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Crybaby, Crybaby

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It was bound to happen sooner or later. Daryl knew hanging around with Merle would get him in trouble one day but there was no avoiding it. Merle was his brother. What was he supposed to do? He couldn’t just leave him. He had no other friends, no family, nowhere else to go. Merle was blood and Daryl was fresh out of options. So when his brother asked him to come along on a delivery… How was Daryl supposed to know it was something way worse than his brother’s usual pot runs? He sat cuffed to the metal table in the interrogation room with his head in his hands, at a total loss of what to do. How did it come to this? Why just him and no one else they'd busted? His lawyer was fairly nice for a "city bitch" as Merle called her. She seemed to understand his predicament and after looking into his files and meeting Merle for herself, she took pity on him. She spoke with the DA and had gotten him options. He could plead guilty, give up his brother and serve a reduced sentence as an accomplice. Giving up Merle was not an option for him. Not in any lifetime. But the alternative?

“You don’t have to decide right now,” Andrea told him, laying a hand on his arm in a gesture meant to be comforting. Daryl flinched away on reflex. He tried leaning back in his chair to cover his slip but the look on the woman’s face made it clear she’d caught it anyway. The concern there made Daryl feel even smaller. “I know this decision isn’t an easy one. Take a day or two to think it over.”

He shook his head with a snort, the edge of his thumb between his teeth. “Try impossible,” he snapped back. It had been made perfectly clear in his home growing up that it was wrong. It was something reserved for perverts or those too weak to make it in the world on their own. Daryl was neither of those things but when the only other option was to snitch? He stayed quiet for a long while as he chewed on his thumb, staring at his warped reflection in the table's surface. What could he do? “I ain’t givin’ up my brother. Ain’t even an option.” There was no way he would rat Merle out. Not even if it meant the end of the world. Andrea gave a sympathetic nod.

“Then I suppose we have our answer.”

Daryl felt his blood run cold. He’d known. From the very beginning he’d known. He just hadn’t wanted to admit it. Not even to himself. But it was the only thing he could do. Merle would understand, wouldn’t he? He was doing it for him after all. He had to understand.

“Guess you do,” Daryl answered softly. There was no other way for him. Daryl Dixon was going up for adoption.

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Adjusting to the center wasn’t easy. They’d taken just about everything he had on him. Everything but his vest which he’d refused to be parted from. It was completely and utterly humiliating. Having someone else bathe him and dress him in cutesy shit, constant supervision, nothing but kiddie shows on every TV in the place; it all got on his last nerve. He’d quickly been labeled an “advanced case”. The clinical term for “problem child”, he knew. Shouting and throwing things was a regular occurrence that earned him plenty of time outs. Time out, quiet time, the thinking corner, every caretaker had a term for it but was all the same and it was far easier than what Daryl's dad had called discipline.

Originally his outbursts had been purely out of embarrassment and frustration. He was in a new place, stripped of his freedom and his home. It was easy to get overloaded and when he no longer had the option to just walk away he eventually lost it. Once he learned these fits would get him removed from the situation he began to use them as an escape route. “Time outs” got him out of stupid things like coloring or stories. If he didn’t want to do something he could pitch a fit and get put in his bunk, trying not to look too smug when they told him how disappointed they were and how much fun he’d be missing. It had taken a lot of time and a lot of bending on his part but he felt like he had a pretty firm handle on things. He knew what to do and how to behave to make the system around here work for him. There were of course things he couldn’t get out of, baths and bedtimes two of his least favorite, but so far he’d avoided any of the baby play and activities. He would be lying if he said it wasn’t boring most of the time but he’d be damned if he was giving in to these assholes.

There was only two of the workers here he got along with at all. Mister Aaron and Mister Eric were far from the type of people he was used to hanging around with but they seemed to get him in ways the other caretakers never did. They never scolded him for slurping or eating too fast. They knew he liked to be outside and made it point to get him out in the play yard at least once a day, weather permitting. They didn't try to force anything on him either. Where the other caretakers would tell him over and over again how fun story time or macaroni art was until he threw a tantrum to get away, Aaron and Eric would leave him be after he said he didn't want to. They talked to him. Lately though, talking with them often had Daryl slipping into the role he’d tried so hard to avoid until he caught himself and pitched another fit to get away from it all.

While he didn’t ever see himself being happy here, it was consistent. He knew how to work the system while effectively making himself unadoptable. No one would want a violent, fussy thing that did nothing all day every day.

