip. He would help with the squirrels, help protect Daryl. Anything.

     "C'mon, ya little shits," Merle cackled as he stood and offered them each a hand up. "How's 'bout I take ya' both out ta the Waffle House 'fore we drop Friendly back home?" He patted Daryl's cheek once he was standing, "Think they got a special on strawberry waffles."

"T-thanks, Merle," Daryl stuttered. But, the fear that choked him was not for his father. Rick could read it on his face. It was for what Merle could have overheard. Seen...

     It would not be five towns over. And it would not be a date. But, it was more time with Daryl. And it was time keeping Daryl from his father. Keeping him safe. And maybe, just maybe, Rick could convince Merle to let Daryl come home with him. Where he belonged.

Chapter Text

     Daryl sat thigh to thigh with Rick in the truck. The heat of him warming Rick more than the worn out heater. But, he hung his head and chewed his thumb pressed against the window. Not even looking in Rick's direction. And Rick knew it was actually Merle's eyes he was avoiding. Embarrassed by what Merle might have seen or heard before they knew he was there in the woods.

     Both brothers were silent. Even after they'd made it to the paved road. Far away from their father. But, that could have been because they could not get a word in edgewise once Rick started talking. Gushing about all the fun he had. And what a great teacher Daryl is.

     Merle only broke his silence as he pulled into a parking spot at the Waffle House. "Now don't ya go forgettin' ol' Merle taught that little shit ev'rythin' he knows," he jabbed Rick's side with his elbow before fighting the gearshift into park. "'Cept fer how ta be a good man, he were jus' born that way." Merle reached over Rick's shoulders to ruffle Daryl's messy hair. "Like I told ya, Baby Bro's always been the sweet one."

     Daryl finally looked up. Looked at Merle. "Ya taught me that, too, Merle."

     "Nah, Bro," Merle patted Daryl's cheek. "I jus' taught ya ta be yerself an' I try ta protect ya 'cuz ya's too good ta be a damn Dixon."

     "He's sure the best man I've ever known," Rick spoke up. And it was true. Daryl was nothing like his father. He was good and kind. His hands were always gentle. Careful. His touch always soft. And whiskey only brought out his sass, not his temper.

     Merle slitted his eyes at Rick. "I like you, Friendly," he bumped shoulders with him. "Daryl says you's gonna be a cop, but you ain't like no cops I ever known. What ya wanna do that for, anyways?"

     "I just want to help people is all," Rick shrugged. Help Daryl. Protect him.

     Daryl perked up. "Rick's gonna be a good cop, the kind that helps old ladies cross the street an' shit." He beamed. Sincerely proud of Rick.

     "I can see that," Merle tapped the tin star on Rick's chest. "King County's finest," he sucked his teeth and cackled like a crow.

     Daryl's cheeks turned pink. "We gonna eat er talk," he reached for the door latch, but Merle caught his sleeve. His movement was slow and without threat to Daryl or his arm would not have made it across Rick's lap.

     "Now look," Merle yanked the keys out of the ignition, but he did not yank on Daryl. And it was not lost on Rick how he handled them so differently than he handled his brother. And Rick realized Daryl did not fear his brother would hurt him if he found out. Not with his hands anyway. He must have feared he would keep them apart. "The three a us gonna have us a little chat 'fore we go in."

     Rick felt Daryl tense beside him, his breath hitch. And he reached for Daryl's hand. To face what Merle had to say together. Nothing would keep them apart.

     But, Merle spoke before either of them could plead their case. "Ya might not like this, Bro," Merle was hanging his head now. Unable to look Daryl's way. "But, I got me a thing goin' with one a them waitresses in there."

     Rick was as dumbstruck as Daryl. Their mouths hanging open in unison. "What?" And he was not sure which of them actually said it.

     Merle swiveled his head around. "That right there's why I warned ya," he snickered as he slid out of the driver's seat. "Don't want ya's sittin' in the booth catchin' flies in yer mouths like that while she's flirtin' with me."

     Daryl hopped out of the truck. Offered Rick a hand. "I ain't gonna ruin yer chance at love, Merle," he pleaded, sincerely. Winked at Rick. "I'ma let ya do that yerself when ya call 'er Sugar Tits er some shit," he finally sassed.

     "Good," Merle let them round the back of the pickup before pouncing on Daryl for the kind of half-hug, half-wrestling hold big brothers always give. To remind the other who's in charge. "'Cuz I ain't gonna stand in yer way neither," he made a show of trying to brush the dirt out of Daryl's hair. "Ya know, when the time comes."

     "'Sides," Merle released Daryl back to Rick's side. "What d'ya know 'bout girls anyways?" That took the wind out of their sails. Stopped them in their tracks. "Yer jus' a kid."

     Rick could not breathe. And he could not tell if Merle was teasing Daryl, giving his blessing, or just fucking clueless to the double meaning his words could have held if he knew.

     Daryl seemed just as confused. And eager to change the subject. "Bet I could eat ev'ry waffle they got in this place," he opened the glass door and held it for them.

     "Me, too," Rick joined Daryl in derailing the conversation.

     On the way through the lobby Rick grabbed the Nickel Ads. It was never too early to start looking for a car he could get. For the Academy. But, most of all for getting Daryl away from his father. He might not be able to afford a gold Camaro even if he could find one, but whatever he could get they could spend the weekends fixing it up. Getting it ready. Getting Daryl out of his father's house.

     "There she is," Merle swaggered and puffed out his chest. "You's two be good, ya hear?"

     The first waitress to notice them was blonde and had on enough cheap perfume to cover the smell of waffles and burnt coffee permeating the place. "Gotta be Merle's girl," Daryl leaned in close to whisper in Rick's ear.

     "Well, look what the cat dragged in," the waitress snapped her gum. Hands on her hips. But, the smile on her face was enough to tell this was their idea of flirting.

     Merle made a show of looking her up and down. "I could say the same thing 'bout you, Sugar." He left the "Tits" part silent.

     "This little cutie must be Daryl," she stopped short of getting too close. Did not offer her hand. Like she knew better than to spook him. Like Merle had schooled her on how to treat him. "Now we know who got all the looks in the family," she jabbed Merle.

     She turned to Rick. "You," she had no reservations touching him. Patted his cheek. "You must be Friendly. Rick, right?" She eyed him standing hip to hip with Daryl. "You sure do look awful friendly, Sweetheart."

     "W-we are best friends," Rick stuttered. Feeling his cheeks burn. But, it wasn't a lie. Daryl was Rick's closest, most trusted friend. Closer than Shane even. Daryl was just so much more. Daryl was Rick's everything.

     "I'm Dixie," the waitress snapped her gum again and bent down to meet Daryl's eyes. Draw him back into the conversation. "Sugar, why don't ya take your friend an' your sorry ass brother over ta that booth in the corner an' I'll bring y'all some menus an' coffee." She winked and trotted off to the kitchen. Slapping Merle's ass.

     "Guess she don't think yer ass 's all that sorry," Daryl snorted, leading the way to their table.

     Merle slid into one side of the booth. Tossed a creamer cup at Daryl. "She knows a good thing when she sees it."

     "Must need glasses," Daryl grinned.

     Rick pressed close to Daryl. Even as they sat down. No space between them. And suddenly he lost his appetite as he thought about how Merle's first thought upon seeing them this morning was taking them to the Waffle House before dropping him home. At first he'd thought it was because Will Dixon was on a bender. But, he started to wonder if it was to separate them instead.

