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The only good thing about Mondays, Rick decides, is the lunch hour. It’s usually not until then that he and all his friends can sit down and really gossip about the news of the weekend. Of course, most of the juicy gossip has already come out from texts, calls, the morning hangout right by the south corner of the school grounds, or the hushed and frantic whispering between classes. But inevitably something will have slipped by, and that is saved for lunch and for the entire table to ooh and aww and gasp about. Maggie will have broken up with Glenn. Again. Or the little sisters will be pestering Andrea and Maggie. Or Shane’s dad will have grounded him for the umpteenth time for not hiding his porn stash or his cans of Bud Light effectively. Or maybe, if they’re lucky, Rick will have a really good “my dad busted this guy” story and everyone will latch on to the details and go “No! Mr. Hampton? The church clerk?”

This Monday is absolutely no different. Apparently, Michonne dared Andrea to shoplift a $300 bracelet and she had done it, despite Carol trying to be the voice of reason, and had mostly gotten away with it until her mom found it and just happened to know what brand it was and just how expensive and had made Andrea return it and give a weekend of community service. Good stuff, Rick thinks and smiles to himself. His life, unlike Andrea’s, is pretty good right now. He’s pretty content to sit in the lunchroom on a Monday with his gaggle of friends and puff his chest out at being a senior and being almost done with this place.

Done with the homework and the tests. Done with the ugly brick walls that always stay the same shade of white no matter how much you’d think they would have started to peel by now, and done with the clubs and the proms and the attitudes and the cliques. Done with people like Caesar Martinez and that girl who always had a different colored mohawk every month, the kind of kids who always ate alone in the corner, not minding anything or anyone like they were the fucking Buddha or something and friends were too materialistic for their liking.

Rick is especially done with that. He wants to finally be like his dad. The one who takes the rednecks and the trash and the bad boys downtown, instead of watching them shove chicken nuggets down their mouths from twenty yards away. Rick is ready to be part of the action. Part of the solution. The force.

Which is how he ends up outside of the Dixon's house that Monday afternoon, watching the flashing lights on his dad’s cop car, listening to the sickening sound of the siren as it spins and watching Daryl cry in the passenger’s seat.

***

It’s all Glenn and Maggie’s fault. Afternoon finds the group gathered around Shane’s truck at their favorite hangout, the Dollar General on Pine and Westover. They like the location for two reasons--one, there is a very prominent “no loitering” sign and two, it’s close enough to the good side of town/bad side of town line that they can feel like they’re in the “thick of things” without actually being in the, you know, thick of things.

As per usual, they pull up and Maggie and Glenn run off to the back of the building to make out, pretending like the rest of the group has absolutely no idea that their on-again, off-again is once again full throttle. This afternoon, though, they don’t spend nearly as much time away as they usually do and instead come barrelling around the corner about five minutes after they left, waving their arms and yelling for everyone to come quick because there’s a cop car parked at some guy’s house and they’re going to get to see an arrest.

So of course the whole group springs into action. Even Rick, despite what his dad always tells him about gawking. This is his reputation at stake. And besides, he’s pretty sure Shane will physically push him all the way to the back of the building if he resists. So he runs in the middle of the throng around the old and dusty brick building to where the road slopes down slightly to land at a series of run-down residences just across the road. And sure enough, right there at 127th Westover, is a cop car pulled up with the lights on and the siren just starting to blare.

The front of the house is directly across from them, so they can see the front porch and the steps leading up to it. Carol timidly says that maybe they shouldn’t watch, but Andrea grabs her shoulders and shushes her. The cop car has pulled up parallel to the house, so that the driver’s side door is practically knocking up against the steps and the passenger’s side is in view of the back of the Dollar General. When Rick sees the car, he recognizes it as his dad’s and freezes. He ducks behind Shane, glad for once that his friend is so much taller than he is.

Rick watches from around Shane’s shoulder as his dad leaps out of the car and runs to the front of the house, banging and yelling for the occupant to open. The group stands there and eyes the man that opens the door and then observes Rick’s dad going in, not to come out for a good fifteen minutes. In fact, they are all starting to get bored enough to turn around when Officer Grimes pops back out. Only he doesn’t have a man in handcuffs. Instead, he is pulling Daryl Dixon out by the elbow.

Daryl is dressed in a loose gray hoodie, tattered and frayed and a pair of jeans that look like they must have once been dark blue, but have since become more sky. He has his head down and his arms crossed and he is mumbling as he walks. Officer Grimes stops him on the porch and turns Daryl to him and they talk for a minute. Rick watches Daryl shake his head violently several times, like it’s the only motion he can make and then Rick is ducking again as his father looks across the street to the growing mob of gawkers.

And then his dad does the strangest thing. He pulls Daryl to the car and he doesn’t put him in the backseat, he puts him in the front passenger’s seat and then moves around the car to sit in the driver’s place. Rick watches as his dead leans over, his arm on the top of the steering wheel and gestures to Daryl enthusiastically, his eyebrows raised and his mouth set grimly. Daryl keeps shaking his head, but Rick can see he is talking now and they sit like that for awhile, deep in conversation, before Rick watches his dad lean away to look out the window and shrug. Rick’s dad says something and Daryl just slowly nods and then his dad is getting out of the car again and going into the house.

Rick sighs a breath of relief and moves slightly away from Shane, sure that his dad is going back in for an arrest and it might take a minute. He cranes his neck to see Daryl better. The other boy is turned away from the crowd, facing the driver’s side of the car and the house beyond that. His head is down and he is hunched over and Rick isn’t entirely sure what he is doing, but he can tell, at least, that Daryl is upset.

It’s Rick’s curiosity that undoes him. As he is leaning to get a better angle on Daryl, Officer Grimes bursts through the door a second time, alone, and rushes down the porch steps. He looks up into the crowd once again and this time--this time--he sees Rick. Rick sinks his shoulders down a little and prays for his body to melt into the crowd, but he watches the realization on his dad’s face and then sees his dad lift his hand, palm facing upward and crook all his fingers in a “come here” gesture that Rick knows all too well.

So what can he do? Rick walks across the street and knows that he is fucked. Behind him, Andrea yells to text them all the good information and Rick's dad's frown deepens into that really scary territory that means that Rick will probably get grounded for something. So Rick hotfoots it over to him, rushing as quickly as he can. He expects his father to get Daryl out of the car and put him in it, but he doesn't. Well, he doesn't take Daryl out. He does put Rick in, though. In the back.

Rick is about to let go of a string of complaints when he sees Daryl turn just briefly to look at him in the backseat. Almost as soon as Daryl has turned to Rick, he spins back around and glares at the windshield like it has personally offended him. But that small glance is enough for Rick to see the puffiness of his eyes, the redness of his cheeks, and the wide and vulnerable expression plastered on his face. It hits Rick like a ton of bricks. Daryl Dixon, the Daryl Dixon--bad boy extraordinaire, youngest criminal in a line of roughians, hard redneck emotionless trash--has been crying.

Rick swallows hard because he has no idea what to do with this information. He slinks down in the back of the car and tries to ignore his friends’ attention from across the street. Daryl, for his part, makes no noise except for one very tiny sniffle. Rick is just about to ask him if he's okay when the driver's side door opens and Rick's dad slides in, slamming the door shut. He turns around and fixes Rick with his infamous stare, the corners of his mouth pulled down hard.

"Rick," he says and Rick is all ears because this will be the difference between him going to see Shane out the front and going out of his window later tonight. "You are going to sit back there and you are going to be silent, do you hear me?" his dad says. Rick nods enthusiastically. "You are not going to ask any questions, you are not going to complain, and you are not going to bother Daryl at all. Are you?"

"No, sir," Rick says and shakes his head quickly again.

His dad nods and cuts the siren and the lights and then barrels out of the driveway. Rick can hear the heavy sigh that Daryl releases into the air and then watches, incredulously, as his dad reaches over and pats the guy on the shoulder. Rick slinks down further in the seat, his head practically on the level with the bottom of the window, and pulls out his phone to text. He tells Andrea that no news will be coming tonight because his dad is pissed and then he texts Glenn and Maggie good job, you motherfuckers.

Rick is so involved with his phone that it takes him a minute to notice that they have turned left on Cranberry Road, instead of right. He frowns. "Dad," he says, "the station's back that way." As if his dad didn't know, but Rick wants some explanations, dammit. Especially now that is dad is pulling onto Market Drive and that will take them--

"Daryl's not going to the station," his dad says sternly and looks him in the eye through the rearview window. "He's coming home with us."

"WHAT?!?" Rick bursts out, unable to hold in his absolute horror. He sits up in the seat and leans forward. "You cannot be serious. I don't want him in my hou--"

"Richard Lemore Grimes," his dad says. "Shut up."

And so Rick does, sinking down even further and letting it be known by the position of his slouching body that he is really, really unhappy with the current course of action that is bringing Daryl barreling up into his life, heavier than any freight-train, louder than any siren.

***

They pull into driveway and Rick's dad jumps out, telling Daryl to get out as well. Rick watches as they stand by the hood of the car talking for a moment before he bangs on the door, just to let his dad know that he can't actually get out because he's in the back of a police car. His dad does that annoying thing where he holds up one finger at Rick without stopping his flow of conversation and Rick is immediately back to being an eight-year-old at Walmart, squirming while his dad talks to Joe Buck or whoever he ran into about the hunting season.

But eventually his dad opens the door and Rick steps out, biting his tongue to keep all the sarcasm in. Daryl doesn't look at him.

"Alright, son," his dad says. "Daryl is going to be staying with us for a few days, so put him up in the back guest room, alright? Your mother won't be home for a few hours yet. She's working late. So I want you to show him around the house. And be nice." He turns around, but then thinks of something else and swings back to Rick. "No questions. And no gossiping."

Rick wants to tell his dad that gossiping is for girls, but he also wants to keep all of his body parts (like his PS3 and his Netflix password), so he lets it go. He nods solemnly to his dad and watches as he climbs back in the car.

Slowly, like it pains him, he walks up to Daryl. Daryl has shaken his long hair into his face so that Rick can't see his expressions all that well, but he nods when Rick says they're going inside. The house is well-to-do. Rick knows this. And he also knows that Daryl's house is ratty, so this is probably a big change for him. Rick shows him the living room quickly and figures he won't mention the back family room or the entertainment room. He does show him the kitchen, though, and waves at the formal dining room they never use.

With that, they're done with the front part of the house and Rick walks down the hall, labeling bedrooms. "Front guest room. Don't go in there. It always smells like Aunt Helen and trust me, Aunt Helen does not smell good. This is the main bathroom. My parent's room." He points to the last two rooms. "One on the left is mine. i.e. the place you're not going to go. And that's yours." He waves at the last room on the right. "We share a bathroom." He grimaces. "Don't fuck it up."

Daryl glares at him through the hair that has fallen into his face and Rick can't be bothered to give a damn right now. Daryl pushes past him and Rick asks where he's going. Daryl growls, "The bathroom, you nosy little prick," and then disappears through the door. Rick hears the door close and lock, the cabinets bang about, and then he hears the quiet, almost imperceptible sound of someone crying.

Rick blinks and then scatters.

***

Rick goes to his room and texts Shane that he’s unsure if he’ll make it tonight. He doesn’t want to ruin the fragile “I haven’t said anything about grounding” vibe that his parents have going and he wants to play the dutiful son so that they can all get Daryl Dixon out of his house as soon as possible.

So he stays in his room and cranks up his Muse CD to drown out the sounds coming from the bathroom that are, frankly, terrifying. Rick has never seen Daryl do anything but blink, really. The kid is a fortress of emotion. He never cracks a smile, doesn’t laugh at the jokes said in class, isn’t one to fly off the handle in rage, and Rick has definitely, definitely never saw--or even heard--of the guy crying. This whole thing is coming at Rick from left field and Rick really isn’t sure how to process it just yet. He thinks about texting Shane or Andrea that Daryl is in his house right now, oh my god, but he doesn’t want to admit that, well, Daryl is in his house right now. So instead he throws his phone on his nightstand and pulls out his backpack, thinking if he’s going to be trapped, he might as well be productive.

He makes it two rounds through his CD and all the way through math (miraculously) when Daryl saunters into his room. Rick blinks at the figure standing in the doorway--sock feet, hoodie up over his head, puffiness and red streaks gone, sipping on one of Rick’s juice boxes that Andrea still makes fun of him for. Rick glares in rage. Daryl just steps in easily and shuts the door behind him and starts touching things, much to Rick’s chagrin.

“Your room looks like shit,” Daryl says.

Rick glares harder, just in case Daryl isn’t getting it. “Um, then why are you in here?” Rick flips FURIOUSLY through the entertainment magazine he has on his bed and tries another tactic. Ignore the bastard. It doesn’t work, though, because he can hear Daryl--picking up his books off his shelf, rifling through his CDs, and scooting his dumb socks across Rick’s carpet.

“Bored,” Daryl says finally and sits down on Rick’s bed. Rick blinks at him.

“And that’s my problem how?” he asks and then flips the page furiously again.

“Don’t know,” Daryl says and sucks at the straw. “Not, I guess. What are you reading?”

Rick sighs heavily and tosses the magazine off his bed. “Nothing now. How can I entertain you, oh stealer of my guest room?”

Daryl rolls his eyes. “Not like I want to be here, either, man. You could be hospitable and shit.”

Rick just shrugs. Daryl just keeps drinking. “That’s mine, you know,” Rick says and points at the juice box.

“Really?” Daryl asks and lifts it out of his mouth to look at the box. “Thought you had a little brother or somethin’.”

“No,” Rick says and tries to snatch it, but Daryl graceful avoids him. “It’s mine. I’m an only child, by the way.”

Daryl scoffs. “Makes a lot of sense.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rick asks, sitting up and bristling.

“Means you’re a bitch,” Daryl cuts in easily and looks off to the side of Rick’s bed. “That Trig? Can I borrow it?”

My homework?”

“No, dumbass,” Daryl says and rolls his eyes. He reaches down for the book, helping himself. “The fucking book.” He starts flipping through it. “You got paper?”

“What am I, a Staples?” Rick grumbles, but gets his notebook and rips a page out for Daryl.

“Pen?” Daryl asks and Rick scoffs.

“Jesus, just take all my things.” But he hands over the pen to Daryl and watches in amazement as Daryl flips to the page that they were supposed to complete and starts working. “Are you...doing homework?” Rick asks and Daryl just shrugs and asks for his calculator. Rick figures why not. Daryl already has all the rest of his things.

“My shit’s at home,” Daryl tells him.

“I, uh…” Rick clears his throat. “Didn’t know you were in Trig.”

Daryl shrugs. “You wouldn’t. Spend all your time throwin’ paper at Walsh’s head.”

“Only when he’s being a bastard,” Rick says and then thinks. “So okay. I spend all my time throwing paper at his head.”

Daryl quirks one corner of his mouth up and it’s not quite a smile, but it’s closer than Rick has ever seen him get, so he’ll take it. “Need me to turn the music off?” Rick asks.

Daryl shrugs. “Nah. Can do Trig in my sleep, man. Could turn it to something better than fucking Muse, though. Who listens to Muse?”

Rick glares. “ME,” he says and then cranks the volume up for emphasis.

Daryl rolls his eyes and goes back to his paper. “You know we got five classes together, right?” Daryl asks him and Rick blinks because no. No, he did not know that.

“You’re kidding me,” he says but Daryl shakes his head and rattles them off. Trig, English, American History II, Spanish, and Gym. Rick blinks, unaware that he’s been walking around seeing the guy that much this fall.

“S’alright,” Daryl says and punches something into the calculator. “I’m a quiet guy.” With a final flourish, he tosses the calculator back at Rick and folds up the piece of paper in Rick’s book right next to Rick’s own homework.

“You’re finished?” Rick asks him incredulously and Daryl shrugs.

“Told you, man. Good at it. Better at geometry, though. Fucking hate Trig.”

Rick stares at the book, his mouth open. “That took you like five minutes. It took me freaking forty-five.”

Daryl narrows his eyes a little defensively. “I just get math. It’s easier than all that history bullshit.”

Rick raises his hands in an open gesture. “Sorry,” he says and then picks at the comforter on his bed. “So, um...well, sorry for watching today, too. At your house.”

Daryl frowns and then shrugs just the slightest bit. “Fine,” he says and Rick isn’t sure if he’s supposed to take that as it’s fine or fine, whatever.

Rick continues to fidget. He wants to know what happened, same as everyone else. But there’s still the whole “parents having not knocked down the door and grounded him” thing and he’s pretty sure from how serious his dad’s tone was earlier that if he asked any version of “Why were the cops at your house?” his dad would string him up like live bait. So instead, Rick asks, “How long you staying here, you think?”

Daryl’s frown deepens and he starts picking at the now empty juice box. “Awhile, probably. Don’t know. Maybe a week or two. Guess it could be longer, but I doubt it. Your dad’ll get tired of me sometime.”

Rick just nods, unable to follow up with all his burning questions. He looks around his room for something to talk about--what does this guy even like?--when his eyes hit on his window. “You can sneak out the windows of this place pretty easily,” he says. “If you need a smoke or something.”

Daryl blinks at him and his expression is so hard to read it might as well be in another language. “Don’t smoke,” he tells Rick and Rick blinks.

“For real?” Rick asks.

Daryl rolls his eyes. “Yeah,” he says, letting out a hard breath. “For real.” He lets the last word go sarcastic and squeaky, imitating Rick’s voice. “Why you think I do? Cause I’m a redneck and so I must smoke? Don’t come from no trailer, neither, if that’s what you’re wondering. And I’m not diseased and I bathe, too.”

“GEEZ,” Rick says, “sorry. You don’t have to be a dick about it.”

“I give what I get,” Daryl tells him and goes back to picking at the box.

“So what do you like…” Rick shrugs and looks at his bed. “What the hell do you do then?”

Daryl looks at him like he’s grown another head. “Same thing you do, you fucking asswipe. I go to school. I come home. I do my homework and sometimes I read shit or I fuck around on the internet or something. Not a big mystery.”

“...oh,” Rick says, which isn’t intelligent by any means, but it’s all he’s got. Daryl sighs and then chucks the beaten up box in Rick’s garbage can.

“Going to bed,” he says.

Rick nods and has the piece of mind to tell him “goodnight” in a tone that’s not entirely bitchy and then Daryl is sweeping out of his room in the same tornado he came in on. Rick is left alone to ponder just how weird his life has become.

***

In the morning, Rick’s mom has to be at work early, so Rick can’t just drive the car. She piles Rick and Daryl in--Rick gets the front seat this time--and starts driving. Rick gives her until the second stop light before he blurts out, “Can you drop him off a block from school?” But his mom isn’t stupid and she rounds on him.

“Richard,” she says and he hates that. Why can’t his parents call him what he wants to be called? “You are going to be nice to this boy.” But this boy is Daryl Dixon and Rick does not want to be seen walking into school with him. He knows that it’s selfish and he’s kind of being a prick about it, but he has a reputation and Shane will never let him live it down. And Andrea won’t stop pestering him for details. So really, he thinks this is best for everyone.

“But--” he tries again, only to be cut off by his mom.

“Listen,” she says. “Daryl needs friends right now and you’re a good, nice boy who can be that for him.”

Rick locks eyes with Daryl in the rearview mirror and wonders if Daryl finds this just as patronizing as he does. He must, though, because he leans forward and says, “Mrs. Grimes? It’s cool. Can you drop us both off at the same place? Just close by the school. There’s something I need to get from a friend that lives close by, anyway. Homework,” he adds.

She looks in the mirror at Daryl and then across the seat at Rick. She sighs. “Fine,” she says, “but Rick? Be a good person.”

She pulls up a couple of blocks from the school, where Daryl instructs her, and lets them out. They gather their things and Daryl waits until the car is out of sight before he trudges off, clearly not waiting for Rick. Rick examines his options, but then rushes to catch up. He figures that maybe he is being just a little bit of an ass by not walking with Daryl to school and it couldn’t really hurt his “Rick is hardcore” reputation to be seen shunning Daryl the second they walk into the school. Besides, his mom would want him to. And Rick listens to his mom.

“Hey, wait,” Rick says and falls into step beside Daryl. Daryl rolls his eyes. “Go on,” he says. But Rick doesn’t. Daryl sighs.

“So, uh,” Rick says, “you don’t have a friend, do you? Waiting for you to get your homework?”

Daryl scoffs. “No shit,” he says and keeps walking. Rick keeps trudging beside him. “WHAT are you doing?” Daryl asks him and rounds on him. “WHY are you walking with me?” Rick shrugs defensively and just stands there. “Is it because your mommy told you, too?” Daryl says, dripping condescension. Rick shrugs again. “Look, I don’t need a friend and I don’t need you holding my hand, okay? So really. You can just go. I gotta get to Coach Horvath, anyway.”

“Horvath?” Rick asks. “You mean Dale Horvath?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says. “Know any others?”

“Why you got to talk to him?” Rick asks, still walking beside Daryl.

“Cause I’m in track,” Daryl says, like Rick should totally know this. Rick blinks. He didn’t.

“...you’re in track?” he asks lamely and Daryl sets his jaw and rolls his eyes and looks really pissed for some reason.

“YEAH,” he says. “I’ve only been in track for all of our high school years, dude. GOD.” He turns on his heel and speeds up. Rick jogs to catch him.

“That’s cool, though,” Rick says. “Track.” He adds it to the list of things that he didn’t know about Daryl last night that he knows now--likes juice boxes, really good at Trig, in track. He figures that list is actually really long and so he might need to start writing it down. Like a Daryl diary. But that’s weird. And besides, he doesn’t know the big things about Daryl. Like what happened last night at his house. And he can’t ask that. No matter how much he really, really wants to.

But Daryl might as well be reading his mind, because he stops short and turns to Rick and snaps off, “Stop staring at me like that. You want to ask? Fucking ask. I won’t tell your dad or anything.”

Rick figures it’s safe to play dumb, so he says, “Ask about what?”

Daryl rolls his eyes. “Last night. You keep giving me that look. I know that look. So just ask me whatever it is you want to fucking ask me.”

“Um….” Rick says and then swallows. “What happened last--”

Daryl is already talking before Rick can even get the question out, barreling over him at a hundred miles an hour, eyes as bright and hard as pressed coal, voice as smooth and tumbling as creekwater. “My dad beat the shit out of me. Does it sometimes because he’s a bastard. There. That’s it. That’s all there is. Your dad said I could stay at your place until my dad gets his fucking marbles back. Happy?” Rick has no response, so instead he blinks and just nods. Daryl sighs and then looks off at the school in the distance. His squared shoulders droop slightly and his head ducks down just the tiniest fraction. “You gonna narq on me?” he asks Rick and Rick shakes his head, unsure of the turn in conversation. “K,” Daryl says and then looks at the school again. “I’m not going today. I’m skipping. See you later.” And with that, Daryl turns and saunters off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction, pulling his hoodie up and over his head and sticking his hands deep in his pockets.

***

Rick figures his mom would be pretty disappointed in him to learn that he had let Daryl skip, so he does the next best thing to forcing Daryl to come to school. He gets all of his homework. Granted, it’s a pretty easy task now that Rick knows they have the majority of classes together. He even turns in the Trig homework that Daryl stuck in his book last night and he makes sure to tell Coach Horvath that Daryl isn’t feeling very well.

All the adults Rick talks to seem...surprised. Like this hasn’t happened before. Rick can’t count the number of times he’s covered for Shane or Glenn or Andrea. And the number of times that they’ve covered for him. It’s a common occurrence for one of the gaggle to tell a teacher that so-and-so isn’t feeling well or that so-and-so has an appointment or blah or whatever. But the teachers today are acting like no one covers for Daryl at all. And that’s weird.

And then Rick starts to think about things. He starts to think about Daryl eating alone at lunch. About him sitting in the back of the room by himself in class. About how in gym he’s always sequestered or something like he’s allergic to others. Rick realizes, belatedly, that it can all mean only one thing. Daryl Dixon...doesn’t have friends. And now Rick doesn’t feel like a prick. He feels like the King of the Pricks, the lowest of the low, the scum under the shoe of slugs. He’s been kicking this guy when he’s down and this guy doesn’t have friends. He doesn’t have friends and his dad beat him up last night in front of the whole neighborhood and despite the fact that Daryl always has on that devil-may-care stony expression, he cried last night in the front of a police car and Rick is a terrible person.

So when the last bell rings, Rick texts his mom quickly that Shane is driving him and Daryl home, because he wants her to see that he’s a good boy, dammit. But he doesn’t go find Shane. No. Instead, he goes in search of Daryl. He retraces his steps from the morning, hoping that Daryl won’t be too far from where Rick left him earlier that day.

Rick finds him three blocks down from the high school, dozing against a tree, his hoodie pulled up over his eyes, hands curled in the front pocket, and legs kicked out in front of him. Rick can see now that the hoodie Daryl has on is a track hoodie--complete with the faded initials for the school and the words “Track Team” circling a guy running.

Rick kicks Daryl’s tattered blue sneaker and Daryl grunts and pushes the hood back, glaring up at Rick until he sees who it is. His gaze softens and he mumbles, “School out already?”

Rick nods and holds out his hand to help Daryl up, but Daryl doesn’t take it. He stands and dusts himself off and then stretches. Rick hears his spine pop and his knuckles crack and he wonders why the sound gives him the tiniest of shivers rattling up and down his own spine.

“Yeah,” Rick says. “Thought we could go to Griffin.”

Daryl blinks. “Griffin?” he says.

“The park,” Rick clarifies and Daryl grunts and shrugs. “Got your homework,” Rick says, gesturing to his backpack. “Still gotta share books, though.”

Daryl shrugs. “S’alright,” he says and heads off in the direction of the park, falling into step easily with Rick. “Where’re your friends?” he asks.

Rick shakes his head. “Don’t know. Not here, that’s what matters.”

Daryl grunts. “Why aren’t you out trying to find them?”

Rick kicks a small pebble that’s sitting on the sidewalk and makes it a point to keep it out in front of him as he walks. Take a couple of steps, kick. Step, step, kick. Step, step, kick. “Don’t know,” he says and then shrugs. “Figured they’d just ask questions about you and you didn’t seem to want that.”

“Don’t want to tell them I’m living with you?” Daryl guesses.

Rick shrugs and tightens the grip that he has on his backpack, slung over just one shoulder. He kicks the rock again. “Yeah, I guess. I mean...don’t know what to say really. About all of it. Do I lie and say I don’t know anything? Do I tell Andrea all the juicy details? Can’t decide who I would rather piss off--you or her.”

“I’m not your friend, though,” Daryl points out.

Rick looks over at him and then nods. “Yeah. Andrea’d get over it, though. And it’s not like it’s her big secret. You know?”

Daryl narrows his eyes at Rick. “You don’t owe me anything. And I don’t want to owe you anything, either.”

“Okay,” Rick says simply and picks up the rock, rolling it between his fingers. “So what’d you do all day?”

Daryl shrugs and looks off to where the buildings break out into trees. “Slept. Wandered around a little. Nothing big.”

“People missed you,” Rick tries.

Daryl scoffs. “No, they don’t.”

Rick sighs. “You’re right. They didn’t. All the teachers seem to like you, though.”

“Yeah,” Daryl says, frowning. “Try to be good when I’m there.”

Rick points ahead of them to where the iron gates of the city park are open. “There. Griffin. Got a walking path and some benches. A lake, too. Sometimes they’ve got ducks on it. Shane likes to pester them all the time.”

Daryl bristles. “He gonna be here?”

“No,” Rick says. “It’s Tuesday, are you kidding me? Basketball practice. He wouldn’t miss it for the world, I’m telling you.” Rick walks into the park and veers almost immediately to the right across the grassy expanse. Daryl follows him at a distance and Rick leads him from the open and manicured lawn to the hiking trail that’s more overgrown with brush. The trail splits off into two--the right path following the water and the left going up. Rick takes the left easily and then follows a trail in the grass that has been made by the constant footfalls of him and his friends. They break into a nice cozy little clearing surrounded by four tall oak trees and a handful of pines. Rick dumps his backpack on the ground and flops down in his usual place, looking up at the Georgia sky and the bright sunlight filtering down.

“Nice place,” Daryl says and sits next to him.

Rick shrugs. “Used to come here more than we do lately. Should of told you about it earlier. Could have had a better nap.”

“Eh,” Daryl says and shrugs easily. “I can sleep anywhere.”

Rick frowns, not liking the sound of that for some reason. He thinks there are implications buried deeper in Daryl’s voice than he’s actually hearing right now, things hidden deep that if Rick were smarter he could piece out. But the sun is too bright for that right now and Daryl is sitting next to him easily, legs crossed Indian style, leaning back on his hands.

“Still don’t know why you’re hanging out with me,” Daryl says and looks up at the trees. “Figured you’d be off with your girlfriend.”

Rick scoffs. “What girlfriend?” he asks.

Daryl blinks down at him. “Lori.”

Rick stretches in the grass. “Lori? You kidding? Lori isn’t my girlfriend.”

“Hang out with her a lot,” Daryl points out, but Rick shakes his head hard.

