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Give Me Reason

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He stared at the naked form beside him. He watched the rise and fall of her chest. Her round breasts down to her delicate naval. And he felt sick. To his stomach. To his core, to his very being. It was their anniversary. She'd gotten tipsy from the champagne and asked him to make love to her. Her sweet eyes, her sweet voice. How long had it been? Six months? No, longer, he was sure. He felt bad, felt obligated. She'd excused herself first, wanted to make a show of it, slipping into some special lingerie she bought for the occasion. Like some plan. And Rick had slipped into the bathroom and quickly swallowed one of the little blue pills he hid in his vitamin bottle.

She just didn't do it for him anymore. He wondered if she ever did? When he closed his eyes and moved against her, did he always imagine a flat chest, thick arms, strong jaw, large hands… he rubbed his face, eyes, hair. He felt sick. Really sick.

One last look and he slowly got out of the bed. He pulled on a pair of sweat pants and headed out to the living room. He sunk down on the couch and leaned back. This was wrong. This was so wrong! He dated her back when he was trying to pretend. They were both so young and naïve. And she said she loved him. No one had said that to him. And when she got pregnant, he asked her to marry him.

That's just what you did. And it was proof that he could do it. He could… be normal… he could be… straight. Marry a woman, have kids, get a manly job. Be a man. He had to be a man.

And she said she loved him. He thought he'd learn to love her. 12 years later and he was disgusted with himself. He just… he couldn't do this to her anymore. He shouldn't do this to her anymore. She deserved more, better. She deserved to find someone who really loved her. All of her and no just her willingness to say yes.

And him… well he deserved to die alone for being such an asshole. He was an awful, terrible, horrible person. And he had to tell his wife and son and parents and best friend and everyone that he wanted a divorce… because he… he was gay. And if he had to have sex with his wife again, he was going to shoot himself with his gun.

Okay, that was a little dramatic. But still, the idea of her made him sick. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He sat there, staring at the ceiling and reliving his life with her in his head. He wasn't for sure how long. And he didn't mean to. But at some point, he fell asleep.

It was a few hours later when a voice roused him. "Dad?" The kid said softly. He leaned over the back of the couch and poked the sleeping man in the shoulder.

Rick opened his eyes slowly. He yawned and stretched. "Morning, Carl. Must have... fallen asleep." He said slowly. He leaned forward lightly, leaning on his knees. He felt exhausted.

Carl leaned in closer and his voice dropped. "Did you... have a fight... again?" He asked slowly.

"No we didn't." He said automatically. That was always his answer. No, they didn't have a fight. No, he didn't sleep on the couch. No, he didn't work late on purpose to avoid her. No, she didn't go to her sister's place upstate to avoid him. Everything was okay. Everything was always okay.

Carl stepped around the couch and sat down beside him. "You can stop lying to me." Carl said softly. "I'm old enough to understand. Most of my friend's parents... are divorced."

Rick wanted to lie. He wanted to adamantly deny it and assure Carl that he loved Lori. That he always did and always would. And that they were one big, happy family. But he let out a sigh and put his arm around Carl. He pulled the kid against him and planted a kiss on his head.

"Ah! Dad!" Carl squirmed and pushed him away.

Rick smiled, watching him. Then he grew serious and leaned in closer. "Whatever happens, know I love you. Everything I've done, it's always been for you." He said. "Always."

Carl nodded quickly. "I know, dad. I never listen to the stuff mom says. I know you care."

Rick fought back the urge to glare at that. He remembered that fight, were Lori had implied in front of Carl that Rick didn't care about either of them at all. It was the furthest thing from the truth. That whole argument had escalated when Lori demanded he talk, yell, scream at him or call her names or something. But Rick had been tired of fighting and ignored her.

"Is it... is it all my fault?" Carl asked, rousing him from his thoughts.

"No, no!" Rick said quickly, shaking his head. "Our fighting has nothing to do with you. It isn't your fault."

Carl looked down at his lap. "Not that... I mean... everything." He said softly. "You got married because of me."

Rick let out a sigh. He should lie. Of course not! We were in love! But the way Carl was looking at him, he already knew the truth. Damn smart kid. Finally, Rick nodded. "Fine. You want the truth?" He asked softly. "Yes, we got married when she got pregnant. I thought... I thought I'd grow to love her. But Carl..." He turned to Carl. "I've never regretted anything about my life... uh... well not about you." He corrected quickly. "You were the greatest mistake of my life."

"But you married someone you didn't love!" Carl said sourly. "And you're miserable! You guys fight all the time and mom's always mad and she says these awful things about you and you... you're always sad... you could have married someone you loved and been happy."

Rick leaned back on the couch and shook his head. "No. I could never marry who I wanted to." He said with a sigh.

Carl looked at him and his eyes widened. "Who did you want to marry?"

Rick shook his head again. "No one. Just... in general."

"What's that mean?"

Rick blinked and hugged Carl close again. "Nothing. Don't worry about me. Every, alright? No matter what anyone says about me. I'm your dad and that'll never change. I'll never stop being your dad and I'll never stop loving you."

"Dad, what're you..."

"Shh!" Rick hissed as he heard a door open deeper in the house.

"Tell mom." Carl whispered. He jumped up and dashed off.

"Carl!" Lori yelled as the kid squeezed past her.

Rick let out a sigh as he stood up. He slowly turned around towards her.

Lori came down the hall towards him. She frowned a bit when she saw him. "You're up early."

"We need to talk."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

She yelled. She cried. She yelled some more. And she cried some more. And then she slapped him. Hard. And then she packed a bag and left to stay with her sister. And she drug Carl with her, though the kid didn't want to go.

"Just go." Rick had said with a sigh, hugging him close. "School starts back up in a couple weeks. You'll have to be back by then. It's too late to transfer."

"I want to stay with you." Carl whined. "I don't like what she says about you."

Rick sighed and hugged him tighter. "Don't worry. I'll call my lawyer first thing in the morning and file for joint custody as soon as I can."

"She won't let you!"

Rick laughed softly. "She can't stop me."

"But what if she wins?"

Rick smiled and smacked him lightly on the back of the head as he released him and pulled away. "Stop being so dramatic. If that happens, it'll work out. When you turn 13, you'll be old enough to choose."

Carl whined loudly. "That's like a year away! It'll be forever!"

Rick let out a sigh and pushed the kid towards the door. "Just go."

Carl gone, Rick told his parents next. And they'd yelled. He told Shane and the next day his best friend had filed for transfer. The word divorce and gay and suddenly he was a pariah. Rick felt more alone than he had ever in his whole life. And it sucked.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

"Dad!" Carl said urgently as soon as he answered the phone.

"Carl?" Rick sat up, suddenly alert. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." The kid answered quickly. "It's mom."

Rick sighed and leaned back against the couch again. He'd been watching TV when Carl called. "What'd she do now?" Nearly two months of bickering and squabbling over phones and through lawyers and he was really tired of it. He was starting to wish he'd never said anything in the first place. Being married to Lori was looking better than being divorced from her.

"I overheard her talking to someone on the phone..." Carl said quickly. "About an abortion." He added in a whisper.

Rick stopped breathing. Abortion? Lori? She was pregnant? How far along was she? If he was the father... Rick had always wanted another kid. A few years ago, they had tried. Really hard. But Lori hadn't gotten pregnant and Rick was certain it was some cosmic joke against him for imagining his wife with less up front and more downstairs.

"She's pregnant!" Carl snapped. "Dad, you have to stop her!"

Rick nodded. "I'll leave now. I'll be there in an hour." He didn't spare a second thought. He just jumped in his car and hit the gas. He probably broke a few speed limits to get there. Scratch that. He definitely broke a few laws to get there but he was soon knocking on her door. Loudly.

Lori's sister answered the door and her eyes widened. "Rick... what are you..."

"Where is she?" Rick interrupted her.

She shook her head and started closing the door. "She doesn't want to see you."

"I don't care." Rick said loudly, stopping her. "Where is she? Lori?"

"Rick?" Her surprised voice wasn't too far away.

He pushed through the door and headed towards Lori. "You're pregnant?" He asked loudly.

Her eyes widened. "How'd you find out?"

"It's true then?"

She looked away, hesitating for a moment, and then the nodded.

"Mine?" He asked softer.

She looked at him and glared. "Of course!" She snapped.

Rick sighed and shook his head sadly. "Were you ever gonna tell me?" She didn't answer. Instead, she looked away again. "Lori! How could you do that?"

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I can't do this, Rick." She breathed out softly.

"Do what?"

"I can't raise another one of your kids. I can't look at its face every day and see you and feel this hurt again. I'd be reminded a hundred times a day."

"It's a baby, Lori." He took a step towards her. "That we created together no matter the pretense or current circumstance."

She shook her head. "I don't want to have your kid. Again."

"Then give it to me, Lori. Please!"

"You?" Her sister snapped from behind him.

Rick ignored the sister and took another slow step towards Lori. "Whatever you want, Lori." He said softly. "Take the house, take the car, alimony, I'll move to the next county, whatever. You don't have to do anything with it after it's born, I swear! Just please!" He begged. "Let me have the baby."

Lori looked at the ground. "I don't have to know it?" She asked softly.

Rick shook his head. "Unless you change your mind."

She shook her head quickly. "No, no."

Rick nodded, suddenly too nervous to breath.

Lori turned for a moment, thinking.

"Please, mom."

They all turned as Carl appeared on the hall steps.

Lori's eyes widened. "Carl..."

"I used to ask for a baby brother for Christmas every year."

She smiled. "I remember that." She was silent for a moment more. Finally, she nodded. But she turned a glare towards Rick. "Not for you. I'm going it for Carl."

"I'm fine with that." Rick said quickly with a nod.

Carl ran forward and threw his arms around Lori, hugging her waist tightly. "Thanks, mom!"

Chapter Text

He was divorced. Finally! A free man. After more than a decade pretending, he was totally free and clear to really be himself for the first time in his life. He just didn't know who he was. Without Lori. She'd been such a big part of his life for more than half his life. He'd gone to school with her and they'd been high school sweethearts. He knew what the end result of the divorce would be. But he just didn't think about what it would mean once it was done with. In the end, Shane had still transferred to another precinct. Lori had sold the house and moved to the edge of the county, as far from him as she could that still allowed Carl to go to the same school. Rick ended up moving, renting a house still in the county so he could keep his job. Carl spent most weekends with him. But it was still different not seeing him every day.

He stared down at the half empty beer bottle in front of him. He blinked at it. And the three empty ones sitting behind it. Had he drunk that much already? He was having trouble remembering. Which meant yes, he'd drunk them. And that was probably enough. He leaned heavily on the counter.

"Rick, go home."

Rick looked up at the bartender. He blinked a few more times. He didn't know this man. How the hell did he… Rick shook his head. Of course he knew him. He'd broken up bar fights probably a million times. Lack of uniform didn't make him invisible. Why the fuck did he come to a local bar? He should of gone drinking a county over. Somewhere where no one knew him. "Nah. I'm fine." His voice slurred a bit. "I'm celebrating." He said sourly, putting the bottle down loudly on the counter.

"Celebrating what?"

Someone sat down on the stool beside Rick. A gravelly voice ordered a drink and the bartender moved to fetch it.

"Divorce is final today." Rick went on, glaring at the bottle. He brought it to his lips and took a drink. "We were together like…" He couldn't think. "Like a long time. A long time." He repeated. "Shouldn't have married her." He went on. "Had to. Mom and dad were worried back then. Thought I was in love with Shane. Didn't wanna lil' faggot son." Rick picked at the label on the bottle. "Marrying a girl don't make ya straight. Just makes ya a liar. A miserable liar. She hates me now. But can you really blame her?"

Rick turned slightly on his stool. He stared at the arm resting on the bar beside him. Stared at the rough fingers clasped around the beer bottle. The sparse hair, the strong muscle tone. There was a black brown smudge or streak of something on the bicep. Grease or oil or something toxic. Rick knew he shouldn't want to lick it off. "Wow." He breathed out.

The man belonging to that arm looked over at him.

Rick looked up, following the man's neck, his jaw, the bit of stubble on his chin, the tiny mark above his lip, the slightly too long to really be called short messy dark blond or brown hair… the stormy gray eyes. This man was hot. In a dangerous, lethal, all-consuming sort of way.

The man's lips pulled back in a sneer. "Da fuck ya staring at, asshole?" He practically spat.

That should have been warning enough for Rick. But Rick's head wasn't working right. "You're pretty." His mouth wasn't working right either.

The man's eyes darkened and he pulled his lips tight. He turned his head forward again and took another swig of his beer.

Rick's mind caught up with his mouth. "I said that out loud." He shrugged and picked up his beer. "Fuck it. Already said it. You're pretty," He was smiling dumbly as he finished the rest of his beer.

"Oh yeah?" That gravelly voice asked.

"Hell yeah."

The man dropped a handful of bills on the bar beside his empty bottle and stood up. "We're leaving."

Rick glanced over at the man a second before he was pulled off his stool. The man grabbed a fist full of his shirt and pulled him towards the door. Oh great! Rick drunkenly hit on some redneck hick who probably regularly beats on self-proclaimed faggots. And he was drunk. His hand went to his hip automatically. He was drunk and off duty. Of course he didn't have his fucking gun. That was good. Because he was drunk.

He was yanked out the door and down the alley towards the parking lot. Good one, Rick. He thought to himself. Well… if this guy thought this was going to be easy, he was mistaken. Rick knew how to handle himself, was trained for every conceivable circumstance. He was fast. If he could just stay on his feet. He was shoved against the hard, brick wall. And that was expected. And then the man was in front of him, inches from his face, with his palms planted against the wall on either side of him. Pinning him against the wall. That was unexpected. And then he was leaning closer. And he smelled like motor grease and pine needles. And Rick really like that. And that was really unexpected.

"You think I'm pretty?" His voice was darker, dirtier, an octave lower. And that sent a visible shiver down Rick's spine. And that certainly was unexpected.

Rick nodded, feeling so stupid he couldn't find words. The only word that came to his mind was potato. He didn't know why. He bit his bottom lip to keep the vegetable in his head.

The man's eyes fell to Rick's lips, openly staring. "Daryl." The man said.

"Rick."

Daryl smiled and moved in closer. He drove his leg between Rick's, rubbing his thigh against him lightly.

Rick sucked in a breath.

"Now." Daryl said, breathing against him. "Question is… are ya so drunk that ya ain't in control of yerself and I'm takin' advantage or ya… or are ya jus drunk enough that ya are finally brave enough to fulfill your lifelong dream of having anonymous sex with a pretty stranger?"

Rick blinked. What? "The second?" He said a bit awkwardly.

Daryl smirked. "Good. I've had a shitty day and I really could use someone ta take the edge off."

Rick was in over his head. Oh god he was so in over his head. But maybe that wasn't a bad thing. "My place…" He said slowly. "Just down the street. And empty."

Daryl nodded and turned. He grabbed Rick again and pulled him towards the parking lot. He stopped in front of a large motorcycle. "Think ya can manage to hold on?"

"Uh… you're driving?"

Daryl nodded. "I'm good."

Rick was trying hard to say no. He really was. He was a cop. A good cop. Should not be getting on the back of a motorcycle with a stranger who'd just been drinking. And then the stranger was staring at him and before Rick realized it, they were flying down the road and Rick was pressed against him and trying to give directions.

And why the fuck not? This was all some dream anyways. Rick fumbled for his keys at the front door. The first real notes of hesitation hit him as he dropped the keys. He turned and pressed his back against the door. "Ain't done this before." He admitted sheepishly.

Daryl bent down and picked up the keys slowly. He slipped the key into the door knob. Then he straightened back up and looked Rick in the eyes. "I'll walk ya through it."

Rick nodded and turned the knob.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

The first thing Rick became aware of was the intense ringing in his ears. Then there was the head ache. And the weight across his chest. And the ringing stopped and he breathed out a sigh of relief and tried to sit up.

Two more things simultaneously occurred to him. First was he was naked. He hadn't slept naked since he got married. Lori didn't like it. The second was that the weight on his chest was an arm. That didn't belong to him. That was attached to a man. Who was very asleep and very naked beside him. Slowly the night's events came back to him. The low breathy moans, the loud animal grunts, the curling toes… He rubbed at his forehead. What had gotten into him last night?

He looked over at the man for a moment. He knew exactly what had gotten into him. He could feel his face heat up and he looked away. And then the ringing started again. He blinked. That wasn't in his head. That was his cell phone. What time was it?

He peeled the arm off and quickly sat up. A twinge of pain shot up his spine. He groaned as he bent forward and picked his pants up off of the floor. He fished his phone out and pressed it to his ear. "Hello?"

"Rick!" The voice on the phone sounded relieved.

"Carol?" His eyes widened slowly. "Oh shit!" He said a bit too loudly. The bed shifted behind him. He quickly stood up and took a few steps away. "Carol I'm so sorry." He said softer. "I… uh… got back late and didn't set my alarm."

"It's fine, Rick." The woman said quickly over the line. "But I really have to leave. Sophia has a doctor's appointment."

"I'll be right over…"

"We're already heading over now." She hung up.

Rick hung the phone and started sifting through the clothes on the floor. He started pulling his pants on when a voice stopped him.

"Yer wife?"

Rick glanced over at the man on his bed. "No… uh…" Rick tilted his head slightly. Confusion washed over his face as he searched for the man's name. He knew he knew it. Pretty sure he'd screamed it a few times last night. "Uh…"

"Daryl." The man said stiffly.

"I didn't forget." Rick said quickly.

The man rolled his eyes and shook his head.

"I just... uh..." The doorbell rang and Rick looked at his bedroom door. "My neighbor... I'll uh... be... back..." He mumbled and ran from the room. He tore through the house quickly and opened the front door.

Carol had moved next door a month ago. She was a quiet mouse of a woman with a little mouse of a daughter Carl's age. Rick got the sense she was hiding something or hiding from someone. She always seemed a bit nervous. She smiled at him warmly and held out the giggling infant.

Rick smiled at her and accepted the baby from her. "Hey baby girl." He settled her against his chest and looked back at Carol. "Thank you so much for watching her. I needed a night... uh... alone."

She nodded and dropped the diaper bag inside the door. "I would have offered to keep her through your hangover but I really have to go."

Rick hugged Judith to him and shook his head. "Oh no. This was great. Really. I appreciate it."

She smiled again, raised her arm in a small wave, and stepped out.

Rick closed the door behind her. He pressed a kiss to Judy's forehead and turned around.

"Well shit." Daryl was standing at the base of the steps. "You got a kid."

Rick glanced back at the door and nodded. "Uh... yeah. Sorry. Neighbor offered to watch her all night." Rick said. "So I could go drinking." He added quickly. "Not... uh..." He turned back and Daryl crossed the room towards him smoothly. He stopped and wagged his fingers in Judith's face. She smiled and giggled and tried to reach for him. And the image warmed Rick's heart. "You uh... you got anywhere to be?" Rick asked.

Daryl looked up at him slowly. "Nope."

"Breakfast?"

Daryl shrugged and straightened back up. "Whatcha got?"

Rick shrugged. "There's a toaster in there. I think."

Daryl eyed him.

Rick smiled and bounced Judy lightly. "I'm so not a cook. I usually just leave money or a credit card and let Carl order whatever he wants. My wife did all the cooking, not that she was good at it... my... ex-wife..." He corrected quietly and looked away.

"Carl?" Daryl repeated the name after a few moments of silent.

Rick nodded. "My son."

"How many kids ya got?"

He laughed. "Just the two. Carl's 12."

"This one?" Daryl asked, nodding towards her.

"Judy. Judith, she's about 3 months old."

"Sharing custody a'baby gotta be tough."

"No." Rick said quickly. "Carl we share. Judy is mine."

Daryl nodded.

Rick kissed the top of his daughter's head again and held her close. "She didn't want her. She wanted to..." He shook his head. "She didn't want her." He repeated. "She's mine."

Daryl studied him for a moment. And then he nodded again. "Let's see what you got. I'll make something."

Rick blinked as he watched the man walk away. "You gonna cook?"

Daryl nodded. "What? Think I'm some kinda backwoods hillbilly redneck? Eating squirrel and snake wit his fingers over a fire?"

"Uh..."

The corner of his mouth twitched. "I am. But I can use a kitchen too. Mom died when I was little, dad was a drunk, an' my brother Merle's older. Was never around. Had to learn or I didn't eat."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Daryl was oddly good with Rick's daughter. He smiled at her and talked and cooed at her. And she laughed and giggled and waved her chubby arms at him. Daryl didn't hesitate when she needed a diaper change or cried when she was hungry or spit over all over herself. But now she was fed and clean and dressed in some horrid pink thing Rick's mother had sent him. It had ruffles. Lots of ruffles. And Judy was laying on a blanket on the floor, chewing on said ruffle.

Daryl was laying beside her when he suddenly looked at Rick, who'd been sitting on the couch a few feet away, watching. "What time is it?"

Rick pointed to the table beside the couch. "Clock."

"Can't see it from here."

Rick rolled his eyes, smiling, and leaned over. "Bout 10:30."

"Shit." Daryl rolled over and sat up. "Didn't realize it was so late. Gotta get going."

Rick nodded slowly.

"Ya got a pen?"

Rick nodded again and pointed to the kitchen. "Side of the fridge."

Daryl jumped up and walked into the kitchen. Rick stood up and watched the man move. He had this weird, elegant grace about him. And an equally weird stone cold vibe. Daryl came back into the room. He walked up to Rick and grabbed his hand. He flipped it over and pressed the pen tip to Rick's palm. Then he pulled away and looked down at the giggling baby playing with her toes. Rick stared down at the line of numbers and smiled. "There's a pad of paper on the fridge right beside the pens."

Daryl shrugged. "Use it if ya want ta."

Rick nodded, feeling suddenly at a loss for words. What do you say to the stranger you had sex with and then invited to stay for breakfast and play with your infant kid? And did he even know the man's last name? Rick bit his tongue to keep something stupid from coming out of his mouth. Like thanks for the sex.

Daryl waved his fingers in front of Judy, making the tiny girl giggle in delight. "Little Asskicker." He straightened up and headed for the door. He opened it and slipped out without a word.

Rick glanced down at the number on his palm. He smiled and grabbed his cell phone. After checking that Judy was fine, still playing with her toes on her blanket, he sat down and added Daryl's number to his contacts list. He stared at it for a bit. And then he opened his text messages and sent one to Daryl's number.

Busy tonight?

Still in your fucken driveway. Came a fast response. What time?

Rick smiled. Any.

Yer ass is cooking.

You'll regret that.

I'll eat anything.

Rick smiled and dropped the phone beside him on the couch. He really needed to go to the grocery store then. And his car was at the bar. He picked his phone back up and sent a text to Carol.

Chapter Text

The door swung open and Daryl stood inside the doorway, leaning slightly on the frame. "Wanna say sumtin." He said, staring.

Rick frowned slightly and fought the urge to pout. He was sure Daryl came back to blow him off... uh... poor choice of thought. But Rick was certain Daryl only showed up to leave. And Rick was a bit surprised at the disappointment he felt at the idea. He'd only met the man the night before.

"I dun do this a lot." Daryl said, shaking his head. "Like ever."

Rick tilted his head. "Do what?" He asked slowly.

Daryl hesitated a moment before answering. "Like... stay... after."

"Oh..." Rick exclaimed louder than he meant to. He didn't know what to think of that. "You do this... a lot."

Daryl ran a hand through his hair and looked at the ground. "I dun date. Ever. Sometimes I fuck around but... I leave right after. Never stay. Never come back."

Rick fought the urge to smile.

"Jus... didn't want ya think I'm sum kinda... slut or... sumtin..."

Rick nodded slowly. And then shrugged. "What's it say about me... that the first guy to rub against me like a dog, I invite back to my house.?"

The corner of Daryl's mouth twitched into the tiniest smile. "Kid asleep?"

Rick nodded. He turned slightly and looked at the clock. "Probably another hour, at least. She usually..." He turned back and Daryl was on him. He pushed Rick further inside and kicked at the door. It slammed shut and Daryl attacked him with his mouth, hands, legs, his whole body.

It was different than it had ever been with Lori, for more than the obvious reasons. There was a sense of urgency in the way Daryl ripped at his clothes and pushed him towards the couch. To be desired so strongly, even if it was by something so fleeting as a man he'd just met the night before. It was equal parts scary and amazing. And Rick had no clue what to think about it.

What had started in the doorway gravitated to the couch and then moved to the floor. They were laying on the floor, their shoulders barely touching. Rick smiled and breathing out. "So... why me?"

"I like the kid." Daryl said easily. "She's cute."

Rick laughed. "Yeah. She is." They were silent again for a while. Until Rick broke it again. "Hey Daryl..."

The man let out a loud grunt. "What?"

Rick smiled at the irritation he heard in the man's tone. "What's your last name?"

Daryl looked at him, a slight smile on his face. "Dixon. Yers?"

Rick smiled. "Grimes."

"Nice to meet ya, Grimes."

Rick smiled again and shook his head. "What do you... uh... do?" It came out more awkward than he meant.

Daryl shrugged and laid back down, turning his gaze back to the ceiling. "Mechanic. Was fired yesterday. Some asshole rich fuck said I scratched up his Mercedes. Told him to fuck off cuz he was fucking crazy. Didn't like that much."

"That sucks."

Daryl grunted in reply.

"Did you scratch it up?"

"Fuck no." Daryl snapped. "Did later."

Rick laughed.

"Had it comin'." Daryl reasoned. "Asshole got me fired."

"That's why you were looking for someone to take the edge off." Rick rolled over and leaned over him.

Daryl rolled his eyes and pushed him away. "What 'bout you?"

Rick settled back down on the floor beside him. "Sherriff's deputy."

Daryl stilled for a moment. "Fucking cop?"

"Yeah ya did."

Daryl rolled his eyes again and sat up. "Goddamn fucken drunk ass cop got on the back of my bike after I'd been drinking."

Rick smiled. "You said you were good."

Daryl shook his head. "I just fucking admitting to vandalism."

Rick pointed to his bare chest. "Not in uniform."

"Brother'd kill me fer fucking a cop." Daryl mumbled.

Rick tilted his head slightly. "Not a fan, huh?"

"No he ain't."

Rick waited for more, for the man to elaborate. But after a few silent minutes, it was clear Daryl wasn't going to. But Rick wanted to hear him talk more. He didn't care about what. Your brother." Rick said, trying to sound nonchalant. "What's he do?"

Daryl snorted and shook his head. "Nuttin' since he got his ass thrown in jail last month."

"Your brother… is in jail…" Rick repeated slowly.

Daryl nodded. "Some trumped up carjacking charge. He got drunk off his ass and stole his boss' brand new sports car. Some shiny little roadster shit. Said it was a joke but the guy wasn't laughing."

"He got locked up for a first offense?"