     He reached for Daryl's hand under the table. Relaxing a little at the warm fingers wrapping instinctively around his. But, he worried about how the waitress knew to be gentle with Daryl. He worried about how much she knew about them. How much Merle knew. And how much he would be okay with.

Chapter Text

     Dixie kept the coffee and waffles coming. Never letting Daryl's plate go empty. And she made a point of talking low and drawing Daryl into every conversation. That was all it took for Rick to like her. The fact that she knew just how to treat Daryl, like Merle had told her about him, to be careful with him, made Rick like Merle all the more, too. He could only hope Merle felt the same about him. Wouldn't try to keep them apart.

     Dixie poured their cups to overflowing. "I'll be back ta check on y'all in a bit, but if ya need anything at all before then ya just holler," she smiled with brightly painted lips. "An' believe me I know this one can holler with the mouth he got on him," she slapped Merle's shoulder and shook her head as she turned to go.

    "Damn fine woman there," Merle slurped coffee, staring after Dixie as she slipped away to tend to her other tables. "The kind c'n keep a man on his toes. Makes the best cherry pie I ever had in all m' life, too."

     Daryl snickered like he were choking on his waffle. Leaning in to Rick's ear. "Usually the only cherries he cares 'bout are the ones he c'n pop."

     His breath was warm and mapley sweet in Rick's face. Giving him an appetite for more than breakfast. But, Merle's boot kicking him under the table jarred Rick from his thoughts.

     "What's that little shit sayin' 'bout me now?" Merle barked. But, there was no malice in it. Only brotherly banter.

     Rick took his time downing coffee, buying time to think of something. "He said if ya marry her she'll be Dixie Dixon." The three of them shared a laugh at that.

     Dixie came back with more food and coffee. "How 'bout hash browns?" She put a heaping plate on the table. Closest to Daryl. "If your little hunting trip went anything like his last one, somethin' tells me ya could use 'em."

     "Hey now, that weren't m' fault that damn deer got away," Merle slapped her ass. "Anyways," he fell over himself grinning like an idiot, "right now it's a fox I's after."

     Dixie shook her head and sauntered off again. But, when she looked back over her shoulder she was smiling. And blushing.

     "Will ya look at that," Merle seemed proud of himself. "I left her speechless."

     Daryl rolled his eyes, "'Cuz she don't know how ta respond ta that lame ass pick up line." He doused his plate in syrup. "Seriously, Merle. I ain't never seen ya like this," he hacked into his third waffle. Talked through a mouthful. "Giddy as a fuckin' schoolgirl."

     "Well, I ain't the only one," Merle got serious now. Leaning over the table. "Look at you's two." He knocked back his coffee like a shot of bourbon. "Ya really come outta yer shell since ya met Friendly," he jabbed his thumb at Rick, shot him a wink.

     Daryl's face turned as red as Dixie's lipstick and he hung his head. "Ain't never had a friend b'fore."

     "Well, ya weren't missin' nothin' 'cuz mos' people ain't worth gettin' ta know anyways," Merle sat back in the booth. "But, I think ya got a good one here."

     "Sure do," Daryl perked up, squeezing Rick's knee under the table. "His ma's a good cook, too," he wiped his sticky fingers on his shirt. "Makes me waffles ev'ry bit 's good as these."

     Merle snickered. "I c'n see she put some meat on ya ta go with that muscle." He shoveled some of the hash browns onto his plate. "She mus' dote on ya like ya d'serve."

     Rick looked over at Daryl dumping cup after cup of creamer in his coffee and couldn't help but grin. "She's kind of adopted him. Dad has, too," he felt it was important to add that. Make sure Merle knew Daryl was safe there.

     There was an awkward silence as Rick let that sink in. He dragged a piece of waffle through the pool of butter and syrup on his plate. Drawing circles as he worked up the nerve to ask Merle if Daryl could stay over. "I know it's a school night and all," he shrugged, trying to look nonchalant instead of desperate, "but she'll be heartbroken if he can't stay over." And so would Rick.

     "That a fact?" Merle sucked his teeth. Mulling it over.

     Rick tried not to pounce and be pushy, but he wanted to keep Daryl close, keep Daryl safe, more than he'd ever wanted anything in his whole life. He wanted to sit shoulder to shoulder with Daryl doing homework, stay up late talking about hunting and comic books and telling dumb jokes. He wanted to brush the hair out of Daryl's eyes and watch him sleep, tucked against his side. In a warm bed, with clean sheets. Safe.

     Daryl jumped on Rick's bandwagon. Giving Merle his best pouty face as he stabbed at the potatoes. "Sure hate ta disappoint her like that."

     "Who says ya gotta?" Merle seemed relieved to have a way to get Daryl away from their father. But, not half as relieved as Rick. "Only 'f she's okay with it, though. And ya clear it with his old man." Merle was adament about that. For obvious reasons.

     "They'll be thrilled," Rick beamed. He sure was.

     Merle started back in on his food. "One thing, though," he chewed noisily. "I been keepin' up on all a yer chores so's Daddy ain't even noticed you's gone, but I got me a chance ta work a extra shift an' make us a little extra apartment money ta stash away if ya's able ta come home after school t'morrow an' chop wood." He pushed his plate away. "I figure ya c'n ride the bus home after school, finish the wood an' then ya c'n take yer bike ta Friendly's 'fore the old bastard gets home, I been fixin' it up fer ya."

     "Sure," Daryl gushed. "I c'n do that."

     "I'll come with ya an' help," Rick offered. He didn't know much about chopping wood, but he didn't want Daryl there alone.

     Merle shifted in the booth making it squeak. "Alright, its settled then." He bent low to look Daryl square in the eye. "But, ya gotta promise you's gonna do it er I won't take the shift an' I'll do the wood m'self." He patted Daryl's hand. "If it don't get done he'll come lookin' fer school...ev'rywhere an' he'll..." he don't even gotta say what.

     "I'll be there," Daryl promised. He melted into Rick. "We'll be there."

     It was nice to hear Daryl say we. To see him smiling and confident Rick would back him up. And come hell or high water Rick would always be there for Daryl. To chop wood. To keep watch. To do whatever it took to look after him. Protect him. And he breathed a sigh of relief that Merle wasn't going to stand in his way. Because, nobody would win that fight.

Chapter Text

     Rick felt better getting Daryl back to his house, back to his room. Where he was safe. Where locks were for privacy not keeping keeping a monster away. And while Daryl still had nothing of his own to bring, unpacking the camping gear felt like moving him in.

     Even Merle seemed to rest easier once he'd met Rick's mom, who came running to greet them at the garage door as they pulled into the driveway. The 'yes, ma'am' and 'no ma'am' he answered her with seemed more out of respect than fear or apprehension after he watched her take them both into her arms for a kiss, dirt and all. And he saw that Daryl did not flinch from her.

     And so, once he had helped stow all the gear back where it belonged, Merle said his goodbyes, slipping Daryl a wrinkled twenty dollar bill with a hug. And a kiss to the matted hair on top of his head. "Ya 'member I c'n keep up with most a yer chores, but don't ya forget 'bout that wood," he reminded Daryl as he climbed back in his truck.

     "We'll be there," Daryl pressed into Rick's hip, waving after the truck as it pulled away.

     Rick waved, too. Wishing there was some way he could also keep Merle from their old man's fury. But, at least Merle had a few years and a few more pounds on him than Daryl. Could defend himself. Would defend himself.