Until someone did.

“Daryl,” Aaron called from the door of the shared room. He was sitting on his bed and staring out the window the way he always did when he got sent in here. It was better than looking at the mint green walls covered in cartoon characters or the scribbles his roommate had pinned up all over their side of the room. His wall was bare. Not a single drawing or picture and he'd ripped down all his character decals time after time until they finally stopped putting them up. Not for the first time, Aaron looked at the untouched shelf of picture books with a frown. Daryl refused to even look at them. It was clearer every day that he needed constant individual attention if he was going to let go and allow himself to be little. As much as he and Eric tried, there were so many other babies here that needed looking after too. They couldn’t in good conscience pour all their time into just Daryl. “Come on with me for a minute, little man.” The glare Daryl sent him was a fair indication of how he felt about the name. But he got up anyway, arms folded over his chest and his head down as he made to follow after the caretaker. “Come on, Daryl. You know the rules by now,” he nudged, holding his hand out. Daryl bristled and his cheeks flushed but he took hold of the man’s hand anyway. He had learned that was something Aaron could and would wait him out on. Aaron still offered him a smile as if that would make him feel better about this situation. Leading Daryl out of the room, he brought him down the hall that lead from housing to the main part of the building. They had tried their best to make things look more homey and less like an institution but it was clear to Daryl that this had been some kind of hospital or school before the agency bought it. You could paint the walls and put down as much colorful, foam, puzzle flooring as you liked. It didn’t take away the clinical feeling of it all.

Eric was waiting in the massive entry hall looking nervous but excited. He approached them with a washrag in his hand, attacking Daryl’s messy face before he had time to pull away. If it were anyone else they might have gotten bit. Eric was the only one who could touch him out of the blue without losing some blood. “They’re in meeting room C. I sent them ahead and gave them a copy of his file to look over.” Meeting room? Daryl pulled away, ducking the rag and digging his heels in. The meeting rooms were for the ones who didn’t come back. They were where nice couples went to meet their nice, well behaved babies before they took them home. The meeting rooms meant everything would change all over again. Eric seemed to notice his mistake and looked to Aaron apologetically. With a put upon sigh, Aaron turned to Daryl who stared at his trusted caretaker with betrayal in his eyes. “Daryl, it’s okay. I promise you, it’s going to be fine.” Daryl didn’t say anything but took a step back from the two of them. Eric wasn't deterred completely and came behind him to try and nudge him forward, speaking softly to him. “Aaron’s right. There’s nothing to be afraid of, Sweetie. They’re very nice people and they’re so excited to meet you.”

“I ain’t meetin’ nobody,” Daryl snapped. He stared both of them down in turn. Nobody that would want him could be nice. Nice people wanted nice babies who played well with others. He’d made sure he was the most undesirable person in the building. No happy, upper middle class white family was coming for the likes of Daryl Dixon. No way in hell. So how had this happened?

“Just calm down,” Aaron placated. “We know them very well. And they’ve been looking for a long time. I wouldn’t have told them about you if I didn’t think you’d like them.” Daryl didn’t care if it was Aaron and Eric themselves that wanted to take him home. They tried to be sneaky. They tried to trick him and if there was anything Daryl hated in this world it was someone who went behind his back. They were trying to get rid of him and on top of everything they had lied. He pulled his hand from Aaron’s and, with pure defiance in his eyes, he stalked across the room.

“Daryl,” Aaron pleaded when it became clear where he was headed. “Daryl, please don’t do this. Not now.” Daryl stared Aaron down as he moved to the far wall, the brightly colored toy bins clearly his target. Eric turned away, knowing what was coming and clearly distressed by the situation. The first bin hit the floor with a loud bang, showering the floor in a rainbow of lego pieces. “Please. We know you’re upset but we promise-” Aaron was cut off as another bin crashed to the floor sending toy cars everywhere. Daryl didn’t care what they had to say. They’d already tricked him once and he wasn’t about to listen to anything else. He grabbed the next bin, ready to toss it to the floor when a hand closed around his wrist.

Daryl startled, whipping around and ducking his head into his shoulder to instinctively protect his face from whatever hit may be coming. There was no impact. No thud into his head or his ribs. Daryl carefully raised his head just enough to see. The man was just taller than him with dark eyes and a thick head of black hair. He was built. Much stronger than Merle and by extension Daryl but his grip was just firm enough to hold him. His eyes were fixed on Daryl’s, holding him there with nothing but a hard expression. It was quiet and the tension in the room was palpable as Daryl waited for the yelling, a fist, anything besides this cold stare.