Daryl glanced back at him. "Didn't say it was his first. Merle's worked for a lot of assholes. He don't learn."

"Colorful."

Daryl grunted and nodded. "He's a fucken rainbow."

Rick smiled and leaned back. He closed his eyes for a moment and, not meaning to, fell asleep. It wasn't like he was tired. Well not any more tired than normal. Okay he was. Half the night drinking and the stress of the week before with the divorce winding down. And the extra strenuous activity...

Rick wasn't asleep very long. Barely a half hour. He opened his eyes as a voice came to him.

"So this Cinderella chick..." Daryl's voice drifted in from the kitchen.

Rick sat up and stretched.

"She asks her fairy godmother to give her a fucking dress... uh... a dress." Daryl corrected quickly. "Because the prince is looking for a stranger to marry. And the fairy. She makes a car outta a pumpkin. And Cinderella goes to the party and meets the prince."

Rick smiled as he sat up and pulled his clothes on.

"And they dance once and suddenly they're like in love and sh... junk. So you see... it's fuck... uh... it's stupid to go to a dance to impress some stranger and then marry them like the next day. She don't know nothing about this prince. But that's a common theme in fairy tales."

Rick walked towards the kitchen. He stopped in the doorway, smiling. Daryl was at the stove. Judy was a few feet away in her highchair. She was slobbering on a plastic spatula.

"Like the Little Mermaid." Daryl continued. "She meets a guy for one second. Then is so in love, she changes herself and abandons her whole family and life. An' in the real one, not that happy Disney crap, the mermaid kills herself. Fairy tales are shit... crap. Okay little Asskicker? None of them have a good lesson. Except Goldilocks. There's a good one. Break into a bear's house and you get eaten. That's good to know."

Rick smiled and stepped into the kitchen. "I'm pretty sure Goldilocks doesn't get eaten by the bears."

Daryl snorted and shook his head. "She should. Deserves it for eatin' all their food an' breaking baby bear's chair her with far ass."

Rick rolled his eyes. "Thought I was cooking."

Daryl turned and pointed a large, wooden spoon at him. "You fell asleep."

Rick sheepishly looked down. "Sorry about that."

Daryl shrugged. "You'll fuck it up. Ya can't cook."

Rick moved towards Judy's chair. She dropped the spatula and held out her arms to him, giggling and waving. He smiled and picked her up.

"You really should learn." Daryl mumbled. "Two kids."

Rick kissed Judy's forehead and leaned against the counter, watching Daryl. "Maybe I just like watching you cook. Should get one of those pink, ruffled aprons."

Daryl didn't look up from the stovetop. "I'll fucking kick your ass."

Rick smiled. "You probably could."

Daryl shook his head. "Not could. Will."

Daryl finished dinner and they ate. Then Judy cried and Rick got up to fix her a bottle. And Daryl swiped it and the kid. And took her into the living room. Rick sat across the room from him and wondered. What was it about this man? This gruff, calm, quiet man who could have a deep conversation with an infant and then say nothing while eating dinner. It was... well it just was.

"You wanna... stay over... uh... tonight?" Rick asked slowly. Oh god that sounded lame. Really lame.

Daryl shook his head. "Sorry man. Got plans. I'll let you know."

Rick nodded slowly, trying hard to hide his disappointment.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

It was surprisingly easy and comfortable. Rick wasn't entirely sure what to call this not-dating thing. He'd never imagined himself not-dating ever again. He always imagined Lori was it for him. And without her, he'd die alone and miserable because that's what he deserved.

Whatever this thing was, it went on rather smoothly for a few months. They didn't exactly do much, which was perfectly fine with Rick. Daryl would come over after work a few nights a week when Carl wasn't there. They'd hang out, watch TV, drink, eat. Just normal stuff he used to do with Shane. And then when Judy went to sleep, they did some stuff he never did with Shane. Most nights Daryl left after saying he had plans. But some nights, he would stay. Most times Daryl hardly said a word more than the occasional grunt in affirmation. Sometimes, though, Rick would say or do the right thing and Daryl would really open up. He'd talk and Rick would listen and hang on every word the man said. Mostly about his brother Merle. But Rick didn't really care what it was about. He just loved hearing Daryl talk.

And it was great.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Daryl's phone rang suddenly and loudly. The man let out a growl and pulled away. "Imma fucking kill whoever's calling." He ground out.

Rick smiled and leaned back on the couch.

Daryl pulled his phone out and glowered at it. "Oh... uh... fuck... hang on a sec." Daryl jumped up and headed for the front door. He stepped out but the door didn't quite close behind him. "What?" Daryl snapped loudly into the phone.

Rick could still hear Daryl's voice. What he meant to do was get up and walk into the kitchen. Give Daryl the privacy he thought he had. Instead, he quickly slunk over to the door and pressed against the wall beside it.

"Yeah, I'm busy." Daryl paused. "Well fuck you too. Asshole."

Spying. Rick shook his head. Ease dropping like some prying, jealous, teenage girl. But he still didn't move. He wondered who Daryl was yelling at. So angrily.

Daryl paused again. "Jessi? Yeah, she's fine... yeah... man... yeah, she slept with me last night." Another paused. "She's fucking needy."

Jessi. Daryl had slept with some girl named Jessi. Last night. When he said he was too busy to stay over. Rick swallowed and leaned his head against the wall. Daryl wasn't his... oh god! Boyfriend! Rick was thinking the word boyfriend. That was such a teenage word. Yeah, he'd never call the man his boyfriend. Not out loud at least. But what was he to Rick? They'd been... well... if boyfriend was the wrong word, dating was really wrong. Because Daryl didn't date. But they'd been not-dating for almost three months.

"Fuck you!" Daryl growled into the phone. "Yeah. I'm hanging with her tonight. Okay? Now fuck off." Daryl pulled the phone from his ear and shoved it into his pocket.

Rick slid back from the door and ran back to the couch. He fell on it seconds before Daryl came back through the door. And Rick acted like he hadn't overheard anything.

Daryl left before it had even started darkening outside. Rick laid on the couch afterwards, staring at the ceiling. This not-dating thing sucked. He wanted... he wasn't sure what he wanted. He'd gotten out of a 13 year relationship. Did he really expect another one so soon? But Daryl didn't date.

Rick took a deep breath and breathed it out slowly. He needed to slow this down. This... whatever it was. It was too much for him. He just wasn't a casual not-dater.

He shook his head. He was in too deep. Hell... he'd let the man around his daughter. His infant daughter. This complete stranger. What kind of father did that make him? He took a deep breath and picked up his phone. His finger hovered over the dial button and then he hit the message one instead. Captain called. Overtime next week. Gonna be slammed. He typed.

Daryl sent a response almost immediately. Sucks. Call when I can slam ya around.

Rick blinked at the text. He put the phone down and didn't respond.

Like a coward.

It was harder than he thought it would be, cutting the man off. Daryl texted him a few days later, asking how the little Asskicker was. Then again a week later. Rick hadn't responded to either. And when Daryl called him, Rick let it go to voicemail and he deleted the message without listening to it. He should have just told Daryl the truth. The man deserved that much.

Or maybe he didn't. Daryl had said it. He didn't date. They weren't dating. They hadn't talked about... feelings... or anything really. Rick still knew very little about Daryl. His parents were dead. And he had a brother, Merle, who was in jail. He'd heard some colorful stories about Merle. The man sounded like a jackass, but the brothers had a good relationship. At least Rick thought that was the sentiment Daryl always ended with.

And then there was some girl named Jessi. Who Daryl had slept with the night he said he had plans. And there had been a lot of nights that Daryl had plans.

No. No, that was a copout. Just because they weren't dating, didn't mean they weren't not-dating.

He was just a coward.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

"The number you have dialed has been disconnected. If you feel you have reached this message in error, please hang up and try again."

Rick frowned and dialed the number again.

"The number you..."

Well that was odd. He threw on his robe, grabbed Judy, and headed outside. He crossed the yard and walked up onto Carol's porch. But his knock only brought silence. He waited a few moments and tried again. Nothing. He walked back to his house and grabbed his phone. He set Judy back down on his bed and dialed Carol's cell phone and house phone again. Still disconnected. Not that he really thought it would suddenly be back up.

But he was just dumbfounded. He just didn't understand. He'd just seen her yesterday. She didn't say anything was wrong. She said she'd be by this morning to pick Judy up.

Rick dropped the phone on the bed. "Shit." He let out a sigh and glanced down at Judy. She was happily slobbering on her hand. He tilted his head slightly. "Well.. .I guess daddy's staying home today."

Chapter Text

Nearly a week with no word from Carol and he was getting desperate. The girl down the street called him after only an hour alone with Judy the day before. Judy had cried the whole time. And today, the sitter wouldn't answer his call. He didn't understand it. Judy was always so well behaved and happy around him. He understood strangers but... she'd liked Carol well enough. And adored Daryl from the moment she met him.

Daryl... it'd been a month since Rick blew him off with the work excuse. He thought it was for the best. He thought it would be easy. He hadn't know the man long. Just a few months. But Rick missed him something awful. Rick bit his lip and glanced down at this phone. He sighed, dialed the number before he rethink it, and pressed the phone to his ear.

"Yeah?" Came Daryl's rough answer.

Rick sighed. It was nice to hear the man's voice. Really nice. Like he could melt in those dulcet tones. "I'm sorry Daryl. I didn't know what to do."

"Rick?" Daryl sounded surprised. "What's wrong?"

"It's Judy."

"What happened?"

Rick caught the panic in the man's voice and smiled. "No." He said quickly. "She's fine. I just..." He paused and dipped his head slightly, feeling bed. He shouldn't have called. It wasn't fair. He rubbed at his eyes. Yeah. This was a dumb idea. "Never mind." He mumbled. "Sorry. I'll just..."

"What, Rick?"

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "My sitter up and disappeared last week. And for some crazy ass reason, Judy screams her head off at anyone else who comes through the door. I've used up all my sick leave and I really need to go in today and I don't know what to do."

There was a shuffling sound and Daryl let out a grunt. "Gimmie 10 minutes."

Rick blinked. "Really?"

Daryl huffed. "What I fucking said."

The line went dead. Rick pulled the phone from his ear and stared at it dumbly for a moment. He wasn't exactly sure what he was hoping when he dialed Daryl's number. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. No changing his mind now. Daryl was coming over. He quickly checked on Judy and then headed to his room to get changed.

Almost 10 minutes on the dot, Daryl walked through the front door. No knock, no warning. Just open door and walk in. "You haven't been ta work all week?" He snapped loudly.

Rick was walking down the stairs, dressed and ready for work. He had Judy in his arms and she was happily chewing on her skirt. Rick slowed on the stairs, looking over at Daryl. He blinked, surprised, and shrugged.

Daryl shook his head and held out his arms. "Gimmie little Asskicker."

Rick continued down the stairs and stepped around Daryl. He turned and held up his free hand. "Are you... Daryl are you sure?"

Daryl took her and tucked her under his arm. She let out a delighted squeal and grabbed his shirt.

Rick looked down at Judy. "Can you... I mean... do you know how to.. uh..."

Daryl rolled his eyes. "I can handle the kid. Go before yer ass gets fired."

Rick hesitated a moment longer. There was so much he wanted to say to Daryl. He wasn't sure how or where to start. He wanted to apologize, he wanted to explain, he wanted to ask about Jessi.

And then Daryl rolled his eyes again and pushed him towards the door. "I'll obviously be 'ere when ya get back. So go."

Rick turned and smiled down at Judy. " Behave. Please baby girl."

"Go." Daryl said again. "She's fine."

Rick nodded and finally slipped out the door.

Daryl let out a short and shook his head. "Yer dad's a fucking idiot." Judy giggled and pulled on his shirt, trying to get it in her mouth. "Don't do that." He shifted her slightly and pulled his cell out of his pocket. He dialed and put it to his ear.

"Curt's Garage."

"Hey Curt." He shifted Judy again. "It's Daryl."

"Daryl! Great!" The man sounded excited. "I was just..."

"Look man." Daryl interrupted. "I ain't gonna be in today."

There was a pause. "Goddamnit." The man snapped over the line. "Don't think just because you're the best I won't fire your ass. You better be on your death bed!"

"I uh..." Daryl glanced down at Judy. "Got my kid today. And the sitter bailed."

"Oh... you... you got a kid?" The man's voice immediately softened.

"Yeah. She's 7 months old. Hard to find someone that can handle her screaming her head off when I ain't around."

There was another pause. "Okay. Fine. Don't make it a habit."

The line went dead and Daryl pulled the phone from his ear. He hit the camera button and held the phone out. "Say cheese, Asskicker." He took a few quick pictures, proof he could casually show his boss. He really liked the garage. Curt was a good boss and the money was good.

"So." Daryl said, plopping the kid in her swing. "What the hell we gonna do today?" He dropped on the floor beside her and leaned forward. "Let's talk Rapunzel."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Rick's stomach was in knots most of the day. He'd gotten yelled at by his captain and threatened with demotion. But that wasn't really what was doing him in. He was worried about going home. He trusted Daryl with Judy. That wasn't the problem. He was scared of what he needed to say to Daryl. This not-dating thing was messing with his head. It really shouldn't have made a difference, he knew. Whatever this thing was called, it wouldn't change if he called it dating. He didn't want it to change. He wanted Daryl around. He wanted this Jessi chick gone.

He just wanted Daryl. And that was the most scary thing of all.

Rick opened the door and stepped inside, trying not to look as nervous as he felt. He fiddled with his hat as he stood just inside the doorway and looked at the floor.

"Rick?"

"Yeah." He called out.

"Hey." Daryl came strutting out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishrag. "It go okay?"

Rick glanced up and nodded. "Got an earful." He mumbled.

"Coulda fucken called me a week ago." Daryl tossed the rag on the coffee table as he walked past. He marched up to Rick and crossed his arms. "'Kay. Come on."

Rick tilted his head a bit, frowning. "What?"

"All yer hedging this mornin'. Ya got something ta say?"

Rick sighed and reached over to drop his hat on a chair. He pulled off his coat and tossed it with it. "Yeah. I do."

Daryl said nothing, just stared at him.

Rick ran a hand through his hair and turned slightly. Daryl wasn't gonna make this easy, he knew. "Fine. I'll just say it. I overheard a phone call you got where you said you were sleeping with some chick named Jessi and I started feeling jealous and honestly, it scared the shit out of me and I panicked." He said it all quickly in one breath.

Daryl stared at him for a moment longer. Confusion washed over his face. Then he dropped his arms and shook his head. "Judy's asleep and there's a roast in the oven. Stay out of the kitchen and I'll be right back."

Rick stepped aside as Daryl opened the door and stepped out. He walked over to the window and pulled the curtain back, watching as Daryl got on his motorcycle and pulled out of the driveway. Rick let out a sigh and shook his head. Well that was weird. Rick was curious. And terrified. He didn't know what to expect when Daryl came back. If he came back.

Daryl did come back. Rick had changed out of his uniform and gotten Judy up when she cried. They were in the living room, flipping through the channels on the TV when the door opened. Rick glanced up.

"This is Jessi." Daryl said, dragging something behind him. A dog. A young golden retriever, about two years old. She blinked her bright blue eyes and seeing a new person, her tail started wagging excitedly and she tried to run forward. Daryl pulled back on the leash. "She's a dog. Yer not like allergic or got some phobia right?"

Rick shook his head slowly, unable to summon any words yet to answer.

"Good." Daryl bent down and unclipped the leash from her collar. Jessi immediately ran across the room and jumped up on the couch beside Rick. She let out a bark and Judy let out a squeal.

"Jessi... is a dog." Rick repeated slowly, reaching out to pet the young dog who was trying to reach over him to lick Judy.

Daryl nodded. "It ain't yer fucking business but I ain't been hitting around since you called me pretty."

Rick shook his head. He couldn't believe the amount of jealousy he felt. Over a dog.

Daryl crossed the room and sat down on the chair opposite Rick. "Merle got her as a pup. Let her sleep in his bed with him. She gets real noisy and mopey when left alone. Spoiled as fucking shit."

"Merle's, huh?"

"He's fucking obsessed. She's his baby. He calls a couple times a week, asking about her. Accusing me of neglecting her. If I'm home when he calls, he asks to fucking talk to her. And oh! He wants me to show her a picture of him and say, daddy loves you."

Rick's eyes widened. "That's..."

"Fucking crazy." Daryl shook his head. "He tried to bribe the warden into letting me sneak her in."

Rick smiled. "With what?"

Daryl shrugged. "Fuck if I know. His ass, maybe."

Rick laughed and shook his head. "So all this time. All your plans."

"The dog." Daryl patted his knee and Jessi slipped off the couch and pranced over to him. "I don't do shit." He reached out to scratch her ears.

Rick watched him. "You never mentioned her."

Daryl shrugged. "It's a dog."

Rick sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry Daryl. I just... okay." Rick took a breath and breathed it out slowly. "I get it. You don't date. That's fine. But... I've never... not-dated." He pulled Judy into his lap. "Hell... I've never really dated. Lori and I dated in high school because I was supposed to date girls. And she got pregnant. So we got married. I don't know how to do casual without... feeling... and... I got a little freaked out when... I realized..."

"Stop." Daryl said quickly, shaking his head. He stood up and grabbed Judy from Rick. She let out a squeal and Jessi barked. Then he turned for the kitchen.

"Daryl..." Rick stood up to follow.

Daryl set Judy in her chair and she started smacking the table top. Jessi followed and tried to lick Judy's toes. Daryl turned to the cabinets and pulled out a bowl. He filled it halfway with water and set it on the floor. Jessi walked over and stuck her nose in it.

"Daryl." Rick repeated the man's name as he walked in.

Daryl kept his back to Rick. "Don't, Rick."

Rick frowned, confused. "Don't what?"

Daryl leaned forward on the counter. "I'm not worth all this." He said softly.

"Worth what?"

"Your... jealousy or whatever your fucking problem is." He pushed off the counter and turned around. "I don't deserve it."

"You don't deserve it..." Rick repeated, shaking his head. "What the fuck does that mean?"

Daryl shook his head and grabbed a baby bottle. He pushed past Rick and grabbed the baby formula. "Don't."

"You're not worth it? You don't deserve it?" Rick snapped. "What? You're so worthless you don't deserve love?"

Daryl spun around. He pointed angrily at Rick as his eyes narrowed into a glare. "Don't."

Rick felt the anger in that word. He held up his hands and took a step back. He'd glimpsed the man's volatile side under the surface before. But nothing like this. And never directed at him. Rick swallowed the forming lump in his throat and stepped farther back. "You know..." He said softly, trying to change the mood. "I have a big, fenced in back yard. You can bring her here with you."

Daryl's shoulders relaxed a bit, dropping slightly. "Could." He said, his voice still tense.

Rick took a deep breath and shook his head. "I'm sorry. I just have to ask."

Daryl was leaning back against the counter, gripping the edge. He tightened his grip and his knuckles turned white. "I will kick your ass. In front of your daughter."

Rick nodded. "Noted. But I'll ask anyways."

Daryl let out a sigh. "What?"

"This... no-dating thing we're doing where we're also not dating anyone else..." Rick said slowly. "Can it... still be... a thing?" He sounded like an idiot, he knew. But he had to ask.

Daryl rolled his eyes and turned around, moving towards the stove.

"Daryl!" Rick snapped. "You make things really hard sometimes."

Daryl ignored him and continued opening the oven to check the roast coking inside.

Rick crossed the kitchen quickly. He grabbed Daryl's arm and spun him around. "I just want to know if we are okay or did I fuck this all up? Because I really like... uh... hanging out with you... and the... other stuff."

"You know what your problem is?" Daryl asked after a moment. "You think too much." He said. "I don't stay. I. Don't. Stay." He repeated, punctuating the words.

Rick frowned for a moment. And then it dawned on him. The day after the first night. Rick fought back the urge to smile like a giant goof. "So... we're good?" Rick asked slowly.

"Yes. Now fuck off while I finish this."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

"What about tomorrow?" Daryl asked an hour later.

Dinner was finished and eaten. Judy'd been fed and changed and fallen asleep. Jessi was laying on the floor sleeping. And Rick was half asleep, laying more on Daryl than the couch they were on. Rick opened his eyes. "What?"

"Tomorrow." Daryl repeated.

"Oh yeah." Rick closed his eyes. "I'll figure something about."

"Rick." Daryl poked him in the side.

Rick let out a sigh and sat up. He rubbed at his eyes. "I'm on 12's for the next 3 days. 8 to 8."

Daryl huffed. "That fucking sucks."

Rick nodded. "Captain's pissed."

Daryl glanced down at the sleeping dog. "Guess we're staying then."

Rick tried not to smile as he nodded. "If you want to."

Daryl looked at him sideways in grunted in answer. "I'm gonna run back to the house and grab Jessi's shit and some clothes."

It was the first time Daryl was staying without the premise of sex. The first time where sleeping wasn't an afterthought. Rick didn't want to just assume Daryl would sleep in his bed with him even though he'd done it before. Rick certainly didn't mind. It was actually comforting, feeling the weight on the mattress beside him. But Rick didn't want to assume. Daryl was... Rick had no real words to describe him. It might piss Daryl off if Rick just assumed. Or maybe not. He just didn't know.

"You can crash wherever you want." He said, trying to sound casual when Daryl'd gotten back. "My room, Carl's room... floor, garage, backyard. Whatever you squirrel roasting rednecks like."

Daryl turned towards him and stepped closer. And the look on his face... Rick thought he'd gone too far. And then Daryl smiled ever so slightly. "I'll take you."

Chapter Text

"I want to pay you if you're gonna do this."

Daryl looked over at him. "What?" Daryl had been thumbing through the newspaper. Some article about a woman who'd killed her abusive husband. He wasn't really paying much attention to it. He couldn't really remember any of it actually and he'd just read it. His mind had been on Rick and Judy and Jessi and this whole fucked up thing. Daryl was in over his head. So much. He couldn't explain it. He just liked them. Rick was a good man. A cop. A dad. Why was Rick so interested in him? He wasn't anything special.

Rick smiled, walking towards him. He'd just gotten out of the shower and dressed for work. His hair was still wet, dripping a bit on his uniform. "For watching Judy." He said with an easy smile.

Daryl blinked and shook his head quickly. It was more in an effort to rid himself of wet Rick images than in answer. But yeah. Head shake was a good answer.

"Why not?" Rick said, now behind the couch. He leaned over the back, hovering just above Daryl. Still dripping.

Daryl turned back to the newspaper. "Because it's fucked up."

"Why?" Rick repeated.

Daryl rolled his eyes and dropped the paper on the couch beside him. He turned, pulling his leg up on the couch, and glared at Rick. "Because we regularly fuck."

Rick smiled broadly. "I ain't paying you for that."

"Good." Daryl snapped. "Ya couldn't afford my ass."

Rick laughed at that and shook his head. He leaned more heavily on the back of the couch and reached out to finger a lock of Daryl's growing hair. "I paid Carol to watch Judy. Ain't no difference."

Daryl let out a snort and pushed his hands away. "Is too."

"It really isn't." Rick said. "Having someone to take care of Judy is really important. And it's a full time job itself." Daryl attempted to argue for a few more minutes. But Rick argued back. And then Daryl rolled his eyes and threw up his hands in defeat and Rick smiled. "You're pretty."

Daryl glared at him and flipped him off.

Rick pushed off the couch and straightened up. "Where's your keys?"

Daryl frowned. "Why?"

"Where are your keys?" Rick repeated.

Daryl stared at him for a moment. Why was Rick pestering him about keys so goddamn fucking early in the morning? Had he parked behind him last night? Daryl couldn't remember. "Do I need ta move?"

"Give me your fucking keys."

Daryl leaned over and fished his keys out of his pocket. He'd pulled on the same jeans he was wearing last night when he'd gotten up.

Rick bent over and snatched them as quick as he could. Then smiled and kissed the top of Daryl's head. Daryl ducked away from him. "Pretty." Rick said again, smiling. "Here." He pulled a set of keys out of his pocket and dropped them on Daryl's lap.

Daryl glanced down at them. "What's that for?"

"The SUV and house."

Daryl looked back up at him. "Why?"

"Judy's carseat's in the SUV."

Daryl frowned and stared at him blankly.

Rick rolled his eyes and shook his head. "In case you need to go do something. You have to drag the little squirt along. Can't really put the seat in your pickup."

"Oh fuck no." Daryl shook his head. "I hate putt'n Jessi in that thing."

Rick smiled. "I'll take it. You take mine."

"I don't want you in it either." Daryl mumbled.

Rick laughed and reached for his hat off the coffee table.

Daryl flipped him off again and crossed his arms. "Fine. I'll hafta go grocery shoppin' anyways. Ya ain't got shit in this house."

Rick shrugged. "Got busy trying to find a sitter." He pulled his wallet out of his pocket. He pulled something out of it and slipped it back in his pocket. Then he grabbed a pen off the table. "Gimmie your hand." Rick didn't wait for Daryl's response. Just grabbed his hand and drug the pen over his palm. Then dropped a card beside him. "Pin number."

Daryl wanted to argue. It felt weird. Talking about money and shit.

Rick seemed to read his mind. "If you're getting shit for my house, I'm paying. No arguing."

"I'm not your fucking nanny or housekeeper." Daryl snapped.

Rick smiled and tilted his head. "Ya kinda are, Pretty."

Daryl narrowed his eyes at him. He set the card and keys on the coffee table and stood up. Rick did have a point. Maybe. Daryl just couldn't help feeling like a charity case.

Rick's smile fell and he suddenly looked hesitant. "I uh.. really appreciate this, Daryl. I mean it.

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Jus' fucking leave. I got shit ta do."

Rick smiled and nodded. He turned and the excitable dog was suddenly in front of him, trying to jump on him. "Where'd you come from?"

"Down, Jessi." Daryl snapped.

Rick smiled and scratched her head. Then headed for the door.

Daryl hauled Jessi away from the door. Then he pulled the curtains back and looked out the front window. He watched as Rick climbed in his old pickup without hesitation. And then drove off. And when Daryl couldn't see him anymore, he let the curtain fall back with a sigh. What was he doing? What was wrong with him? What was wrong with Rick? All his blathering and shit. He just wasn't worth it. Hell, Daryl still couldn't understand why Rick had asked him to stay. Daryl sighed and chewed on his thumb.

A few hours later, Daryl grabbed Judy and Rick's keys and card. "Get this shit over with." It took him nearly ten minutes of fiddling with and cursing at the damn contraption to get Judy in the carseat. It was like you needed to read a fucking manual to drive a tiny kid around. Safety, blah, blah, blah. He understood it. Though he knew his mom and dad never had such a thing for him and Merle. Daryl doubted they did more than strap him in with a normal seatbelt. Hell, his old man probably did less than that. Probably just threw him on the floor or locked him in the truck.