     Rick's mom closed the garage door and dug in the freezer for something for dinner. "You boys make sure to get your homework done, got school tomorrow." She pulled out some ground beef. "And take a shower, ya smell like a forest fire," she sassed.

     "Yes, Ma," Daryl brushed a cloud of dirt off his sweatshirt.

     "Race ya to the shower," Rick took off for the house. Making Daryl tromp noisily up the steps and through the house, shoes and all to keep pace with him. And it warmed his heart to see Daryl do it without hesitation now. Knowing he felt truly safe there. Truly home.

     Rick started stripping the second he cleared his bedroom door. Stopping only to lock it once Daryl made it through. And soon enough his hands were not the only ones pulling at his clothes. Only Daryl's were gentle, careful. Rubbing over Rick as he worked.

     Rick did the same for Daryl. Easing his clothes off. Moving his palms over every inch of skin, every scar he exposed. He took his time, savoring the feel of him, the warmth of him as he guided Daryl to the shower.

     The hot water felt good on Rick. But, not half as good as Daryl. Naked and pressed to his side, soaping him up. And as every bit of dirt washed down the drain so did his fears. Daryl was with him. Protected. And as long as they chopped the wood Merle had no plans to make him come back any time soon.

     "Not sure who won that race," Daryl groused. Shivering.

     Rick herded him under the warm water. "As long as you're with me I feel like I got the prize," he grinned. He'd said it before, the night they first kissed. And it would always be true. He snagged the shampoo and worked some into Daryl's choppy hair. "But," he winked, "if there's anything ya wanna give me..."

     "Hah," Daryl teased, "Ma said homework."

     Rick sighed. "We got any homework we gotta do tonight?" It was the last thing he felt like doing, but he wouldn't let their grades slip. Wouldn't let anything happen to make trouble for Daryl. One bad report card might be all it took to set Will Dixon to hunting Daryl down. Or one cord of wood not chopped.

     Daryl relaxed into Rick's hands. Like he always did. Compliant and trusting. Tilting his head back, eyes closed. "Gotta catch up readin' 'To Kill A Mocking Bird'," he hummed. Succumbing to the scalp massage. His hair finally looking blonder again as it came clean. "Maybe check out some a them comics ya wanted ta show me since we, uh..." His face turned pink, and not from the steam. "Since we found other stuff ta do in that tent."

     "Guess we got a bit of readin' to do before bed then," Rick eased Daryl under the water again. Stroked through his hair until the soap rinsed clean. "Need to look through the Nickel Ads, too," he brushed the wet strands back from Daryl's face. Careful not to get soap in his eyes. "Need to start lookin' for a car for the Academy, maybe somethin' we could fix up."

     Can't rely on Shane for rides forever. Even though they planned to go to the Academy together. And there was that date at a Waffle House five towns over Rick had hoped for. Where maybe he and Daryl could hold hands and do all the things couples get to do while they're out.

     Daryl finally opened his eyes. "Lucky fer you huntin' ain't the only thing Merle taught me," he huffed. "Been helpin' him keep his old truck runnin' fer years." He spit water out the side of his mouth. "Don't worry," he winked. "The only reason the heater don't work is 'cuz we ain't got to it yet."

     Rick pulled Daryl close, until there was not even enough space between them for a trickle of water. "You're all I need to keep me warm anyway," he pressed his lips to Daryl's. Over and over. Until the hot water ran out and they were forced to jump out.

     After drying off Rick handed Daryl a tee shirt and a pair of sweats before digging anything out of the dresser for himself. Daryl was always Rick's first thought. His priority. Just like he deserved to be.

     By the time Rick had dressed and tamed his wet curls best he could Daryl had pulled out the Nickel Ads and flopped onto his belly on Rick's bed. Flipping through the paper. "What a bunch a junkers," he smirked. "Expensive, too."

     Rick pulled his copy of To Kill A Mocking Bird and a few comics off his desk and layed down next to Daryl. Settling into his side. "At least we got time," he bumped his shoulder.

     Merle seemed open to letting Daryl stay as long as Rick's mom would have him. And Rick knew she'd never let him go. Neither would Rick. By the time school was out Rick would have a spot at the Academy, a car - any old car, and a way to take Daryl away from his old man. Protect him, provide for him. For good.

Chapter Text

     Shane could be cocky and selfish sometimes. But, Rick knew underneath it all he had a good heart. That's why they were friends. So it should not have surprised him when Shane knocked on his bedroom door carrying a paper bag of his clothes. For Daryl.

     "Hey, man," he greeted Rick as he let him into the room with Lori hot on his heels. He made no mention of the door having been locked or Daryl still laying on his belly on Rick's bed as he shoved the bag at Daryl.

     "Figured ya'd get roped inta stayin' over again an'..." Shane raked a hand through his hair like he always does when he gets flustered and his brain has more words than his lips can get out. "Thought maybe you could use some clothes for school tomorrow."

     As usual Shane was as transparent as Scotch tape. And Daryl stared at the bag as he sat up. Speechless. Chewing his bottom lip. But, the blush on his cheeks and the way he made eye contact with Shane and gave a little nod said thanks more than words ever could.

     "Anyway," Shane dumped the bag out next to Daryl since he seemed to be frozen in place. "You got broader shoulders'n Rick ain't gonna be able to wear too many of his skinny ass clothes," he smirked at Rick and jabbed his side. But, this time it wasn't teasing, even though it was true. It was just his way of giving Daryl an excuse to take the clothes without feeling like he was less than him in any way.

     Rick clapped Shane's shoulder in thanks. Because, words had failed him. It was the kindest thing he had ever seen Shane do. In all the years he'd known him. And it reminded him why they were brothers.

     "I like this one," Rick finally made his mouth work as he rummaged through the pile, snagging a blue plaid flannel. "It suits you," he held it up to Daryl testing the width of the shoulders.

     Lori finally stepped from behind Shane. "The color really brings out your eyes," she made her voice soft and even bent down to meet his face. But, she made no move to touch him.

     Rick sat next to Daryl on the bed which seemed to unlock him from his trance. "You should definitely wear that one to school tomorrow," he bumped shoulders with Daryl and ruffled his hair. It would definitely fit better than the tee shirt of Rick's currently stretched across Daryl's chest and belly. But, Rick thought that was hot as hell on Daryl.

     Daryl chewed his thumb. "I owe ya one, Shane."

     "Nah, man," Shane mussed Daryl's hair. Probably trying to imitate Rick, but not half as gentle. And Daryl only flinched a little. "Jus' what friends do," Shane shrugged. And it meant the world to Rick that Shane considered Daryl his friend, too.

     "Besides," Shane crossed his arms over his chest and shifted foot to foot as he took in the sight of them in matching sweats. "Ya might be joined at the hip like a couple of Siamese twins, but that ain't no reason to dress like it."

     Lori swatted Shane. "Like you didn't just ask me to wear your football jersey," she reminded him. Punching his arm again for good measure. And because he seemed to like it.

     Shane took his punishment with a wolfish grin. "You'll notice she ain't wearin' it," he sassed.

     "Maybe you should wash it first," Rick smarted off. Knowing Shane could take his sass.

     "Enough about me," Shane wrestled Lori into a bear hug and kissed her neck until she screamed. And it might be the only time in his life he'd ever say those words. "I wanna know about your camping trip." He loosened his grip on Lori as she settled down. "Did ya get lucky?"

     Rick felt the air go out of his lungs like he'd been sucker punched. And Daryl tense beside him. Even though he fought the urge to confirm Shane's suspicions his hand found its way to Daryl's. Squeezing. It'll be okay. It'll be okay.