“You upset our friends,” he finally said, his voice even and deathly calm when he nodded in Aaron and Eric’s direction. It was then that Daryl finally saw just how his outburst had affected Eric in particular. Always the gentler and more emotional of the two, he was visibly upset as his fingers curled in Aaron’s shirt. He could hear sniffling as Aaron tried to comfort the other man and knowing he was the cause made his stomach drop. He didn't mean to make Eric cry. They were just supposed to get fed up and take him back to his bed. They weren't supposed to get upset. Angry, sure, but not this.

“Those little tantrums of yours don’t only affect you, you see?” Another new voice. This man was thinner but still well muscled, blue eyes clouded with sympathy. To see that it was directed at him caught Daryl off guard. It was enough to snap him out of the trance and he pulled away, pushing at the hand firmly gripping his wrist with small, panicked noises. The fear was unwarranted and he was released near immediately. Still, both pairs of eyes were on him and that was unsettling. The smaller of the two came forward and stooped down to right one of the fallen bins. He started shoveling in legos by the handful and all Daryl could do was stare.

“He’s pickin’ up your mess by himself. That seem fair to you,” the dark haired man asked, arms folded over his chest. It was clear in his tone that he expected Daryl to do something about that but there was no threat there. No hidden ‘or else’ behind it. Still, he found himself kneeling to retrieve the second bin and start filling it with the cars. He kept glancing back and forth between the two, not sure what to think of them. They weren’t like the caretakers with their ultimatums, weren’t so quick to ship him off to his room to be done with his outburst. When all the legos were gathered the bin was handed off to the larger man. He took it without complaint and turned his eyes back to Daryl expectantly. He worked quickly to gather up the last of the cars and followed the example given to him, handing over his own bin. With a pleased nod, the man turned away from Daryl and both were placed back in their spots on the racks.

Their attention was back to him then, the pair of them looking as if the incident hadn’t happened. “My name’s Rick,” the blue eyed man said with a nod of his head. “This is my partner Shane.” The broader of the two slipped his thumbs into his belt loops as he regarded the man before them, his posture loose and relaxed now. “And we take it from all the shouting before that you must be Daryl,” he said. Daryl’s thumb found its way to his lips, the edge of it between his teeth as he nodded. They threw him with their approach and he was finding it hard to get his sea legs again as they spoke to him. Anyone else would have run out screaming by now, wanting nothing to do with the “demon child”. He knew. He’d run a few caretakers out of the job by this point but these two seemed unfazed.

A soft smile took over Rick’s face as he watched Daryl, something affectionate there. “You wanna tell us what that was about?” Daryl glanced up to meet Rick’s eyes before dropping his gaze to the floor again. He gave a shrug in answer. Daryl knew he was upset but it was hard to put the feeling into words, to pinpoint even just for himself. “It’s okay if you were scared or nervous,” Rick told him. “It’s hard to meet new people sometimes.”

Shane cut in, “but throwin’ things like a monkey in a zoo don’t exactly make a good first impression.” Daryl snorted at that. It was kind of the point normally. No one put up with his attitude and aggression for very long and that kept him safe. It kept him in a familiar place. A hand reached out to Daryl and he glanced from it, to Rick’s blue eyes and back in confusion.

“We aren’t so scary though, are we,” he said. “And we’d really like it if you’d come and talk with us for a little bit.” Shane nodded his agreement. “We’ve heard what a sweet boy you are when you wanna be,” he told Daryl, his dark gaze softer now. “So how’s about you show us the real Daryl and we’ll get to know each other, hm?”

Daryl was still reluctant. This was unfamiliar territory for him and he didn’t know what to think or say. After a long pause, his eyes flicked to both of them through his bangs in turn. When neither made a move he reached out tentatively and put his hand in Rick’s. He wasn’t sure why but something about seeing the two men smiling big and bright and knowing that it was because of him made his chest feel warm and happy. He let Rick lead him down the hall, Shane walking along on his other side to the meeting room.