He shut Judy's door and walked around the other side. He opened the other door and stepped back. "Jessi." The young dog ran over immediately and hopped up inside. Daryl pointed a finger at her. "You scratch Rick's seat and I'll kick ya." She licked his finger. And Daryl rolled his eyes and shut the door. "Should leave your whiney ass here. Don't fucken trust ya."

He opened the driver's door and carefully slipped in. Damn thing was immaculately clean and shiny and goddamnit. There was trash in the front of his pickup and change on the floor and cigarette butts in the ashtray. He wasn't usually so bad. But between spending all his time at Rick's and driving Merle's motorcycle, he really hadn't used his pickup much. He wasn't sure how old the trash was.

Jessi started whining from the backseat. Daryl glanced back. And the dumb dog was licking the window. "We ain't even left yet." He grumbled as he turned the vehicle on and put down the window.

He practically ran through the grocery store. It made him a bit uncomfortable shopping with the kid. Judy's halo seemed to shine a different light on him. He was used to dirty looks and people acting like he was there to cause trouble. But with a cute, smiling, giggling baby, people were approaching him. They smiled at Judy and him. They waved and said hello. They talked to Judy, tried to talk to him.

"Oh how cute!"

"Aren't you precious!"

"Are you shopping with daddy?"

"How old is she?"

He nodded, mumbled words, tried to seem pleasant, and then hurried away. Nosey people thinking a kid meant he wanted to talk. Or that he had something in common with them. He threw the groceries in the car, wrangled Judy back in the seat, and let Jessi out for a moment. Then left as quickly as he could to avoid more attention.

He stopped by Curt's Garage and drug Judy threw there. "See? Kid." He said, holding her up to Curt. Judy babbled and waved her arm.

The man had nodded. "I believed ya."

Daryl went back to Rick's. He unloaded the kid, dog, and groceries. Then put everything away. And crashed on the couch. It was ridiculous how tired that made him. Judy was asleep in her bed and Jessi curled up with him on the couch. And he was once again alone with his thoughts. And he kept hearing his father's voice in his head. Worthless. Useless. Weak. Pathetic. It was ingrained in him. His whole childhood. And his mom died and his dad got worse. And the verbal abuse changed as he got older and realized he didn't like girls, at least not like Merle. His brother had a new girl every week it seemed. Merle caught on and called him a faggot. And then their dad had overheard. And suddenly the power behind the beatings had new meanings. Dad didn't want a faggot son. And if he couldn't beat the gay outta Daryl, he was gonna take pleasure in putting him in the hospital.

Daryl was a wreck inside when Rick walked in the door. He heard the door open and shut. Heard Rick's voice. Daryl closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Then grabbed Judy and walked into the front room. Rick smiled at him and fuck him. It made Daryl feel better. Like maybe he was worth something. He looked away for a moment and shook himself.

Rick frowned as he pulled off his hat and jacket. He caught Daryl's demeanor. "Daryl?"

Daryl looked back at him and blinked. "What?"

Rick stared at him a moment. Then smiled and stepped closer to him. "Nothing." He wrapped his arm around Daryl's shoulders and pulled him closer. He touched his forehead to Daryl's and sighed. "Hey."

Daryl wrapped his free arm around Rick's waist. "Hey." He grunted back. Then pressed his lips against Rick's.

Rick smiled against him and kissed him back. And then Judy laughed and grabbed at Rick's shirt. Rick pulled away from Daryl and looked down at Judy. "Hey there baby girl." He took her from Daryl and bounced her against his chest for a moment. "I didn't forget about you." She grabbed at his nose and he kissed her hand. "So how'd it go?"

Daryl stepped back and shrugged. "Fine." He mumbled. "Keys're on the table."

"Keep 'em." Rick said. "Yours now."

Daryl shook his head. "I don't need..."

"Fucking take the keys, Daryl."

Chapter Text

"Damnit, Lori." Rick snapped into the phone, shaking his head. "You can't do that! He's my son too."

"I already did it, Rick." She said, raising her voice as well. "He got detention. He needs to know that he can't break rules and get away with it. There has to be consequences."

Rick rolled his eyes. "By not letting him see me?"

"It's one weekend, Rick. It's not going to kill you. Or him."

Rick closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and rubbed at his forehead. Fighting with her would do no good. Maybe she was partially right. He got in trouble and should be punished. But grounding Carl to Lori's house... "No matter what, he's coming over next weekend." Rick said in a more controlled tone. "I don't care what he does."

"Fine." She sighed. "I'm sorry, Rick." She said in a softer voice. "I really am. I just... it was the first thing that came to my mind. You're grounded. You're not going to your father's. And he flipped out and started screaming at me. I just... I don't know what's going on with him."

"Nothing, Lori." Rick said. "He's a good kid. He just made one mistake. He's growing up. He's a teenager. He'll get in trouble but he's a good kid. Just... in the future... please include me in the groundings? Ground him from TV or to the house and when he's here, I'll stick to it. Just don't keep him from me."

"Okay Rick." Lori said. "I will."

Rick breathed out. "Let me talk to him."

"Carl." Her voice was muffled as she pulled the phone from her ear.

"Dad!" The kid whined, coming on the line. "She's ruining my life!"

Rick smiled and shook his head. "Quit being so dramatic."

"But it's not fair!" Carl whined again.

Rick rolled his eyes. "You shouldn't have cut class and got detention."

Carl sighed. "We only did it once."

"You shouldn't have gotten caught then."

"Dad!"

"Carl, you got in trouble and you got caught." Rick said sternly. "Whether I agree with the punishment or not, you deserve it. So suck it up, okay?"

Carl sighed loudly over the phone.

"I don't want to fight with your mother." Rick said. "If we wanna visit my parents for your spring break and do that big camping trip in the summer, we're gonna have ta keep on mom's good side."

Carl let out a loud groan. "Okay! Fine!" He snapped.

Rick smiled and shook his head. "Just stop getting in trouble."

"It was one time, dad!" Carl snapped.

Rick rolled his eyes. "So you're never gonna get in trouble again?"

"Not if I'm stuck here with mom." The kid mumbled under his breath.

"Carl." Rick said his name in a warning tone.

"Can you convince mom to let me stay with you next week? The school's closed for teacher's conferences. We have a four day weekend."

Rick blinked. "Uh... yeah... okay. Let's give her a day to calm down and feel guilty, okay? I'll call her tomorrow."

"Yes!" Carl said excited, his demeanor suddenly changed. "I can watch Judy while you're at work!"

Rick blinked. "You don't have to..."

"I want to! I can handle her."

"Well... alright then. Okay... yeah..." They said their goodbyes and Rick pulled the phone away from his ear. He let out a sigh as he glared at the damn thing. Damn you, Lori. Even if he could sort of see his side. Still didn't mean he liked it. Because he didn't. Though... if the only punishment she could think of that would hurt Carl was to keep him away from Rick... Rick tried not to feel too happy about that. Because it meant Carl liked behind here with him more than there with her.

"What's wrong?"

Rick glanced up as Daryl walked in. Well... at least if Carl couldn't come here this weekend, then that meant Daryl could stay the whole weekend. "Fucking Lori. She's using me as a reward. Grounded Carl from seeing me this weekend."

Daryl frowned. "That's fucked up."

"Yeah. It is." Rick said with a sigh. He shook his head. "He cut class with his friend Patrick. First time he's ever done anything like that and she wants to punish him."

"First?"

Rick sighed again and ran a hand through his hair. "He's a really good kid. He never gets in trouble."

Daryl nodded slowly and crossed his arms. "This Patrick a bad influence? Curt's got a nephew in Carl's school. Could bribe him to kick the kid's ass."

Rick stared at him a moment, trying to judge if Daryl was being serious or not. And the hard stare he got back convinced him that the man was. He smiled and shook his head. "Patrick's this shy little waif of a kid. He nearly passed out first time I met him. Went to pick them up right after I got off duty. Stuck him in the back of my cruiser. Thought the kid was gonna piss himself."

Daryl smirked. "Prolly did when he got home."

Rick laughed. "I can be scary."

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Oh yes, Mr. Officer." He grumbled out sarcastically.

Rick grew serious. He grabbed Daryl's hands, flipped his around, and pushed him against the wall. He held Daryl's arms tight and pressed against him. Daryl hadn't been expecting it and he'd underestimated Rick's speed and strength. Rick leaned against him. "I'll throw ya in the back of my cruiser. Or just cuff ya up against it."

Daryl grunted and pressed back against him.

Rick spun him back around and pulled his arms up over his head. "Bend ya over the hood of it."

"Fucking hot." Daryl ground out, his voice low.

Rick broke character and his lips twisted into a giant, goofy grin.

Daryl's eyes narrowed into a glare. "Get off me. You ruined it." Daryl snapped. Rick didn't let up, just continued to smile. Daryl rolled his eyes. "Stop grinning like a fucking idiot jus' cuz I called ya hot." Rick laughed and Daryl pulled out of his grip and pushed him away. "Coulda done that anytime." He mumbled.

Rick turned and leaned against the wall he'd had Daryl against. "Oh yes. Scary hunter against the scary cop." He smiled and crossed his arms.

Daryl turned back to him. "Uh... can you... bring the cruiser home one night?"

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Daryl had sort of unofficially moved in. Rick wasn't sure if the man had noticed himself. And if he hadn't, Rick certainly wasn't going to point it out to him. It would probably freak him out. Daryl's clothes were in Rick's dresser and closet. His motorcycle was in his unused garage, along with a collection of hunting knives and a crossbow. Jessi had a collection of dog toys herself around the house. And Daryl hadn't been to his brother's house but for clothes since he'd come back. At least not that Rick had known.

He was exhausted. Every fiber of his being. But it was a good feeling. Giddy. Content. Ridiculously happy. He rolled his eyes and shook his head. Good thing the cause of his massive influx of warm fuzzies was asleep beside him.

Daryl was stretched out on his stomach. The blanket was covering the man's flawless bottom half and his back and arms were peaking out. And those arms, muscles popping as he gripped the pillow under his head in his sleep. The moonlight peaked in from the open curtains and it washed him in a glow.

It amazed Rick how soft and pretty Daryl looked. How delicate and... vulnerable. He'd glimpsed those ragged scars before. He'd never mentioned them. If Daryl caught Rick staring, he would turn or pull something on to cover himself. Rick learned quickly not to stare. Because he liked the feel of Daryl's skin against him. But the scars, as ugly as they were, they were a part of Daryl. And Rick found them beautiful. In a twisted way he was sure would earn him a punch.

He pulled out his phone and snapped a picture. Daryl flinched and stirred. Rick hadn't turned the flash off. Daryl was gonna kill him. Rick quickly tucked the phone under his pillow. Daryl's eyes fluttered for a moment and Rick thought he'd go back to sleep. But then he let out a grunt and opened his eyes. He blinked, his pupils trying to focus. "Close the fucking curtains." He mumbled.

Rick smiled. "You're pretty."

Daryl blinked at him again. "The fuck you awake?"

Rick shrugged. "Can't sleep."

Daryl laid his head back on the pillow. His eyes closed lazily and he looked half asleep. "Ready for another round?"

Rick smiled. "I'm up if you are."

Daryl stifled a yawn. "Sweetheart, I'm always up." He mumbled.

Rick blinked at him as Daryl yawned again. Yeah, Daryl had to have been tired if he called Rick sweetheart. Rick was going to have to tease him about that tomorrow. "Go back to sleep, pretty."

Daryl let out another grunt and rolled over onto his back. He rubbed at his eyes and ran his hands through his hair. "Nah, I'm awake now."

Rick slid back down a bit under the blanket. "There uh... was something... I wanted to talk to you about."

Daryl let out a groan. "What? I'm try'n ta sleep."

"You just said you were awake."

"Fer fuckin'. Not talkin'." Daryl mumbled, rolling over towards him. "Now spit it out sos I can sleep."

"Carl's... uh... coming over... this weekend..." Rick said awkwardly. He mentally cursed himself for just how awkward that came out. Like stupid. "Carl's school is closed Thursday and Friday for teacher conferences. He's got this four day weekend and he asked to stay here the whole time. He said he wants to take care of Judy by himself."

"That's like two days. Waited 'til last fucken minute, huh?" Daryl blinked for a moment and then nodded quickly like he understood. "Will pack up Jessi's shit and go ta Merle's. Be ya Monday morning, before ya leave fer work."

Rick frowned and shook his head. He didn't really like the easy way Daryl talked about leaving. Rick didn't want Daryl to think he didn't want him around. He felt the need to explain. "It's not that I don't want..."

Daryl shook his head quickly, cutting him off. "Stop, Rick. It's fine. Really."

"Really?" Rick parroted back. "That's it?"

Daryl nodded. "It's okay."

"Is it really?"

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Jus' fucken sleep."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Daryl had spent four miserable days at Merle's house with the damned dog. Well it wasn't that bad. He'd called Curt and the man had been happy to hear from him. So he spent most of the time at the garage fixing shit the new guy had wrecked. But it was weird how much he missed watching Judith. And cooking for Rick. And waiting for him to come home from work. Damnit. He was a nanny and housekeeper. And he liked it.

"So she pricks her fingers on the wheel like the witch said she would and she falls into that death sleep thing. An'..."

There was a sudden chiming sound that ran through the house. Daryl stiffened. It took him a moment to realize. The doorbell. He'd never heard the bell before. He glanced at the clock. Rick was due home soon. Had he forgotten his key? "Stay here." He said to Judy in her swing. He stood up and headed to the front door. He pulled the heavy door open and stared at the kid standing on the porch.

The brown hair and brown eyes. Looked about 13. Carl, Daryl quickly realized. He hadn't met the kid, of course, but he'd seen a few pictures. His eyes widened a bit. What the fuck was he supposed to do now? Rick hadn't wanted them to meet yet. "Uh..."

Carl tilted his head a bit. "Hello. Is... Rick Grimes here?"

Daryl shook his head. "He's runn'n a bit late I think." He muttered.

"Are you... Judy's new babysitter?" Carl asked slowly.

Daryl nodded.

"I'm Carl..."

"I know who you are." Daryl muttered. He stepped aside and held the door open. "Well come on."

Carl looked at him a bit timidly for a moment.

"You can check the kitchen." Daryl said. "Yer sister's in there. I ain't here ta rob the place or sumshit."

Carl smiled and stepped inside. He headed to the kitchen.

Daryl shut the front door and followed slowly. He was a bit lost at what to do. Babies he understood. Well, at least Judy he understood. She didn't talk and pretty much relied on him to do everything for her. But a teenager...

Carl was smiling down at Judy in her swing. She was waving her arms up at him. Carl glanced over as Daryl walked in. "Can I take her out?"

Daryl nodded. Polite little ass.

Carl smiled and bent over to pull Judy out of her swing. She squealed happily and grabbed at his nose. Carl laughed and turned. "I tried to call dad but he didn't answer."

Daryl pointed to the kitchen table. A black cell phone sat in the center. "Left it."

Carl glanced over and smiled. "He used to do that a lot. It would make mom so mad."

Daryl let out a snort and nodded his head. "He's done it a few times."

Carl's smile widened and he bounced Judy in his arms. "I left my history project here yesterday. I need it for tomorrow and I was kinda hoping dad could take a look at it."

Daryl glanced at the clock again. Rick should be home soon. How bad could Daryl fuck up in such a short time? He couldn't, right? "You can stay til he gets home, if ya want. Shouldn't be long."

Chapter Text

"Rick?"

He stepped inside and pushed the door shut. "Yeah." He called out as he turned around. He frowned for a moment. Jessi must be out back. Rick'd gotten used to her jumping him the moment he stepped inside. He took his jacket off and dropped it on the floor as he kicked off his shoes. He was tired. Didn't care. He pulled his hat off and dropped it on the pile. "Sorry I didn't call. Couldn't find my phone and I spaced."

Daryl walked out of the kitchen, wiping his hands off on a dishtowel. "You left it here."

"Oh good." Rick said with a sigh of relief.

"Rick..." Daryl started.

Rick kept talking. "Though I'd lost it."

"Rick... Ca..."

Rick shook his head. "Today was fucking awful! Got this domestic disturbance call an..."

"Rick!" Daryl snapped his name loudly. "Shut up for a second."

Rick turned to look at him and smiled. "God you look good."

Before Daryl could stop him, Rick shot forward and captured the stunned man's lips. Rick pulled against him. Daryl pushed him away quickly. "Rick!"

"Dad?"

Rick's eyes widened. He turned to see his son standing in the kitchen doorway. "What are you doing here?"

"I uh... I left my history report here." The kid said slowly. "I needed it for tomorrow."

Daryl crossed his arms and shook his head. "He showed up and I tried ta call ya."

"I left my phone here." Rick said dumbly, his eyes pointedly on the floor.

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Obviously."

Rick took a deep breath. He tore his eyes away from the floor and looked to Daryl. "Okay. Remember when I said I wasn't ready for you to meet my son? I changed my mind. Daryl, this is my son, Carl. Carl..." He turned back to the kid. "Carl, this is Daryl. We... uh... we're... dating?" He glanced at Daryl. "Can I say dating?"

Daryl rolled his eyes again. "Yeah."

Rick nodded. "See... I'm really... actually... gaaaaay..." He said, stringing the word out awkwardly.

Daryl threw up his arms and turned away.

Carl glanced at Daryl and nodded. "I can see that." He said softly.

Rick opened his mouth for a moment. Then shut it and shook his head. "That came out weird."

"You're fucking weird." Daryl mumbled.

Carl overheard and smiled. "That's why you've been so happy recently..." His eye widened slightly. "That's why you got divorced! That's what Shane..." He clapped his hand over his mouth.

"Shane what?" Rick asked with a sigh.

Carl shook his head. "Nothing." He said softly.

Daryl turned back around. "I'll shove a fucken arrow up his ass."

Rick rolled his eyes and tried hard not to smile. "You don't know what he looks like."

Daryl shrugged. "Ain't matter. I'll track the sumbitch down."

Rick laughed loudly and shook his head. He didn't doubt that Daryl could. Or that he would. And could take Shane.

Daryl stepped closer to him. "Fucking serious. You think I ain't?"

Rick helped up his hands and shook his head quickly. "No. No, no, no." He smiled. "I know you can."

Daryl nodded. "Damn right."

Rick turned to Carl. The kid was smiling and clearly trying not to laugh. And he seemed... fine? Okay, even. His dad just outted himself and the kid was smiling. Rick could feel his heart lighten. He'd been honestly terrified of Carl finding out. What the kid would think and fear that he'd hate him. "So... you wanna stay for dinner?"

Carl's face brightened and he nodded. "I'll call mom." He said, pulling his phone out of his pocket.

Rick's eyes widened. "Don't tell your mother!"

"Duh, dad." He stuck his tongue out at Rick and headed into the kitchen.

Rick waited until Carl was out of sight. Then let out a deep breath and turned to grab Daryl's hand. He pulled the other man closer and leaned his head against him. "That went well, I think." He felt suddenly lightheaded.

Daryl grunted in response and wrapped his arms around Rick's waist.

Rick closed his eyes for a moment, relishing in Daryl's strong grip. It felt grounding. He needed that. And then a thought occurred to him. He opened his eyes and smiled. "You admitted we're dating." He said softly.

Daryl leaned away from him as far as the embrace would allow. He glanced away for a moment shrugged. "Well we are, ain't we?"

Rick nodded dumbly.

"Shut up."

Now Rick felt lightheaded and giddy for another reason. But he felt Daryl tense up and felt the man's grip slacken. He breathed out and changed topics. "Judy asleep still?"

Daryl nodded.

"Jessi out back?"

Daryl nodded again, still not looking at him.

"Let her in. Carl saw the food bowl out there yesterday. Told him I was feeding a stray."

Daryl's mouth twitched a bit. "Two strays." He said, finally dropping his arms and separating himself from Rick. "I'll leave her here and you can let him play with her."

Rick frowned and grabbed his arm when he made to move away. "You're leaving?"

Daryl frowned. "Ain't I?"

"Why the hell for?"

Daryl glanced at the kitchen for a moment and then back at Rick. "You didn't want me ta meet the kid."

Rick looked away and scratched at the back of his head. "It wasn't that I didn't... jus... didn't wanna have to explain... whatever this is..." He said awkwardly. "What exactly is..."

Carl came back out of the kitchen, holding his phone against his chest to muffle the receiver. "Mom says if you drive me home. She doesn't want me riding my back in the dark."

Rick rolled his eyes. "Like I'd let you leave this house on your bike after dark."

Carl smiled and put the phone back to his ear. "He said yes, mom." He said. "Okay. Yeah. Love you, too."

Rick glanced at Daryl. "You and Jessi are both staying."

Carl slipped the phone in his pocket. "Who's Jessi?"

Daryl let out a grunt and walked towards the kitchen. "I'll show you."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Carl was in the back yard, playing fetch with Jessi. Judy was in her bouncy chair, propped in front of the glass door in the kitchen. She let out a loud squeak every time the dog ran past. Rick and Daryl were sitting beside each other in at the kitchen table. Rick was leaning heavily on the table. He was half asleep even though it wasn't that late yet.

"'m sorry." Daryl said quietly.

"Hmm?" Rick turned his head slightly and blinked at Daryl.

"He was at the door an' I didn't know what to do."

"It's okay, Daryl."

Daryl shook his head. He was leaning back in his chair and he was staring at his hands in his lap. "No it ain't. You said..."

Rick let out a sigh and pushed himself off the table. He leaned back in his chair and stretched. "Wasn't you." He mumbled. "I was worried what he'd think." Rick glanced over as Carl and the dog ran past again. He smiled and breathed out. "He seems fine with it."

Daryl followed his movements and snorted. "He jus' likes the dog."

Rick laughed. "Probably. Always wanted one. But Lori was bit when she was younger. Was afraid of them."

"Never had a real pet neither." Daryl said. "Snuck a snake I'd caught into the house once. Kept it in a laundry basket fer a week 'fore mom found it."

Rick let out a laugh.

It was getting dark when Daryl called them in. "Yer gonna kill her an' Merle's gonna kill me." Daryl quickly filled Jessi's water dish and set it down for her. The dog drank it and then collapsed on the ground.

Carl sunk down on the floor beside her, trying to catch his own breath. "Who's Merle?"

"Me brother." Daryl bent down and picked the dog up. "Been trying to keep her alive while he's away. Can't do that if ya run 'er inta the ground."

"Sorry." Carl said sheepishly.

Daryl smirked as he carried Jessi into the living room. He set her down on the couch and she stretched out. "Jus' giving ya a hard time. She's fine. Jus' tired."

Rick was sitting across the room on the chair. Judy was in his lap, clapping her hands. She lifted them and waved as Daryl came closer. "Why does she like you better?"

Daryl shrugged and grabbed her off Rick's lap. "Gonna give her a bath and put her to bed."

Rick nodded and watched them disappear up the stairs. He turned as Carl walked in from the kitchen. "So... what do you really think?"

Carl shrugged and plopped down beside Jessi. The dog rolled over towards him and shoved her head under his hand. Carl scratched her ears and let out a sigh. "Were you ever gonna tell me?" He asked softly.

Rick sighed and leaned forward. "I... I don't know..." He breathed out. "Yes... I would have told you... eventually." He shook his head. "Maybe when you were older. I was just... scared. I felt like I'd lost everything, Carl. I didn't want to lose you."

"You always tell me that no matter what, you'll always love me." Carl said. "That goes for you, too, dad. No matter what, I love you. You're my dad."

Rick sighed. "Turning my own words against me, huh?"

Carl went on. "You could have told me about Daryl."

"I just... it just... happened, Carl. And then... Daryl's so..." He sighed and shook his head.

"Tell me how you met him."

Rick shook his head quickly. "Oh no."

Carl rolled his eyes. "Come on. Tell me."

Rick glanced over at him. He stared at him for a moment. Then nodded and leaned back. "Okay, fine. I went out drinking the day the divorce was finalized. I got really drunk and Daryl sat down beside me. I called him pretty and he drug me outside and I thought he was gonna kick my ass. And instead... he sort of hit on me and I invited him home."

Carl's eyes widened. "Dad!"

"I wasn't out trolling around for that, I swear." Rick said quickly. "It just happened. And he sort of never left."

Carl shook his head slowly and smiled. "You seem happy." He said after a few moments.

Rick nodded. "I am. I think... for the first time, I really am."

"Judy likes him."

Rick nodded again and looked to the stairs. He could hear the water running and thought he could hear Daryl's low voice. "She really does. When Carol disappeared, I tried to find another sitter. And Judy just screamed for everyone until I broke down and called Daryl. He'd oddly good with her." Rick was still smiling and gazing up the stairs. He was lost in thought for a few minutes. Lost in the enigma that was Daryl.

"Dad?" Carl said loudly.

"Hmm?" Rick shook his head and tore his gaze and thoughts away from who was upstairs. He turned back to Carl slowly. "What?"

Carl smiled. "I said I'm really happy for you. He seems really cool. And weird and so different from you."

"He is." Rick shook his head. "He's this amazing person, Carl. And he doesn't even know."

Carl frowned for a moment.

"What?"

Carl bit his lip and looked down. "You sound like you're... are you... in love?" He said softly.

Rick sighed and looked away.

Carl looked back up when Rick didn't say anything. "Dad?"

Rick shook his head. "I'm not gonna answer that."

"Dad..."

"No." Rick said loudly. "I accidently brought that up a few weeks ago. Daryl threw a fit. Said he wasn't worth it. He's got such a twisted, low self image. I'm... just afraid of... scaring him off."

"But you do, don't you?" Carl persisted.

Rick sighed and shook his head again. "You little shithead." He looked away. He tried not to think about it too much. Tried not to let himself think about it. "I'm afraid of myself too." He admitted softly. "I don't know how to be alone. I was with your mom most of my life. And I'm afraid... this is some kind of rebound and one day I'll wake up and not feel this way anymore and I'll hurt him... but it feels..." He shook his head. "Like I can't breathe without him. And that scares the hell out of me because it's been like five months."

Carl smiled. "You're in love."

Rick narrowed his eyes. "Don't say that again!" He snapped, shaking his head.

Carl looked down at the sleeping dog in his lap. "Sorry. I won't." They were silent for a bit until Carl looked up at the clock. His eyes widened. "Uh dad... it's getting late."

Rick glanced over. It was after 9. "Oh shit! Uh..." He leaned back and fished his phone out of his pocket. He frowned at the blank display. "She hasn't called." He said rather perplexed.

Carl pulled his out and shrugged. "Hasn't called me either."

That was weird. Lori'd called and yelled at Rick several times if they were running late. Even a few minutes and she was calling, panicked. Rick yawned and shook his head. "Wanna just sleep here?" He didn't think he could manage to drive across town.

Carl shrugged. "Sure. Can Jessi sleep in my room?"

Rick smiled and nodded. "She usually sleeps in Judy's, by the crib." Rick hit Lori's number and put the phone to his ear. It took a while for her to answer.