     Shane might be an ass, but he'd never out them all over school. Never out them to Daryl's old man. Not deliberately. But, even that slim chance of an accident could be the end of everything. The end of Daryl. And Rick would never let that happen.

     "Did. Ya. Catch. A. Rabbit?" Shane broke it down word by word like they were dumb instead of dumbstruck.

     Daryl deflated. Snorted out a nervous laugh at the misunderstanding. "Rick caught us a fine rabbit," he gushed. Happy to have the chance to sing Rick's praises.

     "How come you didn't take me?" Lori gave Shane her best mock pout. Twisting a hunk of his hair in her fingers coyly. "A fire, a small tent, nothing to do all alone in the woods," she flashed him a grin every bit as wolfish as his own. "Just think how we would have to entertain ourselves," she batted her eyes.

     "What did you guys do?" Shane quirked a grin in their direction.

     "Played a lotta cards," Rick blushed. "Go Fish." Shane didn't need to know about the strip poker.

     "Ya stayin' fer dinner?" Daryl asked, eager to change the subject.

     And Rick smiled at his good heart. Daryl was right to include Shane and Lori. Shane was still Rick's brother. His friend. And Rick wanted him to be a part of his life. Even if that meant hiding things from him. Like just how close he was with Daryl.

Chapter Text

     Daryl wore the blue plaid flannel. His broad shoulders filling it out nicely. And if Shane noticed how much Rick was admiring it on Daryl he did not say a word about it as he drove them to school. Stopping only to pick up Lori. And she admired it, too.

     As much as Rick had not wanted the weekend to be over school had gone well. Rick got very little homework. And Daryl was in most of his classes. Pressed into his side. Where he belonged. And the day went fast. Except for his last class. Without Daryl. And all Rick could think about was chopping the wood and getting Daryl back home. Safe.

     As soon as the final bell rang he was running to meet Daryl. Because, he did not want to miss the bus. Could not afford to be late. But, Daryl wasn't hurrying at all. He shuffled toward Rick across the quad, shoulders hunched. And Rick knew something bad had happened in Daryl's shop class.

     "Sorry, man," Daryl chewed his thumb. Not meeting Rick's eyes. And he never avoided him like that. "Ed were pickin' on Carol an' I stepped in 'fore he hit 'er or some shit an'-"

     "Did he hurt you?" Rick brushed Daryl's hair back, checked him over for fresh bruises. He knew Daryl wouldn't let Ed hurt Carol, but if that fucker got his hands on Daryl he was gonna be sorry. But, all he saw were the marks Daryl had gotten from his own father. And sure as shit there'd be more if they didn't get moving.

     Daryl shook his head. Still not meeting Rick's eyes. "Nah, man he ain't hurt me, but we got into it an'...I got detention t'day."

     Rick felt the air go out of his lungs like he'd been punched. Like Will was going to try to punch Daryl. If that wood didn't get the axe...Daryl would. And Rick could not let that happen. "No," he pleaded. "Just come with me...don't go to detention," he was whining, but he didn't care.

     "I gotta," Daryl made his voice soft. Finally looking Rick in the eye. "If I skip detention I get suspended an' I might not get ta graduate." He rubbed Rick's arm trying to comfort him. But, there was nothing that could make this better. "Graduatin's what's gonna get me 'way from him." He shrugged, like getting beat was nothing. And to him it probably wasn't. And that broke Rick's heart. "Anyway, he'd beat me jus' as bad fer skippin' detention as not doin' chores."

     Daryl was fucked either way. "Daryl?" Rick squeaked. Feeling as helpless as he'd ever felt in his whole life.

     Daryl chewed his bottom lip now. "The girl in the office let me call Merle's work ta leave a message so's he'll know ta pick us up here an' 'm sure he'll drop ya home." Like Rick would ever leave him.

     Daryl hung his head again. "Prob'ly won't be at school t'morrow." And he didn't have to say why. "But, 'f ya wanna take the bus over I'd love ta see ya." His eyes actually lit up. "Could wait fer ya in our spot over by the creek b'hind m' house."

     Rick was sick at the thought of Daryl being hit. Being hurt. And he clutched onto his arm. "Please," he pleaded. For what he didn't know. There seemed to be no way to win.

     "Don't worry," Daryl hummed in Rick's ear. "Merle will protect me best he can, take the worst a it," he offered. But, it wouldn't be enough. It would never be enough. "Gotta go," he kissed Rick's cheek. With all the softness and tenderness he'd never been shown in life. And then he was gone. Slipping into study hall silent as a cat. Probably the same way he'd be slipping in his own door tonight.

     Rick's heart ached for Daryl. And his eyes burned as he watched the last bus pull away. Slipping away from him. Like his last chance at fixing this. His last chance at saving Daryl. But, he could not just sit and wait. Would not just sit and wait. He would not let Daryl face...Jesus, he did not even want to think what horror Daryl would face if that wood did not get chopped.

     So, he did the only thing he could do. He left Daryl. Sprinting across the parking lot. To Shane's car. Fumbling for his keys as he caught sight of Glenn.

     "Hey, you stayin' to watch Maggie's cheerleadin' practice?" He could barely talk he was so out of breath and his hand shook so bad as he unlocked the door he may have scratched the paint with the key.

     Glenn beamed like he hadn't a care in the world. Because, he did not know assholes like Will Dixon. "Of course."

     "Do me a favor," Rick jumped into the driver's seat. "Tell Shane I had an emergency." He knew Shane would understand. And if he didn't Rick really couldn't give a shit. "And give him and Lori a ride home?" He was revving the engine and peeling out before he got an answer.

     He broke the speed limit and ran a few lights. But, he'd take a ticket or any punishment. So Daryl wouldn't have to. He made it to Daryl's house in ten minutes. Faster than the bus would have been. And yet he still felt like he was out of time as he skidded to a stop a few blocks down, parking the car in some overgrown brush. Just in case the asshole was home.

     Hopping the fence he did his best not to trample noisily over the beer cans all over the back yard. And after peeking in the cracked windows to make sure he was alone he found the wood. A fallen tree dragged from the woods. It took him a few panicked minutes to find an axe in the mess of rusty tools and shotgun shells in the overgrown grass.

     And once he'd found it he hacked at the tree with all he was worth. Wishing it was Will fucking Dixon. He hacked and hacked until he was sweating and sore. And his palms were nothing but raw blisters torn open a hundred times over. His arms shook and he was dying of thirst. But, he would not stop until all the wood was done. He would not stop until Daryl was safe.

     He was manic in his hatred for Will. Splintering bark everywhere as he chopped when he heard a truck pull up out front. And he half wished the fucker came home. So he could have it out with him once and for all. But, the silent shutting of doors meant it was Daryl and Merle.

     "Rick?" Daryl went from shuffling through the yard, head hung low like a prisoner lead to the gallows, to bounding over the rusted out junk in the grass to get to Rick. Pulling the axe away and checking his hands. Tender and careful. And it was only then Rick realized they were bleeding.

     "Jesus," Merle huffed. But, it was quiet. Surprise and not cursing. "I'll get the first aid kit." And he bounded up the back steps and into the house. Letting the screen door clang shut behind him.

     Daryl clutched Rick's hands. Easing him to kneeling on the ground as he inspected the torn skin, his eyes glistening with tears he was holding back. "You okay?"

     But, Rick could give no answer. He would not be okay until Daryl was away from this place.

     Daryl just stared wide eyed at the mess of wood strewn about. "Ya did all this...fer me?"