“Must of not got the memo, dude. I haven’t hung out with Lori in ages. We’ve been broken up for six months.”

Daryl frowns and looks down at Rick, his brow furrowed in confusion. “You took her out to Maggie’s dance two weeks ago.”

“No, I did not!” Rick is quick to jump in. He leans up on his elbow to give himself more leverage when he pokes at the grass pointedly. “I took her there as a favor. She owes me. She didn’t have a date and she asked me and I told her nothing was going to happen. And no rumors.”

Daryl laughs just slightly and Rick blinks. The sound dies on the wind as easily as it had begun, but it was there, low and hard and rumbling. “Sorry,” Daryl says. “She’s not your girlfriend, then?”

Rick shakes his head, both at Daryl’s question and to clear his mind from the soft chuckle he had just witnessed leaving Daryl’s lips. “No. Not my type.”

Rick freezes, his heart suddenly in his throat. He braces himself for the next question--what is your type--and he scrambles in his brain to come up with an answer that’s logical and not the truth about how Rick tends to swing more for the abs and the short hair of guys than he does for the long, flowing locks and feathery eyelashes of women. But Daryl doesn’t ask him that. Instead he just shrugs and says, “Okay, fair enough.”

Rick lets out the breath he was holding and scoots just a little away from Daryl, retreating to his own personal space. “What about you?” he asks, since they’re on that subject. “You got a girlfriend?”

Daryl scoffs and shakes his head hard. “Nope,” he says. “Got too much other shit in my life for something as dumb as that.”

“Love is dumb?” Rick finds himself asking and Daryl rolls his eyes.

Dating is dumb,” Daryl says. “And I’m too young for love and all that shit. Got too much going on to worry about it, you know? Doesn’t get you anywhere.”

“Well,” Rick says, sticking his nose in the air defiantly and pulling up a dandelion. He blows it out into the sky. “I’m a romantic.”

Daryl laughs at him and Rick blinks a second time, a grin spreading across his face. He realizes rather suddenly that he likes the sound that Daryl’s throat makes when he chuckles.

“You sound like a fucking girl,” Daryl says, but he’s grinning and so Rick grins back.

“Kind of am one,” Rick says. “I mean, that’s what Lori always said.”

“Eh,” Daryl says and shrugs. He moves his legs, stretching them out in the grass, and tilts his head back to the sun and the sky. “What does she know?”

“Exactly,” Rick says and smiles.

***

When the sun starts to set, they get up and head to the gas station nearby and Rick texts his mom to pick them up. She’s incredibly pleased when she gets there and finds them hanging out together, buddy-buddy. The rest of the ride back is spent listening to her chatter about how her day went at the office and when they get home, she’s even in a good enough mood that she makes spaghetti and Rick thanks his lucky stars that it’s actual noodles and hamburger and things and not the packaged kind.

Rick is, in fact, having a very good day ever since school ended and after he finishes taking care of the dishes with minimal complaints, he walks down the hallway, intent on finding Daryl and asking him if he’d like a turn at the PS3. At the end of the hall, though, Rick stops dead in his tracks. From the bathroom, he hears the faint sounds of crying again, same as the day before. He pauses and he lifts his hand to knock and ask if Daryl is okay, before thinking better of it. What is he going to say to him to make it better? What could Rick possibly do to make anything Daryl is going through fine? And besides, Rick doesn’t know what to do with tear-streaks. He doesn’t know how to cure puffy eyes and Daryl’s mouth, so downturned and wrecked. So Rick turns away, afraid, and simply locks himself in his room for the rest of the night, hiding from the pain he’s sure is emanating off Daryl’s skin like radiation.

***

Rick doesn’t see Daryl until the next morning, when there is the slightest of knocks on his door as he is getting dressed. Rick rushes to the door and flings it open, not really caring that he’s still in only his pants, sans shirt, and that his hair looks like a Kansas tornado has been tearing at it. Rick smiles at Daryl, who blinks down at him. Daryl apologizes and turns to leave, but Rick grabs his wrist and drags him inside.

“Need something?” he asks Daryl and goes back to rifling in his drawer for his Skyrim shirt he KNOWS is clean.

“Um,” Daryl says and then clears his throat. “I was wondering...you think we’re the same size?”

Rick turns to him and gives his waist a good study. “Probably? Why?”

Daryl crosses his arms and Rick swears he’s just the tiniest bit red. “Just, uh, wondering if you had some shorts or something I could borrow. Kind of want to run before we go to school and I don’t have anything.”

“Oh!” Rick says and jumps down a drawer to start rifling in that. “I got some. Want me to go with you?”

“Go with me?” Daryl asks kind of squeakily and sits down at the edge of Rick’s bed. He blinks at Rick’s chest. “Um, running?”

“Yeah,” Rick says and throws him a pair of shorts. “Sounds fun.”

Daryl gives him an up-and-down look. “You sure you can keep up?”

Rick turns to him and glares, although the heat of it is probably lost because of the NASCAR pajama bottoms. “You saying I can’t run? I played soccer, you know.”

“Yeah,” Daryl says. “PLAYED. Like, in middle school. I competitive run.”

Rick lifts his nose into the air. “I can do it.”

“Okay,” Daryl says and shakes his head. “I’m going to change. Better get to it if we’re going.”

***

Ten minutes in and Rick is ready to admit that Daryl was right. He sucks. While Daryl is up ahead, his body paced and smooth, practically jogging it’s taking him no effort, Rick is back there wheezing and trying to keep up. Daryl slows down for him at first and then kind of keeps slowing down until Rick belatedly realizes that they’re actually walking and despite the fact that he’s supposed to be young and healthy, he’s incredibly unfit and kind of sounds like a donkey.

Rick pauses and puts his hands on his knees, bending over slightly to breathe. Daryl stops beside him and lets him get it all out. “Told ya,” he says and Rick looks up at him, glaring.

“Okay,” Rick says, “so maybe I’m not a freakish cheetah like you are.”

Daryl chuckles and Rick’s heart skips a beat, mostly from the fact that he’s not really breathing very evenly after the run. “Won second at state last year,” Daryl says and then shrugs. “Kind of good at it. Running. I guess.”

Rick leans up again and puts his hands on his sides, this time. “Wait,” he says. “You’re so good of a runner you placed.” He pauses to gulp another breath. “At STATE?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says and Rick can swear he’s blushing a little. “I guess. Is that...is that good?”

Rick’s eyes widen and he raises his eyebrows. “Is it GOOD? Yeah, man. It’s awesome. That’s like...I mean, all the kids that run in the state. That’s what state is.”

Daryl shrugs and starts kicking at the curb. “Yeah, I know that. Coach said it was good. But, you know, he’s the coach. He’s supposed to say it’s good even when you suck. So I never really knew if it was something to be proud of or not…”

“What,” Rick says before he has intelligence to actually pay attention to what he’s saying, “you never told your parents or anything?”

Daryl bites his lip and looks away. Rick pauses, his heartbeat suddenly up in his throat. “Ah, man,” Rick says. “I”m sorry. I--”

“It’s cool,” Daryl cuts in. He shrugs and kicks at the curb some more. They stand there awkwardly for a minute before Daryl gathers his breath up in one big gulp. “So, um...I’m going to school today,” he says.

Rick perks up. “Yeah? That’s good.”

“I, um…” Daryl looks off at a neighboring house and bites his lip and then looks back at Rick. “Can I ask you something and can you not be a dick about it?”

Rick blinks. “Sure,” he says.

Daryl scratches his head. “I, um...was wondering if you’d eat lunch with me?” He speeds up and rushes past his next sentence. “I don’t give a shit, but the kids are going to be talking about fucking crap they don’t know anything about and I don’t really want to have to answer questions and things. So...you mind?”

Rick smiles and tries to get his breath back. “No. I don’t mind at all. I’ll eat with you.”

Daryl nods determinedly. “Cool. That’s good. That’s...cool. Can I ask one more thing?”

“Sure,” Rick says, perked up.

“Um, could you, like, go home? Man, I need to run and you’re a buzzkill.”

Rick purses his lips, but then he grins and does as Daryl asks.

***

Later that day, Rick follows through. He makes sure to sit close by Daryl in first period and third, English and Trig, and then when it's lunch, he pulls Daryl over to the corner table to sit with him. Rick positions himself with his back to his normal table and tries to ignore the calls from his friends, but after a minute, Daryl clears his throat and gestures.

"They seem to want to talk to you," Daryl says and waves his fork at Rick. "It's fine. You can go."

Rick looks over to where Shane and Andrea are waving like wild banshees and then he whips back around to Daryl. "Nah," he says and digs into his instant potatoes.

Daryl looks between Rick and the other table. "It's really cool," he says. "I won't hold it against you or anything."

Rick sighs and pulls out his phone. He texts Shane to knock it off, that he'll see him later. He looks over his shoulder and watches Shane read his text and then shrug and turn back around. "Problem solved," he tells Daryl.

Daryl pushes around a piece of mystery meat. "I don't think anyone's going to ask me anything. If you really want to go."

Rick scoffs. "To what? Hear about how Andrea's community service is going? No thanks. Besides, Lori is over there and you see how much makeup she's wearing these days? Looks like freaking Lindsay Lohan."

Daryl chuckles and Rick grins in pride that he made him laugh. Daryl leans his elbows on the table and bends forward to Rick conspiratorily. "I think she might be color blind."

Rick laughs back and then they fall into easy conversation about the intelligence of cheerleaders and whether their football team stands any chance against their rivals.

And then it’s kind of glorious because they have all afternoon together and even though Daryl bitches up and down about how much he hates history, it’s still cool to sit by him and pass notes in class behind Mr. Greene’s back about how his ponytail is really contrasting with his bald patch these days.

Rick is actually kind of over the moon about all of it. A normal day has him pretty isolated from his friends. Sure, Andrea and Shane are in Trig and Maggie is in English, but other than that, his schedule has widely differed this year from all his friends’. And even when they do have classes together, they still don’t interact all that much--Mrs. Patricia, the math teacher, has since caught on to all their wily ways and has separated Andrea, Rick and Shane to different corners of the room and Maggie once threatened to pull his eyes out of their sockets for making her miss something said in English because she has to get a good grade, dammit.

So it’s nice to be able to sit beside someone and feel comfortable. And Daryl is a great classmate, Rick learns. He has the half-paying attention to the teacher, half-paying attention to Rick thing down. So much so that when Mr. Greene snaps a question at Daryl, sure that he doesn’t know the year that the Vietnam War started, he’s actually kind of surprised when Daryl easily answers back and is right. How did Rick not know before that he was this...cool?

So when school gets out and Rick has a text from Shane that says he’s bailing on their normal Wednesday Dollar General session to go hang out with Lori, he’s really not that sad. And when Maggie and Glenn group text back that they’re “busy” and Michonne starts texting everyone a play-by-play of their make out session until they realize she’s doing it, Rick just turns off his phone and dedicates all his attention to Daryl.

And that’s really cool. Daryl listens intently to all of Rick’s recap on the texting conversation, intrigued by phone culture since he doesn’t have one. And then they get onto the subject of track and Rick didn’t realize there was so much to talk about with just running, but Daryl can apparently go on for hours and Rick realizes he’s not actually bored. It’s kind of cool to hear Daryl talk about strategies for winning races and how to breathe correctly and Rick gets kind of lost in thinking about Daryl’s legs and how smooth he moved this morning, turning corners and pacing up hills like it was nothing.

So when they get back to the house, Rick is in a great mood and Daryl seems to be, too. Rick’s dad is home early and he makes dinner this time and okay, it’s not as great as Mom’s spaghetti, but the hamburger helper he gives them isn’t burnt and it’s actually pretty good when you mix it up with corn, so Rick will take it.

And then, just like that, Daryl disappears. And Rick hears crying from the bathroom again. He furrows his brow and gets up, walking down the hall. He pauses the same as before, his hand itching to lean up and knock, but not sure what he can do to help. He thinks of Daryl in the police car, glaring at the windshield and sniffling quietly, trying not to let Rick hear. Rick hates that, the thought of Daryl’s red eyes. He wants to hear him laugh again, like he did in the park. Like he did when they were talking about Lori’s makeup. He wants this guy to be happy, dammit. And he has no idea how he’s going to do that, but he knows he has to try.

So he lifts his hand and knocks. There is no response other than the quieting down of the other boy. And then Rick asks softly into the crack of the door, “Daryl? You okay?” He waits for Daryl to say something or for the door to open, but it remains stubbornly closed and Daryl remains silent. “Okay,” Rick says to the wood, “um...let me know if I can help.” He turns to leave, but then the door is being thrown open and Daryl grabs his wrist and yanks him inside.

Rick has just enough time to notice that Daryl’s shirt is off and thrown over the back of the toilet along with his hoodie before Daryl is slamming the door shut and locking them both in. Daryl wipes angrily at his eyes and then shoves a bottle into Rick’s hands. “I can’t reach,” he says and his voice is low and gravelly, but kind of wavering too.

Rick takes a second to process. He looks down at the open bottle of iodine and the pile of q-tips strewn on the counter. He blinks up at Daryl who has turned his back to him and is leaning over the sink, breathing hard. Rick looks at Daryl’s back and he gulps. Strewn across it in all kinds of patterns are various stages of cuts and bruises. Lashes, Rick realizes and that sets a lump in his throat that he doesn’t know how to deal with. Daryl has already covered the easiest of the batches to get with iodine, but the ones at the center of his back must be frustratingly hard to reach.

Daryl turns to glance at Rick over his shoulder and Rick picks up a q-tip before either of them can speak. He doesn’t want to hear Daryl try to explain it and he definitely has nothing to say. So he lets his actions speak for him--he dips the q-tip in iodine and carefully, as softly as he’s able to, he starts doctoring the long gashes nestled into Daryl’s skin. Daryl dips his head down and occasionally hisses or jerks under the touch of the medicine, but he doesn’t cry anymore and if Rick has to spend all day, everyday, in here with him just to keep those sounds at bay, it’s worth it. Rick works as quickly as he can while still being thorough. He tries not to think about how some of the long stripes look old--really old--and how the bruises are all kinds of different colors that speak of time.

Rick wonders how he’s made it this long. And how he’s managed to come out of all of it still able to smile. He thinks Daryl is a far tougher person than he’ll ever be. Maybe the toughest Rick has ever met. That thought makes Rick both happy that Daryl is able to recover and sad that he’s had to. He wants to...Rick isn’t sure what he wants to do. Hug him? Hold him? Something that surprasses the new friendship they’ve build up in the last two days. Something that’s more precious and solid and real than Rick has ever felt with Shane or Andrea or Glenn or Michonne or any of them.

Rick just wants to be there. And he’s glad that in this moment, Daryl is letting him. His hands move smoothly over Daryl’s back, catching the twitches and the gasps as the iodine works in, smoothing it out as best as he can, trying to replace all the scars with something better.

***

There’s no way that Rick is letting Daryl go back to the guest room. For one, Rick would be bored out of his mind and for two, he just doesn’t think that Daryl needs to be alone. Ever. So Rick asks if Daryl wants to watch South Park in his room and Daryl wholeheartedly agrees. They spread out on the bed and make it their own carnage site--Rick pulls his laptop out and sets it between them and puts the show on. They gather snacks and strew them all over the bed and the nightstand--Bottle Caps and chips and caramel chews and juice boxes and all kinds of crap that they raid from the kitchen. Daryl pulls his hood up and they flop down, shoulder to shoulder, and watch Cartman convince Butters to help him tie up his unfinished business so he can move on to the afterlife. Rick gets to hear Daryl chuckle again, so it’s totally worth it.

They stay like that for the better part of the evening and Rick is more than content. It’s somehow even better than getting out of the house and hanging with Shane or Andrea. It’s more...comfortable. Daryl leaning right next to him is warm and inviting and Rick wishes that he had his own hoodie so he could be that cozy. Daryl is a great watching partner because he’s not a talker and he knows just when to laugh in sync with Rick and that’s really cool all on it’s own.

So when Rick’s mom pops her head in well after eleven at night and tells them it’s time that they hit the sack because it’s a school night, Rick is deeply disappointed. Their episode is only just beginning, but his mom has never been one to cave to the “just one more episode” begging that Rick is so familiar with. So Rick promises that they’ll split up and go to sleep and his mom gives him that eyebrow raise that says she will be checking his light in about five minutes.

Rick waits ten, because that’s the appropriate amount of time to wait--too short and it seems suspicious. Too long and she’ll come opening the door. But ten minutes is perfect. He nudges Daryl in the ribcage and nods to the door. “Go turn the light off,” he says and turns to his backpack to rifle through it.

Daryl gets up and hits the light switch and then Rick hears the sound of the doorknob squeaking. “Ssssh,” he tells Daryl and looks at him in the darkness, their only light the laptop still streaming South Park. “What are you doing?”

Daryl gives him an incredulous look. “I was leaving? Cause your mom said to?”

Rick rolls his eyes hard. “Get back over here,” he says and goes back to digging in the backpack. Daryl slowly shuts the door and makes his way back over, sitting down in the spot that Rick has now deemed “Daryl’s spot.” Rick finally finds what he’s looking for and whips out a pair of headphones. He hands one of the earbuds to Daryl and puts his own in and settles down under the covers with the show still going.

Daryl spares one look at the door before he does the same, sinking beneath the covers and putting the earbud in. Rick hits play and scoots a couple of inches closer to Daryl to give them more slack on the headphones. Daryl glances up at him, close and in his personal space, and smiles. Rick smiles back. And then there’s a crash from something that Stan has done and they turn back to the screen, getting involved once more.

Rick laughs at the episode and Daryl chuckles alongside him. Rick doesn’t know why, but sitting in the bed with Daryl so close to him feels maddeningly familiar and makes his skin both unknot and tense up at the same time. The side of him that is inches from Daryl feels electric--like it’s pinged with little nodes of electrons and neutrons that are just singing in tune with Daryl’s own magnetic forces. But he feels like putty next to Daryl, too, all splayed out and sunk into the bed, his head angled to Daryl’s as they watch.

It all just feels so...right.

Which is probably why Daryl falls asleep. Rick guesses it must be that, anyway. He notices halfway into the next episode that Daryl’s breath has evened out and he’s not really snoring, per se, but he’s doing that deep breathing thing that lets Rick know he’s out like a light. Rick thinks about shaking him awake and telling him to go to the guest room. But then he thinks about the marks on Daryl’s back and the way that lying here next to him feels.

So he closes the laptop and sets it aside and burrows down next to Daryl. And if Daryl’s head happens to end up on Rick’s shoulder, that’s okay, too. Daryl smells of iodine and deeper cypress scents and Rick wonders about Daryl’s soap until he realizes that Daryl has been taking showers in his bathroom and the soap that Rick is inhaling is his soap and that’s kind of...good. To think about Daryl smelling the same as him.

Beside him, Daryl shifts slightly and says, “Rick?”

Rick blinks and lifts the corners of his mouth, but doesn’t open his lips far enough to let much sound out. “Hmm?”

But whatever Daryl was going to say is swept under sleep and Daryl nuzzles into Rick’s shoulder just slightly and breathes happily into the dark room. Rick smiles and lets himself drift off, content to lie there in his bed with Daryl right beside him.

***

They fall into an easy pattern and for the next week and a half, the days slip by relatively the same. They wake up and Daryl goes running and gets back just in time to shower and leave for school. Rick always grabs Daryl breakfast on the way out and they meet at the car to exchange poptarts and text books. Rick's mom drives them in on days she's working or if she's not, Rick drives the car. They walk into school together, spend the majority of the day taking notes and passing pieces of paper with sarcastic commentary and then they head home either right away or after track, finish their homework, and more times than not, end up watching Netflix on Rick's bed until lights off. Daryl doesn't sleep in the guest room anymore, instead falling asleep leaning against Rick, his nose buried in Rick’s shoulder.

The only time they spend apart is briefly on Saturday afternoon when Rick can't ignore his friends any longer and Daryl refuses to go hang out with Shane Walsh. But other than that, they are inseparable, two peas in a pod, twinsies. So when Rick's mom pesters him for the eleventh billion time about finishing his college application to North Georgia, Daryl helps him.

They sit on the bed with the pile of application papers and Rick grumbles over editing his essay. Daryl picks through the papers carefully, his fingers handling each one like it is precious and he’s going to break something.

Rick studies how Daryl is studying the fine paper and then blurts out, "It's just an application."

Daryl jumps and blushes. He grunts. "Afraid I'm going to smudge it or something."

Rick shrugs and takes the paper from him. "Then I'll just print a new one."

"So you're going to college, huh?" Daryl asks and fidgets with the hem of his hoodie.

"That's the plan," Rick says, shrugging. "Applied to two already. This is number three, but I'm thinking of applying to Southern Poly, too." He yawns as he scratches out something on his essay and writes in a new line above it.

"That's cool," Daryl says and leans back on his hands. "So, um, what one do you, like, really want to go to?"

Rick shrugs. "They’re all okay, I guess. Like this one, though. North Georgia State. They have a good math program. You might like it." He pokes his tongue out while he concentrates and goes back to editing before he pauses. "Hey, what are YOU applying to?"

Daryl scoffs and picks at his hem again. "Nothin'," he grumbles.

"What do you mean nothing?" Rick asks.

Daryl rolls his eyes and frowns. Rick tries to lock eyes with him, but Daryl avoids looking at him so hard that he ends up glaring at the window. “Mean nothing,” Daryl says.

“But you’re super smart,” Rick tells him.

Daryl shrugs. “College ain’t for me.”

Rick furrows his brow and sets his own application materials aside. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m…” Daryl lets out a loud puff of air and shrugs. “Broke. I mean I’m poor. I can’t afford shit like that.”

“You could get a scholarship,” Rick says.

Daryl shakes his head. “Those are hard to get. And I’m just, you know, one in a million and shit. I’m not going to get anything like that.”

“I think they’re easier to get than you think they are,” Rick says and then adds softly, “and you’re really smart.”

“I don’t have that good of grades,” Daryl tells him. “Gone too much. Doubt I’d even get in anywhere.”

Rick picks up his pen and taps it on his jawline. “What’d you get on your ACT?” he asks and then pauses. “You took it, right?”

Daryl shrugs and looks everywhere but at Rick. “Yeah. Mrs. Patricia made me. I, um...what’s a good score?”

“What’d you get?” Rick counters and Daryl sighs at him super hard.

“I got a 31.”

Rick stops and lets the pen fall out of his hand and lets his jaw drop down. “A 31? Are you shitting me?”

Daryl looks at him now and blinks rapidly. He shrugs and furrows his brow. “Yeah? Is that good?”

“A 31?” Rick says, flabbergasted. “DUDE. I got a 28 and my parents were over the MOON. You got a 31? You could definitely get in. Like, anywhere. Even if your grades aren’t that good.”

Daryl looks down at the fabric of Rick’s comforter and then looks up at him through his eyelashes, kind of shyly and hopefully. “...yeah?” he says and picks at a string on the comforter. “It’s good?”

“It’s fantastic!” Rick says and grins. Daryl smiles back. “Besides, you could always get a track scholarship, too. Even if you didn’t get an academic one, which I’m sure you would. You’d be great at college.” Rick pauses and then jumps off his bed and goes over to his computer, hits the print button on the screen that’s currently pulled up and grabs the paper that comes tumbling out of his printer. He shoves the application under Daryl’s nose, but Daryl jumps back like the paper has scalded him.

“I can’t apply,” Daryl says, his eyes wide.

“Yes, you can,” Rick says and shoves the application at him a second time. “Come on. If we both got in, it would be so cool. We could be, like, roomies and things.”

Daryl stares at Rick and then at the paper held between them. “What if I don’t get in?” he asks.

Rick shrugs. “No harm, no foul,” he says and then smiles. “But what if you do?”

***

The next morning, as they’re getting ready for school, Rick notices that Daryl is clinging to the North Georgia envelope that Rick had made him seal last night after he finished his essay, despite Daryl’s grumbling that it was all stupid and he should just trash it. Rick watches as he carries it with him everywhere--to the kitchen table to eat, to Rick’s room when he’s getting his homework together, even going to far as to sit it on the endtable right by the bathroom door when he showers. He keeps staring at it, alternating between fighting back a grin and glaring and Rick is kind of fascinated with the way something as small as a piece of paper can make Daryl so nervous.

They walk out the front door and Rick grabs his own application. While Daryl is turning to look at Rick’s mom, who wishes them a good day, Rick takes the opportunity and swipes Daryl’s application from his hand. Daryl swings around, his mouth open in shock, but before he can process anything, Rick has thrown the envelopes in their mailbox and flipped up the little red “there’s mail in here” sign.

Daryl tries to slide past him to reach the mailbox, but Rick wraps a hand around his waist and pulls him to the car. He tosses Daryl into the passenger’s side, even though Daryl looks way too pale and nervous for something as simple as a college application. Rick climbs in the driver’s side door and he cranks the engine, driving them to school.

“You’ll do FINE,” Rick tells him. “You’ll totally get in. You’ve got the ACT and stuff and I’m sure they’ll be able to tell how smart you are. I mean, your essay sounded professional. I should have got you to write mine for me.”

If Rick didn’t know better, he would think Daryl Dixon was blushing. “Just a stupid college,” Daryl mutters and Rick smiles.

“Yeah, one you’re going to get in,” he says. Rick spends the whole way there telling Daryl that he has a great shot at college and gossiping with him about how great it will be if they can both go. By the time they pull into the parking lot, Daryl more or less believes him that he has a chance at acceptance, and has even started to give small little smiles about it.

Rick is thrilled and walks up to the school building in step with Daryl, trying to get a laugh out of him before first period when Shane and the rest of Rick’s friends barrel down on them. Rick has just enough time to blink before Andrea is grabbing one of his arms and Michonne is grabbing the other and they are hauling Rick off to the south side of the building, Shane leading the way and Carol off to the side and Glenn and Maggie behind them all, Glenn shouting at Daryl that he’s sorry and Maggie thwapping him on the chest and dragging him along.

Rick gets out “What--,” but then Andrea is hugging him.

“We’ve MISSED you,” she says and squeezes him way too tightly. “Where have you been? We haven’t seen you ALL YEAR.”

“It’s only been, like, a week--” he tries again but then Shane is clapping him on the shoulder.

“Rick,” Shane says, “What you been doing, buddy? Hanging out with Dixon? Bad influence, you know.”

“But he’s my fr--”

“You have GOT to hear about Andrea,” Michonne says and grabs his arm, “and about how she totally skipped community service.”

Andrea lifts her chin. “I am a badass,” she says and smiles.

“Oh,” Shane says, “and we need to tell you about Glenn and Maggie and how they have PURITY RINGS.”

“My dad wants me to be innocent!” Maggie yells at him and then they are all off on a tangent about how Maggie Greene will never be pure or innocent and Rick gets swept up in the tornado that is his friends and his friends’ lives.

***

It isn’t until lunch that Rick feels like he can actually take a breath. His friends have managed to catch him up on all the gossip--about how Andrea totally skipped community service to hang out with Michonne at the Goodwill down the street from Michonne’s house and how that got her in even more trouble and now she’s grounded so hard that her window has been boarded up and Amy spent the whole weekend laughing at her; about how Glenn and Maggie are wearing purity rings and saying that they’re not actually doing it, although everyone knows that’s a lie, but Carol thinks it’s cute; about how Shane is NOT together with Lori because she’s a bitch, even though yesterday he was together with Lori because she was the most perfect angel that God had ever made; and about how Rick really needs to update his social calendar because apparently he’s supposed to be over at Shane’s house on Saturday because they are going to kick Shane’s cousin’s ass at basketball and he BETTER be there the weekend after for the party that Michonne is having when her parents go away for their anniversary.

Normally, Rick would care about it. All of it. He would listen with rapt attention to every little detail of his friends’ lives, even throwing in commentary and details of his own. He would ooh and aww and groan and cheer and do all the things that a good friend is supposed to do. He would make sure to ask follow-up questions when appropriate, add to the complaints when needed, and make sure to squeak in joy/horror when a particularly juicy piece of gossip came up.

But today he just can’t find it in him. Instead, he finds himself adding to the conversation with only a bored, “mmm hmm” or a “yeah” or an “interesting” and instead spends all of his class periods craning his neck and looking for Daryl. And when he can’t see Daryl across the room, he’s thinking about him--wondering if he’s bored with the lecture, if he thinks Rick hates him, if his mouth is curved up in that smile Rick likes to see so goddamn much or turned down into the frown that Rick loathes. He wonders if Daryl is still having a good hair day and if his hoodie is pulled up or down. He wonders if he’s chewing on the end of his pencil like he likes to do. If he’s thinking about track or South Park or college or...Rick.

Rick wonders what Daryl would think of his friends. So when lunch rolls around, Rick is determined to find out. He stands up from the table that Andrea and Shane have swept him off to and starts a determined march across the cafeteria. Shane is quick to grab him, though, before he makes more than three steps.

“DUDE,” Shane says and grips his arm, giving him a concerned look. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to find Daryl,” Rick says, belligerently and tries to shimmy out of Shane’s grip.