Daryl had never seen them before. The room they went in was brightly painted with a playground scene and a huge, smiling sun. Two shelves lined with books, toys and art supplies stood against one wall. In front of it was a play rug. One of the racetrack ones all the other kids in his neighborhood seemed to have growing up. To the left was a low table with cushions on the floor to sit around. It was a lot like the main playrooms only smaller and cleaner. No sticky spots on the table or marker on the walls. He just stood there when the door closed behind them, not sure where to go from that point. It was overwhelming to have so much there and know he couldn’t do any of it. Not without becoming everything his dad and Merle hated. It was too much to process and he wanted out but he’d already seen that a tantrum wouldn’t work with these two.

“Daryl,” Rick called gently. His eyes flicked to the man. He was still smiling. Still watching patiently. “Everything okay?” Again he shrugged. He didn’t feel like talking. He just didn’t want to be here. Rick and Shane met each other’s eyes, something passing silently between them. Shane stepped over to the shelves and pulled out the bag of blocks sitting on the lowest one.

“Y’know, I ain’t seen these things in years,” he said, talking to Rick more so than Daryl. “We used to build whole cities with these things, remember that?”

“Sure do,” Rick said as he went to join Shane, the two sitting down on the rug. Daryl looked at them in surprise. His dad had never let him or his brother have blocks. He never let them have any toys really.

“You played blocks,” he asked, curiosity winning out over nerves.

“Sure did,” Shane told him. “Didn’t you ever build things?”

Daryl shook his head. “Pa said toys was for pussies.” He didn’t miss the looks of distaste on either man’s face. “No ‘fense,” he mumbled, hiding behind his hair again. After all, these two looked far from being wimps.

“It’s okay,” Rick told him. “But your Pa was wrong. Toys are for everyone.” Daryl still wasn’t sure if that was true but Rick and Shane played with toys and they turned out okay. “You wanna come build with us,” Shane asked. Daryl shook his head. He couldn’t. He still didn’t know if it would be okay for him and heaven forbid Merle ever find out. But that didn’t stop his curiosity.

“Can...can I watch,” he asked, cheeks warming. Rick and Shane smiled and waved him over.

It was three whole hours until the room was finally needed for someone else. Aaron was astonished to find that in that time they’d not only gotten Daryl to talk to them but he was actually smiling and while he still wouldn’t actually pick up a block, he wasn’t pitching an unholy fit for even being in the same room with the items. No, the stubborn boy wasn’t willing to build anything for himself but he watched with interest as Rick and Shane put together a tower which was a vast improvement in its own right. Seeing the boy giggle at something Shane had said made his chest ache knowing he had to call it.

“I hate to break up the party,” he said with audible regret. “But we really need the room.” Daryl looked up from the men’s project to Aaron, almost as if he’d forgotten the center entirely. With a frown, his expression closed off again and he was back to being the stone faced boy they were used to much to Aaron’s chagrine. “Hey,” Shane called, pulling Daryl’s attention back to them. “Rick and I gotta go to work now. But we had a lot of fun with you today.”

“That’s right,” Rick chimed in. “So how about we make a deal. If you can be good for Aaron and Eric, and the other caretakers here while we’re at it, then we’ll come visit you again on Friday.”

“That’s two whole days from now,” Shane told him. “You think you can manage to stay out of trouble for that long?” Daryl had seemed to brighten instantly at the promise of seeing them again but he was clearly conflicted when he realized what he had to do to make that happen. Two days without causing trouble was a hard thing for him. But he wanted to see Rick and Shane again. He gave them both a nod and the pair of them smiled. “That’s my man,” Shane praised.

When Daryl even helped clean up without being asked, Aaron about had a heart attack. He had been hopeful when he told the couple about their troubled ward. Daryl deserved a second chance at a normal, positive childhood experience and if anyone could give him that it was Shane and Rick. Still, he had never dreamed of things moving this fast if they moved forward at all. A few short goodbyes and Daryl took Aaron’s hand to be led away. “That seemed like it went well,” he said once they were out of earshot. Daryl just shrugged in response. Eric was waiting at the end of the hall with a hooded towel which meant it was time for the thing Daryl hated most. But he had to be good. He promised and he wanted Rick and Shane to come back. The walk to the wash rooms was silent and he paused as they reached the door. Aaron and Eric turned to him, expecting the usual tantrum but instead Daryl just stood there, shuffling awkwardly and staring at the floor.

“Daryl,” Eric questioned. He was quiet for a long stretch and when he finally spoke his voice was soft, the words muffled around his thumb as he chewed the edge of it.