     "I won't let him hurt you," was all Rick could say. "You're too good and kind and..." he sputtered. Tears spilling down his cheeks and mixing with the sweat and dirt there. And his tears were not for his bleeding palms, his pain. But, for the pain Daryl would have had to endure.

     Merle was back with a rusted tin of gauze and little bottles of antiseptic. Sewing needles. A flask of god knows what. All things he would have probably had to use on Daryl if...Rick could not let himself imagine it.

     "Yer pretty good an' kind yerself, Friendly," Merle sorted through the box. Squatting down to Rick in the grass. "Jesus, man, thought ya'd hopped the bus home an' left 'im, when all this time ya was here." Merle might have had a tear in his eye as well as he poured peroxide. Slowly. Like he was trying to ease the sting.

     The peroxide foamed pink with Rick's blood and hurt like a bitch. But, Rick did not pull away. Comforted by Daryl's arms around him. Daryl's hands on his. Caressing the undamaged parts of skin with his thumbs. And when their eyes met they said a thousand things in their secret silent language. Mostly, thanks and I love you.

     Daryl was the first to speak actual words. "King County's finest friend," he tapped the tin star pinned to Rick's chest. "An' m' hero," he took the gauze out of the tin and started wrapping Rick's hands. "Ya rescued me."

     But, Daryl was the one who had rescued Rick. His kindness and sass had breathed new life into him. Given him hope. Given him love. Real and true and good. And it was a love he'd protect and cherish. Forever.

     Merle held the flask out for Rick to take a swig. The whiskey burned going down, but not half as bad as his hands. "I just want you to be safe," Rick leaned into Daryl.

     Merle inspected Daryl's job of bandaging. Careful not to hurt Rick. "Yer the one gonna get a whoopin' now," he tried to smile, but it faded just as quickly as it had appeared. "Yer daddy ain't gonna let Daryl come 'round no more neither. After this." And he looked just as hurt as Daryl was about it.

     "No way," Rick reached for Daryl with his padded hands. "That ain't never gonna happen." He wouldn't let it. Not ever. Daryl's place was at his side. Safe. And Daryl's own father may have been a drunken asshole who did not want him, but Rick's dad did. And he would understand.

Chapter Text

     Daryl damn near chewed his thumb clean off with worry about Rick's hands. Even though the blisters were nothing compared to what Daryl would have suffered if that wood had not been chopped.

     "I hate that ya got hurt, 'specially on account a me," Daryl shrugged like he wasn't worthy, even though Rick would do it a thousand times over to protect him. He inspected the bandages again, pressing his forehead to Rick's. Making his voice low enough only Rick could hear. "An' if it means yer dad ain't gonna let me near ya no more I'd a gladly taken the back a m' old man's hand rather than the pain a losin' you."

     Rick's heart squeezed at the thought and he collapsed into Daryl. "You ain't never gonna lose me," he reassured him. "Not ever." Rick wouldn't let anything keep him from Daryl. Not even Will fucking Dixon. "But, I ain't gonna let him hurt you either."

     Merle cleared his throat, reminding them he was still there, but they barely pulled out of their huddle. "Best get Friendly home, get this over with," he jangled his keys.

     "I didn't take the bus," Rick stayed pressed to Daryl's side. He wasn't leaving him behind. "I borrowed Shane's car."

     Daryl fussed over Rick's padded hands. "I better drive it back fer ya."

     "I'll follow in the truck," Merle hung his head. Shuffled foot to foot. Unable to look at either of them. "Ta take Daryl home when yer Daddy throws 'im out." His voice was low and soft. Like they were words he did not want to say.

     "Ain't gonna happen," Rick insisted. As much for Daryl's benefit as Merle's. He'd seen how his dad had been with Daryl when he'd spilled the coffee. His dad was a cop, he'd seen shit. He understood Daryl. And he would understand this. And he would not blame Daryl.

     "Jus' in case," Merle shrugged. But, after growing up with Will Dixon Rick could not really blame him for doubting.

     Daryl helped Rick to the car. Easing him into the passenger seat. With all the gentleness and care he had never been shown. And sure enough Merle followed in the truck. Parking a few blocks down from Rick's house to wait for Daryl.

     As much as Daryl probably dreaded facing Rick's dad it was Shane Rick didn't want to face. Standing on his porch, arms crossed. And he stomped down the steps toward the car as Daryl pulled into his driveway.

     "What the hell was that, man?" Shane tore open Rick's door.

     "I'm sorry, but I really needed the car," Rick protested from behind Daryl's arm that had shot out to protect him from rough handling that did not come.

     "I don't care about that, man, gave you a damn key for a reason," Shane waved him off, squating down to Rick's level. His face scrunching up as he saw the gauze, silently mouthing, did he hurt you? But, it was obvious he did not mean Daryl. That maybe he'd figured out what kind of man Will Dixon was.

     And with Daryl pressed to his side where he belonged Rick wondered what else Shane might figure out. "I'm fine," he assured Shane. "Just chopped too much wood is all."

     "Why didn't you tell me, man? I could have helped." Shane scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Instead I gotta hear it from Glenn...a-and by then it's too late." He half laughed, "And I had no way to get there."

     Rick hung his head. Feeling like shit for not thinking of Shane. For not thinking he would help. "You had football practice and Lori and..."

     "I'd have ditched practice," Shane looked over Rick's bandaged hands. Clutched the back of his neck and pulled him in until their foreheads touched. "We're brothers. I'd have helped you." He made a point of looking over at Daryl squirming in the driver's seat. "Both a you."

     "Thanks," Rick choked out as Shane helped him out of the car, careful not to touch his hands.

     Daryl grabbed the backpack out of the back seat and scrambled to his place at Rick's side. "Thanks, man," he handed Shane the keys. Ready to go inside and face a wrath from Rick's dad that would never come.

     "Brothers," Shane reminded them. Squeezing Daryl's shoulder like he wanted him to be sure he meant him, too.

     Rick patted Shane's arm, "See you in the morning, Brother."

     "Bright and early," Shane padded off toward his front door. "And," he turned back with a wink, "I'm driving."

     Unable to move his fingers Rick offered his arm to Daryl and led him up the porch. "I promise it will be okay," he assured him.

     As they entered the house it was Rick's dad that saw them first. Eyebrows raised as he noticed Rick's bandaged hands. But, to his credit he did not say a word about it. "Evenin', boys," he made a special effort to greet them both. Even though Daryl trailed behind like Rick's shadow.

     "Sorry we're late," Rick offered as his mom came into the living room and sidled up to his dad. And they looked funny standing there, making every effort to not cross their arms or do anything that would seem threatening to Daryl.

     Daryl stepped forward. Ready to take the blame. "'S my fault," he hung his head, staring at the holes in his shoes. "I got detention."

     "He didn't deserve it," Rick came to his defense. Even though he knew he didn't need to. Because, he knew his parents wouldn't judge Daryl.

     "Of course he didn't deserve it," Rick's mom eased forward and scooped Daryl up into her arms. Slow and careful so as not to spook him. Because, she could see his guilt and shame in the way he hunched and would not meet their eyes. "My sweet boy."

     Rick's dad shook his head. "Shane told us about Ed, that son-of-a-bitch." He reached out to touch Daryl's shoulder so softly Rick wondered if he'd even felt it. "Sometimes doing the right thing comes at a cost, Daryl and we're proud of you for standing up for that girl."