But Shane plays all kinds of sports and visits the gym on the weekends like it’s a religion, so Rick’s scrawny maneuvering gets him nowhere. Shane furrows his brow. “But it’s Daryl Dixon, man. He’s...you know.”

Rick frowns. “You know what?” Rick spits at him.

Shane has the decency to look away and finally let him go. “He’s just...kind of trashy, that’s all,” Shane says and Rick glares and starts stomping off.

“Wait!” Andrea calls and Rick sighs and turns to her, waiting for her to speak. “Rick...we know he’s been staying with you.”

“Yeah,” Shane cuts in. “We know through the grapevine and not through you. What’s up, man?”

Rick purses his lips. “He’s having some trouble, so Dad said he could stay with us. So yeah. He’s staying with me. Why do you guys care?”

“We’re your friends,” Andrea says. “We just want to know what’s up with you.”

“Daryl is my friend,” Rick says. “And I want to eat lunch with him.”

Andrea rolls her eyes. “Rick, stop being Mr. Officer Friendly, who wants all the kids to like him. You don’t have to hang out with him cause your mom said so or whatever.”

Rick glares and is about to storm back off, when Carol talks, quieter than the others. She bites her lip. “We haven’t talked to you at all this last week, Rick. And you don’t seem like yourself. We’re sure that you are Daryl are good friends, but we’re just worried about you. You haven’t been talking to us.”

Rick sighs heavily and looks at all of them. Michonne is silently eating her jello, but she has her concerned expression on. Shane is standing next to Rick, waiting for him to say something. Glenn is studiously not getting into it, but he looks just as worried as the rest of them. Rick pinches the bridge of his nose and then shakes his head. “Okay,” he says and shrugs. “I’ll eat with you guys and I’ll talk to you. BUT you have to let Daryl eat with us, too.”

Shane scoffs. “I’m not eating with--” But he cuts himself off when Michonne gives him a good glare. “Fine. FINE. I will eat with Dixon. But only because I’ve known you since kindergarten, Rick, and I know that your new friend phase will pass.”

It’s not perfect, but Rick will take it. He nods and walks over to the corner table of the cafeteria, where Daryl is sitting with his legs pulled up on the chair and his hood up, hiding his eyes. Rick can see the tiniest strands of his longer hair peeking out of the hoodie and he wants to touch it, roll it in his fingers and feel how soft it is. But instead, he reaches for one of the strings on Daryl’s hood and pulls. Daryl grunts and then whips his hood down, glaring at Rick. When he sees who it is, he blinks. “Hey,” he says and picks up his jello cup, tearing at the lid.

“Hey,” Rick says. “Um...sorry my friends kind of took me away.”

Daryl shrugs. “Fine,” he says and Rick again wonders if that’s fine, it’s okay or fine, whatever you want to do.

Rick clears his throat. “Anyway...you want to eat with us?”

Daryl blinks up at him. “Us?”

“Yeah,” Rick says and motions to the table where Michonne is currently swiping jello cups like it’s an Olympic sport.

Daryl looks at the table and then back at Rick. “Um, no,” he says and goes back to tearing at the foil lid.

Rick blinks. “They’re really kind of cool when you get to know them.”

Daryl shakes his head. “Not hanging out with Shane and Andrea. No thanks. You do your thing, though.”

Rick sighs and sits down next to him and, when Daryl won’t look at him, he grabs the lid from Daryl’s hand and throws it down. “Hey,” he says, “you like being my friend?”

Daryl blinks at him and then frowns hard. After a beat, he nods, almost imperceptibly. “Okay,” Rick says, “then you’re going to like it even more when you have more than one. Come on.” He stands up and waits for Daryl to go with him. Daryl sighs heavily and bitches about how much he doesn’t want to go over there, but he still stands and grabs his lunch tray and follows Rick back across the cafeteria.

Rick sits in his normal spot between Andrea and Shane, his two besties, but he forces Andrea to scoot down so that Daryl can sit between her and Rick. Daryl does, and he pulls his hood up again and leans over his tray. Everyone is silent. Shane picks at his nuggets, Michonne opens her fourth jello cup, and Andrea pulls out her phone to text someone. Rick sighs at the utter awkwardness of it all and then has a flash of brilliance. He grins and turns to Daryl. “Hey, Daryl, just to keep you up on everything, Maggie is totally obeying her purity ring and not porking Glenn in the bathroom in sixth period.”

Maggie’s mouth falls open and she lets an affronted squeak go and then Andrea is backing up Rick and the girls start play yelling at each other because Maggie says that Andrea shouldn’t talk when her and the mayor’s son have been known to be gone too long in the closet at Michonne's house when she’s having a party and then Shane is jumping in with a oh my god, why can’t you just make out with Michonne and let me watch and Carol is blushing from all of the sex talk and Michonne is throwing empty jello cups at Shane’s face and it’s just about as close to normal as that group will ever get.

Rick smiles and lets the noise and motions of his friends wash over him, creating the school background he’s so used to. He elbows Daryl slightly under the table and Daryl looks over at him, his features hidden under his hoodie, but his blue-gray eyes shining bright. Rick smiles at him conspiratorily and Daryl smiles back, leaning toward Rick just the tiniest amount.

***

When they get out of school, Daryl has track practice, so Rick hangs with Shane and Andrea behind the building and Rick catches them up on the Daryl situation selectively. He tells them that Daryl is staying at his house and that they’ve become friends. He tells them that they’re both applying to North Georgia and he’s going to try and get Daryl to apply to some scholarships and a couple of more colleges, too. He tells them that they spend a lot of time together watching shows and that Daryl is freakishly good at Trig and at running.

He doesn’t tell them about the scars and about how Rick’s whole body feels wrong every minute of every day unless it’s laying beside Daryl at night, so close to him that Rick can feel him breathing.

But Rick does talk about his life. It’s not that he’s wanted to push Shane and Andrea away. They’re his best friends. It’s just that hanging out with Daryl has been so much more important. He thinks that he should be analyzing that, but he’s not really sure what it means, so he lets it go.

When it’s 4:30, Rick excuses himself and walks over to the track field. He’s there about ten minutes before Daryl finishes and he catches him on the very last loop around the course. Daryl smiles at him as he runs and Rick lets a little wave go. He watches Daryl finish and talk to the coach, then stretch and go into the locker room to change. Rick waits around impatiently, kicking at the ground and counting the seconds until Daryl pops out, changed and ready to talk to Rick.

“Hey,” Daryl says, a grin on his face. “Thanks for waiting.”

Rick shrugs. “No problem. Have a good practice?”

Daryl nods excitedly. “Yeah. Got a track meet coming up pretty soon. Got to get ready for it.” He pauses and his cheeks get the slightest bit pink. “Might be scouts there. You know. For college.”

Rick punches him playfully in the shoulder. “And you’ll knock it out of the park, huh? Come on. If we hurry, we can get home and finish the season of Galactica.”

Rick turns to walk away, sure that Daryl is following him, but when he doesn’t hear footsteps behind him, he turns around, frowning. Daryl is standing there, holding his water bottle and looking awkward. “You okay?” Rick asks and then Daryl walks forward slightly.

“Um…” Daryl says and runs a hand through his hair. “Rick, can I ask you something?” Rick furrows his brow and nods. Daryl bites his lip. “You, uh...you’ve been acting like we’re friends. I mean...that’s what you said at lunch. That we were. And you’ve been treating me like we’re going to be friends. You know, after I leave the house and all.”

Rick’s stomach clenches at the thought of Daryl not living at his house and his nerves do so many wonky things all at once that it takes Rick a minute to process what Daryl is saying. “You think we’re not going to be friends?”

“No,” Daryl says and then shrugs. “Yes? I don’t know. I’m asking. Will we be?”

Rick shakes his head. “You idiot,” he says. “Yes.” Rick smiles at Daryl. “Of course we’ll be friends.”

Daryl smiles back slowly, like he’s almost afraid to. “Yeah?”

Yeah,” Rick says, trying to put all his confidence and feeling into it. “Now come on. You’re making me lose show time.”

Daryl jogs to where Rick is and they fall in step together. Rick smiles, thinking this is how it’s supposed to be, him and Daryl walking in sync back to the car, heading to an afternoon filled with just them.

***

“And,” Rick says and flops down on his stomach, landing with an “oomph” on the bed, “you can go to all of Michonne’s parties with me and you can help me force Andrea to go to community service and you’ll eventually get the ragging on Maggie and Glenn thing down and this will be so awesome, you hanging out with us.”

Daryl smiles and keeps rifling through Rick’s CD collection for something decent to listen to. They only have another half an hour or so before they fall into bed--there’s a Trig test in the morning and both want to be wide awake for that--but that’s enough time to put on a few songs. “And they won’t mind?” Daryl asks. “Me hanging around?”

“No, they’ll be cool,” Rick says, “especially when they get to know how awesome you are.” Rick smiles and kicks his feet up into the air. “And who knows. Maybe they’ll really get to know you and you’ll end up dating Carol or something. Or Andrea. I mean, she’s pretty, but it seems like Carol would be more your type.”

Daryl freezes, his fingers stuck between Arctic Monkeys and Taylor Swift. He swallows and removes his hand from the CD shelf and kind of stands there awkwardly. “What?” Rick says and his feet pause in midair. “Don’t like Andrea?”

Daryl shifts on the balls of his feet and sticks his hands deep into his front hoodie pocket. “She’s fine,” he mumbles and Rick furrows his brow.

“What is it, then?” Rick asks.

Daryl shuffles his sock foot against the carpet and then walks to Rick’s bed slowly. He sits down on the edge and crosses his legs Indian style, his hands still deep within the front pocket. “Can I…” He sets his jaw and shakes his head. Rick watches in fascination as Daryl’s face goes through a myriad of emotion--open and vulnerable, closed off, sad, a little angry, slightly hopeful. Daryl clears his throat. “We’re friends?” he says.

Rick sits up and mimics his crosslegged position. “Yeah, of course,” he says.

Daryl nods and squares his shoulders. “So...friends tell each other shit, right? I mean, that’s what friends do. Tell secrets.”

Rick nods and knits his brow again. “Of course. You can tell me anything.”

Daryl squirms and then takes a big breath. “I haven’t...I’ve never said it. I mean, I need to tell you something. And I’ve never told anyone before. I've never said it out loud. So...like...don’t laugh at me or anything. Okay?”

Rick nods solemnly and isn’t really sure if this is the kind of situation where he should go for the hug or stay on his side of the bed. “I promise I won’t laugh,” he ends up saying. “You can tell me anything.”

“I’m…” Daryl sighs frustratedly and then takes a big gulp of a breath. “I’m...gay.”

Rick blinks. But that doesn’t seem to actually change the fact that Daryl Dixon has just told Rick that he’s gay and it hasn’t actually helped Rick to process any of this so he blinks again. Daryl is staring at him across from the bed, clearly waiting on his response. Rick opens his mouth and doesn’t know what to say. There’s a swirl of thoughts going on in his head right now. He thinks about how badass he used to picture Daryl--the chain smoking, motorcycle riding, underage drinking, most likely illegal drug using trailer junkie. He thinks about the Daryl he saw that first night in the cop car, scared and alone. He thinks about the Daryl he knows now, the guy that’s good at math and runs like a wildebeest, the guy who likes Butters and hates Stan, the guy who sat with him today at lunch with all his friends even though he didn’t want to, but he did it for Rick. Rick tries to reconcile “gay” with all of that and falls short. He thinks of how Daryl’s eyes look when they’re under the hoodie. He thinks of his mouth when he has the pencil in it. He thinks of how Daryl looks with his eyes closed, all leaned up against Rick. Rick thinks--just briefly, just ever so slightly, just a wisp of a warm breeze in the middle of an Arctic chill blowing past--that maybe the reason Daryl looks at him that way is because Daryl likes him and maybe the reason that Rick looks back at Daryl, just as wide-eyed and ready, is that he likes Daryl back.

And then that thought passes and Rick is left sitting on the comforter of his bed, his mind still in turmoil and quickly forgetting all of his sudden realizations. He knows he hasn’t said anything to Daryl, that Daryl has just said I’m gay and looked at Rick with a question in his eyes and Rick has to say something, anything. So he opens his mouth, expecting to tell Daryl that it’s okay, that Rick will still be his friend. But what comes out is, “Me too.”

Daryl blinks and sits up a little straighter, looking at Rick like he’s fucking floored and Rick is pretty sure that the same expression is in his eyes, because that’s just how he feels too. And then Rick just lets it out. Because he’s never let it out before and he wants someone to know and damn it feels good to tell Daryl. “Lori...that’s why I broke up with Lori,” Rick tells him. “We were…” He sighs. “We were, you know, messing around and stuff. And it was pretty good. But I guess I didn’t really feel it and then she started yelling at me and she...called me a queer.” He swallows. “And I yelled back at her and stuff and then I left. And then I got to thinking that maybe...she was right. Maybe I just don’t like girls. But I’ve never...you know. Explored it or anything. But I think maybe...maybe I just like guys more. You know?”

Daryl nods at him, slowly, like he’s afraid if he moves too fast, he’ll break the moment. “My brother, Merle, he…” Daryl shakes his head. “He, um, bought me a hooker. Last year.” Daryl laughs, but the sound has no mirth in it. “He shoved me in a room with a hooker, man. Said I needed to...god.” Daryl rubs at his eyes. “Said I needed to lose my virginity. Man, I didn’t. I just...girls are nasty.” Daryl laughs at himself. “God, I am so, so, so gay.”

Rick laughs, too, just slightly and then he lays back down with his hand propping up his head. “So, like...you date guys?”

Daryl lays down beside him on his stomach and shrugs. “Nah. I mean...not really. I…” He blushes and Rick wants to tell him it’s okay, he doesn’t have to be embarrassed about it, but Daryl continues on. “I want to,” he says and looks up at Rick. They lock gazes for a moment and Rick wonders what that means, but Daryl looks away and shrugs again. “I guess I’m just waiting on the right guy.”

Rick smiles. “So you’re a romantic, huh?” He rolls onto his stomach beside Daryl. “A gay romantic?”

Daryl scoffs, but he’s grinning. “You, too, Mr. I-Blow-Dandelions-Into-the-Air.”

“Hey,” Rick says and bumps Daryl’s shoulder with his own. “That was for dramatic effect.”

Daryl smiles at him and dips his head, laughing. “So, um...your parents know? That you’re…”

Rick blushes and then shrugs. “Yeah. I told them in the summer. My mom kept asking me about girlfriends and I just wasn’t ready to date. I mean, I was kind of in this weird period between dating Lori and thinking about guys and I just...I needed them to know about my life. And they’re pretty cool about it. My mom is actually very cool with it. My dad’s a little awkward about it, but he says he approves. He just, I guess, doesn’t know what to do around me. But I told them I’m not really, you know, dating yet. I guess I’m waiting, too.”

Daryl gets a look in his eye, something burning quickly across his vision before it disappears. “I never thought...that you were gay,” he says.

Rick shrugs. “I never thought you were.”

“Guess we both hide it well,” Daryl says and then looks at the clock. He watches it as it ticks over the minute and then awkwardly shifts on the bed. “Guess it’s time to sleep,” he says and then bites his lip. Rick doesn’t say anything because he knows it is time, despite the fact that there’s so much he wants to talk to Daryl about. Daryl sighs and instead of crawling under the covers, he gets up off the bed and starts walking toward the door.

“Where are you going?” Rick asks and grabs for him. He gets Daryl’s wrist and then tugs him back down on the bed. Daryl falls back onto it easily, like putty in Rick’s hands.

“I thought…” Daryl says and shrugs. “I mean, is it going to be awkward? Same bed, same sexuality?”

Alarm bells go off in Rick’s head, something he should be processing, but he beats them down. Because this is Daryl staring at him, the blue of his eyes the same as the deepening twilight outside. Rick looks down at Daryl’s mouth, wanting to see him smile again. “You hate sleeping alone,” Rick says and Daryl shrugs. “So...don’t.” Rick tells him and then weaves his way under the covers, opening them for Daryl. Daryl studies him with a confused expression, but climbs in just as easily as he has been for the past two weeks. He sits there for a minute, laying on his back and then he sighs and rolls away from Rick. Rick thinks about reaching for him and pulling him in, but it feels weird all the sudden. Something nags at the back of his mind, but he dismisses it. He reaches up and turns the light off and listens to the sound of Daryl’s even breathing. Rick thinks this is comfortable now. Normal. Daryl laying right beside him in bed. Rick waits to see if Daryl will turn toward him, but he doesn’t curl up next to him like he usually does. He’s still there, though, and Rick can hear him across the bed in the darkness and that’s good enough.

***

In the morning, Daryl slams into Rick’s room with a frown plastered to his face. Rick looks up at him, eyebrow raised. It’s become a pretty common thing for Daryl to sneak out at about five each morning, a good half an hour before Rick’s mom wakes up, and flop down in the guest room, napping for another hour before getting out of bed. But usually he’s just as chipper when he comes back in the room as when he left.

This morning, though, he’s grumpy. Although, Rick thinks, it might have something to do with the fact that he’s dressed in one of Rick’s button-up checkered shirts and his hair is nice and tidy and combed back and he’s sans hoodie. “Your mom,” Daryl growls, “thinks I should look nice.” He crosses his arms. “And she took my hoodie to wash it. I don’t see why she can’t do that on the weekend like last time.”

Rick smiles at him and goes to his closet, digs in it, and pulls out an old tan hoodie he got in New Hampshire one year on the family vacation. He walks over to Daryl and pulls it over Daryl’s head. Daryl grumbles but pulls it the rest of the way on and the hood catches on the back of his head. Rick smiles and reaches up, knocks the hoodie down and then pulls the neck down a bit, fixing it on Daryl’s shoulders. Daryl looks at him with wide eyes, his mouth slightly open and Rick chuckles at how Daryl’s hair is sticking out in fifteen billion directions because of the hoodie’s static electricity. Rick tries to settle his hair down by patting it smooth, but it doesn’t cooperate and all Rick succeeds in doing is running his fingers through Daryl’s long strands and causing even more static to charge up in Daryl’s hair.

And then Rick pauses. Because Daryl is right there, just inches from him and his eyes are blue like the sky now, with just the tiniest hint of gray stone hidden within them, like bluebonnets and charcoal all mixed together and hot and Rick blinks because he can feel Daryl’s skin where his fingers are touching his neck from trying to pull the hoodie down and Daryl’s lips are open and he’s breathing fast and Rick is sure, oh so very sure that something is about to happen because his nerves are running on overdrive like the static has somehow found its way into Rick’s body and he’s humming now, fast and free and right on the same frequency as Daryl and Rick knows that he’s on the precipice of something great, something that will change the course of his life forever and send him careening off a cliff at a hundred miles an hour, his veins singing with pent up joy and bursting out of his skin like a thousand tiny pieces of glittering string…

And then the door opens. And Daryl jumps away from Rick like he’s been burned and Rick’s mom is at the door, telling them it’s time to go.

***

It’s Friday and so Rick can’t wait to get home because that means the whole weekend with him and Daryl. He wants to ask Daryl what this morning was. And even beyond that, he wants to ask him what last night was. He has so many questions burning in his mind and he wants Daryl to answer all of them. But more importantly, he wants to just be with Daryl--to just hang out with him and lay with him side-by-side on the bed. It doesn’t even matter what they do or if they do nothing at all. He just wants...he just wants Daryl.

And so it’s especially crushing when they get out of school and make their way down the steps only to pause on the last one and stare off at the cars lined up to take kids home. Because there, right there, lounging against his truck and trying to act like he’s not above all of this, is Merle. Rick hasn’t seen him at the school in ages, not since sophomore year he thinks, but he still looks the same--same leather vest, same shaved head, same bad attitude.

Daryl shuts down so hard Rick barely recognizes him. His eyes get stony and his expression goes blank, his mouth set in a line that’s not really sad or angry, just...nonexistent. He squares his shoulder and looks at Rick and Rick isn’t sure that he’s actually seeing him or just looking through him. “Gotta go,” he tells Rick and starts walking toward the curb.

Rick steps into pace beside him. “You don’t have--”

“M’brother,” Daryl tells him, his voice hard and rough like jagged rocks. “It’s my brother. Guess he’s out of the joint. So I gotta go.”

Rick furrows his brow and tries to make eye contact with Daryl, but fails. “You be home tonight? I’ll see you later?”

Daryl shrugs. “Don’t know,” he says and then Rick watches him walk to the truck and get in, slamming the door shut. Rick stands there and waits, silently begging Daryl to come back. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t even so much as look at Rick while Merle walks around to the driver’s side and climbs in, gunning the truck and pulling it away. It’s not until he’s practically out of sight that Rick sees Daryl look back once at where Rick is standing by the school, and then turn quickly away, his mouth and eyes downcast.

***

That night, Daryl doesn’t come back. Rick waits in the living room for most of the evening, watching the door and jumping up at nearly every noise that even sounds the tiniest bit like a knock. The rest of the night he spends in his room, his window open and waiting. He curses himself for not begging his parents to get Daryl a phone, for not giving Daryl his phone so he could at least text Daryl using his mom’s cell. He thinks about going over to Daryl’s house, but decides against it. He thinks of the scars on Daryl’s back, how he flinches when Rick helps him put the medicine on. He thinks of all the bruises that could be littered against Daryl’s body and, briefly, Rick cries in the bathroom himself this time.

He tells his dad that Daryl left with his brother and asks if they should do anything. Rick’s dad looks solemn, but shakes his head and impresses upon Rick that this is Daryl’s life when they boil everything down and all that Rick and his family can do is be his friend.

So Rick waits and the hours tick by. When it’s well past two a.m. Rick finally succumbs to sleep and burrows down under his covers, shivering because no matter how hot the temperature is in his room, he still feels cold and alone.

In the morning, he wakes and expects Daryl to be there. But he isn’t. Instead, all Rick has is Daryl’s old hoodie that his mom washed and Daryl’s homework, left over from the last time he was here. Rick puts the hoodie on and glares for his mom to say anything about it. He bails on Shane despite his parents telling him the social interaction would be good for him. And he waits in his room all of Saturday. And all of Sunday. And Monday morning.

Rick rushes into school that morning, finally able to breathe a little bit better because he is just sure that Daryl will be there. He wouldn’t miss the classes and besides, Rick knows he has track and he would never miss practice. Except...he does. He’s not there. And Rick is alone the entire day except for lunch, when his friends try to cheer him up and Shane asks him a billion times what’s wrong. But Rick can’t just tell them. What would he say? That the guy he’s come to depend on so much is gone? That it feels like he’s been sawed in half and he’s missing more than just an arm and a leg and exactly one half of his organs? That he’s finally starting to get what he should have got a long time ago--that maybe Daryl isn’t just his friend, maybe he’s something far, far more important? Rick can’t tell them that. Even if he wanted to, where are the words to describe it? How does he go about explaining any of it? And even thinking about telling them seems like a betrayal of Daryl’s trust and that is the absolute, absolute last thing Rick will ever do. So he stays silent.

And Tuesday comes. And Daryl is still gone.

***

On Tuesday afternoon, Rick goes home and flops down in the recliner of the living room again. He pulls the throw off the back of the chair and covers himself up with it and sighs into the fabric. He’s just settling into waiting yet another night, when he hears the landline ring in the kitchen.

He sits up, ready to go get it, when he hears his dad answer. “Grimes. Yeah. Yeah. Where? The Dixons’?” Rick perks his ears up and sits forward in his chair. “No, I--Yeah. No, don’t call it in. I’ll go check it out. Thanks.” Rick hears the sound of the phone receiver being placed in its cradle and he’s up and off of the recliner before his dad makes it around to the front door.

“Let me go with you,” Rick says quickly and tries to look like the perfect angel of a son and the most determined teenager ever at the same time.

Rick’s dad frowns. “I don’t think that’s appropriate,” he says.

“But I want to help,” Rick pleads. “Dad, it’s Daryl, right? He’s my friend. I want to help. Please.” He thinks of what happened the last time his dad was over there. He thinks of blood pooling under the skin--rainbow colors of bruises. His dad sighs at him.

“I don’t know what we’re going to find over there, Rick. I think it’s best if you stay home and I’ll tell you everything when I get back.”

“But I want to go,” he says and when he sees his dad gather his breath to say something else, Rick talks over him. “I know what his dad did. I know what he does to Daryl. I know. I’ve seen it. Dad, I’m seventeen. Okay? I want to help. I’m old enough to help and he’s my friend and if I can do anything at all, I want to. So I’m coming with you.”

Rick’s dad purses his lips but then he nods. “Okay. But you stay in the car until I tell you you can come out and you do every single thing I say. You understand me?” Rick nods so hard he’s afraid his head is going to fall off and then they are jogging to their civilian car and Rick’s dad is peeling out of the driveway.

***

When they pull up, the house looks perfectly normal and uneventful. If Rick didn’t know any better, he could even pretend that a functional family lived here. His dad parks the car in the same position where he had pulled the cop car up that first afternoon and then he tells Rick to stay put and he walks to the front door and knocks. Rick cranes his neck and sees the door open and Daryl’s brother, Merle, come out. Merle says something and looks really disgruntled about everything. Rick’s dad answers back easily and then behind Merle, Daryl--Daryl--melts out of the door frame and steps out onto the porch.

Rick knows that his dad said to stay put, but he can’t help it. He slides out of the car and walks around to the driver’s side, standing right next to the hood. Daryl sees him and they lock eyes. Rick can’t see what’s hidden underneath his hoodie--Rick’s hoodie--and he can’t see how his back is, but he doesn’t see any black eyes or bruises or scrapes on the rest of him. Rick tentatively smiles and Daryl tentatively smiles back. And then Rick is distracted by Merle’s rough and loud voice.

“Don’t need help from the fuckin’ PIGS,” Merle says, his frown set deep. “So go on home, ya hear? We don’t need you. Unless you got some form of warrant or shit, get off my property.”

Officer Grimes stares up at him, his jaw set. “This isn’t your place, Merle. It belongs to your dad and I would like to speak to him now. Is he home? Can you get him for me?”

But Merle won’t listen to him. Instead, he plows forward with the subtlety of a freight train. “Man, I’m not going to do nothin’ for you,” Merle says, taking a step down toward Rick’s dad aggressively. “What are you doing up in here, anyway? Fucking stalking my brother and badgering us. It’s fucking brutality. Police brutality is what it is. This is all goddamn illegal, I’m sure. And so you get on gone. That’s what you’re going to do.”

“God, Merle,” Daryl says from behind them and steps forward, trying to put himself between the adults. “Can you just stop? He’s tryin’ to help.”

Merle shakes his head viciously. “You go on in the house, Daryl.” He nods back to the door. “Get on inside. I’m going to deal with this fucker.”

Daryl frowns and takes a step back, but makes no moves to go inside the house.

Rick’s dad puts his hands on his belt and squares his stance, looking Merle right in the eye. “Look, now,” he says. “I don’t give a rat’s ass what you and your pop are going to do to each other. I figure it’s none of my business--”

“You’re damn right it’s not,” Merle cuts in.

“--and you’re old enough to get the hell out if you want to,” Rick’s dad finishes. “But you look me in the eye and you tell me this is a good place for Daryl.”

“That’s my fucking baby brother,” Merle tells him. “Don’t you walk up in there like you can fix everything and like you goddamn know us. You don’t. You fucking don't. So get the hell away from me and from my kin.”

“He was doing just fine with us,” Rick’s dad tries, but Merle puffs his chest out and walks down another step.

“Yeah, he was, huh? Fucking kidnapping him and shit. He’s fucking seventeen, you asslicker. What, you like little boys and--”

“MERLE,” Daryl yells. “Shut the fuck up.” But Merle doesn’t. Instead he bellows about how Rick’s dad is out of line and Rick’s dad calmly, but dangerously, argues back. Daryl tries to get between them again, but it’s obvious neither of them are listening at all. So Daryl turns from both of them and rushes down the steps toward Rick.

Rick wants to open his arms and hug him, but he figures now isn’t the time. Daryl looks absolutely livid. “Let’s fucking go,” he tells Rick and Rick blinks.

“But my dad--” Rick tries, but it doesn’t matter because Daryl is grabbing his wrist and yanking him across the street toward the Dollar General and Rick lets Daryl guide him. He looks behind them to where Merle and his dad are yelling at each other, having not noticed at all that Rick and Daryl are leaving.

Daryl takes him into the Dollar General and asks the cashier to borrow a phone. The cashier hands one over and Daryl dials a number easily from memory and calls them a cab. Then he takes Rick outside and they walk two blocks down to a gas station, Daryl grumbling about how he’s not going to stand by that house one more second.

When they get to the gas station, a cab is waiting for them and Daryl hops in and tells the driver to take them to Griffin. As soon as he’s said it and as the cab is pulling away, Daryl loses it. He leans forward and buries his face under a curtain of hair and hands and fucking sobs in the back of the taxi.

Rick scoots over to him and gathers him up, pulling Daryl so that he’s sitting upright and maneuvering him into Rick’s chest. Daryl collapses against him like Rick has some kind of force field drawing him in and Rick hugs him, letting Daryl get all of it out and not asking a single question. The taxi weaves uneventfully through the town.