"Hello?"

"Lori?" He could barely hear here. The line kept cutting out. "Lori?"

"Rick?"

"Yeah... uh... we lost track of time." Rick said loudly. "Carl's gonna sleep here and we'll swing by early to get his school stuff and I'll take him."

The line was silent a moment. "I didn't get all that." Lori said. "Carl's not home?"

"No."

"You'll take him to school?"

"Yeah." Rick glanced over at Carl.

"Okay, that's fine." Lori said after a few moments. "Tell him I love him."

Rick pulled the phone from his ear. "She says she loves you." He mumbled. "She's not home."

Carl nodded. "She's probably out again."

"Again?"

"She has... a boyfriend..." Carl said awkwardly, looking away.

"Oh." Rick nodded. That was good. That was really good. He smiled slightly and leaned back. That meant there was a chance he hadn't ruined her life. Maybe they both could move on and get passed this. Maybe they could be happy for each other. Maybe they could even eventually be friends. He'd like that. After all the years of being with her, it felt odd not seeing her at all. And Shane. Maybe Shane would forgive him too. They'd been friends for their whole lives. Maybe he could have it all. Daryl and the kids. Lori and Shane. His parents.

Daryl came down the stairs. "You ain't left yet?"

Rick glanced back at him and then at Carl. Then he yawned and stood up. "Ain't going."

"Don't think ya can even make it ta the door." Daryl said, shaking his head. "Need me ta drive 'im?"

Rick shook his head. "Lori's on a date."

Daryl raised an eyebrow.

"He's sleeping here." Rick said, yawning again. "I'll take him to school tomorrow."

Daryl nodded stiffly.

"Judy asleep?" Rick asked, stepping closer to him.

He nodded again.

"Good. I'm tired." Rick glanced back at Carl. "Half an hour. Then you better be asleep." He grabbed for Daryl's hand.

Daryl pulled away from him and stepped back. His eyes were wide. "Rick."

"Sleep."

Daryl stepped closer to Rick. "I should sleep on the couch."

Rick grabbe4d his hand, harder this time, and yanked him towards the stairs. "See ya in the morning, Carl."

"Night dad. Night Daryl."

"G'night." Daryl mumbled, reluctantly letting Rick pull him up the stairs.

Chapter Text

Daryl could feel the kid staring holes in the back of his head. Probably death glares. He felt when the kid walked in the kitchen. Didn't say nothing. But Daryl heard the cupboard open. Heard the kid pull out a glass and fill it with water. Daryl didn't move, hardly breathed as he stood in front of the stove. He shoulda gone to Merle's. Shouldn't have stayed. Shouldn't have slept in Rick's room, in Rick's bed. And that's all they did. Was sleep. Rick was snoring as soon as his head hit the pillow. But still. Yeah. Why didn't he leave? He could have slept one more night without Rick beside him. And Daryl chose to push that thought from his mind. When had his life become so dependent on another person? Well two.

"Are you okay?"

Daryl practically jumped at the voice, suddenly beside him. Three. Because if the teenager hated him, he was fucked. If Carl didn't like him, he'd have to pack up and leave. Go back to Merle's. He glanced sideways at Carl. "'M'fine."

Carl was leaning against the counter right beside him. He tilted his head. "Are you living here?" He asked softly.

Daryl stilled. Living there? Was he living there? With Rick? When was the last time he'd been to Merle's? Other than hiding from Carl last week? Had he really moved in without realizing? Well shit. If he didn't notice, he bet his ass Rick did. "Uh... yeah. Guess I am." Daryl answered softly. "That okay with you?"

Carl shrugged. "Doesn't matter what I think."

"Does." Daryl said. "Yer house."

"Only a couple days a month." Carl countered.

Daryl wanted to slap the kid. But that was probably the wrong urge. He shifted his weight and chewed on his thumb nervously. "Still matters." He mumbled.

"I don't know." Carl said, tilting his head. "You live here and watch Judy. Dad's dating the nanny."

Daryl let out a sigh. "Didn't start out as the nanny." He mumbled.

Carl smiled. "Just a one night stand that never left."

Daryl moved without thinking. He turned and slapped the boy in the back of the head. Not hard. Like he'd do to Jessi when she tried to lick Judy's toes. His eyes widened when he realized what he did. But Carl just ducked his head and laughed. Like it was a normal thing to do. Daryl looked down at the stove in front of him.

It was silent for a few minutes. Carl shifted and stepped closer. "He loves you, you know." The kid said softly.

Daryl stiffened. "I know." He mumbled, the words barely audible.

Carl crossed his arms and leaned against the counter again. "What about you?" He pressed.

Daryl turned away again and chewed on his thumb. He didn't want to answer. Didn't want to be there. At that moment, he wanted to run out the door, hop on Merle's bike, and just gun it away. "Working on it." He mumbled around his thumb.

Carl's eyes narrowed. "If you're just playing or something messed up, you need to leave."

Daryl dropped his hand and turned back to Carl. He shook his head quickly. "I'm not."

"He's happy."

Daryl nodded. "I know."

"I ain't ever seen him like this." Carl said softly. "I think... if you leave... it'll crush him. Can you handle knowing that?"

Daryl swallowed the lump in his throat. He heard movement upstairs, heard a door shut. Rick would be down any minute. And he just wanted the kid to shut up. He didn't want Rick hearing any of them. Daryl nodded his head slowly. "Yes."

Carl smiled and pushed off the counter. "Okay." He said happily.

Daryl stared at him a moment. Damn kids. "Uh... eggs?"

Carl shrugged. "Usually just eat cereal."

"Cuz yer dad can't cook." Daryl said, reaching over to grab a spatula off the counter. He turned and pointed it at the table. "Sit yer fucking ass down. I'm making eggs and bacon."

"Okay."

Carl was a new addition to their routine. Daryl didn't run when he came over anymore. They started doing "family" things on the weekends when he was there. Trip to the zoo, visit to the museum, chase the dog around the park. It was weird... because it wasn't weird. It felt normal. It felt good. That should have been their first clue.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Rick was working 12's again. Daryl wasn't expecting him home until after 8. And Carl was out with his friend Patrick and said he'd be back around 6. Judy was still getting over a stomach flu and hadn't gotten her energy back. Jessi was keeping close to Judith , giving her licks whenever Daryl wasn't looking.

And he was bored. He'd spent most of the day doing laundry and just sitting around. Doing nothing. He'd pulled out his crossbow at one point and cursed the thick layer of dust on it. He hadn't been out camping or hunting or anything in several months. He suddenly realized how much he missed it. He bit his lip and wondered if Rick would want to go camping? Or let him go himself if not. Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. Let him? He cleaned his crossbow and bolts. Then tucked them back away in the garage out of baby and dog's path.

Judy took a late nap. And Jessi followed her, curling up right under the crib. Stupid dog, Daryl thought, as he walked into the kitchen. He glanced at the clock. 4:15. Still nearly 2 hours before Carl would get back. Daryl shook his head and headed to the sink. The dishes from the night before were still sitting there. He turned the faucet on and grabbed the dish soap.

The front door suddenly slammed. "It's me." Rick's voice carried.

Daryl turned the faucet off and dried his hands. "Honey, you're home early." Daryl walked into the living room, smiling broadly. He was happy that for whatever reason, Rick'd gotten off early. Because he was board out of his mind. "Dinner won't be ready for a few hours."

Rick blinked, confused for a moment, and then slowly smiled. "What're we having, sweetie?"

Daryl shrugged, moving in closer. "Wasn't expecting anyone home. Order a pizza?"

Rick nodded. "Sounds lovely."

Daryl snaked his way into Rick's space. Bumped his chest against Rick's lightly. "Judy's still asleep." He said lowly. "Fell asleep late. Prolly be asleep for a couple hours. An' Carl ain't gonna be here 'til six."

Rick stepped back and let out a groan. He stepped around Daryl and sunk down in the chair.

Daryl frowned, suddenly worried by Rick's demeanor. "Rick, what's wrong?" He asked quickly. "Something happen at work?" He walked around Rick and sat down on the coffee table in front of him. "Rick!"

Rick leaned back slowly. He closed his eyes for a moment. "Monroe… he had a heart attack."

"Monroe…" Daryl repeated. He wasn't sure he recognized the name.

"The new guy." Rick said. "Transferred from upstate two weeks ago. He was 35. Derrick an' I were on patrol, just goofin' off an' laughing. An' there's a call over the radio. A robbery at a convince store. Monroe was chasing the perp… and he just collapsed. Just… dead. He was 35."

Daryl leaned forward and gripped Rick's knee. "I'm sorry."

Rick shrugged. "I didn't know him. Could count on one hand all the words we said to each other. But he's got a wife and two girls. An' it got me thinking… 'bout Judy. Daryl, if anything ever…"

Daryl shook his head. "Don't even say it."

"Daryl, I'm being serious." Rick said with a sigh. "I'm a cop and it's a dangerous job. Anything can happen. And if it does… Daryl…" Rick looked away.

"Rick. You know I'll take care of her. I'd do right for that kid. Carl too. They're mine." He fought the urge to roll his eyes or sigh or anything else. The words sounded stupid in his head. How he could become so attached so quickly. But he had. "Can't imagine my life without them in it." He said softly. "You neither so keep yerself alive."

Rick smiled. "Was hoping you'd say that. Because I was thinking… the easiest way for that to happen…" He took a deep breath. "Is for us to get married so you can file for second parent adoption." He said rather quickly.

Daryl stared at him. Did he just... Rick just said... Daryl's eyes narrowed and darkened. He leaned forward again. "Are you asking me… to marry you?" Daryl asked slowly.

Rick shrugged and looked down at the ground sheepishly.

Daryl jumped up and turned for the kitchen. He grabbed his keys off the table. He had to get out of there. Now. Before he started screaming or breaking things.

"Daryl…" Rick started.

"Curt called earlier." He snapped loudly. "Dumbass new guy fucked up the motor on someone's bike. Wanted me to come in and see if I could fix it."

"Daryl…" Rick was up and trying to follow him.

Daryl spun around and put his hand out, moving fast. He stopped Rick, held him at arm's length. "Fold the laundry, do the dishes, and order the pizza. I'll be back for dinner."

Rick knew that look. That hard, stone stare that said, shut the fuck up and do whatever I say or I'll shove an arrow up your ass.

Daryl was out the door and in the garage. He weaved around Rick's car and pulled out on to the road. A few turns and ten minutes later, he pulled into Curt's Garage. Daryl rolled his eyes nearly every time he rode by the sign.

"Daryl!" The large man knew the sound of Daryl's bike. He was covered in oil and grease and a fat smile. "I just knew you would…"

Daryl popped the stand and slid off the bike. "Show me the damn bike and fuck off, Curt." He snapped loudly.

The man blinked at him and nodded. "Alright then. Back here."

Daryl zoned out, ignored everything for now except the engine parts scattered in front of him. Building a bike was so much easier than a family. It could only run one way. If it didn't, there was an easy problem to find and fix. If it couldn't be fixed, throw it away and get a new one without another thought.

It's not like he ever thought about getting married and having a family. Because he never did. Ever. It had never been in the realm of possibilities for him. He never lied when he said he didn't date. Because he didn't. Ever. Who the fuck would want to put a ring on his finger? Would he have to wear a ring? Would Rick expect him to? Did he want him to? Did he want Rick to wear one? Did he want him to want to?

Daryl shook his head. It was starting to hurt. He didn't want to find a new family. He just wasn't sure what Rick really wanted. The man had a bad day that scared him. Daryl didn't want to just be a solution to a possible future problem. He had no clue what he wanted to be. He didn't deserve any of this.

Daryl was so deep in thought that he hadn't heard the voice behind him until there was a hand on his shoulder. He sprung up and turned.

"Easy, Daryl." Curt said, his hands up.

"Curt, man!" Daryl shook himself and threw down the wrench he didn't realize he'd been holding. "Told ya don't fucken sneak up on me like that."

"Wasn't trying ta, swear." The man said, backing up a step. "Said your name like five times. Thought maybe you were having a stroke or something."

"Sorry." Daryl mumbled. "Whaddya want?"

"Ya been glaring at this thing for like twenty minutes flat. Randal fuck it up for good?"

Daryl turned to look back at the motorcycle. He blinked at it. He couldn't remember. He shrugged as he threw his leg over it. "One way to find out." He started it up and listened. He revved it a few times before putting it into gear and kicking off. He drove a tight circle around Curt and then parked it back where it'd been.

"Well hot damn, Daryl." Curt clapped his fat hands together and smiled broadly. "You're the best damn mechanic that's been through here. Why ain't ya working for me more?"

Daryl sighed and crossed his arms. "Cuz I gots two kids." He mumbled, looking away.

"I know, I know." The man clapped Daryl on the back, ignoring the way he jumped back. "Come on, I got another one for ya."

Daryl shook his head as he swung off the bike and stood up. "Promised I'd be home fer dinner. I gotta go."

"Damn it!" Curt scratched at the back of his head. "What about tomorrow morning? Got a call from a guy. He's going on some big motorcycle trip with his friends and his broke down. He wants to pay a shit ton to have it fixed by tomorrow."

Daryl shook his head. "Need ta go, Curt."

Curt followed him. "Doesn't need it till afternoon."

"I got both kids tomorrow." Daryl said, climbing on Merle's bike. "Ain't leaving 'em alone and sure as fuck ain't bringing 'em here."

Curt wouldn't give up. "What if I dropped it and a buncha parts and shit off at your house? I'll pay ya double."

Daryl grunted and shook his head. "You can drop it. I ain't guaranteeing I'll get to it."

The man smiled. "Wish I had ten more of ya. Get home to yer family. Tell 'em I said hi."

Daryl grunted again and revved the engine.

Chapter Text

Daryl pushed the door open loudly and stomped into the kitchen. Carl was there, holding Judith. The kid looked like he wanted to say something but didn't when he saw Daryl's face. Daryl's eyes were on Rick's, sitting across the table from the kids. "I got one question for you."

Rick was a bit taken aback by the intrusion. He blinked and glanced at Carl and Judith for a moment. Then back at Daryl. "Uh…"

Daryl leaned on the table towards him. "Are you fuckin' with me?"

"No… no!" Rick stammered, getting up. He held up his hands and shook his head.

Daryl moved in closer and pushed him lightly in the chest. "Really, Rick." He said loudly. "You better not be fuckin' wit me. You really wanna marry me? Me?" He punctuated the word louder.

Rick glanced at Carl for a split second. The kid was staring at them, wide eyed. "Daryl." He lowered his voice. "We should discuss this in private."

"Fuck that." He turned towards Carl and leaned on the table towards him. "Yer dad asked me to marry him so I can adopt Judy so I get her if he dies."

Rick grabbed Daryl's arm and yanked him back off the table. "Jesus, Daryl."

"He deserves to know." Daryl snapped, wrenching away from Rick. "This is his house too. He's a part of the family. Ain't like me, yer big fucken dirty secret." His voice rose in a yell.

Judy let out a wail at the noise and Carl jumped up, hugging her to her chest. "Shhhh." He soothed, moving into the living room and patting her back.

Rick's eyes were on Daryl, not paying any heed to his fleeing son. "Daryl, you aren't…"

Daryl grabbed Rick's collar and yanked him closer. "Your fucken best friend and your wife don't even know yer dating anyone." He snapped.

"Ex-wife." Rick corrected, pushing Daryl off. "Ex-friend, too."

Daryl shook his head. "Imma big fucken secret."

Rick sighed and turned away. "It's… complicated."

Daryl snorted and threw up his arms. "We get married, it ain't gonna make this easier. Gonna complicate it more."

This wasn't doing any good. Daryl was just getting madder and Rick didn't know what to say to fix it. But he wanted to fix it. He wanted to take the damned proposal back. Just wanted to take the whole day back. "Daryl…" Rick said his name softly and stepped forward, reaching towards him.

"No!" Daryl jumped back. He lifted his hand and pointed at Rick. "You think about that before you ask me for real. Some flippant proposal as a segue to adoption because someone died ain't cutting it." He stomped out of the kitchen and paused in the living room. He cleared his throat. "Hey kiddo." He said to Carl, reaching out to ruffled the shocked boy's hair. "Sorry 'bout the outburst."

"We're fine." Carl said softly, ducking away from Daryl with a timid smile.

Daryl bent down and kissed Judy's forehead. "Be a good girl." He straightened up.

"Daryl…" Rick followed him.

Daryl shook his head. "I'm going to Merle's for the night. You get her head on straight." He headed for the door. "Jessi." The dog appeared by him, barking and wiggling excitedly. Probably thought they were going for a walk. Daryl opened the door and she darted out. He paused and turned back. "I'll be back before you gotta leave for work. Carl, I'll help you wit that book report I promised." He stepped through the door and stopped again. "Oh an' Curt'll be dropping off a bike and some shit for me to do tomorrow. Not sure when but probably early knowing him. Now uh… I'm storming out." He slammed the door and was gone.

Rick let out a loud sigh and sunk down on the couch. He leaned forward a moment and took a deep breath. That reaction was... nothing he'd ever expected. He fucked this up. Big time. He rubbed at his eyes. His head suddenly ached.

Carl crossed the room and sat down beside Rick. Judy waved her arms at Rick. "Didja really ask him like that?"

Rick looked up at Judy and sighed. He sat up and grabbed her. He tucked her against him and leaned back against the couch. He kissed the top of her head. "Yeah." He breathed out.

Carl pulled his feet up under him and leaned back. "Didn't make him feel special."

"I… I didn't think it'd be that important to him." Rick said slowly.

Carl shook his head. "Dad, gay people are just like everyone else. They still wanna get married and have families."

Rick looked at him sideways. "Smartass." Carl grinned at him. He leaned closer and blew in Judy's face. She squealed in delight and tried to grab his nose. Rick sighed. He just... he had a bad idea. And when he got home and saw Daryl... Daryl was the answer. Rick just... fucked up the question.

They sat in silence for a bit. Until Judith tried to pull Carl's hair. Rick smiled, watching as Carl tried to detach his sister's sticky fingers from his hair. "Whaddaya think?" Rick mumbled slightly, pulling Judy back.

Carl shrugged. "Ain't gonna change anything." The kid said. "He already lives here. He already plays dad pretty well. But I guess it'd be nice for Judy if he really was." Carl looked at the squirming baby in Rick's arms. "An' me too." He said with a smile.

Rick smiled. "You like him, huh?"

Carl nodded. "He's really cool."

Rick was still smiling. He gazed down at Judy's head. She yawned widely and rested her head against him.

Carl was watching. "I think you should marry Daryl." He said. "An' I think you should tell mom an' uncle Shane." He looked up at Rick. "After you're married and he's our dad."

"After?" Rick repeated, glancing sideways at him.

Carl nodded. "Jus' tell Daryl that mom 'n Shane are jerks and you'll tell them when they can't stop it."

Rick sighed and rubbed at his forehead. "Sounds like a copout."

"Yeah..." Carl said slowly, nodding. "But Daryl feels like a dirty secret."

Rick visibly flinched at that.

Carl continued. "He knows there's a reason but still doesn't make him feel better."

Rick shook his head and leaned back, letting Judy slide down a bit. She was resting in the crook of his arm but she didn't wake. "It's Daryl." Rick said softly. "He's not... he wouldn't want some giant, grand gesture. He'd think it was stupid and tell me to fuck off and leave again. He gets pissed off whenever I bring up... feelings."

Carl frowned and tilted his head to the side, thinking. "It shouldn't be big." He said, shaking his head. "It should be quiet. And outside. Like nighttime with the stars. He likes the stars."

Rick considered the suggestion. Just sitting outside in the backyard at night. Just seemed too... simple. But maybe Carl was right. "Stars, huh?"

Carl nodded. "Just the two of you. Judy can hang with me in my room." The kid paused for a moment and smiled. "And whatever goes on outside or inside, we'll just turn up the TV."

Rick's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open at the implication.

Carl rolled his eyes. "Come on, dad. I know you've done it."

Rick shook his head. "Not while you're in the house."

"You've done it while Judy's here."

"Judy's too young to be traumatized by her parents having sex." Rick shook his head. "We are not talking about this." He said with a tone that said drop it.

Carl was smiling broadly. "But ya gotta make him feel special."

Rick eyed him for a moment and nodded. "Yeah, I guess so."

Carl's eyes suddenly widened. "You should offer to go meet Merle."

Rick tilted his head. "His brother?"

Carl nodded again. "He gets released next month."

Rick frowned. "He does?" Rick sighed and leaned back on the couch. Did he know Merle was getting released soon? Actually, he thought it was a few months back. He vaguely remember Daryl mentioning something about fighting. He smiled. "Anything else I've missed?"

Carl smiled widely. "Mom's dating uncle Shane."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Daryl ducked into the garage before he left, grabbing his crossbow and then loading Jessi up in the pickup. She seemed confused for a moment. She glanced back at the house as if wondering why they were alone or maybe waiting for someone. Daryl didn't go anywhere without Judy. And Carl and Rick were home. Daryl rolled his eyes. "Dumb ass dog. Get in the fuckin' truck."

Jessi finally jumped in. Daryl rolled the window down and she stuck her nose out. All was good now in her tiny world. Daryl sighed as he turned the truck on and backed out.

He pulled into Merle's place and his stomach was a pit of dread. He turned the truck off and let out a sigh. Merle's tiny little trailer didn't compare to Rick's house. It wasn't even on the same wavelength. Shouldn't even be both called homes.

Daryl opened the door and slid out slowly. Jessi followed, barking loudly and bouncing around. Merle inherited the house they'd grown up in when their dad died. That was fine with Daryl. He wanted nothing to do with it. Wanted nothing to do with anything his dad had touched when he was alive. But a few bad decisions and Daryl ended up moving in with Merle a few years back. And when Daryl finally started getting his shit together to move out, Merle had gotten his ass thrown in jail. And then begged Daryl to stay and take care of his dumb ass dog.

And now... Daryl really didn't want to come back. He really wanted to stay with Rick. He really wanted to flee back to Rick. Rick's house and Rick's kids. He let out a sigh and grabbed his crossbow. He whistled for Jessi. "Goin' huntin'."

Jessi was not a hunting dog. She barked at everything that moved and tried to chase the leaves she herself lifted off the ground with her movements. But her awful attempts made Daryl laugh. Really laugh. Made his chest feel lighter. Maybe she could learn to be quieter. Probably not.

Daryl wanted to take Rick hunting. Carl too. Judy, when she was older.

Older... the word older implied he'd be sticking around. He sighed and watched as Jessi stuck her nose in a pricker bush. He shook his head as she yelped and jumped back. He bent down and checked her muzzle. "Barely a scratch." He told her. "Ya aren't a huntin' dog." He smiled when she darted forward to lick his face.

Rick probably wouldn't be much better, Daryl thought with a smile. Rick bumbling around in the woods sounded like a fun day. That he really needed to have.

Even with Jessi's not-hunting-dog ability, he managed to snag a small rabbit and two squirrels. He let out a sigh as he turned around and they started back towards the trailer.

He already missed the noise.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Daryl's phone rang shortly after he and Jessi had eaten. Daryl pulled it from his pocket quickly, not even sparing a second to glance at the display. His thoughts were on Rick and he just assumed that's who it would be. "Yeah?"

"Hey little brother."

"Oh..." Daryl didn't even try to mask his disappointment. He hadn't realized how much he wanted it to be Rick until he heard Merle's voice. He let out a sigh and leaned back against the old worn couch. Jessi was beside him, licking her paws. "Hey Merle." He said dejectedly.

"Well shit." Merle said loudly. "Don't sound so fucken excited to 'ear ma voice."

Daryl let out a sigh. He glanced down at Jessi beside him. He didn't want to deal with Merle calling to talk to the dog. "What do you want, Merle?"

Merle snorted. "What's got yer panties ina bunch, Darlina?"

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Nothin'."

"Aw come on." Merle whined over the line. "Gotta be sumtin'. Ya can tell ol' Merle."

"Jus... a bad day." Daryl breathed out.

"Bad day, eh? Bit vague there."

"Fuck off, Merle." He snapped.

"Sounds like ya fighting wit a dame."

Daryl didn't answer. He blinked and bit his lip.

"Holy shit!" Merle let out a laugh. "Ya do got a dame!"

"Gay, Merle." Daryl mumbled. "Don't go girls."

"Then a girly guy."

"Ain't girly." Daryl mumbled under his breath.

"What?"

"You wanna talk to Jessi?" Daryl asked loudly, trying to change the subject. "Got her right here."

Merle gasped rather loudly. "Shoulda said that sooner."

Daryl rolled his eyes again and shook his head. He pulled the phone away from his ear and hit the speakerphone button. He set the phone down on the couch cushion beside him. Jessi watched his movements with mild interest. Then stuck her nose against the phone.

"Don't lick it!" Daryl snapped.

"Hey Jessi!" Merle said softly, his voice full of affection. "My baby girl. Ya been behaving fer uncle Daryl?"

Daryl shook his head and crossed his arms. "I ain't the dog's uncle."

"Aw! Jessi, dun listen ta him."

Daryl tuned Merle out after that. Hearing him make kissy noises at a dog was disturbing. Merle was ridiculous where Jessi was concerned. Sure, Daryl liked the dog fine. Sometimes. Usually. Pretty much, he just tolerated her. Carl and Judy liked her, though. It was pretty fun to watch Jessi try to lick Judy when no one was looking. And Carl chasing her around until she dropped from exhaustion. Okay, Daryl liked the damn dog.

"Darlina! Ya hear me?"

Daryl blinked and looked down at the phone. "What?"

Merle grunted loudly. "I said I got another month, prolly."

Daryl snorted and shook his head. "Quit fucken fighting."

"Fucken deserved it." Merle snapped.

"Ya ain't ever gonna get out." Daryl said, picking his phone back up. He hit the speakerphone button again and pressed it back to his ear. "Keep her nose down and clean. Or else this dog is mine." He patted Jessi on the back and she rolled over, vying for a belly rub.

"Oh fuck no!" Merle snapped loudly.

"She's done forgot about ya." Daryl said with a smirk. "All she's gonna know is me. She's gonna follow me wherever I go an' we gonna leave yer fighting ass behind."

Merle was mad now, Daryl could hear it in his voice. "Like hell ya will!"

"She gonna be my new huntin' dog."

"She's too delicate!"

Daryl snorted. "Dad'd kicked yer ass fer saying the world delicate."

Merle laughed loudly.

Chapter Text

Daryl had been gone all day. Rick was pretty sure he knew why. That made him more nervous than the prospect of asking again. Because if Daryl was off freaking out, it didn't bode well for Rick. Daryl would say no and then pack up and leave. Rick sighed.

"He'll be back."

Rick looked up at Carl as the teen walked in, holding Judy. He leaned back and shook his head. "I'm not sure anymore."

Carl shifted Judy in his arms and sat down across the table from him. "You really think he'll leave?"