     Daryl was speechless. Burying his face in Rick's mom's neck as she stroked his hair. And Rick wished he could see his face, to read it, to know if he was okay. Or still scared. He stroked his back with his padded hands to reassure him.

     "Looks like you got into a bit of a scuffle yourself, Rick," his dad sat on the couch. Patted the coffee table in front of him. "Come here and let me have a look at you."

     "Just chopped wood and forgot to wear gloves," Rick shrugged like it was nothing. Because, really it was, compared to what Daryl would have endured. Rick pulled himself from Daryl and sat down to let his father see his hands. Holding his breath as the bandages were unwrapped, even though it was done as carefully as Daryl had bound them.

     His dad's eyes went wide at the sight of the torn open blisters and he made a point of seeking out Rick's gaze to silently ask if he was okay, truly okay. But, his voice and words did not betray his shock.

     "Someone sure took loving care of you," his dad rewrapped the gauze. "Now, Daryl," he patted the table next to Rick and made his voice soft like he was talking to a lost child. "Why don't you have a seat so I can look over my other boy."

     Rick's mom released Daryl and he stumbled as she urged him forward. Dropping down next to Rick. And Rick could feel him shaking as he offered up his hands. "I ain't hurt like Rick."

     "I can see that," Rick's dad took Daryl's hands in his and turned them over for effect. "I think your pain is in here," he touched Daryl's chest over his heart. And as gentle as it was it seemed to knock the breath out of him. "You're worried about Rick," his dad bent down to meet Daryl's eyes, "but you've taken good care of him and I assure you he will recover." He spoke quietly to him. "And you are not to blame."

     Daryl chewed his lip, still silent. And Rick reached out for him. Fumbling with padded hands. "Of course you're not to blame," Rick agreed. "I should have worn gloves is all."

     Rick's dad quirked a grin. "You should have seen some of the scrapes Shane's dad and I used to come home with." He patted Daryl's knee. "Now, why don't you boys go on upstairs and finish your homework while your mother and I get dinner ready?"

     And Rick knew what his dad was doing. He was letting Daryl know he was still welcome, still had his place in their house. So Rick nudged Daryl to moving and led him upstairs. It was over just as painlessly as Rick knew it would be. Because, his dad was not Will Dixon. His dad was a good man with a good heart. Like Daryl.

      People were always saying how much Rick looked like his dad. His curls, his eyes. His pout. And he could not complain about that. But, what he really wanted was to have his heart. So he could always be as good and kind as Daryl deserved.

Chapter Text

     A month went by and Merle had not come to take Daryl home. Two months. Three months. But, he visited every week. Always leaving Daryl ten or twenty bucks. And always leaving Daryl with Rick. Where he was happy. Where he was safe.

     Daryl was thriving at Rick's. His GPA had gone up a full point. He'd always been smart even though Will Dixon had beat it into him he was otherwise. But, now he had time for all his homework. Because, he did not have to spend every waking hour chopping wood or hunting to put food on the table for a useless father who insulted, belittled and beat him.

     He was sleeping through the night. In a bed that was safe and warm. Which Rick was more than happy to provide. And either his parents just assumed Daryl used the sleeping bag like Shane always had or it had never crossed their minds they shared the bed...and liked it. Either way it was never questioned. And no one tried to stop it.

     Daryl was even filling out more with Rick's mom cooking for him. He was still a solid wall of muscle, but now he had enough meat on him to fill out the back of his pants nicely. And a slight curve to his belly that went outward instead of inward. He was looking healthy. And hot as hell.

     With his clean clothes and enough extra pounds on him to compliment his broad shoulders all the girls started fawning over him. But, they had not seen the beauty that was always there, dirt, ripped jeans and all. And they did not deserve him.

     "You going to the dance tonight?" Andrea plopped down at the lunch table across from them. Twirling her long, blonde ponytail. Flirting. It made Rick's insides twist to think how she should have been doing that all along. If she'd taken the time to see Daryl. Truly know him.

     "Nah," Daryl wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and went back to wolfing down his sandwich. His thigh pressing into Rick's under the table as he sucked his soda bottle. "Gotta turn in early 'cuz I'ma teach Rick ta hunt turkeys t'morrow," he belched up his Coke. Trying to put Andrea off.

     But, Rick swooned. He loved Daryl for who he was. The sweet boy who ate with his hands and played in the dirt. Who sassed and teased and had the best jokes. The boy with the choppy, scraggly hair and kind eyes. Kind heart. And Rick did not want to change a thing about him.

     Andrea stole a curly fry off Lori's tray. "What's the matter, blondes aren't your type?"

     At least she didn't say girls. And Daryl breathed a sigh of relief about it. "Nope," he chewed noisily. "Kinda partial ta brunettes." He quirked his lips at Rick. A tiny grin only he would notice.

     Shane stole a tater tot off Andrea's tray and made a show of dragging it through the ketchup before feeding it to Lori. "Rick's the one partial ta blondes," he jabbed his elbow at him. "Ain't that right?"

     Rick grinned at Daryl. If only Shane knew the blonde he liked had bigger muscles than him, short hair and shoulders that went on for days. "I'm kinda partial ta turkeys right now," he dunked one of Shane's tater tots into ranch and fed it to Daryl. "Gotta bag one for Thanksgiving next week."

     Andrea was already bored with the conversation. "You're both turkeys," she huffed and turned to Glenn and Maggie. Trying to horn in on their huddled conversation.

     Lori scooted closer, ignoring Andrea. "I think turkey hunting sounds fun," she reached out to pat Daryl's hand and he did not flinch from her.

     "Sure is," Daryl sucked grease off the fingers of his free hand. And he truly had no idea how he was toying with Rick when he did that.

     Shane got all animated. Feigning shock at Lori. Or a heart attack. "You mean to tell me you'd rather trek through the mud in my old boots than go ta this dance? After ya spent how much on that dress?" He was trying to tease Lori like Rick and Daryl tease each other. Trying.

     Lori shrugged. "I can wear that dress to any dance, or if you ever took me someplace nice," she sassed right back. "But, I'd rather be with friends."

     Shane was grinning ear to ear. Glad to get out of a night sweating in a monkey suit and drinking watered down punch pretending to enjoy dancing to shitty music. "I'm in," he added his hand to Lori's over Daryl's like it was some football team cheer. All for one and one for all.

     Rick slipped his hand under the bottom of the pile, his palm sliding over Daryl's like it was made to fit there. The heat of their skin melting their hands together. "We leave at dawn," he said as if they were embarking on a mission to Moordoor instead of a turkey hunt. But, to Rick any time spent with Daryl was an adventure of a lifetime.

     "Fuck yeah," Shane cheered as he broke the circle when the bell rang. Tossing his crumpled milk carton in the trash can ten yards away instead of the one next to him.

     "Hope yer aim's that good at turkeys," Daryl sassed, shoving his and Rick's garbage into their paper lunch bag as everyone dispersed.

     Rick grabbed their backpack as he stood. Brushing a hand through Daryl's hair. By the pencil of Rick's he still kept behind his ear like it was a precious gift. The original had long worn to a stub and been replaced with a new one he treasured every bit as much.

     "You okay with them taggin' along?" Rick bumped hips with him.

     Daryl nodded, fitting himself to Rick's side. "I ain't never had nothin' ta be thankful for b'fore," he chewed his thumb. "But, I got you an' I got friends." He took the backpack from Rick and slung it over his shoulder. "I'm okay with it."