It takes Daryl about three blocks to stop crying and another block before he’s shoving Rick away and wiping furiously at his eyes. By the time they arrive at the park, the silence between them is deafening.

Rick pays the driver and they get out. Daryl sticks his hands deep into his hoodie pocket and makes for the secret clearing that Rick took him to that second day. Rick follows, jogging to keep up. When they reach the clearing, Daryl speaks. “My dad tried shit,” he tells Rick. “But Merle beat him up.”

Rick nods, slowly. “I think the cops got a call,” he says. “That’s how my dad knew. We got a call at home and I begged him to let me come.”

Daryl shakes his head and kicks viciously at the ground. “Man,” he says. “I get that your dad is trying to help. I do. And I am so grateful that I got to stay at your place for awhile. But shit, I don’t know if it’s making things better or worse. It’s the same with Merle. You know? Everyone trying to help, but goddamn it, I’m just tired of it. I’m tired of everyone staring at me and fucking pitying me and crap. I’m just…” He sighs and puts a hand in his hair, squeezing his eyes shut. “I’m so goddamn tired. I just need to be eighteen, you know? God! I need these four months to be over. I just need to be able to be an adult and fucking just leave without worrying about the fucking social worker taking me away and making me switch schools and then losing what little grades I got and losing track and motherfucker.” Daryl shakes his head and looks at Rick in the now dying light. “I just need to not have to beg your dad to look the other way and not turn me in. Okay? I just need…” He shrugs and blinks rapidly. “I need to be DONE with this shit. Because it doesn’t matter. None of this bullshit matters, Rick. You know what matters?” Daryl pauses and looks at him then, and Rick is captivated by how the sunset is reflecting in his eyes, showering Rick will all kinds of emotion he never knew he could feel. “You,” Daryl says and swallows hard. “You matter. You and me. You being nice to me. That matters. You being my friend.” Daryl chokes a little. “You believing in me.” He shakes his head and blinks rapidly. “I filled out a college application, Rick. That’s...that’s like...big. It’s monstrous. You know? It’s me, me, a fucking Dixon and I’m thinking about going to college? Because you said I could. 'Cause you said I was smart enough and I believe you. I do. And you’re just so nice to me and not once have you looked at me with pity, you know? You haven’t. And god. This whole time...the whole time I’ve been away, I’ve just been thinking about you. Because you matter. I’ve been thinking about your eyes and your hair and how you laugh. And the looks you give me...and I...I was a coward and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Because I just keep thinking about this thing I wanted to do. What I’ve wanted to do since we were in ninth grade, man, and I didn’t. And I haven’t been strong enough to, but I want to. Now. I want to do it.”

“...do what?” Rick asks, but he thinks he might know the answer. And then Daryl is walking forward and placing his hands on Rick’s cheeks and he’s leaning in and Rick is sure his eyes are saucer wide as Daryl tilts his own head and brings his mouth to Rick’s. Rick feels Daryl’s lips against his own, kind of chapped, but soft and Rick closes his eyes in pure ecstasy as Daryl moves his lips against Rick’s and Rick suddenly thinks since ninth grade and he is blown away that Daryl Dixon has been thinking about him, him, for that long and then another thought surfaces, a question really. Is this...Daryl’s first kiss? Rick can’t remember him dating and he hears Daryl’s voice in his head--I’m too young for love and all that shit--and behind closed eyes, Rick blinks.

And then Daryl is pulling away from him and even in the fading light, Rick can tell he’s beet red. Daryl takes a step away and murmurs, “I’m sorry. If I...misread things.” It’s only then that Rick realizes he must not have been participating as much as his mind was screaming at him to do.

“No,” Rick says and reaches for him. He grabs Daryl’s hand and threads it in his own. “No, I...I’m just slow.” Rick smiles and then he pulls Daryl back in and kisses him and this time, Rick molds his mouth to Daryl’s easily and he pulls Daryl up next to him so that they’re pressed together and Daryl’s hands go to Rick’s hips and Rick’s go up into Daryl’s hair and then Rick is gasping and opening his mouth and Daryl is following him in and holy bejesus, that’s Daryl’s tongue and Rick feels weak kneed and all kinds of wiggly, but Daryl is there to hold him up and then he is being backed up into a tree, but that’s okay. In fact, that’s fantastic because Rick can now open his legs and let Daryl settle between them and he fists a hand in the back of the hoodie material that’s his hoodie that’s on Daryl and it probably smells like him, JESUS, and Rick has never been so turned on in his life and Lori was totally, one-hundred percent right, because kissing girls was never like this and Daryl’s lips on his, his tongue in Rick’s mouth, his hands so close to Rick’s groin, is exactly what a damn first kiss should be like and why the fuck didn’t Rick wait for this and why the fuck didn’t he just jump Daryl’s bones the second Daryl was, oh my god, in his BED?

Rick wraps his arms around Daryl’s neck and he kisses him hard, furrowing his brow with all of the effort he’s putting into it and he thinks about what a fucking dumbass he’s been, Daryl sitting on his bed saying he wants to date dudes and crawling into Rick’s bed at night and freaking cuddling with him and shit. But it’s okay. Because he has him now, his hands sliding under Daryl's shirt to touch bare skinned waist and Daryl’s slipping up his back and my god, Rick thinks, he’s perfect.

But they have to come up for air sometime. So Daryl pulls away slowly from Rick and Rick whimpers at the loss until he sees Daryl’s eyes in the twilight now, all dark and hooded and big. And then Rick has to kiss him again and Daryl lets him, by some miracle. And they fall into making out again, the poor tree having to deal with Rick’s back all pressed up into it as Daryl’s body plasters itself to Rick’s. They stay in the clearing until Rick’s tongue gets freaking tired and Daryl finally pulls away from him for good, taking a step back and looking at Rick from under his eyelashes, shy and timid. “It...it’s good?” Daryl asks him and Rick stares at him, incredulously.

“You’re a fucking god,” Rick says and reaches for him, kissing him again briefly. “I...I’m so sorry. I’m such a dumbass. You were hitting on me, weren’t you?”

Daryl chuckles, but wraps his arms around Rick’s waist and nods. “Yeah. I mean...I’ve been trying to flirt with you for weeks. And I was getting all these mixed signals. You wanted me in your bed, but then you were talking about me and Carol and I was so confused, man.”

Rick laughs and then puts his head on Daryl’s chest, right under Daryl’s chin. “I am so sorry. I was just...stupid. I guess I’ve never really had someone under my nose that I just liked so much. I didn’t even know what it felt like.”

Daryl tilts his head down and Rick can feel Daryl’s nose in his hair. “I’ve liked you for a really long time. And...you like me?”

Yeah,” Rick says and nods before pulling back and looking Daryl in the eye. “Yeah. Yes. Of course. Daryl...I’ve missed you so much. I’ve been so worried about you. I kept thinking about...about your dad--”

“Stop it,” Daryl tells him firmly. “I don’t want to talk about that, okay? I’m good. I’m alive and I’m not hurt and I’m with you.” He reaches up and tucks a curl behind Rick’s ear. He smiles and leans their foreheads together and whispers. “I’m with you.”

Rick smiles and closes his eyes and lets himself bask in Daryl’s presence for a minute before he can’t avoid asking the follow-up question. “Are you...are you going to stay?” He opens his eyes and studies Daryl.

Daryl frowns, but he nods. “Yeah. I mean...Merle’s going to hate it. But he can deal. I’m going to come home with you. If your parents will let me.”

Rick nods. “If they don’t, I’m buying you a fucking Tracfone,” he says and glares at Daryl. “No more not able to call you shit.”

“Okay,” Daryl says and smiles. “That’s fair.” He looks down at Rick’s mouth and then licks his lips. “Can I...can I kiss you again?”

“Oh, god,” Rick says and is already halfway there. “Forever.”

***

Rick knows that they should go back to the house. As much as he wants to hope for it, he knows that there is absolutely no way that his parents will have just decided to go to bed and forget about how they snuck away from Rick’s dad. But that doesn’t stop his mind from playing dirty little fantasy tricks on him--about how they would sneak in with all the lights off and tiptoe down the hall to Rick’s room, about how they would fall into bed together and curl up next to each other for real this time, and about how Rick would kiss him and he’s pretty darn sure now that Daryl would kiss him back and they could just lay there, totally making out on Rick’s bed in the darkness.

He wants that so much. But he knows that that’s not going to happen. What’s going to happen, more likely than not, is total grounding if not Rick’s parents kicking Daryl out of the house. So they have to straighten up from their--oh god, can Rick actually say it?--date that has moved from the city park to the nearby Hardee’s and damn, Daryl looks good with a curly fry hanging out of the side of his mouth.

They grab a cab back to Rick’s place and Rick sits there, all sunken down in the seat, hoping that his parents will have decided that Rick is an adult enough to take care of himself. But no such luck. The pull in and the kitchen light is on.

Daryl swallows hard and looks over at him. “Sorry, dude,” he says.

Rick shrugs and leans over and, despite the fact that the cabbie is waiting for them to pay him, Rick leans in and kisses Daryl quickly. “Worth it,” he says and then pays the guy and gets out. Daryl slinks out after him and follows Rick up to the door and into the house.

His mom is waiting with her arms crossed and her lips pursed. “Rick Grimes,” she says in that way she does, letting his name fall out of her mouth like it’s poison that she’s had to hold under her tongue all day. “You get in that kitchen right now, young man, and you tell your father just what exactly you were thinking.”

Rick spares Daryl one glance before taking a step toward the kitchen. “And you,” Rick’s mom says and Rick’s blood freezes. He turns to see that she is staring Daryl down with the same I am so disappointed that you did not turn out to be a NICE young man sentiment reflected in her eyes that she gives Rick so much. He swallows, afraid of what she’ll say next. Afraid of the my husband will take you back to your house or the you can leave now or the don’t come back. But instead of all of those things, she stands tall, looks Daryl in the eyes and says, “You get your butt in that kitchen, too, Daryl. You both have some explaining to do.”

Daryl blinks rapidly, but nods and says, “Yes, Ma’am,” quickly before scampering past Rick to the kitchen. Rick trudges after him, relieved that they’ll get the lecture together. They make their way into the kitchen where Rick’s dad is making coffee and Rick winces. His dad doesn’t drink coffee except when he’s incredibly stressed out, which is a bad habit considering that the coffee just makes him more agitated. Rick sits at the kitchen table and tries to look like a good boy. Daryl sits beside him and Rick thinks he looks small.

Rick’s dad doesn’t turn to look at them, instead staying by the counter and the coffee pot. He grunts when they’ve sat down and works on opening his creamer. “Who wants to start?” he asks.

Daryl fidgets, but then leans forward and opens his mouth. Rick cuts him off, though, scraping his chair against the floor because he sits up too hard. “It was me,” he tells his dad and swallows. “It was my fault. I...I saw that Daryl was upset and you weren’t listening and I just...I thought that we should get away so that he could...you know, compose himself and stuff. And be okay. And then we kind of lost track of time and--”

“Where were you?” His dad asks.

Rick bites his lip. “The park?”

After close?” His dad turns to him, eyebrows raised.

“No. When it closed, we...skipped across to the Hardee’s.”

His dad sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose, then picks up his coffee angrily and downs a gulp. “Shit!” he yells and sets the cup back down, putting a hand to his mouth. He rolls his jaw around in the motion that tells Rick he has burned his mouth and that means that it’ll be another week on Rick’s grounding. “RICK,” his dad says and turns his whole body to him now. “You tell me what you did wrong.”

Rick hates this. He always has. What’s worse than getting in trouble? Having to give yourself a lecture because your dad is a cop and he wants to prove a point. Rick sighs, but then realizes his dad probably heard it, so he speeds on into his explanation. “I shouldn’t have left like that without telling you. And I should have told you where we were going. And I should have come home sooner. And…” He pauses and spares a glance at Daryl, who is watching all of this. “And I shouldn’t have got Daryl all mixed up in it.”

“AND?” his dad asks, but Rick doesn’t have anything else. He frowns, so his dad fills in the blanks for him. “And I shouldn’t have run away in such a dangerous neighborhood and I should have thought about how I was making my poor mother wait up with worry and I shouldn’t have complicated issues with Daryl’s family by running away.”

“Oh,” Rick says and blushes. “All that, too.”

“Good,” his dad says and then turns to Daryl. “And you? What did you do wrong? Spill it.”

Daryl sits there like a deer in the headlights and he looks at Rick for help, but Rick has none. So Daryl sits up slowly and clears his throat. “I, um...I should have stayed and waited until you and Merle were done with your…” Daryl bites the last word out, “conversation. And I should have thought about all that stuff, too. Like Mrs. Grimes waiting up. And…” He bites at his finger and then sits it down and Rick watches as he physically stills himself from fidgeting in the seat. “And I shouldn’t let Rick take the fall for me. Cause all of it is my fault, Officer Grimes. I’m sorry. I just...you and Merle weren’t listening and you were just yelling and no one stopped to ask me what I wanted and I just needed to get out of there. I needed out of that house and I needed to get away from you guys just standing there and all that noise. And so...so Rick and I bolted. And I called the taxi from the Dollar General. I’m sorry. That we worried you. But... it’s not Rick’s fault. It’s mine.”

Rick watches as something fascinating happens. His dad sits in the kitchen chair across from them and rubs at his eyes. And then he gives Daryl a look and it’s not a patronizing look or a look of you are in so much trouble. It’s a soft kind of look. An understanding look. He folds his hands in front of him and nods at Daryl. “Okay,” he says. “And I’m sorry, too. Do you boys want to know what I did wrong? You’re right, Daryl. I didn’t listen. So I’m listening now. What do you want?”

Daryl blinks and then looks between the two of them. He swallows and picks at the table. “I want to stay here. If you guys will let me. It’s...safer. And you’re doing a lot for me. And I don’t really deserve it after how I acted, but yeah...I’d like to stay.”

“Okay,” his dad says and nods. “Then you stay. I’ll call your brother and tell him and then have a talk with him tomorrow---”

“No,” Daryl cuts in and looks at him hard, “don’t do that. I’ll talk with Merle. Tomorrow.”

Rick’s dad looks at him and then slowly nods. “Okay. You talk with him tomorrow. And boys?” Rick and Daryl look up at him, both all ears. “You're both grounded. Your mom’s changed the Netflix password and no TV and no driving the car, either.”

Rick figures he could try to talk his dad out of it, but he knows the difference between I’ll negotiate and not a snowman’s chance in a lava pit. So he shuts up. And they go to bed, Rick in his own room, and Daryl in the guestroom, bitching to himself about how he’s never been grounded before.

***

Rick lays in his bed with his eyes wide open. He can’t sleep with his blood pounding so hard at the thought of Daryl sleeping just feet away in the next room. And the thought of how Daryl had him pressed to the tree earlier and Rick was smart enough this time to notice what was going on. And to remember that he had felt something pressed up against him just as sure as he had something pressed up against Daryl.

So when Daryl opens the door to Rick’s room nearly silently and slips in, Rick’s heart jumps right up into his throat at how happy he is to see him and at how nervous. He leans up on his elbows, but Daryl crawls into bed and slides up to him so nice and easy that Rick is floored with how smoothly they can fit together. Daryl smiles and kisses him and it’s soft and wanting and Rick melts into him for it.

Daryl pulls away slightly, but leaves his hand where he had placed it, right on Rick’s jawline. “Can I stay?” he asks, his eyes bright in the darkness.

Rick blinks. “Of course you can.”

Daryl dips his head slightly and Rick wonders if he’s blushing. “I just...I didn’t know how you would feel about it. If it would make you uncomfortable since we kissed. I just wasn’t sure if it was on the table.”

Rick leans forward to him. “It’s so much on the table that it’s practically Thanksgiving dinner,” he tells Daryl and Daryl laughs quietly.

“That makes no sense,” he tells Rick, but then he’s kissing him and Rick could care less about what he did or didn’t say. Rick falls back onto his pillow and Daryl follows, half on top of him, their chests pressed together. Daryl’s tongue dives into his mouth and Rick whimpers softly into him, meeting him as hard as he can. Daryl’s mouth is hot and hard, but soft, too, and there’s so much feeling in it, so much passion that it makes Rick’s skin break out in little goosebumps to think that he, Rick Grimes, is causing Daryl to act like this. His nerves shiver under Daryl’s touch as Daryl’s hand sits on his jaw and then moves to his neck and down his side. As it slips up under his shirt and Rick breaks the kiss to gasp, but Daryl bites down on Rick’s lip and that is so sexy. Why did Lori never do this? Because Rick is putty right now, a pool of melting want and need. But even if Lori had done something like this--kissed him with this much raw determination--it still wouldn’t have mattered, Rick realizes. Because Lori isn’t Daryl. No one is Daryl. And so no one can set him on fire like this, his whole body singing in harmony in a way that feels so startlingly right. Like all his life, his nerves have vibrated on a wrong frequency until Daryl showed up and pushed into his life, tuning up his nerves to just the right station, just the right kind of rhythm that was all just Daryl and him and their bodies pressed together like this and Rick suddenly thinks I want him to touch me and so he says it right there against Daryl’s mouth and it’s Daryl this time who gasps, but he nods and then Daryl’s hand slips below his pants and he touches him.

Rick clings to him, but he makes sure not to dig his nails into Daryl’s back and not to press too hard against the bruises he still knows are there. He moans to the ceiling as Daryl gives him an experimental stroke and one crystal clear thought surfaces above all the passion--Daryl is a virgin. And so is he.

Rick swallows and looks at Daryl in the darkness of his room. He leans up and kisses him softly and pours what he hopes is understanding into Daryl’s mouth. And then he flips them over and presses himself to Daryl. “I changed my mind,” he tells him and for a fleeting second, Daryl’s eyes fill with disappointment and fear. “You first,” Rick tells him and he kisses Daryl’s neck while he reaches to cup Daryl through his pants.

Daryl gasps loudly and bucks up into his hand. Rick shushes Daryl, afraid his parents will hear and when Daryl mumbles an apologetic “‘orry,” Rick shuts him up with a kiss. He moves to straddle Daryl and he reaches down to tug Daryl’s pants far enough down so that Rick can really reach his cock. He starts stroking and to distract himself from how weird it is to have another boy in his hands, he dives into Daryl’s mouth and lets himself get caught up in Daryl’s arms around him, in his tongue and his teeth and his lips. Daryl burns the nervousness out of Rick with the small sounds he makes and the slight movement of his hips as he tries to keep himself still.

Rick pulls back from him slightly so he can look down at them. He’s sitting on Daryl’s thighs and he’s stroking him. He watches his own hand as it goes up and down on Daryl, kind of fascinated with the way Daryl’s cock looks against his own skin. Daryl is leaning up on his elbows and when Rick locks eyes with him again, his pupils are blown out and dilated, his lips parted and swollen from all the kissing. He looks so damn beautiful and Rick wants to tell him that, but there are no words. So instead he kisses Daryl again and he rubs his thumb against the head, reaching to cup Daryl’s balls with his other hand.

Daryl reaches up and grabs the back of Rick’s neck and pulls him down against him and then they are kissing hard, teeth clacking and tongues battling it out and Daryl’s mouth is devouring his, starving for Rick and that is just the goddamn hottest thing that Rick has ever felt so it’s not a shock to him when he feels Daryl hitch against him and buck his hips up, causing Rick’s body to jerk up as well, and then there is wetness on Rick’s hand and across his wrist and Rick moans because the thought has just hit him that Daryl Dixon has just come on him and fuck, that is sexy.

Rick breaks the kiss, moaning and Daryl’s eyes stay closed for a bit, his mouth all open and gaping. Rick lets him ride it out and sits for a minute until Daryl opens his eyes at him and smiles the damn widest and most honest smile that Rick has to just kiss him for. And then Rick pulls back and bites his lip. Because there’s something he wants to do. He takes a big breath and tells himself not to be a fucking coward and just do it. And so he lifts his hand and sucks in one of his fingers that has the largest amount of Daryl on it. Daryl’s eyes widen and he watches Rick’s finger and his mouth and his breath picks up. “Goddammit,” Daryl tells him and then he knocks Rick’s hand away from his lips so he can put his mouth there and that is so okay with Rick. Because now Rick can taste Daryl in his mouth, heavy and bitter, and Daryl’s tongue swirls against his own and the thought of Daryl tasting himself on Rick’s lips nearly puts him over the edge.

And if that doesn’t keep him all the way up, Daryl pushing him down and then kissing him so hard he’s practically fucking his mouth open does. Rick opens his legs for Daryl to settle between and arches himself up to Daryl to remind him that Rick is so hot for him right now. Daryl smiles against Rick’s lips and then he is pulling away. Rick whimpers until he sees what Daryl is doing and he has just enough time to process it in his mind before Daryl is sliding down his body and pulling his pants down and motherfucker, he is in Daryl’s mouth.

Rick moans loudly and then slaps a hand over his mouth and prays his parents don’t hear. Daryl smiles at him with his eyes because his mouth is currently busy and he swirls his tongue against the head of Rick’s cock and does he want Rick to embarrass himself? Because Rick is about to embarrass himself. He reaches down for Daryl and isn’t sure if his hand is going to push Daryl away or just pull him down further, but Daryl catches Rick’s hand in his own and threads their fingers together. He sets their joined hands down on the bed, right next to Rick’s hips and then with his other hand, he begins stroking what parts of Rick he doesn’t have in his mouth. He closes his eyes and starts bobbing his head and Rick is so thoroughly into watching him that he doesn’t want it to end.

But no man can last that long when Daryl Dixon is between their legs. And Daryl’s tongue has no right to be as good at that swirling as it is. So Rick squeezes Daryl’s hand in warning and he hitches his breath, but Daryl doesn’t pull off. Instead he stays there as Rick bucks forward and comes, saying Daryl’s name over and over. Rick watches as Daryl catches most of it in his mouth, swallowing, goddammit, and then Rick is falling boneless against the bed and Daryl is sliding up to lay beside him.

They lay there until their breathing evens out and they can move again. Daryl leans forward and kisses Rick and Rick catalogues the difference in the way he tastes on Daryl’s tongue and the way Daryl tasted on his. He smiles against Daryl’s mouth and Daryl smiles back. And then Rick gets out of bed and manages to make it to the dresser and get them fresh clothes and they clean up and then fall into bed together.

Daryl scoots up to Rick and lays his head on Rick’s shoulder and Rick thinks of all the times before in which they were in the same position only Rick was as dense as thousand-year-old stone. He turns and kisses Daryl’s temple. “I wish you would have told me you were going to do that,” he says. “I would have reciprocated.”

Daryl smiles softly into his shoulder. “Didn’t know I was until you were sitting on me, looking so hot.” He leans up and looks into Rick’s eyes. “‘Sides. You can do it tomorrow if you feel strongly about it.”

Rick smiles. “I do,” he says and then settles down into the covers and into Daryl. Daryl lays his head back on Rick’s shoulder and the night quiets down around them.

“Rick?” Daryl asks softly, just as Rick drifts off.

“Hmm?” Rick answers, turning his head slightly to him.

“Thank you,” Daryl says and Rick thinks that two words have never sounded so heavy and so sincere. “For being there.”

“I’ll always be here,” Rick says and nuzzles into him. Daryl smiles and nuzzles back.

***

In the morning, Daryl calls Merle from the kitchen phone and Rick can hear Merle yelling from the living room. Daryl argues back, but it’s quiet, and Rick tunes it out, trying to give them privacy. When Daryl comes out of the kitchen, he says that everything’s fine and he slings the backpack on that he’s been borrowing from Rick. They head out the door with Rick’s mom driving them because the morning has left them no less grounded.

But other than the phone call, the rest of the morning swims by with Rick in a wonderfully fuzzy kind of dreamstate. He can’t stop smiling at Daryl and Daryl keeps biting his lip and smiling back and it’s so freaking adorable that Rick has to take three separate occasions around classes to corner him in a shadowy place and kiss the life out of him.

By third period, though, Rick is starting to get a little antsy. He hasn’t actually stopped and taken time to process any of this and the thoughts are slowly creeping into his mind. Daryl is gay. I am gay. We are gay together. We did it last night. I have to tell someone.

So when the bell rings and Daryl slips to the bathroom, Rick makes a quick run for one of his friends. He briefly thinks about Shane, but he dismisses that idea as quickly as it comes. He has no idea how Shane will react to gay and just from the fact that Shane is a really macho “I like the gym and punching dudes just hard enough that it might slightly cross the line into bullying but no, I’m just playing” kind of guy, Rick is guessing not. He thinks about Andrea and Carol, too, and he’s pretty sure that they would be okay with it, but he can’t take any of chances. So he bypasses the rest of his friends and he goes for Michonne.

She’s easy to find, too, hanging out right by her locker and reorganizing the books in it into neat, little alphabetic rows. “Hey, Chonnie,” Rick says, even though he knows she hates that. She tilts her head and gives him bitch face. “Um, can I...tell you something?”

In response, Michonne just raises her eyebrow at him. But Rick trusts her. Because he’s never told anyone about the blonde college girl he caught her making out with last summer, not even Shane who would die a happy death if he knew. “Um,” he continues on. “You can’t tell Andrea or Shane. Promise.”

Michonne shrugs. “Promise,” she says, but that’s not good enough. Rick holds up his pinky finger and gives her the look. Michonne rolls her eyes. “You are such a girl,” she says, but pinky swears.

“Okay,” Rick says, “Daryl and I did it last night.”

This time, both of Michonne’s eyebrows make it into her hairline and apparently this is a big enough deal for her to shut her locker and swing her full body to him. She crosses her arms and waits for the full story.

“Um,” Rick says and then clears his throat. “I’m gay? And Daryl and I are, like, in something? I don’t know if it’s a relationship. If we’re…” He swallows. “Boyfriends. Michonne, I don’t know. But I liked it. And he did, too, I think. But it’s weird. Cause I never...I’ve never done this. You know. Oh god. Help.”

Michonne studies him. “So, you had sex. And you liked it.” She shrugs. “Seems pretty simple to me.”

“But it’s not,” Rick says. “I mean...what do I do now? Do I let him keep sleeping in my bed? Because it was fine before when we weren’t doing it, you know? And last night is was fine, fine, fine. But, like, does that mean it’s a relationship? Do I ask him on a date? Do I buy him flowers?”

“Wait,” Michonne says and holds up her hand. She tilts her head and furrows her brow. “He’s been sleeping. In your bed.”

“Well, yeah,” Rick says, like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

“How long?” Michonne asks.

“Um,” Rick says and blushes. “Couple weeks?”

Michonne’s eyebrows go back up and Rick thinks as least she’s getting a facial exercise out of all of this. “That’s gay,” she says. “That’s gayer than the actual sex, Rick.”

“I know, but what does that mean?” Rick asks her, his eyes wide and pleading.

Michonne shakes her head. “Means you like the guy and you’re dating. Congrats on getting a boyfriend. Happy for you.” She opens her locker again and pulls out a book to stick in her backpack.

Rick blinks at her. “...boyfriend…” He says and lets it hang in the air. He opens his mouth to ask her another question, but the bell rings and so he scurries to class.

***

Rick refuses to think about the boyfriend word. And he keeps other words at bay, too. Words like relationship and commitment and purity rings. Instead, he spends the rest of the week with blinders on, his vision tunnelled down into studying the exact angles of Daryl’s lips as he smiles. And, despite the fact that he’s grounded, Rick has the best three days of his life. Wednesday night comes and Rick reciprocates Daryl’s actions of the previous night and then Thursday night they spend all of their energy studying each other’s bodies, Rick licking up and down Daryl like he’s trying to figure out just how many licks will get him into the center of Daryl’s nerve endings. And then Friday. Oh, Friday night. They sixty-nine and it’s mostly successful.

So when they wake up early Saturday morning before Rick’s parents and are all rolled up in one another, it’s near perfect. Rick wakes up first and takes the opportunity to kiss Daryl awake, his tongue finding all the right corners of Daryl’s mouth that he’s become so used to in the last three days. Daryl sleepily responds and tightens his leg around Rick’s and his arm around Rick’s waist. They lay there for awhile, kissing and basking, until Daryl slowly untangles himself from Rick and gets up. He smiles that award winning smile that Rick is just floored by and then whispers that he’ll be back soon. He leans forward and kisses Rick’s forehead and sneaks away to the guestroom.

Rick rolls into the spot that Daryl just vacated, basking in how warm it is from Daryl’s body. He curls into the covers and puts his nose on Daryl’s pillow, breathing him in. He dozes for awhile before he wakes up to the phone ringing. He yawns and sleepily stands, dragging himself into the living room. Daryl is in the kitchen and he can hear his voice, low and gravelly. Rick flops down into the recliner and waits for Daryl to get done talking.

“Who was it?” he asks when Daryl walks into the living room, frowning.

“Merle,” Daryl tells him. “He’s getting antsy and more angry every time he calls. Might have to go over there today.”