Rick drug his nails across the table top. "I think there's a hell of a chance he will."

"Maybe you shouldn't ask him again."

"I think I have to now." Rick said softly. "If I don't, it will only prove to him that I asked out of panic after I had a bad day."

"You did."

Rick glanced up at him and shook his head.

"Do you really want to marry him?"

"I do." Rick let out a sigh. "Despite our blaring problems, I liked being married to your mom. I liked the whole belonging to someone else thing." He leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. "I loved your mom in my own way. And she loved me. In the beginning, it was great." He blinked and shook himself. "And Judy..." He looked over at her. "I worry about her every time I leave for work. What would happen to her without me? I'm all she has. And that fear could cause me to be too careless. All it takes is one tiny mistake, a one second hesitation and she has no one." He shook his head. "I know my parents would do it. But they're so far from you and she doesn't know them. Daryl is all she knows."

"That's what you need to tell him." Carl said softly.

"Hmm?"

"Tell him you want to belong to him and you want Judy to, too."

Rick smiled. "You think that'll work?"

Carl shrugged. "It might help. Or the pressure might be too much and send him running anyways."

Rick sighed and pulled out his phone. No new messages from Daryl. "It's kinda morbid." Rick said suddenly, smiling. "Marry me so I can die in peace."

Carl rolled his eyes. "Stop it, dad. Before you jinx yourself."

"I ain't dying anytime soon." He said with a laugh. "I promise."

"At least not until you get married."

Rick winked at him. "Riiiiight."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

He was hiding. In the park. With the dog. He was sitting under a fucking tree in the park with the dog and hiding from Rick. He had a feeling when he'd woken up. Lori had dropped Carl off really early and Rick had the day off. And when Daryl woke up alone in their bed, he just had this sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He just knew Rick was gonna ask him again.

And then it would be over. Because Rick was the marrying type. He wanted to be married and the idea terrified Daryl. But the idea of just picking up and going back to Merle's with only the damn dog terrified him even more.

Jessi suddenly let out a loud bark and rolled over into his lap. She attempted to bat his hand with her nose and licked him. Daryl sighed and put his hand on her head. "The fuck do we do? Fucken married! That's like permanent. Forever." He scratched behind her ears and she licked his arm. Daryl let out a sigh. He leaned his head back against the tree trunk and closed his eyes.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Rick pulled out his phone. He wanted to call Daryl. Or maybe not. He felt nervous already. He wasn't sure his voice would even work right. And then it would only make Daryl more nervous. Rick rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Get a grip." He said to himself and sent a text to Daryl.

You out all day?

A moment later, Daryl sent a reply. Hunting.

The one word answer was the only one he got. Rick sighed and bit his lip. As long as Daryl came back sometime before dawn, he supposed he was okay.

Carl popped up behind him and leaned over the couch. "Where's Daryl?"

"Hunting."

"Hiding?" Carl corrected.

Rick smiled. "Probably."

"Scary cop."

Rick grabbed him, pulled him over the couch. Carl let out a surprised squeal and laughed as he tumbled over.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Rick was in the kitchen, doing the dishes. He glared down at the pot. There was a layer of burnt, crusted pasta glued to the bottom. How the hell had he managed to do that when the spaghetti had come out crunchy?

"Dad..." Carl had said earlier, staring at the mess. "You boil noodles and open a jar of sauce. How did you screw it up so badly?"

Rick had told him to toss it out while he ran out and picked up some Chinese take-out. That he couldn't possible\y screw up.

Rick glared at the burnt pan for a few more minutes longer. Then sighed and dropped it in the trashcan. Then he quickly pulled the bag out and tied it. Get rid of the evidence before Daryl got back and threw a fit because he'd ruined the good soup pot. He'd have to sneak out at some point and get a new one before Daryl noticed.

He grabbed the bag and headed out to the door. But Carl had seen him. And was smiling knowingly at the bag. Rick sighed. "Don't tell Daryl."

Carl tilted his head for a moment. "My Playstation subscription runs out next week."

Rick nodded and opened the door. "Deal." He shut the door and turned and Daryl's truck was just pulling in the driveway. Rick hurried to the side of the house and dropped the bag in the trashcan. Then turned and walked towards the truck. "Hey." He said as Daryl got out.

"Hey." Daryl grunted. Jessi slipped out behind him and darted over to Rick. Rick tried to step back but she'd already jumped on him, her muddy paw prints on his jeans. "Damnit, Jessi." Daryl snapped. "Dun toldja no jumpin'."

Rick pushed her down gently. Then bent down to scratch her head and pat her back. He laughed and shook his head. "It's fine."

"Ain't fine. Yer all muddy."

"So are you. Both of you."

Daryl looked down at himself. "Sorry." He said sheepishly. Rick smiled and surged forward. He wrapped his arms around the filthy man's waist and pulled him closer. Daryl pushed against him, protesting, but only exceeding in marring Rick's white shirt more.

Rick was still smiling like an idiot. "Didja catch anything?"

Daryl shook his head.

"So what.." Rick said, tilting his head a bit. "You spent the day rolling around on the ground?"

Daryl glanced down at the dog who was rubbing against their legs. "Fucken dog can't hunt."

Rick laughed. "Quit taking her." Daryl let out a snort and looked away. Rick's smile widened. "You both need a bath."

Daryl looked back at him. "Ya offering ta help?"

Rick wrinkled his nose and stepped back. "Your dog."

"Oh. Mine now?"

Rick shrugged. "There's a hose out back."

"That's cold man." Daryl whistled for Jessi and turned for the door. Rick followed slowly.

An hour later passed by quickly. The dog had been washed and was rolling around on a towel while Carl laughed. Daryl showered and put on the same clothes he'd slept in the night before. Rick hadn't bothered changing. He'd brushed himself off but it really wasn't that bad. And now Daryl was getting Judy ready for bed. Carl and Jessi were standing, waiting. The moment Daryl came downstairs with Judy, Carl snatched her.

Daryl frowned and Carl stuck his tongue out at him. "Come on, kid. I ain't seen her all day."

"Then you shouldn't have been hiding."

Daryl's eyes widened a bit and he looked at the floor.

"Dad." Carl said loudly. "Taking Judy. We're going to my room."

"Okay. Good night." Rick yelled up to him. "See ya in the morning."

Carl smiled widely at Daryl. Then patted his leg for Jessi to follow him and walked down the hall to his bedroom. Daryl stood in the hall, staring at the closed door. Rick was at the bottom of the stairs. Watching him. And smiling. "Hey."

"Hey." Daryl said as he turned slowly.

"There's some Chinese in the fridge if you're hungry." Daryl didn't answer and Rick turned and headed into the living room. He smiled to himself and dropped on the couch. The TV was already on, playing a marathon of the old Star Trek show. Carl had been watching it. Rick kept his attention on the show he'd seen a dozen times. Daryl was fumbling around in the kitchen for a while. Then came in and sat in the chair across from him. Rick could see the other man's nervous movements. Daryl was chewing on his thumb and bouncing his leg. Rick suppressed the urge to laugh.

Another full episode later and Daryl out of a loud, frustrated sigh. "Rick!"

Rick glanced over. "What?" He asked innocently.

Daryl's eyes narrowed into a glare. He stood up and turned. "Going ta bed."

"Wait, wait." Rick jumped up and grabbed his arm. "Come outside with me for a moment."

Daryl stopped and turned to look at him. "Outside?" Rick backed up slowly, pulling Daryl along with him. He smiled and nodded. Daryl let out a sigh and let Rick pull him outside.

Rick stopped in the center of the yard and dropped down on the ground. "Sit with me."

Daryl stared at him blankly for a moment. "On the ground? After ya just made me shower?"

Rick pulled Daryl down beside him. Daryl rolled his eyes and adjusted himself, sitting cross legged in front of Rick. Rick took a deep breath. "You are a wonderful, amazing person, Daryl. And it kills me that you don't realize it. You can threaten to kick my ass when I let it slip that I was that I was in love with you and at the same time, smile at Judy and make her a bottle."

Daryl was staring at the ground as he chewed on his nail.

"An' I know you can't say it. Whatever hang ups you have about yourself and the concept... I love you Daryl. You love me. And I know you love the kids. That's all I need to know. That's all that matters."

"I've been thinkin' 'bout it, Rick." Daryl said so soft and timidly sounding.

Rick smiled slightly and leaned back. He had more to say, more he planned to say. But if he could get Daryl to talk, he'd keep quiet now and let the man process his thoughts. That's what Daryl needed. And Rick could be patient. He'd learned more about patience dealing with Daryl than he'd ever had as a cop, husband, or parent.

Daryl exhaled loudly, like he'd been holding his breath. "I ain't ever thought about it before. Ever gettin' married an' having kids. It just ain't int he cards for me."

Rick bit back a sigh. His stomach was doing flips now but he tried to keep it off his face. He didn't want to be all melodramatic but he didn't know what he'd do if Daryl left him. If he'd chased the man off... why couldn't he think before he opened his mouth? He shouldn't have ever brought it up. Or at least asked Daryl what he thought about marriage or the concept in general, in a sneaky way. At least that way, he could have gauged his response. But noooo. He had to blurt out a shitty ass proposal and he couldn't take it back now. Not that he really wanted to. He wanted Daryl. Forever, more than anything. More than anything with Lori.

"But..." Daryl finally continued after a few silent moments. "I dun wanna stop... an' if I have ta... ta keep ya..." He took a deep breath and blew it out. "I'll do it."

Rick sighed and shook his head. "It's not an ultimatum, Daryl. If you say no, I'm not going anywhere."

Daryl looked up at him, almost shyly. "You're not?"

"God no!" Rick said loudly. "I mean... I like the idea of marriage. I always have. A piece of paper that says you belong to someone and they belong to you. And it'll probably be nicer when it's to someone who you love because you want to and can. Not because you think you have to. But I'm happy, Daryl. With you. You make me happy. As long as I can have you, I don't care."

Daryl breathed out again and nodded. He smiled slightly.

"Mostly..." Rick added slowly. "It's about Judy."

Daryl's smile fell.

"Carl's fine. He has Lori and he's old enough that he could argue with her about seeing you. But Judy... Lori signed over her rights to me. Legally, I'm all she has. I know you said you'd fight for her and I know you would." He added with a smile. "But the law says you're no one to her and she'd go to my parents. We're still not on the best of terms. They've only seen Judy once. I think when they've had more time... they'd let you see her. But if we got married, you could adopt Judy and I wouldn't have to worry every time I left for work."

Daryl's eyes narrowed for a moment and he shook his head. "Try'n ta guilt me inta it."

Rick shook his head quickly. "Just the way it is."

Daryl grunted and chewed on his nail again.

"Nothing will change." Rick said after a moment.

Daryl glanced at him for a moment and looked away again. "Nothing..." He mumbled.

Rick shook his head. "Still you and me." He smiled. "And the kids and Jessi and this house. Unless you hate the house. Then we could move."

Daryl shook his head. "'s fine."

Rick was still smiling. "Just some extra paperwork."

"Do I hafta dress up?" Daryl asked after a moment.

"No."

"Gonna do pictures?"

Rick nodded. "A few."

"Gonna make me wear a wedding ring?"

Rick shook his head. "No, no rings."

Daryl nodded real slowly and was staring at the ground.

Rick watched him and smiled. "Unless you want to." Rick added quickly.

"Maybe." Daryl said softly and was silent again for a while. "Iff'n I say yes... then what?"

Rick tilted his head. "I don't know what you mean. I just said nothing will change."

Daryl shook his head. "Nah, I mean... like... weddin' 'n shit."

"Oh..." Rick shook his head. "We can just do the courthouse thing."

"You don't wanna big party?"

Rick shook his head. "Nooooo." He drug the word out. "Unless you want something flashy."

"No." Daryl said quickly.

"I'd... uh... like to invite my parents." Rick said. "If they'd come."

Daryl nodded. "That'd be fine."

"If you wanted your brother there, we could wait or I could call and see if I could pull any strings with the warden."

Daryl shook his head. "Nah. Wouldn't be his thing."

Rick took a deep breath. "Is it your thing?" Honestly, Rick still wasn't sure if Daryl's answer was a yes or a no.

Daryl chewed on his thumbnail again. He was looking at the ground. "Maybe." He mumbled out.

Rick let out a groan and threw himself back on the ground. He threw his arms out dramatically, laying flat on the grass. "Maybe?" He snapped. "Stop fucking with me and just say yes."

"Yes implies a question." Daryl mumbled. "Ain't hear ya ask it."

Rick rolled his eyes. "Christ, Daryl." Rick sat back up, shaking his head. He turned, angling his body towards Daryl. "Gimmie yer fucking hand." Rick snapped. Daryl pulled his thumb from his mouth quickly and wiped it on his jeans. Rick grabbed it, yanked a bit harder than necessary. But he got Daryl to look him in the eyes. "Daryl Dixon. Will you marry me?"

"Guess so." He mumbled.

Rick tilted his head forward a bit. "What was that? I didn't hear you."

Daryl shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Yes. I'll fucken marry you. Now shut up." Daryl grabbed him by the collar and pulled him down.

Rick bit back a laugh as he fell on top of the younger man. "Daryl..."

Daryl pulled their mouths together.

Rick leaned into him for a moment, relishing in the feeling. Then he pulled away, smiling. He planted his hands on either side of Daryl's head and pushed up. He held himself above Daryl, hovering. "Nothing changes, but damn, hearing you say yes..."

Daryl pulled on him again. "Shut up."

"Makes me so happy, Daryl."

Daryl let out a growl and arched his back off the ground, trying to press their bodies together again. "Don't wanna talk."

Rick suppressed another urge to laugh and lowered himself, putting all his weight on Daryl.

Chapter Text

Carl was the first up the next morning. Judy was still asleep in her crib beside Carl's bed. The dog was curled up under it. The teen yawned and stretched. Then slowly crept towards his door. He and Judy had fallen asleep pretty fast the night before. No screaming or yelling or... any other sorts of noise woke either of them. Carl hoped that was a good sign. He gripped the doorknob and turned it slowly. Then pushed the door open. He peeked his head out into the dark, empty hall. Dad and Daryl's door was still shut.

Carl took another look at Judy, confirming she was still sleeping, and then slunk through the hall and down the stairs. He tiptoed through the house. The living room was empty. The kitchen was empty. The backyard was empty. Both vehicles were out front and Daryl's motorcycle was still in the garage.

Carl smiled and headed back to his room. He carefully bent over the crib and picked Judy up. The girl didn't stir. At all. Carl tucked her against him and she was still asleep. Jessi crawled out from under the crib. She yawned and stretched and licked at his offered hard. Carl patted his leg and the three of them headed downstairs in silence.

He pulled Judy's swing into the kitchen and bent down. Gently, Carl set her in the swing and she was still asleep. He smiled and let Jessi out into the backyard.

It was still early. Just after 7. Carl knew Rick had the day off. But neither him or Daryl ever actually slept in. Carl was certain they'd be up soon, even if they'd been up all night. He looked around the kitchen. He'd never really cooked much. Other than the microwave and toaster. He probably shouldn't, either. Probably inherited his dad's cooking skills. He'd probably burn down the kitchen. He glanced down at the sleeping Judy. "What's easy to cook? That's not cereal?" He asked the unconscious infant.

He turned to the cabinets and started rifling through them. There was a box of pancake mix. All he had to do was add water. And use the stove. That was easy. He'd watched his mom make them like a million times. He pulled out a mixing bowl and measured out the mix and water.

And then Jessi was at the door, scratching to come in. Carl set the bowl on the counter and turned to the door. He opened it and Jessi darted in. Before Carl could stop her, she darted towards Judy and stuck her nose in the girl's face. "Jessi!" Carl grabbed the dog's collar and hauled her back. But the dog had already licked Judy's nose and woke her up.

Judy blinked up at him. Then she smiled and reached for the dog. Carl smiled and let Jessi go. He picked Judy up and put her in her highchair. Judy's breakfast, he knew he couldn't mess up. He dumped a few cheerios on her table and grabbed the baby cereal from the cabinet.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Daryl opened his eyes slowly. He was laying across Rick's torso. Rick, who was very much still asleep. Rick, who'd sucked Daryl into his life. Rick, who'd somehow tricked Daryl into agreeing to marry him. Daryl lifted himself up a bit, shifted just enough so he could watch Rick sleep. Daryl didn't deserve any of this. It was all just too... perfect for him. Slowly, he leaned over, turned his head, and placed his ear over Rick's chest. He held his breath and listened to the dull beat of the heart in the man's chest. A heart that he knew belonged to him. Daryl owned Rick's heart. He knew that but still... was it right to say Rick owned his?

"What're you doing?"

Daryl's eyes widened and he quickly pushed off the no longer sleeping man. "Nothin..." Daryl muttered. He turned his back to Rick and tried to pull his legs up under him but just felt like he was tangling himself in the sheets and blanket.

Rick smiled and tilted his head, watching Daryl's nervous movements. "Were you... listening to my heart beat?" He asked softly.

Daryl wanted to say no, to laugh it off. But he just shrugged his shoulders and started chewing on his thumb. "Jus' making sure yer real..."

Rick pushed himself up and leaned against Daryl's back. "Very real." He murmured as he placed tiny kisses along the man's shoulder blade.

It was something Daryl didn't allow often, Rick at his back, full view of his scars. His skin itched and he fought the urge to pull away. But Rick against him felt good. And the lips on his shoulder felt good. Daryl closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He focused on Rick, on his lips, and pushed down his insecurities. Rick had seen the scars. Had dared to touch them a few times. And still, Rick had never treated Daryl any different. Rick never looked at him any different. "Sometimes..." Daryl breathed out the word and then hesitated.

"What?" Rick breathed against him when Daryl didn't continue.

"I feel like... this is all a dream." Daryl admitted softly. "Like every time I fall asleep beside ya... ya won't be there when I wake up. I'll be back at Merle's an' this'll all be gone."

Rick wrapped his arms around Daryl and held him tightly. "Ain't going anywhere. Think I already proved that."

Daryl smirked and leaned his head back, bumping against Rick's shoulder. "I know... I think I know..." He said slowly.

Rick stiffened for a moment, then relaxed against him again. "Don't trust me?"

Daryl sighed. "I'm trying. But... habits are hard ta break. Spent my whole life not trustin' anyone... not... openin' up or lettin' myself... feel..." He leaned back a bit, pushing his body harder against Rick's and Rick tightened his grip again. Daryl took a deep breath. "My dad..." Daryl faltered and shiver racked his whole body.

"You don't have to tell me." Rick whispered.

"I wanta..." Daryl said softly. "Want ya ta know..." Daryl swallowed the lump in his throat and pushed all his doubts away and just started talking. "When I was real little, it wasn't so bad. My mom an' Merle was there. Dad took it out on them. Then mom died an' Merle got all his attention. But then Merle got fed up an' left. An' I never blamed him for it. He put up with dad's abuse fer long 'nuff. He got out an' was my turn. An' dad was angrier then. Left all alone wit me. Stuck wit me. Reminder of the big mistake he'd made when he let me be born." Daryl said bitterly. "Told me so. Said he beat up on mom lots when she was pregnant. Tried ta kill me a'fore I was born. An' once I was... mom an' Merle started fightin' back. So he laid off me. But then they were gone an' I was left alone wit him. An' no one cared. Neighbors or school. Everyone saw me. Dad didn't try ta hide it. But everyone ignored me 'cuz I was jus' another Dixon. Jus' another drug dealer an' deserved it. Jus' 'cuz I was a Dixon."

"You aren't your name, Daryl." Rick said softly after a moment, after he was sure Daryl was done. "Your past is a part of you, but it's not you. It's not who you are. What your dad did to ya was wrong. Some people aren't meant to be parents."

Daryl let out a laugh. "Fuckin' understatement." He shook his head. "I knew it wasn't normal, knew what he did ta us was wrong. But... I never knew what a real dad could be... until I met you, Rick."

"Me?" Rick asked slowly.

"See'n ya wit yer kids." Daryl breathed out. "That first mornin'... hearing ya talk 'bout Judy, 'bout how much ya wanted her when yer ex-wife didn't... never knew what it felt like ta be wanted..."

Rick smiled widely and pressed his forehead to Daryl's back. "We want you." He whispered.

"Part of me..." Daryl continued, trying to ignore the way Rick was touching him. There was something he'd been worried about, something he was afraid of admitting. "Is afraid... that's he's in me."

Rick stilled. "You aren't your dad." Rick said strongly, without a note of hesitation. " I've trusted you with my kids since I met you. I never once had an ounce of hesitation. You aren't your dad." Rick repeated. I know you aren't. You're you. An' I love who you are. I love you." Rick said into his ear. Daryl felt tears in his eyes. He tucked his head against his chest and tried to lean forward. He didn't want Rick to see. But Rick just held on tighter. "Your last name doesn't matter ta us." Rick continued. "You're a part of this family. An' ya already said yes so ya can't take it back."

Daryl blinked the tears away and took a deep breath. His chest hurt and his eyes hurt. This feelings thing really sucked. After a few silent minutes, Daryl let out a laugh. "Okay get off." He said. "Yer like a fuckin' furnace. An' I'm hungry. Better feed me if ya except me ta put out on the weddin' night."

Rick started laughing and pushed Daryl away. Then jumped off the bed. He bent down and started collecting clothes off the floor. He pulled on his pants and threw Daryl his. A few minutes later and Rick grabbed Daryl's hand and pulled him down the hall. Rick slowed as they reached the steps. "I must be hungry. I smell pancakes."

Daryl tilted his head. "I smell 'em, too. Can Carl cook?"

Rick shrugged. "House ain't burned down yet."

Daryl smirked at him. "'Cuz yer ass ain't in it."

Rick let out a laugh and pulled Daryl down the stairs.

Judy was in her highchair. She had mush on her face and cheerios stuck everywhere and she waved her spoon at them as they walked in. Jessi was licking the floor where Judy had dropped food. And Carl was at the stove, trying his hardest to make the pancakes perfect. He glanced over. "Dad, Daryl! Great!" Carl turned his attention back to the pan and picked up his spatula. "Daryl... how do you know when to flip these?"

Daryl peeled his hand away from Rick and walked over to peek over Carl's shoulder. "Right now, kid. When it starts bubbling like that. Want me ta finish?"

Carl shook his head. "No, I got this. You go feed Judy. I think Jessi ate more off the floor then Judy got in her mouth. But I there's extra in the bowl on the counter. I made too much."

Daryl patted Carl on the back and headed over to Judy, smiling slightly at the mess she'd made.

"Dad." Carl said. "You get the plates and syrup."

Rick smiled and crossed the kitchen to the cabinet. He pulled it open and grabbed the plates. Daryl got Judy cleaned up and got her to eat a few bites. Then he gave her a cooled pancake and she started tearing that up. And she threw it on the floor and laughed as the door ate it. Then they all sat down and ate and poked fun at Rick. Because his 14 year old son managed to make pancakes by himself and Rick couldn't make anything.

"So..." Carl said after they'd finish. And he was smiling at them.

Daryl abruptly got up from the table. He collected the plates and started towards the sink. "Said yes. We ain't talking about it."

Carl jumped up and followed Daryl. "I wanna talk about it. Well, not about whatever happened last night. But I wanna talk about the wedding!"

"No wedding." Rick said with a smile. "We'll all just go to the courthouse."

"Awesome." Carl said loudly. "No planning. You can do it now."

Daryl dropped the plates in the sink. "Now?"

Rick shook his head. "Not now."

"Why not? Don't need to wait." Carl turned to look at Rick. "Come on, dad. You have ta do it fast before Daryl changes his mind."

Daryl leaned on the sink.

Carl darted in behind him and threw his arms about Daryl's waist, hugging him. "Dad, get your cuffs. We'll shove him in the car and go now."

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Iff'n Imma be yer stepdad, means I can ground yer ass, right?"

Chapter Text

It had been three days since Daryl said yes. Carl was back at Lori's for the week. But he wasn't really absent from the house. He called and texted both Rick and Daryl constantly, asking for wedding updates. Like a million times a day.

"Damn kid's more excited than you." Daryl had mumbled earlier that morning, after Carl had sent him three consecutive text messages. The kid hadn't even waited for a response. Not that Daryl had a different answer than from the night before when Carl had asked.

Rick had laughed and didn't answer. Honestly, he was a bit surprised about Carl's excitement himself. While Rick had never really considered getting remarried until his I-had-a-bad-day-marry-me moment, the more he did think about Carl's involvement, the more it seemed... like the kid was... a little too happy. Or maybe a lot too happy. "Is it... is it weird?" Rick asked slowly as he walked into the living room slowly. "That he's so excited?"

Daryl glanced up from the magazine he'd been thumbing through and shrugged. "He's yer kid. You should know if he's fakin'."

Rick sighed and shook his head. "I don't know. He just seems..." Rick turned slightly and walked a few steps. "Too okay with it. Shouldn't he be like... upset his dad moved on?" He spun around and walked back towards Daryl. "Aren't normal kids upset their parents get remarried? So quickly?" He turned again and took a step. "And with Lori dating Shane!" Rick threw up his hands and shook his head. "Is there something wrong with him?" Rick sunk down on the couch.

Daryl rolled his eyes and tossed the magazine in the general direction of the coffee table.. "Yer kid's fine." He said, leaning forward a bit. "Jus'... really... I dun know..." Daryl paused, shaking his head. "Smart or perceptive or some shit. He knows ya weren't happy with Lori. And he knows she wasn't really happy neither."

"Maybe..." Rick mumbled, leaning back.

Daryl snorted. "An' fer some crazy ass reason, I make ya happy and that asshole Shane mus' make 'er happy. So two happy parents 'er better then two miserable ones together."

Rick smiled broadly and let out a soft laugh.

"Kid just knows ya'll are better an' happier this way."

Rick nodded slowly, following Daryl's train of thought. He could understand that.

Daryl continued. "Kids can be smarter than their parents know."

"Yeah, I guess so." Rick said slowly. Carl had certainly proved so in the past few weeks. Oddly insightful and intuitive. When the hell had he grown up so much? And so fast. Rick sighed. "Speaking of parents..." He said after a few minutes.

Daryl rolled his eyes and leaned back. "Ain't really speaking a'parents. Least not yers."

Rick sighed. "I'm not exactly looking forward to it." He'd been dreading the call and putting it off. That was one of the things Carl'd kept asking about, a million time a day it seemed. If grandma and grandpa were coming.

"Then don't do it."

"Lucky yers are dead..." Rick mumbled under his breath. Then his eyes slowly widened. He hadn't meant to say that. His gaze shot to Daryl. "I'm sorry, Daryl. I didn't mean ta..."

Daryl shook his head and held up his hand. "I know whatcha meant." He said with a shrug. "It's fine. I get it. Wouldn't want 'em there. Wouldn't come neither."