     Rick had always had plenty to be thankful for. Good parents who loved and protected him. A hot meal and warm bed every night. Jeans without holes. Everything he thought he ever needed. But, that was before Daryl. Before true friendship. True love. And now he realized what thankful truly felt like.

Chapter Text

     Rick didn't want to be obvious in his love for Daryl like the girls at school who doodled hearts with their boyfriend's initials in them. Not that he wasn't proud of Daryl, and damn lucky to be with someone so kind, funny and fun. He just couldn't let anything get out about them, get back to Will Dixon. For Daryl's sake. It killed him to keep their love a secret, but Will would kill Daryl for real if he didn't.

     So he doodled crossbows instead. And maybe they were a little heart shaped. But, nobody could say anything about that. Except that he was looking forward to turkey hunting this weekend. It was none of their God damned business if his favorite part about learning the crossbow would be Daryl's gentle hands on him. And watching him sass and blush and flirt.

     Rick was completely lost in his scribbles, all but adding DD + RG in the open spaces of every bow when the bell rang. And he almost forgot to check the board for what homework Mr. Horvath had assigned before he raced off to meet Daryl. Damn near running Lori over as she came around the corner just as eager to get to Shane.

     "Sorry," he picked up the notebook he'd knocked out of her arms. Catching sight of the hearts with Shane's initials all over the splayed pages.

     She blushed as he couldn't help but read the part where she'd written Lori Walsh at least a dozen times. "With us tagging along this weekend, I'm the one who should be sorry," she closed the notebook and clutched it tight.

     Probably had future kids' names and wedding plans in there, too. But, Rick could not blame her. He'd have done the same for Daryl if he thought it was safe. But, Rick had to keep all his plans in his head.

     "Should be fun," Rick shrugged, scanning the crowd coming out of shop class. And he could not help but grin at the sight of Daryl's pigeon-toed gait as he crossed the quad.

     Daryl hurried once he saw Rick and sidled up to him. His eyes giving a silent greeting. His fingers finding Rick's and squeezing, secretly saying, love you. "Don't forget ta dress warm an' pack food fer t'morrow," he reminded Lori. "Could be out there all day."

     Rick couldn't imagine a better way to spend the day than tromping through the mud with Daryl. "Definitely all day if he lets me try to shoot it."

     Daryl's face softened. "Jus' takes practice is all," he assured him. His hand on the small of Rick's back every bit as comforting as his words. "Merle's bringin' m' bow an' I'll show ya how it works. Bet you'll be better'n me in no time."

     Everything about Daryl was positive and encouraging. And Rick wanted to proclaim his undying love for him from every rooftop. If only he could. But, his eyes blinked out the heartfelt words he could not say.

     Shane trotted up and whisked Lori into his arms. Like Rick wished he could be free to do with Daryl. "We still leavin' first light?"

     "'Less ya need yer beauty sleep," Daryl sassed. Punching Shane in the arm. And Rick was glad to see him so confident among friends now.

     "Gobble gobble," Andrea shouldered Rick on her way by. Flicking her ponytail in his face.

     "Don't mind her," Daryl shot her a glance every bit as sharp as any arrow. "She's just mad you'd rather bag a turkey than her."

     Ignoring her was easy for Rick. He'd never been the least bit interested. Daryl was the one that was captivating. "Gonna be a beauty, too." But, he wasn't talking about the turkey.

     "Tell ya what else is gonna be a beauty," Shane bragged. "My girl. All covered in mud and wearin' my shirt and my boots and -" before he could finish she cut him off with a kiss.

     And Rick's heart sank. He should be able to to tell Andrea to fuck off because he had the most beautiful boyfriend with the kindest heart. And he didn't fucking need her shit. And he should be able to wrap Daryl in his arms and fucking tell him that he loved him. In front of his friends. Instead of just hint at it and squeeze his fingers in secret.

     "Listen," Shane tore himself away from sucking the life out of Lori. "I know my dad has a bottle of whiskey he ain't gonna miss. Maybe it'll keep us warm out there."

     And it wasn't lost on Daryl that it was because Shane's dad didn't drink much. Not that he drank himself into a stupor and couldn't keep track of what was left. "Sure couldn't hurt," he offered.

     They continued making plans for who would bring what as they made their way to Shane's car. Shane already had blankets and flashlights in his trunk and he was down for the whiskey, Lori would make coffee, because they had to have something other than booze to keep them warm, and Rick and Daryl would bring most of the food, because Rick's mom would already be sending enough to feed an army.

     Merle was right on time. Pulling into the parking lot as they said their goodbyes to Shane and Lori for the evening. Of course he honked even though they couldn't miss him with the rattling his old pickup made.

     Daryl pretended to thumb a ride until the truck creaked to a stop bedside him. "Goin' my way?" He yanked the passenger door open and slid his bow under the seat to make room for Rick.

     Merle snorted at Daryl's antics. "Get in assholes, 'fore I change m' mind."

     Daryl climbed in first and offered Rick a hand up. Pulling him into his side. And he did not release his fingers. Only hid their hands between their tightly pressed thighs. "What kind a pie ya think Dixie made t'day?"

     "Peach," Merle huffed as he cranked the wheel and jockeyed for position in the line of cars trying to get out of the lot. "But, we ain't goin' ta the diner this time." He did not look at them. And Rick was not sure if it was out of guilt or shame. Or if he was just keeping his eyes on traffic.

     Daryl's shoulders dropped and Rick could read the disappointment on his face. Merle could take care of himself and he'd taken better care of Daryl than their own mama, but Rick knew Daryl just wanted his brother to have someone to look after him a little, too. So he put to words what Daryl did not say. "Tell me you didn't break up with Dixie after we just invited ya both to Thanksgiving."

     Merle cut off a mini van and hit the gas. "Ain't no way ol' Merle gonna do that woman wrong." And he seemed sincere. "She's a real' not jus' 'cuz a her pie, " he cackled. "Did ya see what I did there?" He elbowed Daryl, but it did nothing to reanimate him. "Oh come on an' lighten up, she took the day off ta do somethin' special fer ya so's I'm takin' ya's ta her house fer some fried chicken an' sweet tea."

     Daryl perked up. Glad to see his brother hadn't fucked up a good thing. Because, Merle deserved to be happy, too. Looked after. Safe. "We still get pie, though, right?" He bumped shoulders with him.

     "Told ya its peach, asshole," Merle wrangled an arm around Daryl's neck and pulled him into a chokehold to kiss the top of his head.

     Rick enjoyed the ride to Dixie's. Listening to the brothers banter. And feeling Daryl pressed to his side, their hidden fingers entwined. The way Daryl sat a little taller, happy in his own life and knowing Merle had found happiness, too. And Rick could not think of a better way to spend the rest of his life than by Daryl's side. Even if he could not boast or brag about it. Or show his affection in public.

     The road got bumpy and he could not complain about being knocked closer to Daryl. And if Merle noticed their hands he did not say a thing about it. He just kept on teasing Daryl about which of them had filled out more from good cooking. And Rick noticed that Merle sat a little taller, too. The closer they got to Dixie's.

Chapter Text

     Dixie's house was as small and old as Daryl's. But, better cared for. The lawn was green and neatly mowed. And void of beer cans. The porch was worn, but sturdy. And the windows were clean and covered in bright curtains. It was just the kind of place Rick could have with Daryl someday. And the smell of fried chicken and peach pie wafting out the screen door made Rick like it all the more.

     "C'mon in," Merle clomped up the porch steps and walked right in without knocking. He did not tread lightly or stop to slip off his shoes. None of the things he and Daryl did at their father's. Merle acted like Daryl now did at Rick's. Like he felt at home there. Safe.