Rick pouts and then grabs at Daryl. Daryl falls into the recliner mostly on top of him, but a little off to Rick’s right. “I don’t like it,” Rick says and leans his head against Daryl’s shoulder. “You going to that house.”

Daryl shrugs and then picks at a string on Rick’s shirt. “I know. But it’s my brother and I think I have to.”

Rick nods against his shoulder and then sighs. “Okay. So we get dressed and we go.”

“We?” Daryl asks with narrowed eyes.

“Yeah,” Rick says and shrugs, looking up at him. “We.”

“Uh, I don’t want you going,” Daryl says. “I need to talk to Merle alone and--”

“The last time you left with Merle, I didn’t see you for days,” Rick says, “and when I did finally hear something about you, it was because the police station called and I thought that my dad was going to say that you were hurt. So no. If you’re going, I’m going.”

Daryl blinks at him and then shrugs slowly. He looks away. “Okay,” he finally says. “We’ll be quick. And careful.”

“Yeah,” Rick says and nods. “Let’s do that.”

They make it up and out of the chair before Rick’s mom wakes up. She starts making breakfast as Rick grabs a shower and he helps her with the final details as Daryl grabs his right after Rick. They wake up Rick’s dad and they all eat together and it’s kind of cool. A little family, Rick thinks, and has a flash of what it will be like in the future--him and Daryl coming home from college for a family dinner and by then Rick will have told them. He’s waiting right now because he’s afraid if his mom knew that he and Daryl were together, she would deadbolt Rick’s door so fast at night.

Breakfast ends and Rick and Daryl stay at the house for a while, putting off the inevitable. By the time they head out the door, it’s late afternoon. They tell Rick’s parents that they are going to talk to Merle, but they don’t tell them that they’re going to meet him at the house. Rick’s dad says to be careful, but he lets them go and Rick and Daryl grab a cab because Rick is STILL grounded from the car and they head over to the Dollar General.

When they pull up, Rick swallows hard, looking at the house. “Are we...going to run into your dad?” he asks.

Daryl sets his jaw, but he shakes his head hard. “Nah,” he says. “Dad don’t like the outside much.” Rick blinks and listens to Daryl, fascinated with how his voice drops and his drawl kicks up when he talks about his family. “‘Cept when he has one of them waitresses. But it’s the middle of the day, so he’s probably sleepin’ it off.” Rick wants to ask him what “it” is, but he figures that he already knows, so he nods. “Goin’ around the house,” Daryl says and shrugs. “Merle be out back if he’s here. Just...follow me and try not to trip on nothin’.” Daryl sets across the street and Rick follows him. They skirt the house and head around the left side of it. Daryl follows what looks like an old path with ease, slid up right next to the house. He rushes across the ground, his feet nearly silent as he avoids rocks and twigs. Rick frowns, thinking about how Daryl moves like the house and the yard are part of him. He wonders how much Daryl has done this, snuck across the grass, his feet feather light and quiet. He thinks about why and then he stops thinking about all of it, because he can’t do that now.

So he follows Daryl as quickly as he can, and keeps an eye on the windows above them, praying that there is no noise from inside. They round the corner and sure enough, Merle is on the back porch, his feet propped up on an old table, leafing through a magazine with a beer at his side. Daryl pauses at the corner of the house and Merle sees him. Merle nods and takes his feet off the table. He leans forward and waits for Daryl to approach. Rick comes up next to Daryl and gives him one last look before they start walking up. “You sure about talking to him?” Rick asks one more time and Daryl nods. So Rick lets Daryl lead the way up to the back porch steps. He hangs down at the bottom, his whole body tense and on edge. He watches Daryl scale the steps, his feet heavy and loud now as he approaches Merle, a frown set deep into his face.

Well,” Merle says, giving Rick a look, “if I knew we were going to have fancy daddy’s boy company, I would’a put out the fine china.”

“Ain’t no reason for you to be a dick,” Daryl says and he leans against the porch railing, seemingly casual if Rick couldn't see the tension in the way he holds his arms right next to his side. “You keep callin’. Whatcha want?”

Merle leans back and scoffs, fake offense on his face. “Now, look at how you treating your brother, like he was dogshit. You don’t even want to say hi? You not even going to call to let me know you ain’t all tied up in one Officer Grimes cells a-beggin’ for Merle to come and getcha? Now. Listen to all that. You’re being an ungrateful little shit, Darylena. And here I’m just trying to be a good brother to ya--”

“Merle,” Daryl says and glares at him. “WHAT do you want?”

Merle sighs. “You should come on home.”

Daryl scoffs and nods to the house and Rick notices that his whole body tenses up like a springboard when his eyes look in through the screen door. “Yeah, when Dad’s on a bender?”

Merle frowns. “He’s doin’ better. He just had some Bud Lights last night and no whiskey. Not even…” Merle spares a glance at Rick and then shakes his head. “Ah, fuck it. He ain’t had nothin’ else in the last two days, baby brother. I’m working on him.”

“Still no,” Daryl says.

Merle glares. “What, you think you high and mighty now? You should still listen to your big brother when he says--”

“I’m an adult, Merle. God, I’m almost one at least and I’ve been old enough to make my own goddamn decisions for a long time now and no. I’m not fucking coming home when Dad’s in that house. I ain’t doing it.”

Merle scoffs. “So you gonna run back to the cop’s house with this little fag here?” Merle waves his hand at Rick, but keeps eye contact with Daryl, like Rick isn’t even there. Rick sets his jaw at the insult, but he doesn’t get involved, because he figures this is all Daryl’s fight. Daryl straightens up and shakes his head and starts walking down the steps. “HEY,” Merle yells at him. “You look at me when I’m talking to you.”

“Fuck you,” Daryl says when he gets halfway down the steps and then Merle roars forward and Rick tenses, but Daryl swings his whole body around and away from Merle when Merle reaches for him and Rick blinks at the anger and the danger in Daryl’s eyes. Daryl sets one hand on the railing of the steps, his knuckles white where he’s clutching it. Merle, two steps above him, looks down at him, grinding his teeth together. “Fuck you, Merle,” Daryl says again.

“My little brother,” Merle says, his voice low and as sharp as butchering knives, “is not going to go off and be a fag with some cop’s little piglet.”

Daryl holds Merle’s gaze evenly and Rick wonders who wins in a fight between them. He’s sure that they both know, even though their stances say that neither of them is backing down. Daryl takes a step up, right into Merle’s personal space. “It ain’t any of your goddamn fucking business what I am, Merle. And if I want to be a fucking fag, you can’t fucking stop me. Not you or dad.” Merle opens his mouth, but Daryl cuts him off. “No, goddamn it. You don’t get to say anything. You ain’t been here. God, you ain’t been here in a year and you weren’t hardly here the year before that. I’m not fucking fifteen anymore, Merle. I’ve goddamn changed and you weren’t here to see it and no, don’t you look at me like that. You don’t have any right. You want to be my brother? Then you say you’re goddamn happy for me and then you shut your fucking mouth.”

“Daryl--”

“NO,” Daryl says loudly into the afternoon air. Merle blinks and clamps his mouth shut, the fire still burning in his eyes. “I’m going back to, yes, Officer Grimes’ house. Because they’re nice to me. And because I get to do things. Like fill out fucking college applications and focus on track. And I can’t do that here. I’m not going to be like Dad. I’m not. I’m not going to think that getting drunk off of light beer and smoking just a pack a day is good enough. That’s not what I want to be. I want out. And this is it, man. This is my opportunity. And goddamn it, Rick likes me. And I like him. And he makes me happy. So you are just going to have to deal with your fucking backwards feelings. But leave me out of it.” Daryl turns and stomps down the last two steps and gets right by Rick’s side, before Merle calls at him to wait. But Daryl doesn’t turn back around. Instead he grabs Rick’s hand, threading their fingers together and storms off. “Call me later and don’t be a dick about it,” he tells Merle and then they are walking back around the house, Daryl’s steps excessively loud, like he’s grinding every rock he can find into the ground. Rick lets himself be pulled around the house and then across the street to the Dollar General again. He says nothing as Daryl asks the cashier for a phone and dials a cab and he says nothing as they wait, but he lets Daryl hold his hand and press up to his side as they lean against the brick of the building, Daryl’s body angled toward him and his head bent toward Rick.

***

When they get in the cab, Daryl turns to Rick and spits out, “Michonne’s having a party tonight, right? Let’s go.”

Rick blinks. “To Michonne’s?”

“Yeah,” Daryl says. “I want to forget about all of that. You know? I need to just...be somewhere else. Get piss drunk. It’s starting soon, isn’t it? At dark?”

Rick nods and gives the cab driver the address. He leans back in the seat and fidgets a bit before he reaches over and touches Daryl’s knee. “I’m sorry. About Merle.”

Daryl shrugs and then he pulls up his hood and looks out the window. “Fine,” he says. “Always been a jackass.”

Rick knows that “fine” is not fine, but he also knows that Daryl doesn’t want to talk about it. So he squeezes Daryl’s knee and then pulls his hand away, figures he’ll let Daryl control if he wants physical contact or if he just wants Rick to stay on his side of the cab. Daryl sighs and keeps looking out the window and it’s three blocks before he opens his mouth again. “I...I hate it. Not what Merle says to me because he’s a dick and I know he’s wrong. But...how he makes me feel.” Daryl turns to look at Rick. “Like...that I should hide it.”

Rick frowns. “I...I hate it, too. I mean, feeling like that. And thinking about you feeling like that.”

“You think…,” Daryl starts and then shakes his head. “Nevermind.”

“What?” Rick asks. “Do I think what?”

“That we should, I don’t know.” Daryl looks out the window again and crosses his arms. Another block passes. He takes a deep breath. “Fuck it. That we should come out?”

Rick blinks and then he shrugs. “I want to. I mean...eventually. But the way I see it, you’re the one who’s got more to lose than I do. Michonne’s okay with it because...well, I kind of confided in her. And I’m sure that Andrea will be. And even though I haven’t talked to Carol and the others about it, I think they will be, too. Everyone but Shane, but I can talk to him and make him come around. But with your family and you know, if you’re hoping for track scouts and things in Georgia...it’s up to you. If you want to, I’m totally, one-hundred percent cool. But if you don’t, I get it. And I won’t push you.”

Daryl nods slowly and then he leans over, kisses Rick quickly despite the cab driver in front of them. “Cool,” he says and then slides back to his side of the car, looking out the window again.

***

On the way over, Rick calls his house and tells his mom that they’re both okay, but they’re hanging out with Rick's friends. He really doesn’t want to pile more of the “your mom is worried for you” stuff on top of his already excessive grounding.

They pull up to Michonne’s house and most of the guests are already there. Shane is hanging out by the door with some of his jock buddies, but when he sees Rick, he lights down the steps and gives him a bro-hug, grinning ear-to-ear. “Rick Grimes! You made it. Cool, man. Thought we might miss you.” He turns to Daryl and nods. “Hey, Dixon.”

Daryl nods back, but hangs behind Rick. Rick looks at Shane’s happy-go-lucky attitude and asks the obvious question. “How much you been drinking?” But Shane waves him away.

“Nothing, man. I’m DD tonight for Andrea, but more than likely she’ll just crash in Chonnie’s bed, am I right?”

Rick laughs and nods. “Probably. What she does all the time.”

“Besides,” Shane tells him and leans in conspiratorily. His eyebrows go up. “Lori’s here and she’s on an alcohol is the devil kick. Trying to impress her.” Shane smiles, but then his brain seems to catch up with him and he frowns. “Oh, sorry, man. I mean, you’re still cool with it, right? Me hitting on her?”

“Yeah,” Rick says. “Totally fine. Look, Daryl and I are going to go inside, check out the place.”

Shane nods. “Cool, man. I’m going to sit out here for spell. T’s telling me about this hot chick he saw at Lowe’s.”

Rick laughs and drags Daryl into the party. The music is loud and blaring Iggy Azalea and Daryl bitches about it, but follows Rick into the kitchen and the makeshift liquor store. They both open a beer and Daryl takes a swig. “Michonne knows a lot of people,” he says.

Rick shakes his head. “No, this beer knows a lot of people. Word just gets around. Hey, Milton!” Rick says at a guy passing by. He waves and when Milton leaves, Rick turns to Daryl. “Like, I only know that guy from Michonne’s parties.”

“You come to these a lot?” Daryl asks and hops up on the counter.

Rick shrugs. “Yeah. I mean, yeah. I’ve been to every single party Michonne has. Don’t usually drink that much, though. And I’m only really social with my friends. But we have a good time.”

Daryl twists the beer bottle in his grasp. “I don’t drink much, either. I just...need to burn Merle out of my brain.”

“I get it,” Rick says. “But just so you know, I am a light weight. So I’m going to need you to pour me into bed when we get home and take full drunken advantage of me. This is me telling you you have permission right now.” He laughs up at Daryl and Daryl laughs back.

“Your mom is SO going to hear us this time,” Daryl says and takes another swig. Rick shrugs and smiles. Dary stares through the kitchen door out into the party, where most of the audience is dancing and having a grand old time. “Rick Grimes drunk,” he says and shakes his head. “Bet that’s fun.”

“It’s only happened twice,” Rick says and holds up two fingers for emphasis. “The first time I drank when we were all sixteen and Michonne threw her first party and then in the summer when Andrea freaking dared me.”

Daryl chuckles and shakes his head. “Man, Andrea sounds like a charmer. She gets into all kinds of trouble.”

Rick shrugs. “Yeah,” he says. “Mostly because of dares and because of Michonne.”

“You think they really cuddle in bed?” Daryl asks.

Rick gives him a sly look. “Think Chonnie wants to. Don’t know if Andrea’s caught on yet.”

“Man,” Daryl says, his mouth perfectly straight and his eyes serious. “it’s a bitch when you like someone who’s as dense as an anvil.”

Rick smacks him and Daryl’s straight face falls and he freaking giggles and Rick is so fascinated by the sound that he makes it his personal mission to hear it happen again. He hops up on the counter beside Daryl and, when the kitchen is quiet of other people, takes an opportunity to give Daryl one quick kiss. Daryl smiles at him a little shyly and then drinks from his bottle. Rick vaguely realizes that both their drinks are pretty well empty. Daryl throws the two bottles in the sink and pops two new ones.

Michonne comes into the kitchen then and gives them both an incredulous eyebrow raise. “Hello, Batman and Robin,” she says and Rick rolls his eyes.

“Can’t you come up with something better than that?” Rick asks her.

Michonne grins her too white and scary teethed grin. “Thelma and Louise?” She says and Rick throws a bottle cap at her. “Yeah,” she says and nods to herself. “I like that. Daryl can be Thelma. You look more like a Louise.”

“Whatever,” Rick says and rolls his eyes. “The gang here?”

“Yeah,” Michonne says. “Shane’s flirting with Lori on the porch. Don’t know if she’s having any of it, because she’s jealous of Maggie’s purity ring. Which by the way, is off because they’re having sex in the bathroom and you know that guy, the mayor’s son? Phillip something. Anyway, he’s livid because he needs to take a piss and they’re hogging the place. But whatever. I think Milton’s looking for him, anyway.”

“Andrea going to take him into a room again?” Rick asks and Michonne shakes her head violently.

“Phillip? Not if I have anything to say about it,” she says. “Sure Miltie would too. Oh and Andrea’s sister is here, too, I guess. Finally old enough Andrea says. So Carol’s babysitting her while Andrea’s on the dancing floor, I think, getting her kicks. But that’s enough about everyone else. What are you two lovebirds doing?”

Daryl chokes on his beer and Rick gets beet red. “Oh come on,” Michonne says. “You don’t have to act all coy around me. I think it’s really pretty cute, you guys all cuddled up like two bunnies in a rainstorm.”

“That’s disgusting,” Rick says and then his blush gets heated again. “But we’re fine. Really good, actually.”

“I got a question for you,” Daryl pipes up and Michonne turns to him. “Why the fuck you keep playing Iggy?I mean, we need some good music up in here.”

“Good like what?” Michonne asks.

“I don’t know,” Daryl says. “Something like Macklemore. Get this party going.”

Michonne gets the look. Rick knows that look. That’s the “Andrea, go steal that,” look. The “no, Shane, for real, eat this catsup and blueberry yogurt mix” look. The “Glenn, goddammit, ask her out” look. The “Rick, no, you have to let us into your dad’s police car” look.

Michonne grins, her mouth spread out and big like the Cheshire cat’s. She leans forward and puts her hands on the counter between them, which is impressive as there’s not much space. “Okay,” she tells Daryl and cocks her head. “If you take him out there and dance with him.”

Daryl shakes his head. “What? No, I’m not playing into your mind games.”

Michonne shrugs and Rick thinks that Daryl is a badass, but he has no chance. “Didn’t know that all gay guys were pussies,” she says and turns to leave.

“I am not a--” Daryl starts, but Michonne shrugs and keeps walking away.

“Pussy?” she says without turning around. “Coward? Yellow-belly? Afraid of--”

“I’ll do it,” Daryl says and hops off the counter. “Dance with Rick? Fuck, it’s not like I haven’t been wanting to do that, anyway. Put on some good music and lets do this.”

Rick’s heart pounds in his chest, both at the thought of dancing with Daryl and at the thought that Daryl has been wanting to do it. Michonne goes out to the living room and switches the music to Macklemore. As “Can’t Hold Us,” starts playing Daryl grabs Rick’s hand and pulls him off the counter. Rick stumbles into Daryl’s embrace and he’s not sure if that’s the beer or Daryl’s eyes, as hot and blue as the Caribbean ocean.

“Let’s go, baby,” Daryl says and starts dragging him to the dance floor. Rick thinks baby, but then they hit the throng of people and Daryl isn’t satisfied enough to dance at the edge of the mob. No, he drags Rick right into the center and turns, and then Rick watches as oh my god, Daryl’s hips move and fuck, Rick thinks, there’s a reason he’s never watched Daryl dance before because this shit causes heart attacks and not only is Daryl swaying right in front of him, one hand up in his hair, but he’s looking at Rick like Rick is the center of his whole world and he’s burning for him and Rick wonders what must be in his eyes for Daryl’s lips to fall open like that and for his gaze to trail up and down Rick’s body like he’s mapping the fucking new world.

Rick belatedly realizes that at some point in time, his body must have succumbed to the music because he’s dancing, too, and he also realizes somewhere in the back of his mind that people are staring, but it doesn’t matter because the only thing that Rick’s brain is able to even process is how Daryl’s body is moving all liquid smooth to the music and then Daryl reaches out and touches his hip and the small sliver of skin that comes into contact with Daryl’s hand burns white-hot. He swallows hard and he watches as Daryl watches him swallow and wow, that is so turning him on right now. And then Daryl is leaning forward and Rick blinks, because surely not, but he is. He’s kissing him. Right in the middle of all of these people and then their bodies are flush up next to each other and they’re dancing and they’re kissing and that’s Daryl’s tongue and that is Daryl’s hips and that is Daryl’s hand and Daryl’s neck and Daryl’s fucking eyes when they break apart and how has Rick lost himself so much in this one guy that he feels like he’s swirling into a cyclone of sheer perfection? Because this moment couldn’t be any better.

Someone off to the side cat calls and then other people around them cheer and Rick blushes as he realizes it’s for them, but Daryl must not mind at all, because he’s kissing Rick again and Rick hears Andrea’s voice behind him, “YOU GET IT BOY!” and Rick has just enough of his brain cells left that he manages to flip Andrea off as Daryl is right up in his mouth. He’s going to kill Michonne, he thinks. And then he’s going to give her the biggest hug known to man.

The song ends and Daryl pulls Rick back through the crowd. Some people smile at them and others give them funny looks, but it’s okay, because the only person who matters is smiling at Rick as they make their way to the kitchen. Michonne is still there when they get back and she claps at them, tells Daryl good job, and heads off to give them some “privacy.” Rick blushes and feels like his face might stick that way.

Daryl turns to him and he looks a little red, too. And a little shy. “Sorry, I…” He swallows. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Rick says. “Never be sorry for kissing me like that.” Rick smiles and slides his arms around Daryl’s waist. “I guess we’re out then, huh?”

Daryl grunts. “Guess so,” he says. “Did I do the wrong thing?”

Rick shrugs. “No. I mean, we didn’t have to do that tonight. But it’s fine that we did. And that was really sexy. Was that sexy for you? Because it was sexy for me.”

Daryl smiles and puts one hand on Rick’s hip and the other on the small of his back. “Yeah, baby,” he says. “Damn sexy.”

Rick is momentarily distracted by Daryl’s lips, but then he blinks. “Baby?” he says.

Daryl does blush this time and dips his head to hide behind his hair. “Yeah?” he whispers, unsurely.

Rick bites his lip. “I like that,” he says. “Can I...call you that back?”

Daryl looks back up at him and nods enthusiastically. Rick reaches up and threads his fingers in Daryl’s hair. “Kiss me, baby,” he says and then Daryl does, soft and sweet, tasting of cheap beer and happiness.

***

After the dance, Rick and Daryl grab several more beers and they find a nice quiet spot back in Michonne’s dad’s study. They drink and laugh, Rick telling stories of his friends and Daryl adding in commentary as they go. By midnight, they are drunk and weaving about the house uneasily, tripping over their own feet and each other. Michonne finds them giggling like schoolgirls in the hallway, trying to shush each other and failing. By some miracle, she manages to push both of their asses outside and to Shane, who is chatting with Leon, having failed to pick up Lori.

“Here you go,” Rick hears Michonne saying to Shane, “take these guys home.” Rick is too caught up in the prettiness of Daryl’s nose to comment on the conversation, but he makes an effort to at least try and listen.

Shane shifts uneasily and gives them an uncomfortable look. “Can’t you, like, call them a cab or something?”

Michonne glares and then she grabs Shane by his earlobe and tugs him down to her height. “Listen to me, Shane Walsh. You take them home and you be nice. No gay hazing. And if I hear that you were not nice, I’ll string you up on the tennis court by your earlobes. Got me?”

Shane grunts in response, but he grabs Rick and steers him to the truck. Lucky for Shane, he doesn’t have to wrangle Daryl, too, because where Rick goes, Daryl goes. Shane gets Rick in the cab, sitting in the middle, and Daryl slides into the passenger’s side. Rick hears Shane grumble as he walks around to the driver’s side door.

Shane gets in and starts the car. As the truck pulls out of the driveway and turns, Rick falls against Daryl, grinning ear-to-ear up at him. “You’re like...pretty,” Rick says and laughs. “I like your hair.” He reaches up and twirls a string of it between his fingers. “I wanted to do this when you ate lunch with us that one day. I thought it would be soft. It is.”

Daryl giggles at him. “You’re drunk,” he says and Rick busts out laughing back.

You’re drunk,” he tells Daryl.

“No, you’re drunk,” Daryl says.

“No, you are drunk,” Rick says.

“Oh my god,” Shane says, “you are both drunk and I am going to punch something.”

Daryl gasps loudly and mumbles, “Don’t be mean to my Rick,” and then Rick asks if he really is Daryl’s Rick and Daryl says yes and then as they pass by Market and Ashland, Rick kisses him and Daryl’s tongue dives into his mouth and Rick moans and Daryl gets handsy and Shane breaks the car hard at a stoplight on purpose.

“Okay,” Shane says. “Rick, I am totally alright with the gay thing. I mean...I gotta think about it and get used to it. But I will be, brother, I promise. But could you, like, not make out in my truck?”

Rick rolls his head over to Shane and widens his eyes. “Oh my god. Shane. When did you get there?”

Shane sighs and guns it as the light turns green. “Nevermind.” He drives speedily to Rick’s house and when they pull up all the lights are off. Shane gets out and goes for the extra key that he’s known the location to since he was seven and guides Rick and Daryl down the long hallway, shushing both of them. He gets Rick into his room and turns to help Daryl into the guest room, but both Rick and Daryl pitch a fit about it and Rick reaches for his baby, oh my god, clinging to him. Shane sighs and gives up, letting Daryl and Rick fall into bed, tangled and laying at awkward angles. He leaves and Rick sighs into Daryl’s skin and promptly passes out.

***

Rick’s phone buzzes early in the morning and he groans through the pounding headache leeching into his brain. He rolls over, bumps into Daryl’s elbow or possibly his kneecap and grabs his phone to turn it on silent. Moaning, he rubs his eyes and vows to never get drunk again. He nudges Daryl, figuring that he has to get him to the guestroom because he can’t stand a lecture from his mom right now. Daryl grunts, but doesn’t move, so Rick whispers his name and shoves at his shoulder. Daryl shrugs his hand away and curls into Rick’s body for warmth. Rick sighs and tries a different tactic. “Baby?” he says and Daryl opens his eyes and looks at him. Rick smiles despite the headache. “Gotta go the guestroom,” he says and Daryl groans super loudly, but gets up, kisses Rick once, and stumbles his way across the hall.

Rick scoots into Daryl’s spot and moves to set his phone down when he sees that he has thirty one texts. He sighs and opens the message window. The first is from Shane: “Hey, man. Don’t know what you remember from last night. Just wanted to tell you that I’m cool with you and Dixon. It’s kind of weird, but I get it. Wish you had told me, but we can talk about it later. Hope the hangover’s not too much of a bitch.” Rick smiles. At least Shane is okay and even though he might be a little weirded out at first, he’s trying to make an effort and that’s really cool. Even if the hangover is a bitch, oh my god.

Rick opens Maggie’s next: “I hate that you guys were hotter kissers than me and Glenn. You suck,” and then Glenn’s: “I’m cool. FYI,” and Carol’s: “I’m happy for you guys. Really.” He gets to Andrea’s and he balks. Twenty five messages. Not that this is the first text bomb he’s gotten from her. He opens the messages and scrolls through them:

Oh
my
god
Why didn’t you tell me you were gay?
Why didn’t you tell me you and Daryl were together?
Is he a good kisser?
I heard he was a good kisser.
I bet he has a nice dick.
Does he?
You guys were SO CUTE DANCING OMG.
Like really.
Can I video you?
Dancing, I mean. Or kissing. We could get a lot of hits on YouTube.
OMG YOU GUYS CAN GO TO PROM TOGETHER
We need a name for you. Like a celebrity couple name. And not Thelma and Louise. That’s dumb.
Darick.
Dack
Darylick
Riaryl
Rickyl
Rickyl! I like that one.
Tell me if you guys want to hang out when you get up. OMG. Rick. Is he sleeping in the same bed as you?
You get it boy.
Text me.
For real.

Rick rolls his eyes, figuring he’ll text her and the others later. The word prom sticks in his head, and then celebrity couple and cute and video, but he shakes them all out. He only has two messages left. He opens the first from Michonne and it just says “Boom.” Rick wonders what that means, if it means “Boom, you get some,” or “Boom, I won that dare with Daryl,” or “Boom, you guys are out of the closet,” or what. He figures with Chonnie, it might mean all of it.

He frowns and looks at the last number, not recognizing it. He opens the message and it reads: “Hi, Rick. Milton from Governor's Academy. Just wanted to let you know that I think it’s cool that you and your boyfriend are so out. You guys are an inspiration. TY.” Rick blinks. An inspiration? For what? And then Rick has a sinking realization. They are now a mascot of the community. He squeaks and moves to stand up and go tell Daryl, but his spinning head has other ideas. Rick lays down on the bed and stares up at the ceiling, thinking how different his life has all become in the last month.

***

By the afternoon, the hangovers are at least manageable enough that they head out to the local Starbucks after Andrea’s repeated texts saying that if they don’t meet up with her and Shane today, she’ll blast “Candy Shop” at full volume outside of Rick’s window. The Starbucks is actually only a couple of blocks from Rick’s house, so they decide to walk and Daryl seems more nervous this time than he was the first lunch they all ate together.

“It’s just Andrea and Shane,” Rick tells him and that seems to make it worse instead of better.

“I know,” Daryl says, indignant. “But they’re like...your best friends. Don’t best friends get veto power over relationships? Isn’t that a thing?”

Rick smiles now that he knows what’s up and slides his hand into Daryl’s. “There is no way they can talk me out of you,” he says. Daryl ducks his head, but smiles back.

Rick leads him toward the Starbucks and bites his lip. “So, um…my friends can’t talk me out of you and, you know, we’re together all the time and things. And...you keep calling me baby.”

Daryl furrows his brow. “So?” he says.

“So…,” Rick swallows hard and plows forward with what he wants to know. “Are we, like, boyfriends?”

Daryl blinks, but then he squeezes Rick’s hand. “That’s a dumb word. But...sure. I mean, we’re together, right? A relationship? So yeah. Boyfriends.”

Rick grins ear-to-ear and walks closer to Daryl on the sidewalk.

When they get to the store, Andrea and Shane are already there and arguing over their normal Starbucks orders--latte or mocha. Rick rolls his eyes at his friends and tells the cashier he’ll buy both his and Daryl’s orders. He asks for a Iced Hazelnut Macchiato, no fat and waits for Daryl to pick something. But Daryl looks absolutely panicked, his eyes rushing over the menu. He tugs at Rick’s sleeve and leans down, his eyes wide. “I’ve never been here before,” he says, “pick something.” So Rick orders him a frappuccino, because who doesn’t like a frappucino?