“M’sorry.”

He glanced up at Eric who looked shell shocked. “Fer before. Fer scarin’ ya when I threw that stuff.” The man’s surprised expression fell to a smile and he let a hand run down Daryl’s back comfortingly. “It’s okay, sweety. I know you didn’t mean to. Anyway, it’s over now so let’s get you cleaned up and ready for the story circle. Won’t that be fun?”

Daryl’s lip curled in distaste and he reminded himself Rick and Shane just said he had to be good. They didn’t say anything about participating.

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“What do you think,” Rick asked. He was still buzzing from their visit, hands gripping at the wheel with nervous energy. Shane smiled from the passenger’s seat. It was so like Rick to be jittery even after things went well. He reached out, detaching one of the man’s hands from the wheel and threading their fingers together. “I think we’re done lookin’,” Shane told him. “It ain’t gonna be easy and we’re gonna have to take it slow with him but I think he’s the one.”

Rick couldn’t help but grin. “Did you see that smile? And you know he was dyin’ to build with us.” Shane loved this. He loved seeing Rick so happy and he couldn’t wait to see him smile like that with Daryl cradled in his arms.

He lifted Rick’s hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the back of it. “He’ll get there. Soon enough he’ll be the happy baby he wants to be. And he’ll be all ours.” Rick nodded. “We got so much to get ready,” he told Shane, more thinking out loud. “We don’t even have the nursery set up yet. And I feel like he’d like a swing. Plenty of toys for sure.”

Shane just listened to Rick go on the whole drive to the precinct. It was finally happening. They’d be a family. They’d have their house, each other and finally their baby. Shane leaned over again, pressing a kiss to his temple. “It’ll be great. I know it.”

Chapter Text

That Friday was the longest of Daryl’s life. He plowed through breakfast paying no heed to the morning caretaker’s warnings that he was going to choke. It was hard to imagine anyone choking with Spencer on duty. The guy was always cutting everything into tiny pieces before he gave it to them. It was irritating but Spencer was okay by Daryl’s standards. Not like Aaron and Eric but he cared about what he did here. He put himself into his work and the wards mattered to him. Aiden was the one caretaker Daryl could say was truly bad. He was Spencer’s brother, only here because his mother was the owner and she thought the volunteer work would look good for him on college applications. If anyone wanted to be here less than Daryl it was Aiden and he took it out on them. Daryl had been careful to avoid him the last two days, not trusting that the caretaker wouldn’t instigate and that he could resist the bait.

He’d been good for two whole days, finding other excuses to get out of things when he was stuck with Spencer or Jessie before Aaron and Eric came in. He’d come close but hadn’t had a single tantrum and he wasn’t about to mess up in the homestretch. The last of his juicebox gone, Daryl jumped to his feet.

“Hold it,” Spencer called, moving to intercept him. He took Daryl by the wrist and pulled a clean up wipe from the container strapped to his belt. Daryl huffed impatiently as his hands were wiped clean. “Don’t get huffy with me,” he told Daryl. “We gave you a fork. If you would have used it you wouldn’t have sticky, syrup hands to begin with. Now hold still and you’ll get outside sooner.” Daryl did as he was told and let Spencer clean the syrup and french toast bits off his face. That didn’t mean he didn’t give irritated grunts the whole time.

“There you go. Now you look like Daryl again instead of a french toast monster.” The caretaker seemed pleased with his joke. Daryl was resisting the urge to hit him. “Alright. Go on. The play yard’s open.” Just like that, Daryl was off, tuning out Spencer’s shout of “don’t run!” in his hurry to get outside. The faster he got through his day, the sooner Rick and Shane would be here and aside from which, today could be the day and he didn’t want to miss it. He pushed open the door to the yard and stepped into the warm sunlight. He loved to be out here. It was closest thing he had to the old freedom of the woods. He mostly kept to himself over by the big tree watching the squirrels. There was a nest in it and he’d been watching the babies since he got here. He knew they should be big enough to start coming out soon and he wanted to be there when it happened. He hadn’t actually seen them since Aaron caught him climbing the tree to look in but he’d been watching the mama bring them food and listening to the sounds they made.

“Daryl.”

He turned when he was called, seeing Jessie approaching him. She wasn’t terrible either but Daryl still didn’t like her. She had been the one to check him in and that meant she’d been the one to strip him of all his possessions on arrival. She seemed to be under the impression he would get over it eventually and that only made Daryl hold onto the anger harder.