"What about your brother?" Rick asked slowly, breaching another subject he was a bit nervous about.

"Merle?" Daryl laughed and shook his head. "Toldja, Merle wouldn't come, even if he could."

"We should go visit him." Rick offered softly. "And ask him."

Daryl stared at him blankly. "Ya wanna meet Merle?"

Rick nodded. "Yeah."

Daryl shook his head quickly. "No. No, no, no."

Rick frowned. "Why not?"

"Cuz I..." Daryl faltered. "Don't want you... too..." he mumbled.

Rick's mind clicked things together. "Daryl... does Merle not know?"

Daryl let out a sigh and rubbed at his neck. "No, okay? I gave ya a hard time 'bout not telling Lori 'n Shane and I'm jus' as bad. I ain't told Merle and I ain't gonna." He crossed his arms and sunk down lower in the chair. "Least not anytime soon." He added, a tad sulkily.

"Thought he was getting out?"

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Nah. Prolly never getting out. Says he keeps getting in fights."

Rick smiled slightly. Everything he'd heard about Merle, he didn't doubt it. He had no idea what he'd really think of Merle once he met him. Or what Merle would think of him. He knew it was going to be a very tense meeting. "So uh... why haven't you told him?"

Daryl shrugged and chewed on his thumb. "Merle's like... god, he's so much worse than me. He's got a fuckin' mouth on 'im and he knows how ta use it. Like he can tell me he loves me no matter what and then call me a fairy or faggot or sumthin else in da same breath. Man's got no filter. An' he'll be worse ta ya."

Rick crocked an eyebrow. "He sounds like a swell guy."

Daryl shrugged. "My brother. He's kin."

"He'll be mine too."

Daryl rolled his eyes and jumped up. "Yer gonna regret that once ya meet 'im." He grabbed Rick's phone off the table and held it out to Rick. "Now quit changing da subject an' go call yer parents."

Rick let out a groan as he pulled himself up off the couch. He grabbed the phone from Daryl's outstretched hand and glared at him. "Fine. I'll call my damn parents."

Daryl shrugged and walked around him towards the kitchen. "Don't then. Don't really care."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Rick slipped outside, Jessi following him. Rick sighed and plopped down in the yard. Jessi was darting around him, trying to get him to play. He ignored her as he dial his parent's number and put the phone to his ear. As soon as his mom answered, he just blurted the words out.

There was a moment of silent. "You're getting married?" His mother repeated over the line.

"Yes." Rick answered.

"Who's that, Linda?" A rather loud, muffled, male voice asked.

"It's Rick, honey." She answered, her voice slightly muffled as if she pulled the phone away to answer him.

"He's getting married?" He man repeated. "Why?"

"Will you hush?" She snapped. "I'm trying to find out."

"I know he ain't knocked this one up." Rick's dad said. "Unless he done switched again."

"Let me ask." She put the phone back to her ear, her voice clearer. "To a man?"

Rick rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Yes." He breathed out. Jessi appeared beside him, a tennis ball in her mouth. Rick frowned at her. She must have hid it somewhere in the yard. She dropped it on the ground and wagged her whole body.

"You're getting married to a man?" She repeated.

"Yes!" He repeated, snapping a bit. "It's legal now." He picked up the ball and threw it. Jessi raced after it.

"Oh I didn't mean it that way, honey." She said quickly. "It's just... you just got divorced."

Jessi brought the ball back and dropped it in Rick's lap. He picked it up and turned it in his hand. "Mom, we've been separated over a year and it's been like... 7 months since the divorce was finalized."

"How long have you know this man?"

Rick paused and Jessi nudged his arm. "Like... 7 months." He answered slowly, dropping the ball and pushing the dog away.

"Rick..."

Rick sighed and cut her off. "I met him the night the divorce went through." Jessi dropped the ball in his lap again. He rolled his eyes and threw the ball and stood up.

"Honey, why are you rushing into this?" She asked.

Rick walked a few paces slowly. "I'm not rushing."

"You are." His mom said over the line. "7 months is not the bases for a long term relationship. That's hardly enough time to get to know someone."

Rick threw the ball again for Jessi and turned to walk the way he'd just come, inadvertently pacing the yard. "I know him well enough." He answered softly.

She let out a sigh. "You and Lori rushed into a wedding and look how it turned out?" She said softly. "Hatred and resentment and a beautiful little girl that her mother didn't want."

Rick stopped. "I want her!" He snapped, much more loudly than he meant to.

"Oh calm down." She said quickly. "I didn't mean anything by it. But one day, she's going to ask why she doesn't have a mommy like Carl. And either you lie or tell some version of the truth. And she'll find out one of her parents didn't want her."

"Both of her parents want her." Rick said strongly.

"Oh!" She paused. "Has Lori changed her mind?"

"No." He said. "Daryl wants her."

"Daryl?"

"My fiancé." Rick answered, loving the way that word sounded on his tongue. "He loves her. She's one of the main reasons. So he can adopt her."

Her voice immediately softened. "He's adopting her?"

Rick smiled to himself. "Yeah. He was adamant that if something happened to me, he'd fight for her. So I said we should get married and he could adopt her." He excluded the non-important sort of fighting period. It didn't matter how it happened. All that mattered was eventually Daryl said yes.

"Well... I honestly don't know what to say, honey." She said softly. "He must be someone really special."

Rick breathed out and smiled again. "He is."

"When are you planning the wedding?"

Rick shook his head, even though he was on the phone. "We're not having a traditional wedding or a big party or anything."

"You're not?" She sounded disappointed.

"No." Rick said with a sigh. "Daryl's got some... uh... well... quirks, I guess." He said lamely. "He had a bad childhood. A really awful dad that made him think he's worthless and doesn't deserve love or anything."

"That's so sad!"

Rick breathed out in relief. "Yes. It is. He's a little rough around the edges. But he's really great with Judy. And Carl."

"Poor dear."

Rick smiled. "Big displays of affection or feelings or anything make him uncomfortable. So we're just gonna do the court house with the kids. He ain't got any family that can come."

There was a brief pause. Then his dad got on the phone. "Alright, son. We'll be there."

Rick smiled. "Thank you." He felt a wave of relief. He really had been worried they wouldn't come or wouldn't get it. "It's... uh... next Saturday." He added lamely.

"That's quick." His dad said. "You didn't find a way to actually knock the poor guy up, did ya?"

Rick rolled his eyes and shook his head. "No, dad. We're not planning a wedding. What's the point in waiting?"

"Right, right." The man said. "Fine. We'll be there."

"Great." Rick said.

"We're gonna get off here and talk about it. We'll call you back and let you know how long we're staying."

Rick stilled. "Staying?" He said slowly.

"To get to know our new son-in-law."

"I... uh..."

"We can get a hotel." His dad said quickly.

"Oh no." Rick said quickly. "Of course you're welcome to stay with us. You can have Carl's room like normal. He'll sleep in Judy's. Nothing's changed."

"Good. We'll call you back."

Rick pulled the phone away from his ear. He stared at it in his hand for a moment. Then glanced down at the ground where Jessi was eating her tennis ball since he was ignoring her. He frowned and bent down to wrestle the thing out of her mouth. "Don't do that." He snapped. She looked a bit ashamed and then darted off.

Rick watched her for a moment. Then he let out a breath and looked back down at his phone, the dog forgotten. Well shit. He hit Lori's number.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

"So uh..." Rick hovered in the door, his hands in his pockets. "I spoke to my parents." He said slowly.

Daryl glanced up. He'd been fighting with Judy over her refusal to eat the damn jar of peas. The peas were all over her, all over her table top, and all over Daryl. But Daryl was just as stubborn as she was, probably more, and he was determined to get her to eat one damn bite. "That don't sound good." He said as he put the baby spoon into the jar again. "Ain't comming?" The jar was empty. "Damnit." He glared at the stubborn green monster in the highchair. "Fine. Eat yer damn cheerios." He grabbed the box of cereal off the counter and dumped a pile on Judy's table. She let out a delightful squeal and reached for the circular snack.

Rick watched as Daryl got up and grabbed a rag. Rick shook his head. "Oh no. They're coming. And uh... staying. For a week."

Daryl stopped cleaning off his hands. His eyes shot to Rick, widening. "Oh fuck no." He shook his head.

Rick stepped towards him. "Come on." He grabbed the pea covered rag and turned on the faucet.

Daryl was shaking his head rather dramatically. "I can't handle that."

Rick smiled as he rinsed the rag out and turned to Daryl. He grabbed the man's arm and continued to clean him off, running it up his arm. Judy had really gotten him good. "Yes you can."

"No." Daryl said adamantly, stepping back and bumping into the counter.

"I talked to Lori about it." Rick said, turning to the sink to rinse the rag out again. "Told her they were coming down for a normal visit." He wrung the rag out and turned to clean Judy up. "Carl's gonna be here the whole time."

Daryl shook his head again. "I'll fuck it up. They're gonna hate me."

Rick glanced over his shoulder at Daryl and smiled. "No they aren't."

"People hate me, Rick."

"I don't."

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Normal people hate me, Rick."

Rick tossed the rag in the sink and threw up his arms. "You are ridiculous."

"Nah." Daryl said, shaking his head. "You'll see."

Chapter Text

The idea of meeting Rick's parents had him more nervous than the wedding thing. Just another thing for him to fail at. Another chance for him to fuck up and have Rick hate him. Daryl rolled his eyes at the thought. He was a pathetic mess. His daddy and Merle both would beat the shit out of him for all his blathering on. He was really glad Merle was gone and not there to spoil everything.

"Daryl." Rick said his name with a laugh.

Daryl looked up. Rick was sitting across the kitchen table from him, smiling. "What?"

Rick glanced down at the destroyed magazine on the table top in front of Daryl. "I think you're done reading that."

Daryl glanced down and dropped the torn page from his hand. He didn't remember tearing and crumpling the thing. He wasn't even sure what magazine he'd been reading. He doubted he actually read any of it. He sighed and leaned back in his chair.

"Leave." Rick said, leaning across the table towards him. He reached out and touched Daryl's hand. "Take Jessi and go roll around in the woods."

Daryl snorted and shook his head. "Rolling ain't the point of it."

Rick let out a laugh.

Carl stood up from where he was sitting on the living room couch. He walked around it and stepped into the kitchen. "Can I go with you Daryl?"

"No." Rick said quickly, glancing over at him. "Not this time."

Carl's mouth dropped open. "Aw, come on dad!"

Rick shook his head again. "No. I need you here to help me get your shit in Judy's room and get yours ready for your grandparents."

Carl sighed dramatically and nodded. "Fine."

Daryl pushed back from the table and stood up. "Maybe next time." He said, reaching out to ruffle the kid's hair.

Rick smiled and stood up as well. "We got all summer to embarrass ourselves in the woods, Carl."

"Okay, okay." Carl said, ducking away from Daryl. "I get it!" He threw up his hands and headed back into the living room. Then he stomped up the stairs, rather loudly.

Daryl stepped into the living room and his eyes followed Carl. "Is he mad?"

Rick shook his head. "He's fine."

Daryl sighed. "I'll stay an' help."

Rick stepped up behind him and grabbed Daryl's hand. He intertwined their fingers and leaned against him, smiling. "Go and relax. Go... commune with nature or whatever the fuck ya do that gets you so zen when ya come back."

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Zen, huh?"

Rick smiled and nodded.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

But Rick had been right about one thing. Hunting had calmed him. Even if the damn dog nearly wrecked everything. He really should stop bringing her. He pulled into the driveway and shut his truck off. Jessi let out an excited bark and started wagging her tail. She smacked Daryl's arm with it and he smacked her back. "Stop it." He snapped at her. She let out another excited yip. "The hell you so excited for?" He shook his head and honked the horn, long and loud. Then he opened the door. Jessi jumped clear over him to get out first. "Fucken nutter dog." He slipped out and slammed his door. "Yard, Jessi." He called after the darting dog. Then he turned and headed around towards the bed of his truck.

The front door open and Rick stepped out, immediately bombarded by the dog. Rick smiled down at her and scratched her head. "Daryl?" He called, looking up.

"Rick." Daryl waved him over. "Come help me with this." He lowered the tailgate and climbed into the bed.

Rick jogged over to the truck with Jessi at his heels and stopped when he saw what Daryl needed help with. His eyes widened and he looked up at Daryl. "Did you shoot a deer out of season?"

Daryl looked down at the buck crudely wrapped in a tarp and shrugged. "Ain't the first time. Ain't gonna be the last neither."

Rick smiled and shook his head.

"Gonna arrest me, copper?"

"Should." Rick stepped closer and leaned against the tailgate. "So what's the plan?"

"Gonna gut it and butcher it up an' stick it in the freezer."

Rick stopped and looked up at him. "In the house?"

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Course not. Can't gut a deer in da house. Gonna do it in the garage."

"In our garage?"

Daryl grunted and nodded his head. "I'll put a fucken tarp down. Ain't gonna be that messy."

Rick smiled. "Daryl, that's not gonna fit in the fridge."

"Not in the fridge. In the meat freezer."

"Daryl, we don't have a meat freezer."

Daryl stopped. He dropped the deer and stood up. "I uh... did at Merle's... didn't think.. just... took the shot." He sighed. "Old habits." He mumbled. "I guess I'll uh... take it to Merle's..."

The front door to the house opened and an older woman stepped out. "Rick, honey, what's going on?"

All the color drained from Daryl's face. "That yer mom?"

Rick nodded his head curtly. "Yep. Got here about half an hour ago. They got an earlier flight without telling me. And called a cab."

She stepped towards them. "We didn't want to be a bother."

Rick turned to look at her and sighed. "You're never a bother, mom."

She smiled and bent over to pet the dog bouncing around her. "Aren't you just a bundle of energy!"

Daryl slipped from the bed of the truck and hid behind it.

Rick watched him and smiled. "Daryl..."

He shook his head. "Covered in fucken mud and blood and who fucken knows... damnit, Rick."

Rick just kept on smiling and shrugged. "Can't change that now."

"Hell I can't."

"Daryl!" Rick snapped.

Rick's mom stopped at hearing the name. She straightened up, much to the dog's dismay. "Is that Daryl?"

"Fuck!" Daryl hissed out. He stood up straighter. "Yes, ma'am. I apologize. Wasn't expecting you ta later an' was out huntin' all day. Need ta... go fix this..."

She nodded. "Well... we'll just save the hugs until you've... finished with that."

Daryl nodded. "I'll uh... be back later."

Rick smiled. "I'll go with you."

Daryl turned to blink at him. "Why?"

"I can help."

Daryl tilted his head to the side. "You ever gut a deer before?"

"No..." Rick said slowly. "But I..."

"No." Daryl shook his head.

Rick smiled again. "I let you go and you won't come back."

"Maybe..." Daryl said softly.

Rick let out a laugh. "I'm coming."

Daryl sighed and looked away. He was silent a moment and then lifted his hand to chew on his thumb. "Don't want ya ta see..." He mumbled.

Rick frowned. "See what?"

"Merle's place... where we grew up..."

Rick smiled again and shook his head. "I don't care where you come from. I care who you are now."

Daryl rolled his eyes and let out a snort.

"I'm coming with you." Rick said loudly. He turned. "Mom, can you and dad stay with the kids?"

"Of course!" She said brightly. "Will you boys be gone long?"

Rick glanced at Daryl.

Daryl shrugged. "I don't know." He mumbled.

Rick shook his head. "Stop being so anti-social."

Daryl stared at him bluntly. "Didja seriously just say that?"

Rick let out a laugh. He waved his mom forward. "Before we leave, quick introductions?"

She was still petting the dog. She straightened up and nodded. "Of course." Then she turned and walked back towards the house. She opened the door. "James!" After a few minutes, Rick's father came out and the pair stepped into the yard. "They boys are leaving for a bit."

James looked at his wife and then turned to look at Rick and the still hiding Daryl. "What's going on?"

"Daryl shot a deer." Rick answered.

"Daryl?" He stepped towards the truck and Linda followed.

Rick grabbed Daryl's hand and pulled him out from behind the truck. "Mom, dad, this is Daryl..." Jessi ran over, not to be forgotten, and started weaving between them all. Rick smiled down at her. "And this is Jessi, his dog. They were out hunting this morning... since we didn't expect you until later." Rick looked back at Daryl. "This is Linda and James." He said with a smile.

Daryl glanced up at them both and tried to smile. But he felt awkward and quickly looked at the ground.

Rick's smile widened and he looked at his dad. "We're going to his brother's place to butcher the deer up. We don't really have the room and equipment here yet."

A smile slowly spread across James' face. "That sounds great!"

"Great?" Daryl frowned, looking up at them.

"I'll go with you."

Daryl eyes widened and he shook his head. He grabbed Rick's hand and pulled him back behind his truck with him. "Oh no, Rick!" He shook his head again. "Ya gotta tell 'em no." He hissed.

Rick smiled. "Come on. He wants to hang out with you. That's a good sign."

"At my drugged up brother's shitty ass place."

Rick rolled his eyes. "He hasn't been there in months. Is it really that bad?"

"Yes!" Daryl snapped.

"I've seen the way you clean and how you care for that dog."

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head.

"If this is gonna be a regular thing, we'll go buy another freezer."

Daryl shook his head. "Nah. Should just steal Merle's. He ain't using it."

Rick laughed and around the truck. But only his mother was standing there, petting the dog once again.

"He'll be right back." She said quickly. "Just went inside to change."

A few minutes later, James came back out of the house, a smile on his face. Carl followed right behind him, holding Judy in his arms. "Dad!" Carl called out. "Grandpa said you're going to Merle's to butcher a deer!"

James turned and glanced back at Carl. "Who's Merle?"

"Daryl's brother. He's out of town." The kid lied. "We're watching his dog." Carl stopped in front of Rick and Daryl. "Dad, can I come?"

Rick shook his head. "I don't think so, Carl."

"Aw!" The teen whined. "But Daryl said he'd teach me to hunt and skin just like him!"

"Not today."

Carl turned to Daryl. "Daryl! Tell dad I can come!"

Daryl shook his head.

"Damnit!"

"Carl!"

Daryl smacked him in the back of the head. "Toldja ta watch yer mouth 'round yer sister."

Carl looked down at the ground. "Sorry." He mumbled.

"Stay with your grandma." Rick said. "You know how Judy can get with people she don't know well."

Carl nodded. "Yeah, I know." Still sulking, he turned and walked back towards Linda.

She smiled and reached out to put an arm around Carl. "I believe you promised me a tour of your new house, young man."

Carl nodded and turned to look over his shoulder. "Jessi. Inside." The dog barked and ran to catch up and followed them into the house.

Daryl watched them and felt a tinge of jealousy. He'd rather be staying with them. At least in the house, he could find somewhere to hide.

"Come on." Rick grabbed Daryl's shirt and pulled him towards the truck.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

"So this Daryl person..." She started softly and glanced back over her shoulder.

Carl set Judy in her swing and Jessi started licking her toes. Judy squealed and Carl smiled. Then he turned and looked at his grandmother.

"Is he a good man?" Linda asked softly.

Carl nodded. "He is."

"But" She hesitated a moment and shook her head. "Isn't this all... really fast?"

Carl breathed out. "Dad and mom shouldn't have gotten married." He said softly.

Her mouth dropped open. "Oh honey..."

Carl shook his head. "They only did cuz a' me."

"Don't say that..."

"Dad was miserable." Carl continued on. "I know he tried to hide it... but I knew... and it's okay now. Because we got Judy and mom's dating uncle Shane and she might love him." He said with a shrug. "But I know dad loves Daryl. I know he's really happy. And... if they're happy... does it really matter how long they've been together?"

She smiled slowly. "I guess not."

Carl smiled.

"Now... what is there to make for dinner around here?"

"Can I help?"

"You?" She paused and tilted her head. "That depends. You inherit your dad's skills?"

Carl laughed and shook his head. "Daryl's been reaching me."

"He has?"

Carl nodded. "He's a good cook and he doesn't let dad in the kitchen anymore."

She laughed.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

The rest of the afternoon didn't go too terrible, if Daryl was honest with himself. Merle's place was small and shabby, but Daryl had been keeping it clean. So it really wasn't that bad. It just wasn't like Rick's place.

James stood outside, behind Merle's house. He smiled as he looked out at the trees. He breathed in deep and exhaled.

"Dad..." Rick and Daryl walked towards him.

"It's pretty." James said.

Daryl snorted loudly and shook his head.

James turned slightly and smiled back at them. "Peaceful and quiet."

"Maybe now." Daryl muttered.

"My grandfather..." He glanced at Rick. "The one you were named after." He had died before Rick was born, but Rick knew how important he was to his dad. "He had this hunting shack in the woods. I'd go and spend the summers with them every year. And he'd take me hunting. We'd stay for days at time in his tiny shack." James smiled again. "Those were some of my happiest memories as a child." He turned to Daryl. "Thanks for letting me relive some of those memories."

Daryl blinked and looked away. "Uh... yer welcome."

James smiled again. And then clapped his hands together. "Now, I heard you say something about stealing your brother's freezer. Was this a joke or... a joke?"

Chapter Text

In the end, they loaded Merle's freezer in the back of the pickup. They hadn't broached the subject of Daryl's brother being in jail, just that he was out of town. Which wasn't entirely a lie. Because Merle was out of town. James had laughed loudly and clapped Daryl hard on the back. "It's a prank!" The man had said. "Between brothers! What fun!"

Daryl's mouth fell open for a moment and he glanced at Rick. But the cop just shrugged. "Yeah." Daryl said. "A prank."

James smiled and laughed again. "Alright, boys. Gotta drain the main vane." He turned and pointed to the line of trees. "You mind?"

Daryl shook his head slowly, his mouth hanging open a bit. This had to be a joke. This whole thing had to be some monumental joke.

James turned back, looking way too excited. "I ain't pissed in the woods since I was a kid."

Once the man was out of earshot, Daryl turned to Rick and grabbed his arm. "Your dad is nuts!" He hissed,

Rick laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "He is a bit... off. Not sure what's gotten into him."

"Brain leech." Daryl said with a serious voice.

Rick laughed again.

"I'm serious, man." Daryl pressed. Because something was seriously wrong.

Rick reached over and wrapped his arm around Daryl's shoulder. He drew the hunter closer and smiled. "Come on."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

She tilted her head to the side and blinked. Then she tilted her head the other way. After a moment, she shook her head and sighed softly.

Carl heard and turned. "What?" He asked softly, looking at her.

She glanced at him and adjusted Judy in her arms. "Oh nothing, sweetie." She said softly, smiling. "You're getting so tall, sweetie!" She said, standing up straighter. "Another couple inches and you'll be taller than me." She said warmly.

Carl frowned. He hated when adults did that. Like he was too young to understand anything. "No, grandma." He shook his head. "Tell me. Is something wrong?"

She looked at him again. Then turned her gaze back to the front of the courtroom, where Rick and Daryl stood. She breathed out loudly. "I just... I don't mean to sound... judgmental... but couldn't that boy have... dressed up a little?"

Carl turned back to look at them. He smiled as he looked at Daryl. His new stepdad had tried to dress up. The jeans and shirt were the least torn and least grease clothes Daryl owned. He even ironed them. "He did." Carl said, still smiling.

"Oh..." She frowned slightly.

"He's a mechanic nanny." Carl said, looking back at her. "Anything that's not covered in oil or baby food is dressed up for him. He bought a new shirt he was gonna wear... but Judy threw her breakfast on him this morning."

Linda tilted her head and nodded slowly. "So you're saying... he tried?"

Carl nodded. "Very hard."

Her expression softened and she smiled. "How sweet."

Carl let out a soft laugh and held his arms out towards Judy.

Linda smiled and handed the slobbery baby over. "I do believe she's the best dressed of everyone here."

Carl laughed again, louder that time. "Daryl dressed her. He loves all those frilly dressed you send."

"Grandma has good taste."

Rick suddenly turned around and waved them over. James reached over and grabbed his wife's arm and the two of them stood off to the side of Rick. Carl adjusted Judy against him and stepped back behind Daryl.

The judge acted as their wedding officiator. The man smiled at them gently and cleared his throat. "We ready here?"

Rick nodded his head and Daryl promptly stared at the floor.

"Alright." The man approached them and lifted his hands. "Love is the reason we are here. In marriage, we not only say, 'I love you today,' but also, 'I promise to love you for all of our tomorrows."

Daryl started fidgeting slightly. He lifted his hand to his mouth and started chewing on his thumb. Rick quickly reached over and grabbed the man's hand, pulling it back down and holding it between his own.

"Marriage is a precious gift." The man continued on talking. "A lifelong commitment and a challenge to love one another more completely each and every day. Please... join hands... like you already have... and look into each other's eyes."

Rick smiled as Daryl lifted his gaze to his. He could tell the hunter wanted to look away. He was positive it was too much for him. But Daryl didn't flinch or look away or even blink.

The judge turned towards Rick. "Do you, Rick, take Daryl, to be your husband? To live together in marriage, to love and comfort him, honor and keep him, in health and sickness, in prosperity and in adversity, and forsaking all others, be faithful to him, as long as you shall live?"

"I do." Rick answered, the smile still on his face.

The judge nodded and turned to Daryl to repeat the words. "Do you, Daryl, take Rick, to be your husband? To live together in marriage, to love and comfort him, honor and keep him, in health and sickness, in prosperity and in adversity, and forsaking all others, be faithful to him, as long as you shall live?"

Daryl nodded his head.

Rick let out a soft laugh and leaned forward a bit. "You have to say it."

Daryl breathed out and nodded his head again. "I do." He mumbled.

The judge nodded. "Rings?"

"Yes." Rick turned slightly and glanced at Carl. The kid shifted his sister in his hold and pulled a small box out of his pocket. He stepped closer as he opened the box. He pulled the two simple, gold sings out of the box and handed them over. Rick looked down as he rolled the ring between his fingers. He smiled as he slipped it on Daryl's finger. When it came to Daryl's turn, the hunter's hands shook a little. But he quickly shoved the ring on Rick's finger and breathed out.

"In accordance with the laws of this great state of Georgia and with great joy, I now pronounce you... husband and husband." The judge said. "You may kiss... the husband."

Daryl stiffened slightly and Rick smiled. He leaned forward and pressed a quick, chaste kiss to the hunter's lips. And then Judy promptly let out a squeal, spoiling the moment. Daryl looked relieved at he turned and grabbed her from Carl. He looked over at the judge. "We done here?"

The man smiled and nodded.

Daryl turned to Rick. "Gonna go change her." He grabbed the diaper bag and pointed at Carl. "Come on."

Carl frowned slightly as he moved to follow Daryl. "What for?"

"You're standing guard." He answered.

"Guard for what?"

"Women's restroom."

Carl's eyes widened. "You can't go in the women's restroom!"

"They got them changing table things." Daryl said. "And I ain't taking yer sister in the men's."