“Sorry,” he says to Daryl. “I thought you were ready.”

“I didn’t know I’d have to actually order anything,” Daryl grumbles, but takes the cup when the barista calls his name and sits down with the group.

Before Rick’s butt has even hit the seat, Andrea is talking. “OH. MY. GOD, Richard Grimes. Why did you not tell us?”

Rick fidgets with his cup. “Tell you about Daryl?”

“YES,” Andrea says. “And just about you being gay. We want to hear all of it, don’t we Shane? All the details. Come on. Tell us about that first night that Daryl stayed at your place. And how was your first kiss? Where did you go for your first date? Who bought who flowers?”

Daryl turns to Rick slowly. “Was I supposed to buy you…”

“NO,” Rick says and shakes his head. “No one bought anyone flowers and no one needs to buy anyone flowers.”

“Good,” Shane says, “cause that’s gay.”

Rick rolls his eyes and starts picking at the cardboard around his cup. “I just...I needed some time to get comfortable with it myself before telling you guys. I’m sorry. I know I should have told you earlier.”

“Did he turn you gay?” Shane asks and points at Daryl, leaning forward menacingly. Rick shakes his head.

“No, it was before. I figured it out with…,” he takes a deep breath. “With Lori. We weren’t good for each other and I was just not into her and then I kind of thought that I’d never been into a girl really, but I really thought that Bradley James was, like, sexy--” Daryl rolls his eyes so hard that Rick is afraid they might fall out, but Rick continues. “--and so, you know, maybe I wasn’t so straight after all.”

Shane just hmmms at that and keeps his eye on Daryl. Andrea leans forward. “Okay,” she says, “so you’re gay.” She shrugs. “Perfectly fine. But you got to tell us how all of this,” she gestures between them, “happened.”

Rick looks at Daryl for support, but Daryl just shrugs, leaning back in his chair with one arm crossed over his chest and the other holding the coffee cup like he’s not sure what to do with it. “Your friends,” he tells Rick.

Rick sighs. “Well, you know he’s been staying with me ever since...yeah. Ever since.”

“What was up with that, anyway?” Andrea asks. “The cops at his house?”

Rick looks at Daryl because he’s not going to answer that. He figures that Daryl should tell them what he wants them to know and what he doesn’t. And if he’s silent, Rick will back up him with that, too. Daryl shifts uneasily in his seat and makes eye contact with the Starbucks logo on his cup. “It was for my dad, not me,” he says. “He gets into shit sometimes and Officer Grimes didn’t think it was good for me to stay there.”

“So he just took you to the house?” Andrea asks.

Daryl shrugs. “Yeah, but I like it there.”

“Is that, like, legal?” Shane asks. “I mean, taking someone’s kid like that?”

Rick watches as the corner of Daryl’s mouth twitches downward. He shakes his head. “It’s complicated,” he says.

“Anyway,” Rick presses on, “he’s staying at the house. And so we got to know each other and stuff and it kind of just happened. I mean, we both like each other a lot and we’re, like, really compatible.”

Andrea leans back in her chair and gives Rick a slight eyebrow raise. It’s the “we’ll talk later and I want every detail” look, but she lets it go for now and turns to Daryl. “So, Rick knows you. But we don’t. I mean, I have no idea what you’re even into or what you do or anything. So...tell us stuff.”

Daryl tenses and Rick can tell he’s defensive because he doesn’t like to be center of attention. He shrugs. “Not much to tell. ‘M just Daryl Dixon.”

“He’s really good at track,” Rick says, “won second at state last year.” Daryl blushes a little, but Rick keeps going. “And he likes South Park. Butters. He likes Butters.”

“YEAH,” Andrea says and holds her hand up to Daryl. “Up top.” Daryl high fives her, but he gives Rick a what is happening to me look.

Shane groans at the two of them. “I HATE Butters. God! What about Stan?”

“Hates Stan,” Rick says, “and he’s applying to colleges with me. And, oh! Guys! I swear he can do the Trig homework in, like, five minutes. He’s a math genius.”

Daryl scoffs. “I’m not that good.”

Rick raises his eyebrow at him. “Okay, so we were watching South Park that one night and how long did it take you to finish your homework while we watched?”

“It was like half the episode.”

Rick wides his eyes. “Yeah. Of a twenty minute episode. It’s Netflix, no commercials. That’s ten minutes, genius.”

“Yeah, ten. Not five.”

Shane furrows his brow. “Dude, I STILL think I’m working on the first assignment she gave us this year.”

“Anyway,” Rick says, “he’s really good at math.”

Andrea leans forward conspiratorially and covers her mouth so that Daryl can’t see what she’s whispering. “Is he a good kisser?” she asks. Rick blushes, but then he nods hard. Andrea grins like she’s won the lottery. “You guys are SO CUTE,” she says and elbows Shane. “Aren’t they CUTE?”

“I don’t understand why you are so into dudes making out,” Shane tells her. “It’s weird.”

“Oh, right,” Andrea says, “like you wouldn’t be into me and Chonnie kissing on the dance floor.”

“That’s different!” Shane says and frowns.

“How?” Andrea challenges him.

Shane lifts his chin defiantly. “You have boobs.”

Andrea rolls her eyes hard. “You are so not a modern man. Rick gets it. Right, Rick?”

Rick looks between them. “...third,” he says. “I plead the third.” Daryl raises his eyebrows at all of them and Rick explains. “So, like, when we were in middle school, we made this…,” he blushes. “Constitution. Like, a BFF agreement between the three of us. And the third statement says that if two of the three are arguing, the third person can, well, plead the third and they don’t have to get into it.”

“EXCEPT,” Shane says and leans forward, his eyebrows raised and his expression dead serious. He continues in the ever-familiar vein of someone who has been over this part a thousand times, “if the argument has to do with movie trivia, who you would bang, or South Park. In those cases, you have to tie break.”

“Right,” Rick says and nods decisively. He shrugs at Daryl. “You’ll get the hang of it.”

“So,” Daryl says and looks between them, “that’s just the three of you? Not Michonne or Glenn or Maggie or Carol?”

Shane shakes his head hard. “Nah, man. Just us. The Terrible Trio.”

Andrea shrugs. “That’s what our moms used to call us. See, we all started in kindergarten together and we had the same babysitter, too.” Rick, Shane, and Andrea all say the name at the same time. “Dr. Jenner.” All three roll their eyes and Andrea continues. “The worse, the evilest, the how did anyone think you could handle kids babysitter in the land. But that made us get to know each other, too. And soon there were playdates and then sleepovers--yes, I have sleepovers with boys and no, we do not do it--and then we started a band together and we sucked. And then we started hanging out with Glenn, because we needed a singer and I was the only one who could play a guitar and Rick’s voice sucked and all Shane wanted to do was scream into the mic, so we got Glenn and then he started dating Maggie and then Carol transferred in and we thought we’d invite her to lunch and I met Michonne at a beauty pageant--say anything and you die--and that’s basically the story of our friendship. But, you know, these guys are my dudes, they're my friends and my brothers. So you dating one of them is a big deal. Shane, help me intimidate him here.”

“DON’T,” Shane says, “break his heart.”

“Do NOT,” Andrea says. “Cause we will murder you.”

They both glare down Daryl and he nods hard. “I won’t,” he says. “I promise. Rick is…,” he bites his lips and mumbles, beet red, “the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m not going to fuck it up.”

Rick blushes, too, at that and he and Daryl give each other shy looks before Andrea is practically breaking glass she’s squealing so hard. Shane rolls his eyes, but he endures all of it and they fall into talking about other things like the best stories of their friendship and South Park and Daryl’s track wins. It’s really good and it’s comfortable, Rick sitting there with his besties and his boyfriend--shit, Daryl is his boyfriend--right beside him.

***

Monday comes and Rick realizes that his suspicions are completely accurate. The LGBT community is all over them. All day long, they keep getting thumbs-ups and claps on the shoulders and you guys are SO brave. Daryl always nods acceptingly, but then turns to Rick when the person leaves and rolls his eyes hard.

They get some of the reverse, too, though. The jocks scoff as they walk past and several people make a point of avoiding them in the hall. And there is also the horrific between fifth and sixth period yelling fest in which Axel lets Rick know just how ticked he is that Axel and Oscar are now gay couple number two of the high school.

But by the end of the day, everything has settled down somewhat and Daryl still seems cool with being out, even if it’s a little awkward. Daryl has track practice and it’ll go long today, as will the rest of his practices that week as they are gearing up for the big regional meet next Saturday. Rick hangs with Shane and Andrea and he tells them all the juicy details--he talks about how he and Daryl hung out that second day and about how Daryl hates his taste in music, but still lets Rick listen to it. He tells them how Daryl told him he was gay and how that was the first time he’d ever told anyone and how Rick had told Daryl and that had been the first person besides his parents that he’d told. He tells them about how he was as dense as a kettlebell when Daryl was hitting on him and then how Daryl had left and he had been so upset, but how he had come back and then the kiss in the park. Shane covers his ears and starts humming Metallica when Rick gets into things like angles and Daryl’s tongue. Andrea can’t keep the grin off her face and she keeps asking for more, so Rick leans in and whispers to her that they’ve sixty-nined and she seems tickled pink. Shane tries to act like he’s above it all, but his curiosity gets the best of him and he says he has to know what Rick told Andrea, so Rick tells him and he goes “ah, gross,” and then shakes his head to try and get the images out.

And it’s good. Rick sitting with his friends while Daryl runs. And then the rest of the week is just as good, the school days bleeding together into just one big picture of awesome that Rick keeps blinking at, like he’s not entirely convinced that his life really is this perfect. But it is. Oh, it is. Daryl spends time with them every afternoon and they switch up their hangout from the Dollar General to the Macy’s across town, which ALSO has a no-loitering sign. The group accepts Daryl in like he’s just one of them and he even starts kidding around with Glenn about how Glenn’s ears go all red when he’s nervous and trying to impress Maggie.

In short, it’s the most amazing week that Rick has ever had. So when the weekend comes, he’s thrilled because now he can hang out with Daryl without time restrictions and old Mr. Greene getting in the way.

***

The track meet is Saturday afternoon, so Daryl spends Friday evening and the beginnings of Saturday stuffing down oranges and almonds and eggs and all kinds of things that runners are supposed to eat. Rick tries to get him to join in on the Cheeto binge Rick has going on, but Daryl scoffs at him and gives him a lecture about how Cheetos, despite being named after a cheetah, make you slow.

Rick still can’t use the car, even though it’s for a good purpose, dammit, so his dad drives them out to the regional meet two towns away. He gets them settled at the race and tells Rick he’ll be back, that he’s going to hit that bakery that Rick’s mom always goes to when they are out this way and maybe even stop at a flower shop, just because. Before he goes, he gives Daryl a firm handshake and tells him to knock it out of the park. Rick watches in fascination as Daryl’s eyes get big and he nods quickly and says “yes, sir,” more times than he should.

After the car pulls away, Daryl is swept up into the action of the moment. He meets up with Coach Horvath and the others from their high school and Rick wanders into the crowd, weaving through it and enjoying the happy and charged atmosphere. He finds a spot right at the finish line because he knows that Daryl is going to be one of the first to cross it, if not win the whole thing.

The course is one long loop around a park and city sidewalk that swings close to the creek that flows through town. Therefore, the finishing line is the same as the starting line and so Rick gets to watch Daryl line up with all the rest and get into position. The attendant reaches up to the sky with the starting gun in his hand and lets it go. While others speed past at a steady pace, Daryl picks a good spot in the middle of the pack and Rick remembers from all of Daryl’s running talk that this is a good place to be. He puts a big grin on just in case Daryl looks at him--he does--but doesn’t wave or call, because he doesn’t want to distract him.

Soon, though, the runners are out of sight and all Rick can do is wait. It’s agony, him sitting on the sidelines, his neck craned to see who is going to come around the bend first. He waits for what feels like days, but eventually runners come into view. Three to be exact and then Daryl. Rick bites his lip, but he knows that it isn’t over. This is the sprint to the finish. All four runners, and the five or so behind Daryl that are still within range, break out into full on runs. The first guy is pretty winded, though, and Daryl and the other two runners pass him easily. And then Rick watches, captivated, as Daryl’s smooth limbs and liquid movements carry him beyond another runner and then it’s just two. Neck and neck.

Even from here, Rick can see the determined look on Daryl’s face, his expression set firm and unwavering. He watches as Daryl picks up the pace just one tiny fraction of an inch more, but that’s enough. As they get within ten yards, Daryl starts to pull ahead. Six yards out, he’s just a nose ahead of the other guy, who’s trying desperately to get himself into a second wind. But then they’re four yards out and Daryl is easily a foot ahead of him and then two and Daryl has pushed himself out another foot and then he’s crossing the line easily ahead of everyone else.

Rick lets out a whooping cheer, along with a good bit of the crowd, who is praising everyone that is crossing the line now. Daryl slows down, but still jogs his way toward Rick. He takes a cup of water that someone hands him and as he gets closer, Rick catalogues every inch of his body. He’s sweating and he’s breathing heavily, but Rick thinks that in that moment with that smile plastered across Daryl’s face and the sheer belief in himself, he might be the most beautiful thing Rick has ever seen.

Rick waves at him now, even though Daryl doesn’t need it, because he sees him. He always sees him. Daryl jogs his way over and Rick wants to scoop him up and give him the biggest hug and then the biggest kiss he can manage. But as Daryl gets closer, a guy steps forward and calls to Daryl. Daryl turns around and looks at him and Rick watches as Daryl puts his hands on his waist and nods. The guy is holding a stopwatch and he shows it to Daryl and then he opens a folder for Daryl to see. They get into a conversation and Rick watches Daryl’s wide eyes and his nodding head and over the voice of the crowd, he hears the words “yes, sir,” and then the guy is giving Daryl some form of brochure or something and then clapping him on the shoulder and leaving.

Daryl waits until the guy has turned and walked toward another runner and then he is barreling his way toward Rick and shoving the folder into Rick’s chest. “That was a college track scout,” Daryl says and Rick has never seen him this...bouncy...before. He never even thought that Daryl could get bouncy. But he’s right in front of Rick with a full on smile, not one of those that he usually gives the world--half there and wary--but a real honest to god smile. The kind he gives Rick at night before they go to sleep. The kind Rick wakes up to in the morning. The kind that is really him and not just an act, a social construction.

Rick grins back at him. “A scout?” he says and Daryl nods.

“He said…,” Daryl blushes. “He said that he worked for the Georgia college system and I told him I was interested in North Georgia and he said that it was totally possible for me to get a scholarship. He said…” Daryl swallows and he clears his throat, like he’s trying to push things down, but Rick grabs his shirt sleeve and encourages him on. “He said,” Daryl tells him, “that he saw me at state last year and he’s been watching my stats and that I’m one of the runners that he would recommend to any school. He said that if I got in, I needed to just call him and he’d give me a good word.”

“Oh my god!” Rick says and hugs him. “That is fantastic!”

Daryl laughs and hugs Rick back and he smiles so hard that Rick thinks it might break his face. “I could go,” he says and hugs Rick tight, burying his face in the side of Rick’s head. “I could go. Couldn’t I? To college. With this, I could go.”

“Yeah, baby,” Rick says and squeezes him. “You will. You absolutely will.”

And then, despite the throng of people, Daryl pulls back and kisses Rick. It’s hard and sweet at the same time, Daryl pushing all of his feeling into it and Rick meets him back just as easily because he wants Daryl to know--to believe--that they are going to North Georgia together, that Daryl will get in with frankly a better financial package than Rick, that he is smart and talented and deserving and that all Rick wants to do is just be right there by his side the whole time, watching him flourish like he’s never got the opportunity to before. Rick is so caught up in giving him everything in that kiss, all his belief and all his passion, that he almost misses Daryl’s startled jump and how quickly he pulls away.

Rick blinks and sees Daryl’s hard expression, his perfectly lined and set mouth, and the barest hint of fear that sits behind Daryl’s steel blue eyes. He’s looking off past Rick’s shoulder and Rick turns around to see what he’s looking at and then Rick tenses up, coiled and defensive like a wrapped up rattlesnake. Because right there behind them, having melted from the crowd only a moment before and in just the right time to see them kissing, is Daryl’s dad.

Rick hasn’t seen the man in a long time, but he still recognizes him from when he used to pick Daryl up in middle school--the other kids whispering about the Dixon family and the bloodshot eyes of the father. He isn’t nearly as tall as Rick always pictures him in his mind, but he’s broad-shouldered and the expression on his face could melt iron. He sets his eyes on Rick and although he makes no physical move forward and doesn’t even so much as square his shoulders, Rick still feels cornered. “Merle told me you was hanging with a queer,” he says to Daryl, his eyes still on Rick. “Didn’t think one of them would getcha, though.”

Daryl doesn’t say anything at all, but he steps forward, past Rick and settles himself so that his left shoulder is just to the front of Rick’s right--between the two of them and slightly off to the side.

“You come on home,” his dad says. “Quit with all this rebellious bull shit.” He separates the word out into two hard syllables.

“That’s what you did, huh?” Daryl says and Rick thinks about all the currents of his voice, as deep and turbulent as tsunamis. “You come up here to take me home?”

“Boy, you know why the fuck I came out here. See you run, cause you like it so much. Think you some kind of deer in the woods. Now, get on in the truck. I’m going to take you home and talk to you about how shits like him ruin your whole life.”

“I’m not going,” Daryl says and the words are like the crust of the earth, unbreakable and defiant.

“Hell you’re not,” his dad says and stands taller, but Daryl doesn’t move one single little inch, his body quiet and composed in a way that terrifies and saddens Rick more than anything Daryl’s dad will ever say.

Daryl’s dad sees it, too, and he nods at Daryl, puts his hand on his belt and then spits off to the side, his head still nodding. He looks past Daryl’s shoulder at Rick. “You leave my boy alone or they won’t ever find out what happened to you,” he says and Rick’s blood runs cold because he can feel in his bones that Daryl’s dad means it. But Rick follows Daryl’s lead and he tries to still his body, even though all he wants to do is shake like a leaf.

“Go home, Dad,” Daryl says, “Need me to call Merle for you?”

“Fuck, boy,” his dad says and then spits hard again. “I’m goddamn sober. Did that for your sorry ass.” And then he’s turning away and marching back through the crowd and Rick lets out a loud puff of a breath when he can’t see him anymore.

Daryl spins to him, slowly, his voice low and moving at a million miles an hour. “Rick, call your dad and tell him to pick us up before the crowd thins out.” The thick and heavy knowledge in Daryl’s voice sends Rick’s fingers flying for his phone and to his dad’s number and they hang in the thickest part of the mob until the familiar car pulls up and they are rushing in.

As they both climb into the back, Rick’s dad looks into the rearview mirror, his brow knotted in worry. “Something wrong, boys?” he asks.

Rick shakes his head because he doesn’t want to break the fragile relationship between Daryl and his parents, but Daryl pushes forward. “My dad,” he says. “He was here. He threatened us. But he’s just blowing off steam--” Rick looks at Daryl’s face, so poker straight and calm you would never know, “--but we wanted to be safe, anyway.”

Rick’s dad nods and looks at Rick in the backseat. “Rick, you okay?”

Rick nods excessively. “Yeah, Dad. We were just being overly cautious.”

“Well, that’s good,” Rick’s dad says and pulls out of the parking lot, trying not to jostle the vase of flowers in the passenger’s seat. “I’d rather you be cautious than something happen. And you boys can tell me anything, you hear? Anything at all.” Neither Rick and Daryl volunteer anything, so as they pull out onto the main road, his dad tilts his head just slightly in their direction. “How’d track go? You do good?”

Daryl smiles slowly, but it doesn’t meet his eyes. “I won,” he says and then Rick’s dad is congratulating him with a real grin and saying that they’ll have to go out for dinner tomorrow to celebrate.

***

They get home and Rick spends time calming his rattled nerves while Daryl takes a quick shower. He makes sure to check his window to see that it is thoroughly locked and he even closes the blinds for good measure. He’s sure that Daryl was lying to Rick’s dad--it wasn’t just blowing off steam. Maybe he wouldn't follow through with anything and maybe he was just angry in the moment, but Rick knows enough to be at least wary for the next few days.

Daryl gets out of the shower and sits on Rick’s bed and he sags down a little. Rick sits next to him and feels just as drained, the heaviness of the day settling on them like lead. “You think he would actually do something?” Rick asks, because he needs to hear what Daryl really thinks.

Daryl frowns and then shakes his head. And then he shrugs. “Don’t know. When he’s sober and in his right mind, he never would.” Daryl scoffs and puts one knee up, his elbow on it. He bites at his thumb. “That doesn’t say anything for the other ninety percent of his life, though.” He sighs and closes his eyes. “Rick, I am so sorry to get you messed up in all of this. God. If I could just take it all away--”

“NONE of this is your fault,” Rick says. “It’s him that’s the douche.” He reaches for Daryl’s hand, the one that’s currently laying palm down on the bed, and covers it with his own. “None of this is because of you.”

Daryl sighs again. “I…,” he swallows. “I felt like I had it.” He opens his hand and clutches his fist, like he’s grabbing something out of thin air. “For one goddamn moment, I actually thought I had it.” He sighs and if Rick hears a little choke in there, it must be his imagination, because then Daryl is smiling at him, kind of tentative and soft. “But I have you,” he says. “I want to…I have no right to ask, but I want to…” He reaches up and threads his fingers in Rick’s hair and brings their foreheads together. Rick watches as Daryl opens his mouth to speak, but Rick beats him to the punch.

“...have me?” Rick finishes and looks deep into his eyes, finding nothing there but Daryl’s wide-eyed gaze just for Rick. “You can,” Rick whispers to him, his heart in his throat and beating like a wild drum. “I thought about it. I keep thinking about it. You and me and…” He bites his lip. “I want you to have me. To…” He leans forward and presses his lips against Daryl’s, no tongues this time. Just chaste and the simplest of pressure--energy moving from him to Daryl. “...fuck me.”

Daryl’s pupils blow wide and his mouth falls open, gasping. “Rick,” he says and that’s all the encouragement Rick needs. He kisses Daryl and he presses his tongue up against his mouth, licking into him and fucking Daryl’s mouth open, going for all the angles that causes Daryl to whimper and fall apart. Daryl falls flush against him and Rick puts his hands in Daryl’s damp hair, threading his fingers through and then tangling them in at the base of Daryl’s skull.

Daryl pushes him back on the bed and Rick lets him and they fall down, tangled and kissing and pressing. Rick can feel Daryl’s length right up next to his thigh and he thinks about Daryl in him and how this is the first time for both of them and he can’t think of anyone who he would rather have it be. Daryl kisses his neck, sucking at the point where it meets his shoulder and Rick groans loudly at the ceiling and then bites his lip to try and keep himself quiet.

Daryl’s hand slides up under his shirt to run over his chest and Rick leans forward into his touch. He wraps one leg around Daryl’s waist and then arches his hips up to Daryl and Daryl gasps against his skin and pushes back down and then they are rocking into each other, fully clothed still. Rick bends his head and bites down on Daryl’s ear and Daryl bucks forward and it’s suddenly maddening that Rick can’t feel this skin-to-skin. So he pushes Daryl off and tosses his shirt into a corner and then he starts working at Daryl’s pants as Daryl throws his own shirt off. And then they are kissing and unbuttoning and sliding out of fabric and they are naked and Daryl is pushing him back down, covering him just the same, only this time when Daryl’s cock slides against Rick’s thigh, it’s against his skin and when Rick’s own member arches its way up to press into Daryl’s stomach and Rick thinks he might come from this alone. Only he can’t. Because he has to have Daryl in him, claiming him. Daryl’s Rick. And so Rick kisses him, hot and deep and sensual and with his left hand he blindly stumbles his way to opening his nightstand and he presses a bottle up against Daryl’s chest and blushes, muttering that he bought it just in case.

Daryl studies it for a minute, but then he nods and pops the bottle open and kisses Rick again as one finger slides up into him. Rick gasps, his mouth falling open, but that just gives Daryl an opportunity to weave his tongue inside and run in along Rick’s top teeth in the way that he knows Rick likes so goddamn much. Rick opens his legs for Daryl and Daryl settles between them and slides another finger up in him, slowly moving them in and out. “Tell me what you want,” Daryl says against his lips. “Tell me everything, Rick. I want to make this so good for you.”

“Touch me,” Rick whispers and then kisses him softly. “And then fuck me.”

Daryl nods, his eyes bright and glittering. He keeps his fingers inside Rick, but with the other hand he starts stroking him and Rick leans forward to kiss Daryl’s neck and then his jawline and then his chest. “In me,” he says to Daryl. “God, just get in me.”

And then he does. He pushes Rick down and Rick whimpers as his fingers are removed, but then Daryl is positioning himself and sliding in so maddeningly slow, like he’s afraid if he moves, Rick will break. But it might be a good thing it’s slow at first. Because the sensation is strange, exotic and thrilling, but scary, too. Rick can’t stop blinking and he takes the time to think about just what is happening--Daryl pushing in deep inside him, Daryl in him, one with him, covering Rick like that’s all he’s ever wanted to do in his life and then Daryl is pulling back out and Rick thinks no, never leave me, but then he’s pushing back in again and Rick has the belated realization that Daryl is thrusting into him and so Rick kisses him, letting his mouth fall open and letting Daryl fucking claim him because that’s all he wants in this world.

Rick leans up into him and Daryl fucks him smoothly and softly, rocking into Rick like he has to appreciate every second, like Rick is precious and that thought--Daryl thinking of him like that--nearly sends Rick over the edge. And then Daryl is touching him, stroking him in tune with his thrusts and Rick closes his eyes and leans back, stops thinking and just feels Daryl’s lips next to his, Daryl’s chest under Rick’s hand, his hips as they slide against Rick’s, his cock deep inside Rick, pushing and sliding and giving and taking. And then Rick hears Daryl’s hitching breaths and he knows and he leans up and whispers to Daryl, “Yes, baby, come in me. Make me yours.” And then Daryl thrust forward once, hard, pushing Rick further up on the bed and he’s as deep as he can possibly get and that thought is maddeningly hot and Rick comes just a second before Daryl does, arching his whole body up into Daryl and squeezing his muscles instinctively and then Daryl lets go within him and Rick feels him, he feels him, he feels Daryl, not just his body, but all of him, every bit of him and Rick thinks oh my god, I love him. I love him. I love him.

And then they are falling down together, coming off of the high and Daryl pulls out, but he clings to Rick like he has to keep touching his skin, convincing himself that Rick is real. And Rick understands because he has to do the same exact thing. So Rick molds his body to Daryl’s as best as he can and he opens his mouth to say it, because when you feel it, you should let the other person know. But then he thinks about what they always tell you, to not say it after sex, because it could just be the high talking and not your actual feelings. So he shuts his mouth and vows that in the morning, he’ll tell Daryl he loves him and he hopes to god that Daryl will say it back.

“Rick?” Daryl asks and pulls him in hard.

“Hmm?” Rick says, just as always, but this time, Daryl must be wide awake, because he responds quickly.

“I just want you to be safe,” he says into Rick’s hair. Rick breathes him in, the scent of his and Daryl’s soap, of clean sweat and sex. “I just...you're the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Ever. And I just need you to be okay. You get that, right?”

Rick nods. “Yeah,” he says. “I get it.”

Daryl kisses his head and sighs. “It would have just been so nice. You know? To go to college together.”

Rick smiles. “Will,” he says, correcting Daryl’s coulds and woulds like always, showing Daryl that he believes in him. Believes in them.

“Yeah,” Daryl says and chuckles just the smallest bit. “That’s what I meant. Will.”

***

Rick wakes up early the next morning and Daryl is already gone into the guestroom. He stretches and slides into Daryl’s spot again, which is a little colder than it usually is, but still smells like him. Rick sighs, wishing that Daryl had woke him up before he left, but it’s okay. He figures he’ll have the rest of the day to kiss him senseless like he wants to.

He tries to go back to sleep, but he’s already up, so he sneaks down the hall, thinking he’ll let Daryl sleep a little more if he wants to. He finds his mom in the kitchen, in her bathrobe, and she hands him the cereal box when he asks. As he’s sitting at the table, eating his Fruity Pebbles, he looks outside and notices that the family car is missing. “Where’s dad?” he asks and his mom shrugs.

“I don’t know. He left about an hour ago. Said he got a call from the station about something urgent.”

Rick hmms and finishes his breakfast and then stretches, popping all of his bones into place. He wanders down the hallway and knocks quietly on the guestroom before he enters. He thinks he might bound up to the pile of covers that Daryl will have gathered around himself and flop down onto him, kiss him and cuddle up next to him and just bask, but when Rick opens the door, a different sight meets his eyes. The bed is perfectly made and no one has slept in it. Rick frowns hard and checks his room and then the bathroom. No Daryl. He starts to panic. He goes to the kitchen and asks his mom if she’s seen him, but she hasn’t. And then Rick searches the house in a rush--the living room, the den, the other guest room, the closets. Nothing. No Daryl and Rick realizes with a sinking feeling--metal falling through the air, glass shattering, an anchor crashing into ocean sand--that Daryl is gone.