     Daryl noticed it, too. Grinning at Rick as he held the screen door as they entered. Closing it silently. It was the one habit Daryl never broke. Though, now it was just out of good manners and not fear.

     "Sure smells good," Daryl slipped his fingers in Rick's and followed Merle to the kitchen.

     "Brought the little shits like ya asked," Merle swatted Dixie's ass as she took the pie out of the oven.

     Dixie elbowed and wriggled, but she seemed to delight in Merle's pawing and kisses. "Hope peach is okay, Sugar," she looked at Daryl over Merle's shoulder as he continued to wrestle her and backed her into the table, rattling the mismatched plates and jam jars set out for dinner and sweet tea. "Figured I'd save pumpkin for next week," she pushed Merle off with her elbow and sat the pie down, flattening the wrinkles he'd made in her apron.

     "I'll eat any kind a pie, 'specially if its homemade," Daryl blushed. And Rick loved that color on his cheeks. Made a mental note to ask his mom to teach him how to make pie.

     "He sure looks like he been eatin' plenty a somethin'," Merle crowed and pulled himself away from Dixie to poke at Daryl's belly where he'd filled out. "Friendly an' his mama sure been takin' real good care a him," he slung an arm around Daryl's neck and pulled his brother in for a hug. "Takin' better care a him than 'is own brother," Merle made a point of making eye contact with Rick. "Means a lot ta me."

     Daryl buried his face in Merle's neck. But, he did not release Rick's hand the entire time Merle held him. "Ya always take good care a me, ya jus' can't cook fer shit," Daryl sassed, gently punching Merle's side with his free hand before pulling back and taking his place at Rick's side again.

     Dixie eyed the two of them between glances back to the skillet of chicken spattering on the stove. "They almost look more like brothers than you an' him," she said matter of factly as she went back to cooking.

     Merle cocked his head to the side, studying them. Noticing the way they stood pressed into each other. And Rick had to wonder if Merle realized their hands were behind their backs to hide their entwined fingers.

     "Joined at the hip like a couple a Siamese twins, tha's fer damn sure," Merle snorted. "Guess we didn't have ta find a fourth chair after all," he pointed to the padded step stool at the table as he crowded Dixie at the stove. "Coulda jus' let 'em share," he snickered in her ear.

     Dixie waved him away with a wooden spoon. It looked clean and new, like swatting Merle was its only purpose. "Get outta here 'fore ya get burnt, ya S.O.B," she scolded, but she had a grin on her face. "Why don't ya go an' show 'em the rest a the house?" She used the spoon like a poker.

     "Yes, ma'am," Merle made a show of backing down before leading them down the hall.

     He pointed out the bathroom and pushed open a door briefly showing the master bedroom, but he stopped at the spare room at the end of the hall. Like it was important. It was freshly painted and full of light. The giant bed covered in old quilts barely left room for end tables and a dresser let alone Rick and Daryl as he herded them in.

     "Ya could use this if ya ever want," Merle offered with a shrug. He seemed lost for any other words.

     So was Rick. Because, suddenly he realized Merle could be trying to take Daryl away. Take him back. And Rick's heart squeezed at the thought. Daryl belonged with Rick. They belonged together. Always together. Rick needed Daryl's warmth pressed to him like he needed air to breathe. He needed Daryl's kind heart. His sass. He needed to be able to talk with him, laugh with him. Touch him. Always. Not just at school and the occasional weekend.

     Dixie's house may have had everything Rick wanted for Daryl. A room with clean sheets, warm blankets. Merle and Dixie had obviously put in effort and seen to that. Daryl could be safe there. Looked after, even. Well fed. But, Rick wanted Daryl to have those things with him. Rick wanted to give Daryl those things. For the rest of his life. Rick wanted Daryl by his side. Always. To protect him. To love him. He did not want Daryl miles away.

     His hand found Daryl's as it was reaching for him, the moment Daryl realized it too. "Is..." Rick's fingers squeezed Daryl's every bit as tight as Daryl was clinging to him. And this time they did not hide their hands. "Is my room not okay?" Was he not okay? Had Merle figured things out? And...disapproved...

     "Hell, I ain't tryin' ta rip you's two apart er nothin'." Merle clapped Rick's shoulder, "I ain't wanna come b'tween m' brother an' the only friend he ever had." He toed the carpet with his boot like he were trying to choose his words carefully. "Jus'...if yer mama ever gets tired a havin'-"

     "She won't," Rick insisted, cutting him off. "Neither will Dad." He knew it was important to add that.

     Merle looked up. Met Rick's eyes. "Jus' in case."

     And really Rick could not fault him for that. For being prepared. Looking out for his brother. As long as he did not take him away.

     Dixie was suddenly in the doorway. But, she moved slow and careful to cross the room to Rick and Daryl. "Sugar," she addressed Rick, but put a hand on both of their shoulders, "if it ever comes ta that you'd be welcome, too." She shook her head at Merle and how he'd handled things. "I know you two are a package deal. Even his lug-headed brother knows that." Her wink was exaggerated by her fake lashes.

     Rick finally settled. Able to take the gesture for what it was. And he let the fear of losing Daryl subside before he spoiled the whole evening. But, he never once let go of Daryl's hand. All through dinner. And he did not care who saw.

     Dinner was nice. Plenty of food and conversation. Both brothers chatting and sassing each other. Dixie reigning Merle in any time he got too raucous. It was nice to see the brothers having a nice family dinner together. And Rick would try to invite Merle and Dixie over to his house for more than just holidays.

     "Thanks for cookin' all a this," Daryl shoveled mashed potatoes into his mouth.

     Dixie bumped fingers with Rick as they both reached to put another piece of chicken on Daryl's plate. "Weren't no trouble, Darlin'," she elbowed Merle, "I had a little help."

     Merle grinned wide, doing his best to hide the mouthful of chicken as he spoke. "Peeled them potatoes," he jabbed a greasy thumb at the bowl. "Got plenty a practice doin' that in Juvie."

     "He got plenty a practice washin' dishes, too Dixie," Daryl snickered. "Don't ya let him go forgettin' that."

     "Well ain't you the funny one," Merle tried to kick Daryl's foot under the table, but got Rick's instead since they were so close. "Fer that I'ma eat yer pie," he cackled.

     Rick turned to Daryl, bumped shoulders with him. "I'll share mine with ya," he assured him. Even though he knew Merle had been teasing.

     Of course he did not have to share. Merle cut Daryl the biggest piece. And after pie Merle lead them to the back porch and sat on the step to spread out a map where he'd marked all the best turkey hunting spots for them. And they all huddled around it and shared a cigarette while Dixie poured more sweet tea.

     Rick did not have to study the map very closely to pick a spot. "How about here?" He pointed to the furthest 'X' from Daryl's house. Best not to run into Will Dixon in the woods tomorrow. Or Rick might just put Daryl's crossbow to good use shooting a different kind of old bird.

     It was not lost on anyone why Rick made his choice. And everyone nodded in silent agreement.

     Dixie snagged the cigarette from Merle and broke the silence. "I'll send ya home with the leftover chicken an' pie for ya ta take on your hunt tomorrow," she blew smoke and passed it to Rick.

     Rick took a puff and passed it to Daryl, "That'd be real nice."

     All in all the whole evening was nice. And when Merle finally stomped out the cigarette and said, "C'mon let's get ya home," neither of them flinched. Because, they both knew he meant Rick's.