Rick let out a laugh as the two disappeared down the hall. Then he turned towards his parents, still smiling. It may have been a quick and weird ceremony, but he was really glad they had come. "Thank you for being here." He said, stepping closer to them. "Thanks for changing your minds."

James tilted his head slightly. "Changing our minds?"

Rick nodded. "I know you were upset with me about Lori and everything."

They exchanged a quick look. "We were never upset, sweetie." Linda said.

Rick frowned. "You weren't?"

She shook her head quickly. "I'm so sorry you thought that!"

Rick opened his mouth slowly. "But... then why... after I told you... you never called anymore and you only visited once..."

"Wasn't cuz yer gay, son." James said bluntly. "We were fine with that."

"Fine?" Rick gasped out.

"Honey." Linda smiled and reached out to pat him on the shoulder. "We already sort of knew."

Rick's eyes widened. "You knew?!"

James shrugged. "We thought you were in love with your friend Shane when ya'll were younger."

Rick's mouth fell open.

James smiled and clapped him on the back. "We were concerned back then. We talked 'bout it lots. But then you met Lori an' got married an' thought maybe we were wrong."

Rick blinked at them for a moment before shaking his head. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Then... then why? I thought... do you know what I've been through this past year? I thought you two hated me!"

Linda's eyes widened and she hugged her son quickly. "Oh no, honey. We never meant that. We just..." She pulled away and looked at her husband. She let out a sigh and looked back up at Rick. "We've been going through a lot. We just didn't want to trouble you."

Rick frowned. "Trouble me? With what?" They shared another look and now Rick was getting really worried. "Mom, dad! What's going on?"

"Cancer." James said bluntly. "Pancreatic cancer. Didn't wanna start worrying anyone until we had a timeline. Wasn't well enough to travel a lot for a while. But I'm doing fine now."

"Cancer..." Rick repeated slowly. He glanced at the sad smile on his mom's face and then back at his dad. "I don't understand..."

"Honey." She said warmly. "We'll talk all about it later, okay?"

James nodded. "Don't let this ruin your day."

"But..." Rick started.

James shook his head. "Later."

Rick let out a sigh and nodded his head.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

They were out to dinner afterwards. Some family place that wasn't too fancy. It was really nice and homey and the food was good. By the time they got home, it was getting late. Daryl gave Judy a bath. Carl took Jessi outside to run her around and wear her out. Rick spoke with his parents about his dad's cancer treatments. And then it was bed time. Carl took Judy to her room. Linda and James settled down in Carl's room. And Rick and Daryl retreated to their own.

Rick was smiling. Annoyingly so as he watched Daryl walk into the room. Daryl pulled the door shut and turned to frown at him. "What?"

Rick shrugged. "Just happy."

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Yer annoying."

"Sorry we can't go on a honeymoon."

Daryl let out a laugh and shook his head. "Don't need that fancy shit. Just need yer ass in the woods."

Rick smiled again as he stepped closer to Daryl. He threw his arms around the hunter's neck and pulled him closer. "Baby, you can have my ass in the woods."

Daryl's face colored slightly before a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Meant the camping trip with the kids this summer." He mumbled out.

Rick shrugged slightly and touched his forehead to Daryl's. "We'll sneak off when there're asleep. Go roll around in the dirt ourselves."

Daryl let out a contented sounding sigh. "I'd like that."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

Daryl was sitting in the backyard. The dog was in his lap and a beer was in his hand. Three days. It had been three whole fucking days! Family time was getting a bit much for him. It just felt weird to him. All this happy positive shit in the air. So much love and laughter and accepting and the fucking hugs! It was too much. He was going crazy! He'd only seen families like this on the TV. Full House and the Brady Bunch and shit like that. And they had nothing on the Grimes. And Daryl just felt like he was mucking up their pristine image.

He sighed heavily as he lifted the bottle to his lips. The cold liquid felt good, felt normal, felt comforting. All of this had started with a beer.

The door opened and closed behind him. "Daryl, honey. There you are! I've been looking for you everywhere!"

The grip on the bottle tightened as he let it fall from his lips. Jessi shifted and looked up at him. Damn empathetic dog. He pushed her out off his lap and made to get up.

Linda started towards him and waved her arm.

Jessi immediately tried to jump on her. Daryl grabbed her quickly and hauled her back. "Down, Jessi."

She smiled gratefully at him and then waved her arm again. "Sit back down." She said sternly. "You finish your beer. I want to talk to you." She hesitated for a moment, looking down at the ground.

"Can get ya a chair." Daryl mumbled.

She tilted her head for a moment, then shook it. "No." She sat down slowly, folding his legs up under her.

She was about a foot off to his left. Too close for a stranger. But Daryl had to remind himself, she wasn't a stranger anymore. Well, mostly not a stranger. Daryl fought the urge to step back away from her. Instead, he sat back down in his original spot. He pulled Jessi into his lap again.

Linda smiled and reached out to pat the dog on the head. Now Jessi was content and settled down. "Alright." Linda said after a moment. "I know you're not a big talker. That's fine. You can just listen, alright?"

Daryl nodded stiffly.

"Good." She smiled. "Don't be mad at Richard. He didn't go into details. But he eluded to you having a rough childhood and... that your father wasn't the best."

Daryl let out a grunt and took another swig of his beer. "Understatement." He mumbled.

She smiled again. "Now... I will admit when Richard first said he was getting remarried... I had my doubts. And then seeing you..."

Daryl stiffened a bit. She reached out and patted his leg gently. And Daryl stiffened even more.

She smiled. "You were just... the complete opposite of everything. And that's not bad!" She added quickly. "Just different." She shook her head. "I don't mean to sound too harsh. Am I coming off too harsh?" She hardly paused, certainly not long enough for him to actually answer. "Lori, we thought they were a good match."

Daryl squirmed a bit.

"Because Ricky told us they were." She continued on. "High school sweethearts and they were so in love." She sighed and shook her head. "Not saying she's a bad woman. She's the mother of my grandchildren and she'll always be family. But... I could tell Ricky wasn't happy. I don't know how long... but for a long while. And the gay thing never bothered us. We sort of always knew he was gay. Or into both." She shrugged slightly.

Daryl started chewing on his thumb. He felt beyond awkward.

"We never imagined he'd want to get remained." She continued on talking. "He just seemed so miserable through the divorce. We just thought he'd never want to chance something like that again. And then out of nowhere, he calls and says he's getting married. To someone he's just met. We didn't even know he'd been dating anyone. We were... surprised, I guess. After being with Lori for so long, we couldn't picture what sort of man Ricky would bring home."

Jessi let out a soft whine, vying for attention. Daryl lifted his hand and touched her head.

Linda smiled. "You are a little rough around the edges. But you are a good man, Daryl. If you weren't, Ricky wouldn't have picked you. You are strong, smart, caring, and gentle."

Daryl let out a snort and shook his head.

"You are." Linda said with a nod. "With Carl and with Judy. Carl's done nothing but talk my ear off about you. And I've seen you with Judy. They way you look at them kids, just like your own."

"They are." Daryl mumbled, his voice barely audible.

Linda smiled again. She studied him for a moment longer. "Now." She started, breaking the silence. "You've listened to an old woman ramble and prattle on long enough. My whole point was that we're a big, happy family. And you've probably noticed I'm pretty touchy feely. I understand your personal space and I will try to remember to respect that. But I'll probably forget. I also tend to talk a lot. In both cases, just feel free to tell me to back off and shut up. Alright?"

Daryl nodded.

Linda smiled. "Okay. You give me a hug and I'll leave you alone. I promise."

Daryl pushed Jessi off his lap again and scrambled up. He held out of hand and helped Linda up. Then he just stood there, staring at the ground. "Not good at this stuff." He mumbled.

She smiled again and stepped closer. She quickly threw her arms around him and drew him into a tight hug. "That's alright, sweetie. I'm terrific at it." She patted him on the back and then pressed a quick kiss to his cheek before she pulled away. "We're family now, alright? You need anything, you let us know."

Daryl nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

She turned around and frowned at the kitchen door. "Richard!" She snapped loudly, stepping towards the door. "I saw you!"

The door opened and Rick stepped out, smiling. "Mom! I was just... looking for you..."

"You were not, Richard!" She said tersely. "You were trying to spy."

Rick dropped his gaze to the ground, looking a bit ashamed. "Sorry, mom." He mumbled.

She smiled at him and gave him a quick hug and pat on the back. Then silently went inside and shut the door.

Rick kept his gaze on Daryl as his mother had her exit. He stepped towards the still man. "Hey." He said softly.

"Hey." Daryl grumbled out.

Not to be forgotten, Jessi pushed in between them and mouthed at Rick's hand. Rick glanced down at her and smiled. Then lifted his gaze back to Daryl. "You okay?"

Daryl nodded quickly.

"Mom didn't scare you off?"

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. "If all'a this hasn't..." He pointed towards the house. "Nothin' will."

Rick let out a laugh and reached for Daryl's hand.

Chapter Text

Two Months Later...

Rick pulled into the parking lot and turned the engine of Daryl's pickup truck off. They'd put some money and time into fixing it and they'd gotten it running better. He used the term we loosely. Daryl had been trying to reach Rick a few things about mechanic stuff. But Rick doubted he'd actually contributed anything to the repair work. Actually, he was certain he did nothing more than spill a quart of oil all over the place. But it ran smoother and was spotless inside and out. And they managed to bang out the dent on the tailgate. It made Daryl feel better. But Rick didn't really care. He hadn't minded driving it from the first time he'd asked for Daryl's keys. He never hesitated once.

He leaned back in the seat for a moment and smiled as he pulled his hands from the wheel. He'd been looking forward to this day. All week. He could almost feel the excitement buzzing in the air around him. And maybe in his pocket, too. It took a few buzzes for him to realize it was his phone. Why it was on the vibrate setting, he had no idea. He leaned back and fished the noisy thing from his pocket. He glanced at the display and smiled. "Hey buddy." He said, putting the phone to his ear.

"Hey dad." Carl said softly, his voice barely a whisper.

Rick frowned immediately and sat up straighter in the truck. "Something wrong?" Carl didn't answer right away and Rick grew more worried. "Carl?"

"No, no!" The kid answered. "Not... really..."

"What is it?" Rick glanced at the clock in the dashboard. He only had a few minutes before his shift started. Rick glanced at the clock again and blinked at it. Carl should have been in school a half hour ago. "Wait... shouldn't you be at school?"

"I am." Carl answered quickly. "I just... really wanted to talk to you before work."

"Carl..." He sighed and shook his head. "Cutting class again... you're gonna get in trouble."

"I snuck out for a few minutes." Carl said. "I just... dad..."

"What?" Rick prompted when Carl didn't continue.

"How did... how did you know..." Carl trailed off and let out a sigh.

Rick frowned again. "Know what?" A vehicle pulled up beside the truck. He craned his neck to look. And smiled. "Carl, I really have to go. Can this wait until tonight?"

"Uh... yeah..." Carl said softly.

"Good. Get back to class and I'll see you when I get off."

"Fine."

Rick paused and turned away from the window. "Carl, you said nothing was wrong. Is there something wrong?"

"It's fine, dad." The kid said.

Rick hesitated for a moment longer. "You sure?"

"Yeah. I'll see you later."

"Love you."

"Love you, too."

Rick hung up the phone and shoved it back in his pocket. He grabbed his hat off the passenger seat and opened the door. He couldn't help the smile on his face. He'd been imagining this day for probably a year.

Shane was leaning against his SUV, arms crossed and a big smile on his face. For a moment, it was like no time had passed between then. "What the fuck ya driving?" The man asked.

Rick slammed the door and reached over to set his hat on the hood. "My... boyfriend's truck. He said, still smiling. "He watches Ju... the baby while I work. So I leave him the SUV incase he needs to take her somewhere."

"Boyfriend, huh?"

Rick nodded. He'd been talking to Shane a few times over the last month. A few texts and short phone calls. Everything kept short and to the point, like they were both nervous. Like they were testing the waters, trying to see if their friendship could still float. Rick hadn't told Shane about Daryl. Of course he hadn't. And he hadn't told Daryl anything. He hadn't exactly meant to lie. He just didn't want Daryl worrying. He knew how much his husband hated Shane. But Rick wasn't so quick to write off his best friend. They'd both made mistakes.

"So you still sticking with the gay thing?"

Rick let out a laugh and nodded again.

"You happy?" Shane asked softly.

Rick smiled. "More than I've ever been in my whole life."

Shane nodded slowly and looked away. He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Any room in your new life for your idiot best friend?" He asked softly.

Rick shrugged. "Don't know. You take up a lot of room."

Shane let out a hearty laugh and turned to look at him. "Yeah. Guess I do."

Rick smiled and pushed off the truck. He stepped towards Shane, his arms out.

Shane still hesitated. "Rick..."

Rick shook his head. "It's okay." He wrapped his arms around his old friend quickly, hugging him tightly.

They pulled apart and Shane let out a sigh. "I shouldn't have taken sides."

Rick shrugged again. "It's alright, Shane."

Shane shook his head. "No. No it's not. I got freaked out and reacted badly. You said you'd always been... like that and I started thinkin' 'bout how we'd been friends our whole lives and..."

Rick was smiling. "Don't worry." He said, interrupting Shane quickly. "Never had a crush on you."

Shane paused, his mouth dropping open. "Why not? I'm hot." His eyes widened. "Am I not hot?" He said it with such conviction, like the idea was completely unbelievable to him. "I'm not gay hot?"

Rick stared at him a moment. He smiled and shrugged. "You're fine. Just... not my type."

Shane looked visibly crushed. "But... I'm everyone's type!"

"Shane!" Rick held up his hands. "You sound ridiculous right now."

"But..."

"Stop being ridiculous!" Rick said loudly. "You're my brother! It's gross!"

Shane shook his head. "But I'm not technically your brother. There's no blood."

Rick shrugged. "Still brothers."

Shane crossed his arms and leaned back against his SUV. He let out a sigh and shook his head. "Anyways... I guess... I just... freaked out, you know? Best friends. Brothers like ya just said. And I had no clue. No clue at all! And then Lori was so upset after you told her and... I took her side and I shouldn't have."

"Shane. Really." Rick had said it so many times over the last month. He'd forgiven Shane almost instantly. It just felt right to forgive his best and oldest friend. "It's fine. It's forgotten." And he meant that.

Shane dropped his gaze to the pavement. "About Lori..." He started softly.

Rick shook his head again. "It's fine. She's free to date whoever." Another thing they'd talked about. He honestly didn't care who Lori chose to date. She didn't belong to him anymore.

Shane looked up at him. "We didn't start until after the divorce. I swear! I never looked at her until after."

Rick nodded. He never thought anything else.

"I want you to know that." Shane persisted.

Rick nodded again. "I do."

"Carl..." Shane looked away again and shook his head. "He started telling us how happy you've been... an' he said... you were dating someone... and were happy. He said you were really happy... because of this guy." Shane sighed and shook his head again. "Carl said the guy was cool. He went on and on about how much he liked him and how awesome he was. Gonna teach him hunting and tools and cars and... I don't know. I felt... jealous." He snorted and rolled his eyes. "I actually felt jealous of your kid's relationship with your guy." Shane shook his head again and threw up his arms. "Ridiculous! Right? Like you said! I am ridiculous! But we've always talked about dating. I've told you about every girl I've ever dated. In detail."

Rick smiled and let out a laugh. "In excruciating details."

Shane snorted and shook his head. "You begged for the details."

Rick shrugged. "I may have been living vicariously through you."

Shane let out a laugh. "Why wouldn't you?"

Rick smiled and then let it fall. He breathed out and looked over at Shane. "I didn't intentionally not tell you..." He paused and tilted his head. "Okay, I did. But mostly because we weren't speaking. And I wasn't you'd even want to hear."

Shane dropped his gaze to the ground and shrugged. "I woulda listened." He mumbled. "If we were speaking." He kicked at the ground and sighed. "Guess that's my fault."

"Yep." Rick said easily.

Shane looked back up at him and smiled. "So when can I meet this guy of yours?"

"Uh..." Rick turned back to the truck. He quickly grabbed his head and started towards the station. "Better get inside. Don't wanna be too late on your first day back."

"Wait. Rick!" Shane hurried to catch up with him. "I'm serious. I wanna meet him."

Rick shook his head. "No. Not right now."

Shane kept pressing. "But I'm totally okay with this! I swear!"

"Shane." Rick said his name louder. "Drop it."

"But I support you!"

"Good. Glad to hear it, brother."

"I have to prove I support you!"

Rick stopped as they reached the front door. He let out a sigh as he turned towards Shane. "Shane... right now... he knows nothing about this. I didn't tell him we started talking again."

Shane frowned. "Why not?"

Rick glanced back at the parking lot, at Daryl's truck. "Because he's threatened to shove an arrow up your ass." He breathed out. "Several times."

Shane's eyes widened. "I don't even know him!" He paused for a moment. "Do I?"

Rick shook his head quickly. "No. But..." He shrugged. "In the beginning... I was real upset and... might have whined a bit. And you said a few things that Carl over heard."

Shane looked away. "Never meant for him ta hear."

Rick nodded. "I know. Honestly, Shane. I spent so much time hating myself. And you and Lori. And then more time hating myself because of it. Now... I can't imagine that hate in my life anymore. I want you two to be happy. I really do. If you two are happy together..." Rick smiled. "Then I'm happy for you. Really."

Shane swallowed and hung his head. "I am... we are... I think."

Rick smiled. "You are. Carl told me. Lori's happy. Just... a word of advice."

Shane nodded. "What?"

"Talk to her. Even if you're mad or fighting. Talk to her. She hates silence."

Shane smiled. "Yeah, I know that much, man."

Rich reached out and patted Shane on the shoulder. "Be patient. Give me a chance to talk to him, get him used to the idea. Okay?"

Shane nodded. "So fucked up, ain't it?"

"Yeah." Rick breathed out and nodded. "If I'd been honest from the beginning... but then I wouldn't have my kids. So as much pain as I've caused... I can't say I regret it."

Shane smiled slowly. "No. I guess not. It all turned out okay."

Rick smiled. "Yeah. It did." Rick pushed the door opened and headed inside.

"Wait." Shane called again, following close behind him. "I still don't know their names."

"Who?"

"The boyfriend and baby. Carl refuses to say."

Rick smiled again. "Eventually."

Chapter Text

"The trial is days from starting." The reporter on the news said. "It seems a solid case. And it makes this reporter ponder. Why, if there were so many witnesses over the years, did no one step forward until now? Why did it take the husband's death to..."

Daryl picked up the remote and hit the off button. He really hadn't been watching it. There was nothing on. He'd just been surfing the channels, a bit bored. He glanced across the living room. Judy was sitting in her bouncy chair, happily bouncing and chewing on her fingers. She was a gross, slobbery mess.

Daryl smiled as he watched her. He leaned forward on the couch. "Let's see... we done Red Riding Hood yet?"

She was getting so big. She was talking now. Nothing real impressive. Her first word had been Car. Carl was convinced she was trying to say his name. And she probably was, since she'd said it the moment he stepped in the house one day after school. Essi followed Car. And Rick was certain that meant the dog. So Judy's first words had been names. Rick was a bit disappointed. Carl's first word was dada. And Rick loved that. Lori wasn't as thrilled, but mama followed quickly and she was happy.

Judy's first birthday was next month. What the fuck did you do for a 1st birthday party? Rick said they should have a party. At least a cake so they could videotape her getting it all over herself and use it to embarrass her when she's older. Daryl could see the point in that. But what else? Balloons? Presents? Other babies?

He'd never had an actual birthday party. When his mom was still alive, she'd attempt to bake him and Merle cakes. Sometimes they were burnt or had the wrong number of candles or the one time she forgot the frosting. After she was gone, for a few years, Merle tried to do something with him to celebrate. Took him hunting or camping or out drinking when he was 12. But then Merle was gone and Daryl would keep quiet about his birthday. His dad didn't like reminders that Daryl had been born.

Daryl didn't want that for Judy. Of course he didn't. Judy who was always happy and smiling. Judy who'd yank his hair and laugh when he said bad words. Judy who'd throw her food at him and make him feel things he never thought he would. Yeah. Okay. She deserved a birthday party. That she wouldn't remember. But, the more he thought about it, he guessed the first few years worth of holidays and birthdays were more for the parents than the babies. It never occurred to him before. But he could understand that now.

He shook his head and looked back over at her. She was chewing on her fingers, slobber dripping down her arm. He stood up quickly and walked over to her. She held up her slobbery hands. Daryl shook his head again. "Yer gross." He picked her up and she grabbed his shirt, effectively wiping her slobber all over him. "Jessi." He called.

The dog bounced over and started wiggling from head to toe. "What? Gotta pee?" She let out a bark. "Come on." He shifted Judy to his other side and headed for the door. Jessi bounced in front of him as he opened the front door. Jessi darted out and Daryl rolled his eyes and followed. "Yard, Jessi." He snapped. The dog doubled back, let out a bark, and started sniffing around.

The damn dog was getting bigger, too. Too big to be the lapdog she thought she was. Idly, Daryl wondered when exactly the dog's birthday was. Merle would know, he was sure. If Merle were around, he'd probably have a birthday party for the damn dog. Some people did that, he knew. Birthday parties for pets. That sounded a bit overboard.

Daryl had been so lost in contemplation of dog birthday parties, he didn't hear his phone ring right away. It rang a few times before the noise penetrated his mind. He shifted Judy against him to pull the noisy thing out of his pocket. It was Carl. He hit the button and pressed it to his ear. "Hey kid."

"Hi Daryl." Carl said. "Are you at home?"

"Yeah." Daryl answered.

"Dad there?"

"Nah." Daryl said, shaking his head slightly. "Not off yet. Should be soon."

Carl let out a sigh, a slight whine in his voice. "I can't get him to answer his phone."

"He should have it on him." He started bouncing Judy gently. "Talked to him this morning."

"Me, too." Carl said over the line. "For just a minute."

Daryl nodded to himself. "Didn't mention being late. What's up?"

"He uh..." Carl paused for a moment. "He's supposed to pick me up later at mom's but I was gonna ask if I could spend the night."

"Patrick's?"

"Yeah."

"His parents say okay?"

"Yes, sir."

"Should be fine." Daryl said, turning slightly. "Jessi!" He snapped, pulling the phone a couple inches away. She was sniffing around the mailbox, way too close to the road. She darted back towards him. Daryl shook his head and put the phone back to his ear. "We ain't got any plans. But I'll try..." He turned slightly. Down the street, there was a sheriff's car. It was moving slowly. "Hang on a sec. Cop car coming." He said. "Prolly him." Daryl watched as the cruiser slowed even more as it came closer. Looked like Rick's. Though all the sheriff cars looked the same.

It pulled into the driveway. Jessi ran over immediately, barking excitedly. And then a man stepped out slowly. And it wasn't Rick. Jessi growled at the stranger and then darted back to Daryl, hiding behind him. It wasn't Rick. The man stepped forward. "Excuse me, sir." He said loudly. "Are you Daryl Dixon?"

Daryl nodded his head, his whole body going numb. He tightened his grip on Judy, suddenly afraid of dropping her. "Carl, ya still at school?"

"Yeah." The kid answered. "Was waiting for Patrick's mom."

"Stay put." Daryl said. "Coming ta get ya now."

"What?" Carl asked.

"It's not him." Daryl said softly.

Carl was silent.

The unknown cop stepped closer slowly, seeming unsure. "Uh... captain sent me..."

"He alive?" Daryl interrupted.

The cop continued towards him. He nodded slowly. "Last I heard. He's in surgery."

"Where?" Daryl glanced down at Jessi. "Inside, Jessi."

"I'll take you." The cop said. "You can follow me."

Daryl shoved the dog into the house and grabbed his keys. "Gotta pick up my other kid." He said, turning back to the cop.

The man nodded and headed back to his cruiser.

"Daryl!" Carl yelled.

Daryl put the phone back to his ear. "We're coming to get you."

"Is dad okay?"

"I don't know."

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

"Call over the radio said there was two gunmen." The officer said. "There was a third no one saw. Walsh said..."

"Walsh?" Daryl snapped. "Shane Walsh?"

The officer nodded. "Yes, sir."

Daryl's eyes narrowed into a glare. "What the fuck was he doing there?"

"He uh... uh..." The cop stuttered for a moment. "He transferred back a couple days ago. Put in a request to partner up with Rick again. Today was their first shift."

Daryl glanced down at Carl and Judy. The teenager was sitting in a chair, holding his sister and staring blankly. He looked up at Daryl and shrugged.

"He didn't say anythign ta me 'bout it." Daryl said softly. Rick hadn't said anything about Shane in months. Daryl honestly had no idea. And he tried not to think about that too much. This wasn't about him. This was about Rick. "'Kay so... what now?"

The doctor started talking then. "After surgery, we'll move him to the ICU. It was a clean shot. Didn't hit anything big. He's strong. Should make a full recovery and be back on the streets in a few months."

Daryl took a deep breath and nodded. This was always a possibility. He knew it.

Carl's phone rang suddenly, making them all jump. Daryl took Judy as Carl pulled his phone out. His eyes widened. "It's mom... what do I say?" He looked up at Daryl.

"Tell her yer here." Daryl said, holding Judy tight against him. "But nothing about me 'n Judy."

Carl nodded and put the phone to his ear. "Mom... yeah. I know. I'm here at the hospital." His voice cracked a bit. "Dad was supposed to pick me up... I kept calling him... I called the station and one of the officers came and picked me up." He lied easily. "Okay. Love you too." He hung up and looked at Daryl. "She an' Shane are on their way now."

Daryl glanced at the doctor. "I'm his husband. I can come back after visiting hours and shit, right?"

The man nodded.

Daryl turned to Carl. "Call me the moment they leave. And if anything happens. Text me. A lot."

"Wait!" Carl's eyes widened and he jumped up. "You're leaving me?"

Daryl sighed and shook his head. "Don't wanna, kid. But don't wanna let them find out 'bout me."

Carl stepped closer and threw his arms around Daryl. "I don't want you to go!"

Daryl wrapped his arm around Carl and hugged him tighter. "It's easier if they don't know me and don't know I have Judy."

"But..." Carl started.

Daryl shook his head. "If something happens... they can't know. The adoption isn't final yet."

"But..."

"What's the thing yer dad was most worried about?"

Carl sighed against him. "What happens to Judy."

Daryl tightened his grip on the boy and nodded. "Someone thinks to call CPS and without Rick around, they'll take one look at me and my last name and I'm fucked."

Carl hugged him tighter.

"He's gonna be okay." Daryl said softly. But he didn't sound as sure as he meant to.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

He looked so small and helpless on the hospital bed. Not moving. Not smiling or laughing or chasing Judy or Jessi around. Daryl stared at him. Stared at the beeping machines. Stared at the white walls. To just see those blue eyes again. He'd give anything. He'd gladly take Rick's place if it meant the man would wake up. Judy and Cal needed their father. Their real father. Not him. Some no one. Just some worthless redneck who walked into a bar one night and sat on an empty stool.