He rushes back to his room and that’s when he sees it, the note laid nicely on the nightstand like Daryl likes to fold them--longways first, which Rick has always thought was strange, but somehow so endearing. He picks up the paper gingerly, like it might burn him, and it opens with the same speed as his closing heart. His eyes tumble over the words-- “Forgive me and please try to be okay. I love you and I know you love me, too, and so don’t be sad that you didn’t get to say it. I just need you to be alright and I know if my dad isn’t locked up, you won’t be. So I’m turning him in. I really wanted a life with you, Rick. It’s all I wanted. But you matter more to me than anything and you have to be safe. I love you. Please be okay and I am so sorry. --Daryl.”

Rick sits down on his bed hard and he reads the note a second time and then a third. His mind keeps getting tangled on words like denim in thorns--love, sad, wanted, matter. He wants to cry. He wants to scream. But neither of those things happen. All that does happen is Rick sits there, his hands shaking and his eyes unable to keep from scrolling over the note again and again and again and again.

And then the front door opens. Rick rushes forward and he drowns out his mom’s voice telling him not to run in the house. He gets to the living room and sees the open doorway, only it’s just his dad standing there, no Daryl, and he’s frowning hard, in his cop uniform, and he can’t quite meet Rick’s eyes. “Dad, where’s Daryl?” Rick asks and his dad swallows and opens his mouth to speak and Rick thinks he knows what’s coming, but he can’t hear it, he can’t. He doesn’t want to hear words like altercation or incident and he doesn’t want to hear other words, either turned in and gone and taken away. So he plows forward over his dad and hopes and prays that it’ll be a different answer. “Is he okay? Just tell me he’s okay. What happened? Dad, just tell me he’s okay. Can I see him? Is he at the station?”

Rick’s mom walks in from the kitchen, just as many questions in her eyes, and Rick’s dad clears his throat and stands tall. “No, Rick, he’s not. He’s--”

“No,” Rick says. “No, don’t tell me it. Don’t say he’s--”

“He’s gone, Rick,” his dad says and sighs. “He turned himself in last night and the social worker for the county has already taken him away. I don’t know where he is.”

Rick sits down heavy on the couch and leans his elbows on his knees. He tells himself to breathe. “I should have bought him a phone,” he says. “I should have bought him a fucking phone.” He pinches the bridge of his nose and doesn’t even care that he’s cussed in front of his parents.

His dad sighs and moves forward, sits on the seat next to him. “Rick, I know this is hard. But it’s probably…” He swallows. “It’s probably for the best.”

“What...what’s going to happen to him?” Rick asks and looks up at his dad, pleadingly.

“Well,” his dad says, “he told the police last night what had been happening to him. And so they’re going to do an investigation. His dad is being held because he threatened you. You didn’t tell me that he threatened to kill you, Rick.” His mom gasps and says his full name, but Rick just keeps shaking his head. “Daryl said he thought that you might be in real danger, so he had to tell. And then they took him away. They’re going to put him somewhere safe. Probably...not in town. So he’s away from his dad. And there will be a court date. And they’ll figure out the truth.”

“Away from town?” Rick says. “Away from school? From track? Dad, he’s…” Rick takes a shuddering breath. “He’s going to lose everything.”

“But he did the right thing. Protecting you. And himself. That takes a lot of courage.”

Rick nods slowly, but he can process it. He can’t think of any of it, just the way Daryl’s eyes looked last night when he was in Rick, just the way his hands felt and the way he kissed him like Rick was his whole world. Rick hates him so much right then that he burns with a barely suppressed rage. But even more than that slow burning fire is a cool river, a steady and deep current of love settling in and around Rick’s shoulders. Supporting him. Smothering him.

***

The next morning is Monday and Rick lays in his bed, all the covers pulled up to his side and away from Daryl’s spot. He stares at the empty sheets and it takes his mom twenty minutes to get him out of bed. When he does, he can’t be bothered to shower. Instead, he throws on a pair of jeans he finds crumbled on the floor and goes to his closet for his New Hampshire hoodie. Only it’s not there. It’s gone, and sitting on the plain white hanger is Daryl’s old gray one. Rick cries in the closet, but only for a minute before he composes himself, puts on the hoodie and pulls the hood up, touches the string that he pulled that day when he asked Daryl to join his friends for lunch. He sits on his bed and he buries his nose in the old fabric, thinking of what Daryl has been through in it. Thinking of his own hoodie somewhere else on Daryl’s back.

His mom comes to his door yet again and says they’ll be late if they don’t hurry up, so Rick trudges out of the door and he makes it through the car ride and even through first period without any incidents. But then, between first and second, Shane and Andrea corner him at his locker.

“Where’s Daryl?” Shane asks. “Isn’t he always with you, like you’re magnetic or something?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Rick says and focuses on the spines of his textbooks.

Andrea furrows her brow. “Rick--,” she starts, but she doesn’t get it out. Because Rick can’t do this right now. He can’t tell them Daryl’s gone. What would he say? How can he describe the gaping hole lodged within his ribcage, the heaviness of his feet when he walks, the rolling of his stomach like ocean waves bashing at the sky? He can’t put into words how angry he is and how sad. And how happy, too, that they got that one last night. That Daryl at least let him have that and then that note--the note lodged in Rick’s pocket because he couldn’t leave it at home, the one he read over and over in English, the one that his hand is on right now, his thumb running over the jagged corners--how can he even describe how it makes him feel? Warm and comfortable--I love you. Furious and raging--Forgive me. You didn’t get to say it.

So instead of all of that, instead of words, Rick just sobs. He tries to stop himself, to hold it back like weak human arms pushing at the concrete of a broken dam. He dips his head and hides underneath the hood and then thinks of Daryl hiding under it and that is just worse and so he sniffles again and then Andrea is hugging him, but he doesn’t want her to touch him. Her arms are too thin and there’s not enough pressure, they don’t feel like Daryl’s, and it just makes him hate this all the more and then the bell rings and Rick tries to slip away but Shane has one side of him and Andrea the other and instead of going through the door to class, they go through the door outside and Shane and Andrea start to take him to the park, but he screams at them that he’s not going there and so they end up sitting outside of the closed Chinese Buffet because at least he doesn’t have any memories there.

They let him sit for a good ten minutes before Andrea asks him softly what happened. Rick sniffles again, but he figures that they won’t take silence for an answer. So he tells them. And once he starts, he can’t stop. It pours out of him like heavy paint seeping into wood floors, coloring his vision and his friends and the parking lot. He tells them that Daryl’s dad abused him, hit him and gave him all those lashes and it’s the first time he’s said those words out loud and they are so heavy, so metallic and dangerous in the air. Andrea’s eyes go wide and her mouth goes down turned and Shane just looks uncomfortable and angry. But Rick has to keep saying it. So he tells them how he helps Daryl doctor his wounds every night only he can’t be there anymore. He can’t be there to help him get over all of it, to heal, because Daryl left. And then he tells them about the track meet, about seeing the scout there and how happy Daryl was and seeing Daryl’s dad and how Daryl wasn’t even sad, he was just stone cold and shut off and it scared Rick and it made his whole body ache for him and he wants to just take all of it away, just wash it off of Daryl so Daryl can be Daryl, the boy that Rick sees sometimes when Daryl loses himself in thinking about track and college and just being with Rick. Rick wants so bad for him to be okay that his body is shaking with it.

Then he tells them of the last night they had together. Of actually doing it, losing his virginity and being so happy. He tells them through his broken voice, through the gasps and the choking, that he was going to tell Daryl he loved him, only Daryl wasn’t there. And then he tells them Daryl left. And he tells them why. He doesn’t let them see the note because he can’t. He can’t let them touch something so personal, so them, can’t bear to have Shane or Andrea’s fingers over Daryl’s handwriting because Rick keeps thinking that his hands were there and if Rick holds that note, it’s almost like he’s touching them.

But he tells them he understands. That he gets why Daryl did it and he doesn’t blame him. And that's perhaps the worst feeling of all. Because if he didn't get it, be could be justifiably angry. But Rick knows that if it was him and his decision, he would have done the same thing. And it’s so unfair that life is like that--that no matter what that decision had to be made and Rick can’t even sit here and think that it was the wrong one because he knows it’s not.

He tells his friends he misses Daryl so much, but the words don’t pour out of his mouth like they should. He can’t think of the right way to say it to make them understand that Rick is like a city without people, a storm without rain, a powerline without energy. So instead he just sits there, his body drained and limp. He tells them over and over the only thing he can think to say. That he misses him, he misses him, he misses him.

The minutes tick by and Rick realizes that second period is close to ending. He stands and tells Shane and Andrea that he’s going back to school, but they tell him he should skip the day. They’ll go get ice cream and sit at his house and he deserves at least that. But Rick shakes his head and says he has to get back. Because third period is Trig and he needs to pick up Daryl’s homework. Just in case.

***

Tuesday is better, if at least by the fact that Rick doesn’t cry so much and that the ache settles in around his bones, dull and heavy, but not sharp and piercing like the day before. And the rest of the week is the same. Rick settles into some kind of rhythm, one that at least lets him function and smile at his friends, even if he feels like he’ll never truly be happy ever again.

He does his homework and he picks up Daryl’s. He hangs with his friends at the Macy’s parking lot and he even chuckles once or twice at Glenn and Maggie. He goes to Michonne’s party on Saturday, but he spends all day in her room, playing a poor version of poker with Carol and Andrea, because he’s not going to put himself next to the beer bottles.

But even despite all of that, Daryl permeates everything, like acid in his veins. He thinks about how Daryl would like the Trig lesson, about how he would scoff at Mr. Green’s hair on Thursday, about how he would have the same opinions about whether or not it counts if your purity ring is off, about how he would sit in the back of Shane’s truck with his feet propped up on the tailgate and the Georgia sun hitting his hair in just the right enough way for Rick to think that there was magic in the world.

He thinks about them dancing at the party and his chest is tight.

He stops telling his friends things because after Monday, they know enough. So instead, Rick writes it all down. It starts on Monday night because he has to say something to that note and then it just continues. Rick gushes his thoughts out to Daryl in paper, scratching things in and thinking about Daryl’s eyes reading it, pouring over it. Rick writes down everything he wants to tell Daryl, things like I hate you and I want to slap you because of the way you make me feel. Only he would never do that, never even raise his voice in anger. He thinks for the rest of his life, his hands will ghost over Daryl’s skin, cotton soft and delicate, proving to Daryl that there are other people in the world and other ways of acting. If he ever gets to touch him again.

And he tells Daryl other things, too, I love you written in so many different ways and from so many emotional moments that the notebook is scarred with them. He tells Daryl he understands and then he tells Daryl he doesn’t, because why would Daryl not wake him up and tell him he’s leaving? Why would he not let Rick be a part of it? Why would he not call Rick because no matter where he is, there is a phone there and he could look up the Grimes’ number.

Rick is so angry about the phone thing that he goes to the Best Buy in town and buys a damn Tracfone. He sits it right beside his bed and thinks that when, if, when Daryl comes back, he’ll slap it into his hand so fast that Daryl will think it’s always been there.

Rick misses the sound of his voice.

But the week slips by and Rick doesn’t hear it. At least not in any way but in his head. And then the next week slips by, too, and Rick is just the same--walking and talking, but a broken record inside--I love you. You didn’t get to say it. I love you. You didn’t get to say it.

***

It’s a Thursday and Rick is sitting in the kitchen, dividing out M&Ms into color piles because why not when his mother walks into the room, a smile plastered to her face. He blinks up at her. “Yeah?” he says and then she’s handing him an envelope with a North Georgia State University seal on it. Rick’s heart goes up into his throat and he swallows it back down.

“Open it,” his mom says. “I want to know if I can start bragging about my baby.”

Rick sighs and he grabs the envelope. He stares at it for a minute, because if he doesn’t open it, he’ll never know what could have been. But his mom is standing there, waiting for him, so he does. He tears it open and the words jump off the page: congratulations, acceptance, scholarship, partial tuition.

Rick holds his breath and stares at the paper, thinks about the prettiness of the North Georgia campus and then pictures himself and Daryl there, Daryl’s hair in the sun, a smile on his face, his body turned toward Rick. “It’s a yes,” he tells his mom and smiles for her benefit. “And a scholarship for part of my tuition.”

She coos over it and sits down across from him, setting the rest of the mail on the table. She picks up the letter and reads every word and is so engrossed that she doesn’t notice Rick picking up the second North Georgia seal and opening that one, too, reading the same words: congratulations, acceptance, scholarship. But different ones too: full in-state tuition waiver. He puts his hand up to his chin and thinks of Daryl walking into the police station, in some unmarked car being driven away. He thinks of situations like objects tossed out of a back window into the highway--track, his grades, Trig, this application, this scholarship, the scout, him and Rick dancing, him and Rick kissing, him and Rick picking out the bedding for their college room, him and Rick arguing over what CD to listen to first when they move in, Daryl going to class and Rick kissing him goodbye because that hour without him was going to be maddening.

Rick’s mom looks up when he sobs. She glances quickly between Rick and the letter and then she pulls it from his hand just as Rick covers his mouth to keep the sounds at bay. “Oh, Rick,” she says and the empathy in her voices causes him to tumble off the edge. He full out cries like he hasn’t in a week and a half and his mother scoots her chair to the other side of the table and hugs him. She waits until he gets himself under control slowly, inch by inch, like he’s crawling up the largest and longest cliff. “You know you’re not supposed to open other people’s mail,” she says, but it’s not a lecture. It’s just soft advice and Rick nods.

“He got in,” Rick tells her. “He got a scholarship for all his tuition. Cause of his ACT. And he had this track scout we saw who said that all Daryl had to do was contact him. Mom, he had a full ride. A full ride. And now he doesn’t have it anymore.”

His mom shushes him and pulls him close. “I’m sure we can call the college and tell them about what happened. They can let him know.”

Rick shakes his head. “With transferring...he might not even graduate this year.”

“He’ll be okay,” his mom says, but her voice isn’t as convincing as Rick would like it to be. Rick shakes his head and pulls away from her.

“I…” he says and then he squares his shoulders, sets his jaw. “We were together, Mom. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you, but...we were together. He was my boyfriend.” Rick looks up at her and she frowns. She reaches and tucks one of Rick’s errant curls behind his ear.

“Oh, honey,” she says, but Rick continues.

“I loved him.” He shakes his head at himself hard. “I love him. I do. He was perfect. He was...he was so smart, Mom. He’s so smart. And he’s so good at track and he’s so nice and kind and good and just...he doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see how good he is. And I keep telling him and he keeps looking at me like he’s surprised when I tell him that a 31 on his ACT is phenomenal. There are just...there’s so many kids out there, Mom, that just assume they’re going to college. They just do like it’s no thing. And they know they’re smart enough. Hell, I’m one of them. I never thought that I wouldn’t. But Daryl treats it like it’s gold. Like he’s never in a million years thought he could go and he wants it so bad. I can tell he does. And he’s not going to get it. How is that fair? How is it okay that I get to go when it’s just whatever for me and he can’t when it’s his whole life?”

His mom looks away and then shakes her head sadily. “I don’t know, Rick. You’re right. He’s such a nice boy. I wanted it for him, too.”

“I love him,” Rick says again and his mom pulls him forward into a second hug. “Mom, I love him. And he’s gone.” Rick dissolves into tears again and his mom holds him for awhile longer. Rick lets the sadness seep out of him, lets his body sag against the kitchen table and his mother, lets the application answers get wet with the emotion pouring from his body. He doesn’t care about the letters. Because Daryl isn’t here with him. And so why does it matter?

It’s a good time later when Rick can finally pull himself up. He tells his mom that he’s going to his room for a bit, that he’ll try to sleep it off and hopefully he’ll feel better when he wakes up. Even if he knows that’s a lie. He moves to leave, but he stops in the doorway, puts his hands up on the doorframe and turns to the kitchen one more time.

“Mom?” he asks and she looks up at him. “Do you think he’s happy? I mean, where he is? I just...I want him to be okay. You know? And if I can’t see him smiling, I at least want to know that he is somewhere.”

Rick’s mom nods and she picks up all the mail from the table. “He is, Rick,” she says. “Or he will be.” She walks forward and kisses his temple. “Just like you will be.”

Rick walks back to his room with heavy feet and when he gets there, he circles the dates on his calendar for when they will have to let the school know about their decisions to accept admission and the scholarships. He thinks that if the date comes and Daryl isn’t here, he’ll call North Georgia and he’ll pretend to be Daryl and say yes. So at least Daryl will have gotten in. So at least he will have had it.

***

The next few days seep by and Rick’s parents are gone for most of them. They are cryptic, telling Rick that they have errands to run and abandoning him in the living room for most of Friday and Saturday. Andrea and Shane text him, badgering him multiple times to come over to one of their houses, but he refuses. He doesn’t feel like company and their overzealous smiles and laughs to make him feel better are just tiring. So instead, Rick spends Saturday afternoon on the recliner, leafing through the course offerings to North Georgia and thinking more about what Daryl would like to take than what he is actually considering registering for himself.

He looks at the listings for majors and imagines Daryl picking something just for himself, finally sitting down and thinking about what he would like to do with his life instead of pushing it aside like it doesn’t matter, like he can’t bear to think about it because he’ll never have the choice anyway. Rick thinks it would have to be something with math, or maybe science. He thinks about what Daryl would be good at--everything, his brain supplies--and imagines him as a theoretical mathematician or a sustainability chemist. He leafs through majors like physics and applied math, scanning down the course listing and imagining Daryl saying, “I’ve got to go to Intro to Special Relativity” or “I need to go to my electromagnetism class.” And then he imagines other things, like Daryl bitching about his history general ed requirement and shyly asking Rick what he thinks about Daryl joining the math club.

Rick would go to Daryl’s track competitions after their classes were done. He would text Daryl to meet up for lunch, and they would walk back to the dorm together. He would explore the campus and the town with him, just the two of them on their own time finding different parks, different restaurants, different no loitering signs. He thinks about them pushing their beds together so that they can sleep next to each other, always touching. He imagines what it would be like to kiss Daryl in a third floor dorm room, Daryl’s math book open between them and ramen heating up in the microwave. He tries to remember exactly what Daryl’s skin feels like, how it slides against Rick’s and how it feels, warm and inviting and just for him. Rick closes his eyes and he swallows his emotion down.

He hears in the distance his parent’s car pull into the driveway and his dad kill the engine. He sighs, not really wanting his parents home and not caring for the company, even though everyone keeps telling him that he needs that, that it helps to have other people around despite the fact that Rick can’t talk to them, can’t put all of his tumbling thoughts into words, can’t bring out the note or write his thoughts down or even mention Daryl’s name without an oh, Rick or it’ll get better or there are other fish in the sea. Because there aren’t. There’s only Daryl. And Rick wants to be alone right now to just remember him.

But then something happens. Something that makes Rick’s heart jump up his spine and play down his backbone like a professional orchestra. The car door slams and Rick hears from outside in the driveway his name being called and it’s not his dad and it’s not his mom. It’s the sweetest sound, all low and gravelly and so Daryl that Rick thinks he’ll shatter into a million pieces if it’s not him.

The course catalog falls onto the ground and Rick crushes it with his foot as he leaps forward. He rushes to the door and he grabs the handle, flinging it open at the same time that someone on the other side is pushing it in and then there he is. Daryl Dixon. In Rick’s hoodie. Looking at him with eyes so wide and bright they might as well be the moon. Daryl pushes forward into the house and then he’s hugging Rick, crushing him to his chest like no one else could ever do and Rick hears his own voice miles away, saying Daryl’s name over and over and over and he clings to him and Daryl’s nose is in the junction of his neck and his shoulder and it’s so right, so perfect, so home that Rick gasps with the pureness of it all.

Behind them, his parents slowly walk up, his mom smiling at the two of them and his dad looking a little awkward, but doing his best. Rick knows that he probably shouldn’t, not in front of them. But he doesn’t care. Daryl is right here in his arms and he can feel him, he can smell him and touch him, he can turn his head and kiss him and so he does. He presses his lips to Daryl’s, right there in front of his parents and Daryl jumps in surprise, but chastely kisses back.

Daryl pulls away after a second, blushing hard and darting his eyes to Rick’s parents. Rick lets him pull back just slightly, but he grabs Daryl’s hand and crushes it in his. He’ll never let him go, he thinks. He’ll never stop touching him. Rick turns to Daryl and thinks of all the things he could say to him right now--I’m happy you’re back, why did you leave me, where were you, did you miss me, you got into college, I’ve got all your homework, do you think that the scout will still say yes, I thought about you everyday, I want to kiss you for real, I love you. Instead of all that, though, he opens his mouth, blushing, and says, “I told my parents.”

Daryl ducks his head, hiding behind his hair. “Oh,” he says, but squeezes Rick’s hand.

Rick’s mother comes forward. “Now, boys, we have talked about all of this. And we want you to know that it’ll all be okay and we will figure everything out. But we are going to have a long conversation tomorrow about boundaries and especially about staying in our own rooms at night.”

“And safety,” Rick’s dad says.

“And safety,” his mom echoes. “There is…” and it’s her this time that blushes as she clears her throat, “there is everything in the bathroom that two boys need to be safe, if they would choose to participate in adult activities. And do not think this is us encouraging you. We just want to provide you with safe options, even though I personally think that you should always wait.”

Rick blushes hard and mumbles, “Okay, Mom,” and then other questions pour out of him. “But how...how did you find Daryl? How is he here with us? Is everything okay with, like, the court date and things and what about school and--”

His dad holds up his hand to stop Rick and he explains. “After Daryl left--and Daryl and I have had a very long talk, haven’t we, son?” Daryl nods. “Yes, a very long talk about confiding in adults and approaching me if there are problems because I could have helped and made this whole thing a lot less painful. But after Daryl left, your mom and I had some discussions, Rick. We thought that Daryl is a nice boy and after what he did to protect you and after living with him for awhile and seeing what his circumstances are, we decided to contact the social work system and see if we couldn’t foster him until he turns eighteen, so that he can be in the same school district and keep track and have everything still going for him. It took a while to convince them, but we finally did and then they brought Daryl to us and we took him home. Now, we know that we could have told both of you boys that we were trying to do this, but we didn't want to get your hopes up in case something didn’t work out. But luckily all the paperwork is completed and official. And everything is fine with the court date. It’ll happen within the next couple of months or so, and Daryl and I will talk about all of those details.”

“And,” Rick’s mom jumps in, “I’ve already been to talk to the school about your education, Daryl. You’ve missed quite a lot of classes, but they understand your situation. You’ll have to do some after school programs for the next month or so to catch back up, but you should still graduate on time.”

Daryl nods slowly. “So...what happens after I turn eighteen?” he asks and looks between them.

Rick’s dad puts his hands on his belt and tilts his head. He smiles. “Well, son, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you like. I hear that you and Rick have plans to go to college together.”

“Yeah,” Daryl says and looks at the ground. “I mean, if I get accepted.”

“You got in,” Rick tells him and squeezes Daryl’s hand. Daryl snaps his gaze up to Rick and looks at him wide-eyed. “You got into North Georgia,” Rick says again. “Me, too. And you got a full ride.”

Daryl’s eyes are as wide and round as the wheels of a semi-truck. He opens his mouth and then closes it again. “Are you...are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Rick says and grins for the first time in what feels like ages. “Yeah, I am so sure. I have the letter, but you have to tell them yes and you have to call the scout.”

“I got in?” Daryl asks again, pure disbelief in his face.

“Yeah,” Rick says, “Yes. You got in. We both got in and we can both go.”

Rick’s dad smiles at the two of them. “Rick, your mom and I are going to go back out. We’re going to do a couple of errands around town and get some groceries for the week. You two can catch up and you can show him the acceptance letter, okay?” Rick nods firmly.

His mother steps forward and puts one hand on each boy’s shoulder. “We will be back at exactly seven o’clock. You boys take care.”

And then Rick’s parents say their goodbyes and they are out of the door. Rick hears them get into the car and then he hears it start up and drive away and they are left just the two of them, standing awkwardly in the living room, holding hands. Rick doesn’t know where to start and Daryl must not, either. He drops Rick’s hand slowly and keeps his eyes on the carpet. He pulls the hand that was holding Rick’s up to his chest and rubs it. “I…,” he says and then sighs heavily. “I thought that you might have...I mean, I thought that you would have moved on. I wanted you to.”

Rick blinks in the living room and his whole body from his eyelids to his toes feels like lead. “Move on?” he asks.

“Get over me,” Daryl says. “I mean...you deserve so much.”

Rick wants to shake him until his senses come back, because how could he forget Daryl? How could he forget what they had, move on from the way they laid in bed together, their bodies pressed next to each other, warm and comforting, and Daryl’s voice so soft right before he drifted off, saying Rick’s name. Rick will never get over that. And so he does the only thing he can do to convince Daryl. He kisses him, wraps him up in his arms, and lets his tongue run over Daryl’s lips and then into his mouth. He backs Daryl up into the wall and kisses him hard and passionate, pouring all of his feelings over the last few weeks into that kiss, willing Daryl to believe and to remember how right they were for each other, how all their angles and curves and lines meet up so perfectly with the other’s, how they move together like snow and wind. And then Rick pulls away just the tiniest bit and he says it. He says it right up next to Daryl’s lips, choking with the effort of it, with its pent up energy and he releases it like pressure on a valve. “I love you,” Rick says. “I love you.”

Daryl’s breath hitches and he says, “Really?” but then Rick is kissing the doubt out of him and his hands are on Daryl’s hips and Daryl’s hands are in his hair and they are kissing and touching and pressing and grinding and then Rick is grabbing him, fisting his hands in his own hoodie and dragging Daryl down the hallway and Daryl stumbles after him, still kissing and then they fall through Rick’s bedroom door and trip across the floor until they are tumbling into bed together, Daryl on top of Rick and Rick needs air, dammit, but he doesn’t want to take his lips away from Daryl’s because that would be torture.

But Daryl pulls back and looks down at him and asks, all quiet and soft.,“Do you...do you want to switch it up and you can…” He bites his lip and then tries again. “Please fuck me?”

Everything in Rick jumps--his heart, his cock, his hands up to Daryl’s hips and he nods so fast and then he’s pushing Daryl to the side and crawling over him, pressing himself to Daryl in all those good ways and kissing him again, molding his mouth to Daryl and he never wants to not be like this. For all of his life, he just wants him and Daryl together, Daryl’s body next to his, their hips together, their mouths together, their hands on each other’s skin, their chest right up next to each other, their legs tangled, their noses slid up like this. He wants it all and right now, he wants to feel it skin-to-skin, nothing between them at all and so he starts tugging at Daryl’s clothes and Daryl nods and then leans up, pushing Rick into a straddling position. They take off their shirts and then they lose themselves in kissing again, hands on chests and backs and Rick moves his fingers velvet soft against the healing lashes.

And then Daryl pulls his mouth away so that he can look at Rick and Rick stares into his pretty gray-blue eyes as Daryl reaches forward and undoes the button on his pants and then pulls the zipper down. Rick’s breath hitches as he watches Daryl’s face, his eyes darting to Rick’s mouth, his eyes, his neck and then Daryl leans forward ever so slowly and kisses Rick’s jawline just as he slips his hand underneath the waistband and Rick cries out when Daryl touches him. He wraps his arms around Daryl’s neck and puts one hand in Daryl’s hair. “I love you,” Daryl whispers against Rick’s skin and Rick says it back and it’s so amazing, so mind-blowingly awesome that Rick almost doesn’t know what to do with it.

But he does know. He has a really good idea of what he can do with all of this information and so he leans back off of Daryl and takes his pants off and then tugs Daryl’s off, too, and then he settles in between Daryl’s legs and Daryl says “you don’t have to--” just as Rick sucks him in. Daryl bucks forward and moans and Rick lets the mirth in his body reflect in his eyes as he looks up at Daryl. He sucks hard and then he pulls off so he can lick the underside and Daryl is putty underneath his hands, all moldable and wanting and Rick has missed him so much, but he has him now.

Daryl tugs as Rick’s shoulder and says, “Please just get up here so I can kiss you,” and how can Rick deny him that? So he pulls off and he does, sliding his body up Daryl’s, but leaving little kisses along the way--on the tip of his cock, on his thigh, his stomach, his chest, his shoulder, his neck. And then he gets to Daryl’s mouth and he pauses. He looks down at him, all flushed and sex-eyed and needful. Daryl’s lips are just the tiniest bit swollen from all the kissing they’ve already done and his hair is in all different directions on the bed and he’s looking at Rick with so many different emotions--want and need, happiness and joy, but also disbelief and a little bit of fear. Like Rick might take all of this away. Rick swallows hard. “Don’t leave me again,” he begs Daryl. “I couldn’t take it. I...I want to be with you forever.”