Judy was asleep in a chair beside Rick's bed. Daryl pulled another chair up and sat down as close as he could get. He leaned over and grabbed Rick's hand. "Love you, Rick. Course I do. Sorry I never said it out loud. I love you." He couldn't hold back the tears anymore. He leaned his head against the blanket and let it soak up his silent pain.

He fell asleep like that, his head on Rick's hospital bed and Rick's hand in his. At one point, Judy had woken up and fallen out of the chair, trying to climb into Daryl's lap beside her. Daryl had woken up enough to pull the sniffling girl into his arms. And then they'd fallen asleep again.

And that's how the nurse found them early the next morning. Daryl jumped up immediately, jostling Judy as he moved. She let out a distressed wail and he hugged her to his chest. "Sorry baby girl." He whispered, pressing kisses to the top of her head like Rick always did.

"I didn't mean to startle you." The nurse said apologetically.

"S'okay." He mumbled as he bounced Judy slightly. She still looked unhappily at him but she wasn't crying. He kissed the top of her head again and pressed her against his chest.

The nurse smiled at him and then turned to look at Rick. "Just came to check on him and change his bandage."

Daryl nodded and stifled a yawn. "What time is it?"

"About 6:30." She answered.

He glanced at Rick and let out a sigh. "I don't know what to do." He said softly. "I want to stay with him... I feel like I need ta... But I got this kid..." He gripped Judy tighter. "His kid... our kid... and I hafta take care of her. I feel like... I'm gonna fall apart... but I can't. Because she needs me... he needs me... to be hers. That's what all this was about." He was rambling on to a stranger. But he couldn't stop it. "Get married so legally I can take care of his kid." Judy's head was on his shoulder and her hand was clamped in his hair. He could feel the words catching in his throat and the tears were in his eyes again. This was all so fucked up! "I feel numb... I don't know what to do."

She smiled at him, pity in her eyes that turned his stomach. She stepped closer and he looked at her again, watching her move. She was a small, petite little thing. She looked barely older than Carl. "You take your little one home." She said softly. "You take care of her and let us take care of him. He's stable and he's in good hands."

Daryl looked down at Rick. He reached out and touched the man's hand.

"It'll be okay." The nurse said softly. "If you need to fall apart, you do it, okay?"

Daryl blinked at her, not really seeing her. He could see Rick in his mind, hear his voice saying the same damn thing. Calling him an idiot. He nodded curtly. "Sorry." He said softly.

She smiled again and shook her head. "Nothing to be sorry for."

Daryl sighed again. He turned back to the nurse. "Uh... thanks. We'll uh... be back later. Thanks... uh.."

"Beth." She said softly. "I'm Beth."

"Nice to uh... meet you Beth." He mumbled slightly.

Chapter Text

"I lied." Carl said softly, his eyes on his sister in his lap. She was happily chewing on the hem of Carl's shirt, oblivious to everything around her. "They asked about the baby. Wanted to know who was watching her. I said grandma and grandpa were in town again. I told them they were planning on taking her back home until dad's better."

Daryl fingered his wedding ring. He spun it loosely around his finger. It was a new nervous habit. He was hardly aware he did it so often. He breathed out and closed his eyes a moment. It wasn't a bad lie. He'd have to commend the kid for thinking so fast on his feet. Daryl opened his eyes and shrugged slightly. "It's not entirely all a lie. I talked to them this morning. They'll be here in a couple days." Carl nodded. Then wiped at his eyes. Daryl pulled his chair closer. He leaned over and wrapped his arm around the kid. "Hey." He said softly. "He'll be okay." Carl nodded and leaned against Daryl. They sat like that for a while, silently listening to the beeping machines that told them that Rick was indeed okay.

There was a knock at the door. Beth stepped inside, smiling. "Just came to check in. See how everyone's doing."

Daryl pulled away from Carl and stood up quickly. He stepped towards Beth and pulled her to the side. "Uh... shoulda said last night but wasn't thinkin'. He'll prolly get other visitors."

Beth nodded quickly. "A few of the police officers have been in."

"Yeah... but uh..." Daryl glanced at the floor awkwardly. "This one dude and this one chick... they can't know 'bout me. His ex-wife an' best friend. They can't."

She nodded slowly. "I think I know the two you mean. Even if I were inclined, I can't. Patient confidentially."

Daryl looked back up at her. "I ain't the patient."

She smiled. "You speak for him."

Daryl tilted his head to the side. "Yeah. Guess so."

"Now." She turned and smiled at Carl and Judy. "The tiny one I met last night. The bigger one..."

"Is Carl." Daryl said, turning.

"Hi, Carl." Beth said, still smiling. "I'm Beth."

"You're my dad's nurse?" Carl asked, looking up at her.

"Yes." She nodded. "I am."

Carl looked at her for a minute. Then he tilted his head to the side. "You... you don't look old enough."

"Carl!" Daryl frowned. "Don't be rude."

"Sorry." Carl said quickly.

Beth smiled again. "It's fine. I get that a lot. I'm... not a full nurse yet. I'm more... like an intern. I'm in school and am using the summer to get some practical experience. Yesterday... was my first day." She admitted softly. "I moved back here because my family's farm is close. I'm renting an apartment close by. My dad wants me to move back home but... I like being close to the hospital and having my own space."

Neither of them had asked. But Beth just kept talking. About school, about her family, about her horse named Glitter. Then she pulled over a chair and started asking Carl questions. About school, his friends, his hobbies. She was either talking or keeping Carl talking. Daryl returned to his chair while they talked. He leaned back, feeling forgotten. But that was fine with him. He wasn't in the mood to talk. And he had a feeling Beth was more trying to distract them than anything else. It seemed to be working for Carl. The kid was smiling.

They were still talking when Carl's phone beeped. Daryl reached over and took Judy off his lap. She squealed and tried to grab his getting too long hair. Carl pulled out his phone and smiled. "Patrick's here. He wants to know if he can come up and say hi."

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's fine."

Carl smiled again as he sent a quick text.

Beth quickly checked Rick's bandage. Then she smiled at them and excused herself. "I've got a few other patients to check on. I'll see you guys later."

Daryl watched her and, not for the first time, really wondered about her. She seemed so meek and shy at first impression. And then? She opened her mouth and started talking. And never stopped.

Patrick stepped into the room a few minutes later. The kid hovered in the doorway. "Good morning, sir."

Daryl let out a sigh and shook his head. "Hey." He mumbled out. He'd met the kid more times than he could remember. They even had him over for dinner a few times.

Patrick glanced over at Rick. "Is Mr. Grimes doing any better today?"

Daryl looked over and shrugged. "No clue. Same, I guess."

"I'm really sorry, sir." Patrick said, sounding genuine and far too polite. "For all your families going through."

Daryl nodded stiffly. He liked the kid fine. He really did. He had no problem with any of Carl's friends. Assuming Carl had more friends. He'd only met the kid still hovering in the door. "You can come in, Patrick."

The kid smiled and nodded. "Thank you, sir."

"Alright." Daryl held up his hand. "Listen kid. I like ya fine an' all. But ya call me sir again, we're gonna have some serious problems. Involving my crossbow."

Patrick's eyes widened. "Sorry, sir..." His face paled and he turned. "I'll wait for you outside, Carl." He said softly.

"Patrick!" Carl called after him. "He's joking!" Carl stood up quickly. "Daryl!"

Daryl shrugged. "Kid kept calling me sir." He mumbled, like it was a valid excuse to threaten a teenager.

Carl rolled his eyes. "I gotta go." He stepped closer. He bent down and kissed the top of Judy's head. "Love ya guys. I'll see you tomorrow."

Carl left and Daryl was left alone with Rick. And Judy. Who had her foot in her mouth. Daryl smiled, watching her. Then he looked over at Rick's bed and breathed out.

-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-

One day turned into two. Two into three. And then a week had gone by. And a second week. And Rick was still in a coma. His body was recovering fine, the doctor assured him. Rick could wake up anytime, Beth kept saying. But every day that ticked by, Daryl started to wonder. That would just be his lot in life. He started thinking maybe he wasn't the complete fuck up his dad had convinced him he was. That he was worth something and could have the family and white picket fence American dream and shit. He could really be happy for once. And then a bullet rips his heart apart and shatters his dream.

He was sitting in the living room, mindless staring at the black television screen. It was quiet. Judy was asleep and Jessi was under the crib, guarding her or whatever the dumb dog thought she was doing. He blinked as his phone rang. It tore him out of his self-pity cloud. Or he was just being melodramatic. Rick was alive. Judy was happily oblivious. She'd finally uttered the word dada the day before. And it broke Daryl's heart that Rick wasn't there to hear it. And then Judy had said it again while pulling on Daryl's hair. And that broke him even more. Carl still snuck over when he could, under the guise of hanging with Patrick. So it wasn't all bad.

Daryl pulled his phone out and stared at the display. He let out a sigh and put the phone to his ear. He didn't want to deal with his brother now. "What, Merle?"

There was a pause over the line. "That ain't no way to greet yer big brother, is it?" Merle snapped.

Daryl rolled his eyes as he leaned back on the couch. "Not in the mood, Merle. Whatcha want?"

"Where da fuck are ya?" Merle asked.

"Home." Daryl deadpanned.

"Ya supposed to be here."

Daryl frowned. "What?"

"Ya were supposed to come get me." Merle said over the line.

"Get ya?" Daryl was lost.

"Yer ears quit werking, boy?"

Daryl rubbed at his forehead and sat up. "No." He mumbled. "Ya got released today?"

"Aw!" Merle actually whined loudly over the line. "Ya forgot 'bout me."

Daryl sighed and shook his head. Yeah, he'd forgotten. If he even knew in the first place. He hadn't talked to Merle in weeks. Or longer. Honestly, he couldn't remember the last time his brother called. "Ya would've been home four months ago if ya could keep yer nose clean."

"All dem fuckers had it comin'."

Daryl pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned forward. His head was starting to hurt. He didn't sleep well the night before. Really, hadn't slept well in weeks. "I can't leave. Call a cab."

"Aw come on, baby brother!"

Carl wasn't there yet and there was no way he was waking Judy up and taking her to the prison. "Either ya get a cab or yer ass is waiting like two hours. Or longer." He wasn't sure when Carl was coming over. "I can't leave yet."

"I see how it is." Merle snapped and hung up on him.

Daryl eased himself back down further on the couch. He was exhausted. He hadn't slept right since that cop pulled in his driveway. He glanced at the baby monitor sitting on the coffee table. The light was still blinking. It was still on and working. He closed his eyes and stretched out. It felt like only a few minutes. And his phone was ringing again. He let out a growl and grabbed the phone. "What?" He snapped into it.

"Where the fuck's my shit?"

Daryl blinked and rolled over on his back. "Merle?"

"Yeah." His brother snapped over the line.

"What shit?"

Merle scoffed loudly. "My dog, my dog's shit, my bike... you 'n yer shit."

Daryl shook his head slightly and let out a sigh. "Since when is me 'n my shit included in yer shit?"

"My goddamn baby brother." Merle snapped.

"Ain't belong to you, asshole."

"You said you were home!"

"I am." Daryl sat up slowly.

Merle was quiet for a moment. "You fucken moved out? Didja kidnap my dog, too?"

"Call the cab back." Daryl said with a sigh. "I'll pay for it."

"Ain't taking yer fuckin' traitorous money."

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Ya ain't got any money." He sighed again. "Just... come over here. I got yer bike."

"Ya stole my bike? Did ya steal my fucken freezer, too?" Merle grunted loudly over the line. "Fine. Where'm I goin'?"

Daryl gave him the address and Merle promptly hung up. He sighed and rubbed at his head again. He really didn't want to deal with this. He sighed and got up. He headed upstairs and checked on Judy. She was sound asleep. Jessi was curled up under the crib. She poked her head out. Then ignored Daryl when she realized Judy wasn't up yet. Daryl gave up long ago trying to understand the weird relationship between his baby and his dog.

Daryl walked the house idly. He was finally used to the idea that this was his house now. His home. His family, his life. He didn't want Merle mucking everything up. And Merle would. Just being himself. He wouldn't even have to try. He'd just step inside the house and ruin everything. Daryl sighed and started spinning his ring on his finger. He was being dramatic again. He grabbed the baby monitor off the table and stepped outside. He sunk down on the front steps, set the monitor down beside him, and leaned forward. Just another notch for the universe. Daryl had a shit ton of stuff to deal with. Let's throw his brother at him. Why not?

He let out a sigh. It wasn't Merle's fault. Well actually, Merle was Merle's fault. But he was Daryl's brother. And he had nowhere to go. No money. No job. No life. Not that Merle ever had any of those. And the electricity and water had been turned off at Merle's house. Though Daryl knew that wouldn't really stop Merle. But Merle was his brother. Daryl went back and forth in his head. He hadn't actually seen his brother since he met Rick. Only talked to him over the phone. And even that they hadn't done much in the past few months. He let out a sigh and waited.

A bright yellow taxicab pulled by slowly. Daryl could see Merle's ugly mug through the window, looking confused. Daryl eased off the steps and waved. The car stopped and the door was thrown opened. Merle stepped out, a huge smile on his face. "Baby brother!"

Daryl rolled his eyes. "When ya gonna quit calling me that?"

Merle let out a laugh and stepped across the lawn. "Never. Now give me a fucken hug, Darleena!"

Daryl sighed as he stepped towards him. He glared but let his brother pull him into a hug. An overly tight hug. That ended with Merle placing a big, sloppy, open-mouth kiss on his cheek. "Gross!" Daryl snapped, pushing him away roughly.

Merle laughed and pushed past him to look at the house while Daryl stepped towards the cab. "Damn, baby brother." Merle said, shaking his head. "How the fuck ya pull this off? Don't tell me ya actually livin' 'ere?"

Daryl paid the cab driver quickly and walked back towards Merle. "Keep yer voice down."

"What?" Merle hollered.

Daryl shook his head and pushed him towards the house. "Jus' get inside a'fore the neighbors see ya."

"Fuck da nieghbors." Merle shouted.

"Merle!" A lot of pushing and shoving followed. Daryl had to practically wrestle his older brother into the house. Then he pushed him to the floor. "Asshole." He stepped back outside to grab the baby monitor. Then he shut the door and tossed the monitor on the couch.

Merle fell back on the floor, laughing loudly. "Damn, baby brother. Fancy neighborhood an' ya'll go uptight. Got a jeweled walking cane up yer ass or sumtin'?"

"Keep yer voice down." Daryl hissed.

"You done got me inside already." Merle said, sitting up slowly. "Yer pansyass neighboors can't hear me."

"You'll wake up Judy!" Daryl snapped. He said the name without thinking.

Merle's eyes widened. "Judy?" He repeated the name. A smile slowly spread across his face. "Ya'll dun changed on me?" Merle jumped up quickly and turned towards the staircase.

"Wait!" Daryl held up his hands. "No! Merle!"

Chapter Text

Merle was already halfway up the stairs. "Yo Judy! Wake yer ass up..." He hollered, peaking into the open bedroom. But an ear shattering wail was what greeted him. And then a fury of barking. Merle blinked down at the dog.

Daryl raced up the stairs behind him. He pushed Merle out of the way. "Asshole!" He ground out between his teeth. He stepped into the room and leaned over the crib. He made soft cooing sounds. "Shhhh little asskicker. Uncle Merle didn't mean ta scare ya wit his ugly face. He's just a big butt." He scooped her up and hugged her against his chest.

"Uncle... the fuck?" Merle snapped loudly. Judy let out another wail and Jessi growled loudly. She bared her teeth. Merle's mouth dropped open. "Jessi! It's daddy!" She only seemed to growl louder at him.

"Just get out!" Daryl snapped. "Go down stairs!"

Merle backed out of the room slowly. He looked completely bewildered as he walked down the stairs. He had no clue what to make of any of this.

"Shhhh baby girl."

Merle glanced around the room. He noticed the discarded baby monitor, laying on the couch. He could hear Daryl's voice. Then it sounded like his baby brother was humming. Seriously. No clue. About anything. Suddenly there was a knock at the front door. Merle actually looked relieved as he stepped towards the door. He wrenched the door open and glared at the teenager standing on the steps. "Who the fuck'er you?"

The kid's eyes widened. He stepped back and swallowed, looking a bit nervous. "Uh... Daryl?" He called loudly.

Merle snorted and turned slightly. "Baby brother." He hollered. "'Nother kid here."

"Merle?" The kid said softly.

Merle turned back around and eyed the kid a moment. "Jus' who the fuck are you?"

"Back off, Merle." Daryl came walking down the stairs. He had Judy in his arms and Jessi was walking beside him. The dog growled low in her throat. "My other kid." Daryl said, waving at Carl.

"Other kid?" Merle repeated.

The kid slipped past Merle and smiled at Daryl. "Hey." Daryl reached out and pulled Carl into a quick hug. "Patrick drop ya off?"

Carl nodded. "He'll pick me up tomorrow."

Daryl let out a chuckle and shook his head. "Ya ever think she'll call his parents lookin' fer ya?"

Carl smiled again and shook his head. "Nope. Mom likes when I'm gone. Shane stays over."

Daryl grimaces and wrinkles his nose. "Gross."

"Hey! Don't fucken ignore me!" Merle snapped loudly, slamming the door shut.. "How the fuck ya got two?"

Jessi growled louder as Merle's voice rose. She was standing beside Daryl. Carl reached down and petted her head. "Shhh, Jessi."

Merle ignored the dog completely and kept talking. "I can understand ya having a baby. But ain't no fucken way ya gots a 10 year old brat."

"I'm 15." Carl said softly.

Jessi growled again and Merle glared. "An' what da fuck ya'd do wit my dog?"

"Merle..." Carl said , looking at Daryl. "This is Merle, right?"

Daryl sighed and nodded. "Yeah. Asshole don't know how ta introduce himself. Put the dog out back." Daryl said, glancing down at her.

Carl nodded and bent down to grab Jessi's collar. She growled again and let out a protesting bark. But she let Carl pull her through the kitchen. He opened the door and suddenly she forgot all about the intruder and raced out the door. He returned to Daryl and reached for Judy. "I'll give her a snack."

Daryl nodded. "Thanks, kiddo."

Carl pulled Judy against him and turned for the kitchen.

"Darleena!" Merle snapped again. "What da fuck! Stop ignorin' me an' tell me what the fuck..."

"No!" Daryl snapped loudly. He rounded on Merle and shoved him back a step. "You do not come inta my house, wake my baby, scare my dog, cus out my son, and call me names. I ain't jus' yer baby brother ta torment anymore. If that's what ya come here for, you can leave an' never come back."

"Whoa, whoa." Merle held up his hands. "Jus' chill out, bro. Ya got it all wrong." He said with a smile. "Plus you invited me."

Daryl's eyes narrowed into a glare and he shook his head. He surged forward. He grabbed Merle's shirt and pushed him back until he collided with the door. Merle was caught completely by surprise. He opened his mouth but Daryl didn't give him a chance to say anything. "No!" Daryl snapped. "Carl lives wit his mom but Judy? She lives wit me. I'm what she knows. You do somethin' ta fuck this up fer me and she gets taken away from me, I'll kill you!"

Merle opened his mouth and closed it. Then he did it again, like he was actually thinking about what he was going to say. Daryl let him go and pushed away from him. Merle leaned his head back against the door. "Ya gots kids?" He said at last, his voice low. "Like... they're yer kids? Like ya got some chick pregnant? Twice?"

Daryl rolled his eyes and shook his head. "No. I married a guy wit two kids. He shares custody a' Carl wit his ex-wife. But Judy's all his an' I'm adopting her."

Merle pushed away from the door, his mouth hanging open. "Ya got married?"

Daryl crossed his arms and stood up straighter. "Yeah. I did."

"How long?" Merle demaded.

Daryl shrugged. "Couple a' months."

"Ta da dude ya wouldn't talk 'bout?"

Daryl nodded.

"Didn't know ya'll was serious. Ya never said."

Daryl shrugged slightly. "All kinda happened fast." He said softly. "An' I didn't wanna hear yer shit. Didn't want ya ta make me feel weird about it." He said, looking at the floor. "Was doing that enough myself."

Merle rolled his eyes and snorted loudly. "Ain't gonna dump on ya fer this."

Daryl let out a sharp laugh. "Like hell ya ain't."

Merle shrugged. "Maybe later. When ya ain't so pissy." He smiled. "Sos... when can I meet yer fairy guy?"

Daryl sighed and tilted his head to the side. "Ya can't."

Merle frowned. "Why not? He married yer fucken ass. Makes him family. Family's important, asshole."

"I know." Daryl nodded.

"I'll be nice, I swear." He said with a smile.

Daryl rolled his eyes.

"Nice fer me." Merle corrected quickly.

"He wanted ta meet ya." Daryl admitted softly. "Told 'im you were in jail. Wanted ta go. Even talked 'bout waiting ta get married 'til you could be there.

"Good!" Merle clapped his hands together, smiling again. "Where he at? Werk 'er sometin'? Gotta be sometin' special ta fool you inta all this."

Daryl flinched slightly and looked away. He couldn't bring himself to say it.

"Hospital." Carl said, stepping into the room. He could hear the whole conversation as he put Judy in her high chair and dumped cheerios on her tray.

Merle looked at the kid. "Hospital?" He repeated.

Carl nodded. "He's in a coma. He got shot."

Merle's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "No fucken shit?"

"Merle!" Daryl snapped.

Carl nodded his head. "For a couple weeks now."

Merle stepped closer to Carl. He crossed his arms and tilted his head. "How'd he get shot?"

"He's a cop." Carl answered.

Merle glanced at Daryl. "Ya married a fucken cop?"

"Yes!" Daryl snapped.

Merle shook his head. "Yer loving brother is rottin' away in a jail cell and yer shackin' up wit a cop."

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Shut up." He snapped. "Just shut up!"

Judy let out a delighted squeal and Carl turned and glanced back into the kitchen. "Jessi's at the door."

Daryl sighed. "Let her in."

Carl nodded and quickly let Jessi back inside. She immediately darted towards the high chair and licked at Judy's toes. Judy let out a squeal and started pushing cheerios onto the floor. Jessi chased them as they rolled and licked them up.

"She's kinda cute." Merle said, watching.

Daryl stepped closer to see. He crossed his arms and nodded his head, standing next to Merle. "Yeah. She is. Kinda what made me say yes." He said softly.

Merle glanced sideways at him. "Yes ta what?"

"When Rick asked me ta stay." He looked over to meet his brother's gaze. "I'm serious, Merle." He said softly, keeping his voice low. "This is my life now. This is my family. An'... you can be a part of it. I'd like ya, too. Carl was excited about the idea of meeting ya."

"The 10 year old?" Merle asked.

"15." Daryl corrected, looking over at Merle. "He's heard a few stories 'bout ya."

Merle let out a laugh. "Jus' a few, huh? The good ones, right?"

Daryl snorted and nodded his head. "Yeah. Only the good ones."

"Man, they're all good." Merle smiled wide.

Daryl smiled for a moment. Then he looked over at Judy, Carl, and Jessi again. "But... you have to understand. She's my life now, Merle. My whole life. Until Rick wakes up..." Daryl paused for a moment and sucked in a breath. He wasn't going to cry in front of his brother. It was just something he wasn't going to do. Something he couldn't do. "What Rick wanted." Daryl finally mumbled out. "What he worried 'bout."

Merle watched him. "Worried 'bout what?"

Daryl's eyes were on Judy. She was laughing as the dog licked her toes again. "What would happen ta Judy without him. His ex-wife... she wasn't like... in her right mind or somethin', Rick told me." It was a gross under exaggeration, Daryl was sure. Rick just trying not to talk bad about her. "Found out she was pregnant during their divorce. Was gonna get an abortion ta punish him."

"What a bitch." Merle said.

Daryl nodded. "Ended up hanging Judy over. No name, no nothing. Didn't even look at her. Said she did it fer Carl. Cuz the kid wanted a sister."

Merle breathed out and shook his head. "pretty fucked up."

Daryl nodded again. "Yeah." He turned towards Merle slowly. "Which is why ya can't fuck this up fer me. Cuz I'm all she has right now. Kay?"

Merle let out a sigh and shook his head. "I ain't gonna, Dar. I swear." He breathed out. "Truth is... I dun wanna fuck anything up ever again. Had lots'a time ta think 'n I dun wanna be like 'im. An' honestly... ain't got nowhere else ta go." He added the last with a mumble.

"Fine then." Daryl said with a nod. "You can stay."

Merle looked over at him. Then let out a snort and narrowed his eyes. "Course I can fucken stay. Ya ain't got balls enough ta through me out. Or the strength."

Daryl rolled his eyes. "Merle..."

Merle threw his arm around Daryl's shoulder and pulled his brother closer. "Been kicked yer ass since you was born."

Daryl rolled his eyes again and pushed Merle away. "Get off."

"Oh! Ya wanna try? Now?"

"NO!" Daryl snapped as Merle reached for him again.

"Daryl..." Carl hovered in the kitchen archway, watching them.

Daryl managed to push Merle away again and looked over at the teenager. "What?"

"Can I... still stay the night?" He asked softly.

"Course." Daryl said with a nod. "Don't need ta ask. It's yer house."

Carl glanced back at Merle.

Daryl shook his head and held up his hands. "Hell no. He don't matter."

"Don't matter?" Merle gasped.

Daryl shook his head again. "Nope. You can sleep on the couch. Or the garage."

"The garage?" Merle repeated.

"Better'n yer house." Daryl said with a slight smile.

Merle shook his head. "Cold, baby brother."

Daryl narrowed his eyes and pointed towards the kitchen doors. "Once more an' yer in the yard."

"Fine!" Merle snapped. "I'll sleep in the yard wit my dog!"

"Ya ain't got a dog!" Daryl snapped back.

"Yeah I do!" Merle crossed his arms, looking smug. "Soon as I get 'er away from yous, she'll remember."

Daryl shook his head. "That's Judy's dog!" He said, looking back at Judy and Jessi. Said dog was now standing on her hind legs, her front paws up on the tray. She was trying to lick Judy's face. Daryl shook his head. "Jessi! Get down!" The dog immediately dropped to the floor, looking caught. "From the second I brought her over." Daryl continued on. "Jessi follows Judy around everywhere. Hell, she sleeps under the kid's crib!"

Merle shook his head. "Can't believe ya kidnapped my dog."

"You made me take her!" Daryl said. "You begged me ta stay in town an' take care of her!"

"Yeah!" Merle nodded. "And look what happened! Ya went off an' got married an' turned her against me!"

Daryl shrugged. "Whatever. Ya ain't getting her back. My dog now. Told ya."

Merle breathed out loudly and shook his head. "So yer fucken a cop, huh?"

"MERLE!"