Daryl blinks and he nods. “Of course. I won’t. I...I’m so sorry, Rick. I’m so sorry. I thought about you everyday. I wanted to call you so bad.” Daryl swallows then, choking something back and Rick thinks it might be the same thing that he’s been battling for the last couple of weeks. Rick pulls off of him and sits on the bed, and Daryl sits up, too. He reaches for Rick and pulls Rick toward him and they end up sitting there, Daryl’s chest to Rick’s back, naked, talking about it. “I wanted to call you,” Daryl says again, “but I didn’t think it was fair to you. To make you keep clinging to this when you could be happy if I just let you be. I thought that didn’t deserve it, getting messed up in all of this. You got so many things going for you and I was just ruining them.”

“I carried your damn note around,” Rick says and he is floored that his voice sounds so hollow. “I read it a million times. Everything I did...it was wrong. Like...going to class was wrong.” He frowns, trying to find the words for it. “Going to Michonne’s party or hanging with my friends. Going to the store with my mom. Getting the college letters and I couldn’t be happy because none of it was right. Because you weren’t there with me. I missed you so much. Oh my god, Daryl, you have no idea how I missed you.” Except, Rick thinks, he probably does. Because Daryl is clinging to him and he puts his forehead on Rick’s shoulder and Rick soaks in the warmth of his chest against Rick’s back. “I don’t...I don’t understand.” Rick says and his voice is wavering. He swallows hard. “I get why you went to the station. I don’t get why you didn’t wake me up. Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you let me say goodbye? Why didn’t you call? Daryl, I...I love you, dammit. I love you and I thought about you all the goddamn time. I don’t get why you didn’t think about me.”

“I did,” Daryl says and he spins Rick around to look at him. Rick looks away, at the curtains on his window, refusing to meet Daryl’s eyes, but then Daryl grabs his chin and forces him to and Daryl’s eyes are raw and grayer than they normally are, cement and stone. “I did,” he repeats. “Every minute. Everything I did was for you. I thought...if I woke you up, I wouldn’t have been strong enough to go away. And then my dad...he could have hurt you. Bad. He would have hurt you bad if he’d been messed up. And I couldn’t live myself if I had decided to stay just so that I could kiss you and that would have been so selfish. So I had to...I had to go. I had to let you go so that you would be safe and so that you could be happy. And...I couldn’t have told you goodbye. I’m not that strong of a person. And I couldn’t call. How could I do that to you? How could I force you to keep clinging to this when if I just blew out of your life like...like dandelion seeds, you know? If I had just…” Daryl holds up his fist and then opens it. “...poof. Gone. Then you could get over it and you could find someone else and be happy and I so wanted you to just be happy, Rick. That’s all that matters to me.”

“It’s all that matters to me, too,” Rick says. “I mean, you being happy. And I knew that you weren’t. You gave up everything, didn’t you? What was your plan? You wouldn’t have graduated this year, you might not have got into college, you would have lost track. Everything.”

You’re my everything,” Daryl says. “All of that other stuff, I want it. I do, Rick. I want it so bad. But...you’re more important. You’re the trump. You win over everything else.”

Rick shakes his head and then he looks away from Daryl. He tries to hold everything back, but one lonely sob gets through. “I missed you,” Rick says. “It killed me to know that you got into college and that you might not go. It just...it hurt me so bad to think that you were giving your life away.”

Daryl wraps him up, pulling Rick into his chest. “I’m so sorry for hurting you, Rick. It’s the worst feeling in the world. I wanted to do what was best and...I should have called. I didn’t realize. I thought that surely--”

“Stop it,” Rick says. “Stop acting like you’re not worth it. Like I wouldn’t wait for you. Like you’re not good enough for college or for any of it. Just stop it. You’re the smartest guy I know. You’re the bravest. You’re the best person I have ever met and you deserve people to wait for you and I would have waited.” He looks at Daryl. “I would have waited. All the way until you turned eighteen. And even past that, too. Forever. I would have just waited for you. Because there’s no one else but you.”

Daryl holds him harder, crushing Rick to him and then he kisses his head. “I’m sorry,” he says again and Rick shakes his head.

“I know. I...just kiss me. Okay? Just kiss me and never leave me again.”

Daryl nods and tilts Rick’s chin up and then he kisses him with such fierce determination that Rick mouth will probably be bruised and sore later, but it doesn’t matter. Because Daryl’s tongue is in his mouth, rough and probing and his lips are right there and Rick opens his eyes just briefly to see Daryl’s brow knotted in fierce resolve. But Daryl’s hand on Rick’s neck is feather light, his embrace is maddeningly careful, and Rick feels the cold, hard pit in his stomach that has been there ever since he opened the guestroom door melt under Daryl’s touch, like ice in the sunlight. He pushes Daryl back onto the bed again, slowly, and he takes over the kiss, softening it until Daryl is whimpering for him. Rick settles between his legs and presses his body back to Daryl’s again and they lay there, kissing and touching and it’s good, it’s so good.

Daryl reaches for the nightstand in a parody of what Rick did that first night and he hands Rick the bottle. Rick takes it and blinks at it several times before he says, “You’ll be here in the morning. I know you will. Just...tell me. Say it.”

Daryl nods and leans up, kisses his temple. “I’ll be here, Rick. I will. I’ll be here in the morning.”

Rick nods and then he opens the bottle, squeezes a little on his hand, and reaches down, slides one finger into Daryl so slowly because he couldn’t bear to accidentally hurt him. Daryl puts one hand on Rick’s bicep and squeezes and then he’s whispering for Rick to kiss him and of course Rick will. He leans down and he runs his tongue over Daryl’s bottom lip before sealing his mouth to Daryl’s. Daryl puts one hand on his chest and runs a thumb over Rick’s nipple and Rick’s cock twitches in anticipation of what’s about to happen. He works his finger inside Daryl and then adds another and Daryl moans and so Rick kisses harder and moves his fingers faster, spreading them slowly apart and making damn sure that Daryl is ready before anything happens.

Daryl arches into Rick and whispers, “Now, Rick. Now. Fuck me.” And Rick can’t ignore the raspiness of his voice, the deep sexual desire that is there. He kisses Daryl’s jaw and bites down on it gingerly, but runs his teeth over the skin. He positions himself a little awkwardly at first, but he finds the right angle, and then he’s pushing in and Daryl’s gasping out Rick’s name and that is so sexy that Rick twitches within him and that is so sexy that he has to push forward and then that just makes Daryl gasp louder and oh my god, how will Rick make it?

Daryl grabs the back of Rick’s head and pulls his mouth down to kiss it and Rick moans loudly as he moves within Daryl. Daryl wraps his legs around Rick’s waist and Rick gasps out Daryl’s name against his lips. Daryl smiles at him and then moves his head, puts his lips right at the junction of Rick’s neck and his jaw. “Fuck me,” Daryl whispers into his skin and Rick bucks forward and Daryl rocks back and then they are in a rhythm, one that Rick never knew could be so good and so right and so goddamn sexy.

He pushes into Daryl, who rocks back and then he pulls out of him almost all the way and then pushes back in and Rick is fascinated by the sounds Daryl makes, the sigh as Rick is fully within him, the whimper as he’s going out. He listens intently to all of Daryl’s noises, cataloguing them and sealing them off in his mind. And then Daryl shifts just the tiniest bit and Rick thrusts at just the smallest of a different angle and then Daryl is crying out, his mouth falling open in pleasure and Rick is so caught up in watching Daryl’s eyes go crossed and the digging in of his nails on Rick’s back that he has to do it again and my god, Rick thinks, he has made Daryl this way, his back bowed toward Rick and his cock jumping for attention.

Rick gives him what he needs. He reaches between them and wraps his arms around Daryl and Daryl gasps out that he can’t hold out much longer. So Rick kisses him thoroughly and on a downward swing when he’s almost all of the way out, he gathers all of his courage and puts on his most badass, most sexy face. He looks down at Daryl and he whispers against his lips, “Then come for me, baby,” and then he thrusts forward hard into Daryl like he would want Daryl to do if they were reversed. He hits that right spot and Daryl goes as tense as a board, arching into Rick and his muscles squeeze around Rick’s cock which is too much so Rick has to try and get just that extra inch more into him and then Daryl is coming, spilling between them onto their stomachs and Rick’s hand and Rick gasps out Daryl’s name again and again and he realizes he doesn’t need to thrust anymore. He just needs to take one more look at Daryl and that does it for him and he’s finishing inside and that is so fucking hot.

Daryl clings to him and lets him ride it all out and then they lay like that for what feels like hours later before Rick has to pull out and lay to the side of him. Rick rolls himself into Daryl, burying his head in Daryl’s chest and Daryl holds him so close and so tight that Rick feels like he’s in a cocoon and that’s so good. It’s so nice to be held again, to have Daryl’s side of the bed full instead of empty and cold. Emotion swirls within Rick’s mind and he lets it all in--all the sadness of missing him, all the happiness of having him back. He focuses on his breathing, in and out, in and out, and then Daryl whispers to him that it’s okay. He can let it all out if he needs to and so Rick does because Daryl knows him so well and he missed him so much and he has him now and Daryl loves him and he is Daryl’s everything. He is Daryl’s Rick. Daryl’s Rick. And he’s never going to be anything else.

***

They nap and when Rick wakes up, Daryl is right there, all curled up next to him like he normally is and Rick breathes a heavy sigh of relief, his entire body releasing its tension--his muscles sagging, his nerves stopping their shivering and his heart returning to its normal beat. He nuzzles under Daryl’s chin and he sighs happily and then he nearly weeps in happiness when he hears “Rick?” in that soft, sleep voice.

He mumbles, “Hmm?”

Daryl nuzzles back at him. “Could we...could we get up and could you show me the acceptance? I believe you that I got in, but I...I want to see it. Can we?”

Rick nods, but he doesn’t move. “Yeah, in a minute. Just...I want to lay here with you for just a little bit more. And then I will show you you got into college. I will. But for now…” Rick runs his hand over Daryl’s skin. “I just want to be sure you’re here. I just want to touch you. Is that okay?”

Daryl smiles and kisses his head and hugs him up so tight that Rick is glad he’s not claustrophobic. They lay in bed, their limbs all tangled together and their chests pressed up next to one another, Rick’s head nestled right under Daryl’s chin. Daryl rubs small circles across Rick’s back and it’s so soothing and just so comforting that Rick almost goes back to sleep. But he wants to show Daryl the acceptance as much as Daryl wants to see it, so he stands up and stretches and goes into the bathroom to clean himself up because his parents will be home in not too long.

They end up taking a shower together and Rick is just fascinated with rubbing soap across Daryl’s body and with the shampoo sculptures he can make out of Daryl’s sudsed-up hair. Daryl slaps at him playfully and tries to look annoyed, but can’t manage anything but doe-eyed and smiley and so Rick kisses him and Daryl kisses back. And then later they have to soap up again because Rick got them dirty.

But they finally make it out of the shower and clothed by six-thirty and Rick walks into his room and pulls the letters out of his desk drawer. He hands Daryl his and they sit on the bed and read them again. Daryl holds the paper like it’s going to fall into dust any second now, his eyes wide as he scans across it, his lower lip caught between his teeth. He thumbs the top right corner of the letter, the part that’s wrinkled from getting wet and even though Rick doesn’t tell him why it is, he knows that Daryl can figure it out.

Daryl looks up at him and swallows hard. Rick watches his Adam’s apple bob and then Daryl opens his mouth, closes it, and then clears his throat like there is something stuck in it that he can’t quite get down. “It says...it says I got in,” he tells Rick and the disbelief in his voice is as thick as molasses.

“Yeah, baby,” Rick says and reaches for him. He grabs one of Daryl’s hands and holds it. Daryl lets him, but his eyes are just on the paper, reading it again like the words will change this time.

“I got in,” Daryl says again. “And it says...full tuition waiver. What is...that means they’ll pay for it?”

Rick nods. “It’s a scholarship. For your ACT. And your GPA, which is, oh my god, Daryl Dixon, a 3.46 and from the way you talk, I was expecting it to be, like, a two.”

Daryl blushes. “I thought that was bad, though. I mean, it’s not a 4.0.”

Rick rolls his eyes. “It’s good, baby. It’s great. They gave you a scholarship. You can go to school and have it all paid. And if we can call that scout, then hopefully you can get a second scholarship to cover all the dorm costs and things.”

Daryl blinks and then he nods. “I hadn’t...I guess I don’t know what all it costs to go to school. Is there other stuff that I’m going to have to pay for?”

Rick shakes his head. “No, that’s it, mostly. There might be a couple of small fees and things, but we can cover it. I’m sure my parents wouldn’t mind helping you with small stuff and there’s always loans and jobs and things and it’ll be fine. You’re in.”

“But…,” Daryl says and then he pulls his hand away from Rick’s. He looks at the paper again and frowns. “There’s something, Rick. I mean, there’s got to be something. There’s always something that means I…” He swallows hard. “I can’t.”

Rick furrows his brow. “What do you mean?”

“I mean there’s something,” Daryl says and looks up at him quickly before glancing away. “There’s some kind of cost or some kind of requirement or something. I can’t have this. How am I good enough for this? I’m just some kid from the sticks.”

“Why do you say that?” Rick says and slides up next to him, putting his hand on Daryl’s arm. “Why do you believe that?”

Daryl shrugs. “Because...because no one else has ever told me otherwise,” he says quietly.

“I am,” Rick says and squeezes his arm. “I’m telling you right now. This is yours, Daryl. Your college acceptance letter. Your opportunity. All yours. You have it.”

Daryl shakes his head softly. “What if I don’t?” he says and stares at the paper again. “What if I get my hopes up and then tomorrow I don’t?”

Rick puts his head on Daryl’s shoulder. “You were meant for this, baby. You’re smarter than I am, Daryl. I mean, I’m not even joking. You're like a genius or something. College will be such a breeze for you. And you deserve it. After everything you’ve gone through, you do. And this letter says you’re in. It’s done. You’re accepted. And that scholarship is yours. Okay? So be happy about it.”

Daryl nods and then reads the letter again. He takes a deep breath. “Okay,” he says and nods to himself. “I’m going to...okay.” He takes another deep breath and Rick watches as he steels himself up. “I got in. I got in and I’m going to be happy about it because I got in. And the college isn’t going to take it away or anything.” He blinks rapidly at the paper. “I’m going to college,” he says in an unsure voice and then repeats it, more solid the second time. “I’m going to college. I’m going to, like, go to classes and things. And I’m going to get a dorm room with you. And...and...I don’t know what kids do at college, but I’m going to do that stuff.” He nods to himself. “And I’m going to have opportunity. And a better life. I’m not going to be like my dad. And I’m not going to be Merle and I’m not going to go to jail for possession or a B&E or any of that stuff. And I’m not going to drink myself silly at night just because I hate my own kids. I’m not going to do any of that stuff. I’m going to go. To North Georgia. With you. And I’m going to get a degree. In...hell, I don’t know, but something. Something. And I’m going to have a good life.”

Rick nods. “Yeah,” he says, “of course you will.”

Daryl sets the piece of paper down on the bed gingerly and it’s only then that Rick notices he’s shaking. He takes Daryl’s hands in his and he pulls Daryl toward him and Daryl collapses against him. “Hey,” Rick says, “hey, it’s okay. It’s really all true. Alright? You’re going. I promise you you’re going.”

Daryl nods rapidly against Rick’s neck and Rick just holds him and if he feels a wet spot there against his shoulder, he doesn’t say anything as Daryl shakes it all out and clings to Rick.

***

Rick’s parents get home shortly after that and they have a family dinner the four of them, which Rick thinks is just spectacular because every time he’s eaten with his parents in the last week, there’s been a spot missing, a void in the four-chair dining room that wasn’t there before Daryl moved into Rick’s life. His parents talk about how happy they are that Daryl’s back and they ask Rick and Daryl all kinds of questions about college--what do they want to major in, what classes do they want to take, will Daryl be on the college track team? Rick tells his parents that he wants to be a criminal justice major, obviously, because he wants to be on the force someday. His dad says that’s smart, since there are so many recruits they’re hiring and it helps substantially to have a degree, especially if Rick wants to be sheriff one day or if he wants to move into homicide detective or wants to go for broke and try to get into the FBI or one of the other big organizations.

His parents ask Daryl if he knows what he wants to do and Daryl mumbles that he’s still working it out, but they talk about the things that Daryl likes and might want to make into a career--things like geometry and building things, problem solving real world shapes and angles and contours. Daryl talks about how when he was little he always used to like playing with Legos and now that he’s older, he likes things like model cars, stuff you can put together. He tells Rick’s parents that he likes the names of shapes, too, things like ellipse, quatrefoil, nonagon. Rick’s dad says “engineer” and Daryl kind of latches onto that, asks questions about what Rick’s parents know about engineers.

Later, Daryl leafs through the course catalog, reading the descriptions of classes, things like Mechanical Systems for Buildings, Designs of Masonry Structures, Engineering Geology. He drives Rick to the computer and they spend part of the evening looking at the differences in engineering degrees and checking out what North Georgia has to offer. They compare chemical engineering to architectural engineering to engineering physics and Rick doesn’t understand any of the terminology and Daryl doesn’t really either, but he gets it a little better than Rick since he’s into all the science stuff. They go a little crosseyed examining terminology like interdisciplinary and sustainability, so they shut the computer down after a while and turn to other things.

Daryl takes a good chunk of what is left of the day to pour himself into his Trig homework. He tells Rick that if he can hand in all the homework on Monday, that Mrs. Patricia might let him skip out on that part of the after school program, since she knows he’s got it all down anyway. He tries to get through all of it, and despite the fact that he’s lightning fast as Trig problems, he only makes it halfway there, partly because it’s a ton of work he’s missed and partly because he keeps getting distracted when Rick keeps kissing him.

But that Saturday night is good. It’s grand, the best that Rick has had in awhile. They stay up later and they watch South Park after Rick pulls Daryl away from Trig and it’s the same as the first night that Daryl spent in his room--Daryl falling asleep on his shoulder, Rick shutting down the laptop and the light. He knows that his mom said separate rooms, but she also said they would talk about it tomorrow, so Rick figures that if she presses the issue, he’ll just pretend to be innocent and hopefully get away with it.

He snuggles down into Daryl and he sighs happily, content and hopeful for their future.

***

Sunday morning, Rick, Daryl and his parents do have the talk and Rick groans through all of it. It’s mostly what you would expect--if you live under our roof, you have to be respectful; you have to sleep in separate rooms because we wouldn’t let a girl sleep in your room if you were straight, Rick, and you know that; Daryl, you’ll have to pitch in on the chores if you’re living here; you have to be safe boys and your father is going to talk to you about sexual safety--Rick really hated that last part.

But by Sunday afternoon, everything has calmed down. After lunch, Daryl has his first chore duty in the house--taking out the garbage--and Rick goes with him because he can’t stand to be without him for a second. They drop the garbage bag off in the larger container out by the driveway and Daryl shuts the lid and as he turns around, he pauses and frowns, looking down the street. Rick follows his line of sight. Sitting several houses down--and now ducking behind the Peterson’s fence and trying to act like they don’t see him--is Merle.

Daryl sets his mouth in that line that Rick hates so much, the one that’s not a frown or a smile, just...there. “M’brother,” he tells Rick and Rick nods. His blood goes cold at the thought of Daryl walking over there alone, at the thought that he might walk over there and not come back. He wants to tell Daryl that he’s going with him if Daryl decides to talk to Merle, but he knows he can’t babysit Daryl every moment of every day and he probably wants to have a conversation alone with his brother.

But lucky for Rick, he doesn’t have to ask. Daryl reaches over and threads his fingers in Rick’s hand. “Coming with me?” he asks and Rick nods vigorously.

They set off down the street, Daryl a little ahead of Rick and pulling him along. Merle sees them coming and walks out from behind the fence. He sighs and leans against the hood of his banged-up old truck, his head down and his feet scuffing the pavement. As Rick and Daryl get closer, Merle looks up, that characteristic shit-eating grin on his face. “Well, hey, baby brother. Fancy finding you in this upscale neighborhood.” He looks at Rick. “Hey, little piggy,” he says.

Rick frowns, but Daryl squeezes his hand. “Hey, Merle,” he says.

Merle grunts at their joined hands. “Don’t have to be a showoff about it,” he says to Daryl, nodding at them.

Daryl lifts his chin definately. “Could be in other ways. Could kiss him.”

“No thanks,” Merle says and scoffs. He spits off to the side and Rick is reminded of their father.

“What are you doing here, Merle?” Daryl asks him.

Merle shrugs and looks off at a neighbor's house, rather than at Daryl. “Checkin’ in on ya.”

“How’d you know where I was?” Daryl asks.

Merle rolls his eyes. “Now, there you go. Underestimated your good old brother. I got eyes, you know. And I’m not as dumb as all them coppers think I am. I know where you are. Knew where you were yesterday and last week, too. Damn social workers think they can hide you from me and Dad, but I know better. I got the system worked out real well, so it wasn’t too hard to find you.” Merle shrugs and then mutters. “Just wanted to make sure the damn liberals were taking care of ya, that’s all.”

Daryl shrugs awkwardly and then slowly drops Rick’s hand, but stays standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him. “I’m sorry, Merle,” he says.

Merle shakes his head. “Nah, you ain’t. I know you ain’t. And look, I...I think it was wrong, Daryl. I do. I don’t think you should have went to the damn pigs. I didn’t raise no yellow-bellied narq. But I…” Merle wipes at his chin and then shrugs. “Guess you were right about some shit, though. I don’t know you and I guess I haven’t in awhile. And I don’t know what dad did to ya. I mean, I can imagine it pretty well, but I don’t know. And you’re not me, so...so whatever. You did what you had to, I guess.”

Daryl nods slowly. “So...you’re checking in on me.”

Merle shrugs. “Yeah. Guess so.”

“Why didn’t you just knock on the front door?” Daryl asks.

Merle snorts. “Shit,” he says, “I’m not going to go ringing any copper’s door, no I’m not. I got better sense than that. And, well,” he shrugs, “guess I didn’t know what to say to you, either.”

Daryl bites his lip and looks off. And then he takes a deep breath, so big it might as well be Mount Rushmore, Rick thinks. And he says to his brother, “I’m going to college.”

Merle blinks at him. “What?”

“I’m going to college,” Daryl says again.

Merle snorts. “College,” he repeats. “What, Officer Grimes giving out handouts now?”

“No,” Daryl says, “he’s not.”

“Boy,” Merle tells him, “you cannot afford college.”

Daryl stands taller, defensive. “I got a scholarship. Cause of good grades and shit. So they’re going to pay for it for me.”

Merle narrows his eyes and looks at him. “You sure that shit’s not a trick? Like them phony girls on the Internet that say they’ll show you their tits and turn out to be whatcha call it, viruses or some kind of fuck?”

Daryl rolls his eyes. “I’m sure, Merle. I’m going to North Georgia, with Rick. His name is Rick.”

Merle nods slowly. “Rick,” he says, spitting out the name like it’s poison. “Daryl and Rick. Darylena and Rickianne.”

“Don’t be an ass,” Daryl says and Merle sighs hard and shrugs.

“It ain’t easy for me, okay, Daryl?” Merle says and grinds his teeth. “I want to beat the pulp out of Rick’s--,” He looks at Rick, “--little pissant face for doing this to ya. But...I guess he ain’t done it to ya and I know that, so…” Merle shrugs hard and then slaps his hand down on the hood of his truck. “I am happy for you,” he bites out. Daryl blinks. “That’s what you told me to say. If I want to be your brother and all. And so I’m saying it. I am happy for you and Rick and if you wanna go to college and all that bullshit, then okay. Good for you, I guess. I just want to make sure my little brother is okay. So...are you okay?”

Daryl blinks and looks back at Rick’s house and then at Rick, at Merle. He nods and he smiles at Rick slowly, taking his hand again and threading his fingers in it. “I am,” he tells his brother and Merle nods.

“Alright, then. Good. I’m gonna go back to the house, then, but you got the number if you need anything.”

Daryl nods. “Yeah. I got it. And thanks, Merle. I mean it. Thank you for saying it.”

Merle nods and shrugs, his jaw set. “Like I said, I don’t like it. But you’re kin. And no matter what dumb decisions you might make in your life, you’re always going to be my little brother.”

Daryl smiles. “Merle, I didn’t know you were a sweetheart,” he says and then Merle is crashing into the driver’s side of his truck and cranking the engine, giving Daryl a good-natured glare and Rick is kind of blindsided in that moment, because this is what they look like when they’re being normal. Daryl leaves Rick’s side for a moment and he walks to the open window of the driver’s side door. He claps Merle on the shoulder and says, “You’ll always be my brother, too. You take care of yourself, okay?”

Merle nods and tells Daryl the same and then he pulls the truck forward so that it’s right up next to Rick. “You hurt my brother, I will break all your bones and feed them to the crows,” he says, his frown deep and set. Rick doesn’t feel what he felt when Daryl’s dad threatened him--the sheer honest force of it. Instead all he feels is familial love, Merle protecting something important to him. So Rick nods fiercely and he holds out his hand for Daryl, who steps up next to his side easily and molds himself to him.

“Your brother is the most important thing to me, ever,” Rick says and hopes Merle believes it.

Merle just nods at them and then he leans back in his seat and drives his truck away. Rick turns to Daryl. “That went better than I thought,” he says.

Daryl shrugs. “Yeah,” he says, “me, too.” He leans his forehead against the side of Rick’s head and sighs into his hair. “I love you,” he says, like it’s a novelty to say it. Rick blinks and then grins. He says it back and the two of them walk to the house, hand in hand.

***

The only good thing about Mondays, Rick decides, is that he gets to spend the whole day with Daryl. He wakes up as usual at five in the morning and Daryl rolls out of bed to go the guestroom. Rick slides into the warm spot and sighs happily. When they get up an hour later, they both make a show of banging their separate doors open and grumbling to Rick’s mom about how hard it was to sleep apart. She gives them a look that says she knows better, but sends them on their way.

Rick drives the car, which is good, because it means that he can pull off to the side a block from school and kiss the ever loving bejesus out of Daryl for the ten minutes they have before they have to go park. And then they have first period together and they gaze longingly at each other as they split up for second, but are back together in third and it’s glorious.

Lunch comes around Rick sits down with his friends and goes into gossiping about the news of the weeknd. Most of the juicy gossip has already come out from texts, calls, and the morning hangout that Rick was only a part of for about two seconds filled with “oh my god, Daryl’s back!” before they had to rush to class, late from the bigass hug that Andrea gave both Rick and Daryl and the “happy for you, bros,” from Shane.

But they haven’t got into all the details yet, so at lunch, Rick tells his friends about his parents getting Daryl and fostering him and Daryl coming back to the house and how they’re together again. Rick’s friends ohh and aww and gasp at just the right times and they all gather around Rickyl--as Andrea has now stated is a thing, oh my god you can’t stop it--and congratulate them on their togetherness and college and the whole lot of it.

Daryl slips his arm around Rick’s shoulders and Rick reaches up to take his hand and it’s just blindingly perfect. They listen to Andrea gossip about how Michonne dared her to steal a road construction cone and Carol shakes her head. Andrea says she didn’t because community service, but now Michonne won’t stop calling her a pussy and about how Maggie and Glenn got caught this weekend by Maggie’s dad and that means that the purity ring thing is totally off and about how T-Dog asked Lori out and Shane is pissed about it.

By the third round of “that fucker knew I liked her” from Shane, the group has noticed that Rick and Daryl aren’t really paying attention to any of the gossip and are instead feeding each other fries from their lunch trays. And then Andrea throws a napkin at Daryl’s head and the food fight is on like donkey kong and one of the teachers has to come break all of them up.

And then the afternoon passes in a blur of Rick and Daryl passing notes in class. But now, instead of solely gossiping about Mr. Greene’s hair, there are now little phrases stuck in there like I love you and can’t wait to go home and oh my god, I am so ready for college to start and little bitty heart and star drawings with Rick and Daryl 4ever in the middle, courtesy of Rick.

When the last bell for school has rung, they hop in the car and Rick pulls out his cellphone and Daryl takes out the Tracfone Rick gave him, a temporary measure as Rick’s parents said they would put Daryl on their plan and get him a proper phone that weekend. They call North Georgia and accept their admittance and scholarships and then Daryl calls the scout, who says that of course he will recommend Daryl and he knows that the North Georgia coach is looking for someone just like him.

Afterwards, Rick drives them to the Macy’s, only instead of hanging out in the parking lot, they go in this time, and they hit up the home section, letting their fingers run over bedding they might want for their dorm room, kitchen supplies that can be used in a microwave, and rugs and curtains and little decorative things that they can both agree on. They see a cool stereo set and then they start arguing about music and it moves into posters--Daryl refusing to have Taylor Swift anywhere near the room where he sleeps.

And then somewhere between the coffee makers and the towel value packs, one of them kisses the other one and Rick isn’t sure how it starts, but that doesn’t really matter. Because Daryl’s hands in his hair are soft and tangled, his lips are warm and firm, and his body is pressed to Rick’s in just the right way that makes Rick think about energy and balanced equations, sun and the calming of storms and then other things like parks and math and shorts and scholarships and running and frappucinos and dancing and Netflix and hoodies. And Daryl.