She smiled as she came to a stop in front of him, either not picking up on Daryl’s glare or ignoring it. “We’re playing tag today. Do you want to be it first?” Daryl didn’t answer, leering at the woman in front of him. “It’s a lot of fun. I think you’d like it if you gave it a chance,” she told him. “And wouldn’t it be nice to make some friends while you’re here?”

“M’busy,” he mumbled, turning away from her and B-lining for the tree. Thankfully, she didn’t follow him but he could hear the disappointed sigh. He didn’t understand why it bothered these people so much. Why did they care what he did as long as he didn’t cause a problem? If anything, he was making their job easier. He ate what they gave him without complaint, he never cried over stupid things like broken crayons or wanting a toy someone else had. He wasn’t a whiner. He wasn’t a tattle tale. The other wards were far more troublesome than he was but he seemed to be the one they worried about most. Daryl didn’t understand these people at all.

The big oak tree stood by itself in the far corner of the yard, shading the patch of grass from the bright, spring sun. It was everything Daryl missed about summers spent camped in the forest behind his house. He laid a hand reverently against the bark of it and turned his eyes upward into the boughs. The leaves were tender and new and cast a cool, green glow as the sunlight streamed through them. Birds were perching and singing to each other in the shelter of its higher branches. Daryl’s attention was zeroed in on the hollow half way up the trunk.

A bushy, brown tail was the first thing visible as the mama squirrel made her morning departure. The sounds of the active babies reached him as she went on her way. They were calling for their mama. With a smile, Daryl lowered himself to the ground, legs crossed to watch and wait. It had to be soon. Any day now they would follow her out and Daryl couldn’t wait to see how big they’d become. There were six last time he’d seen them, bald and tiny and pink. He had names for them all not that he would ever tell anyone else that. You don’t name food.

Merle taught him that when they’d briefly raised chickens. Daryl was only around ten then and they’d never had a pet. He’d been so excited when Merle brought home the chicks. He fed and looked after them every day with Merle and his favorite was the rooster. Merle heard him call it by name once and had reeled on him. There was no Suzanne, he’d shouted, no Daisy or Linda and definitely no James. There was only roasted, barbecue, kentucky fried and soup.

Daryl still never had a pet and he never tried to name anything again. But these squirrels weren’t food, he reasoned. He wasn’t allowed to hunt anymore nor did he need to. So if he wasn’t going to eat them it must be okay for them to have names. He watched with vested interest as a little head peeked out curiously. It was Crusty. The kit had an obvious eye infection when he’d seen it back then and it looked to have lost the eye. Still, it was the bravest. It’s little nose twitched curiously as it took in the outside world. Daryl held his breath as the little one leaned out further. It moved to the far side of the opening, paws gripping the bark and testing the hold until finally, it pulled itself out. It clung to the tree like it had been doing so all its life and started climbing up the way it’s mother had gone. Seeing Crusty do it brought Loud-mouth, the most vocal kit and Half-pint, the runt, to the entrance for their own investigation.

Daryl couldn’t keep the smile off his face if he wanted to as Loud-mouth started to wander out as well. Half-pint hesitated, gripping the tree and letting go, gripping, letting go. The kit was unsure. “You can do it,” Daryl mumbled to himself. “C’mon. You’re smaller than them but you’re just as good.” He watched on, giving quiet words of encouragement as the little squirrel finally made its way out to follow after its siblings. Daryl jumped to his feet happily as he watched the tiniest of the nest climb its way up and up into the tall branches. He was happy and excited.

So excited he didn’t hear the approach. Not until there was a shout of “you’re it” directly behind him. An open palm connected with his back, shoving hard and Daryl’s stomach dropped. He whirled around, acting entirely on reflex as his balled fist came around with him.

 

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Rick and Shane had spent the whole day shopping. It was the only way they could keep themselves from showing up at the center early. As much as they wanted to just go and take Daryl home now they knew they had to establish themselves with him first. Not to mention they didn’t have the nursery ready to bring their baby boy home to yet. They had the room painted which had taken up most of the two day period but they still had to put together the furniture, buy toys and a rocking chair and other supplies. It killed them to wait but they wanted to bring him home to the perfect place and they wanted him to want to come home with them first. It would probably take a few more visits before they were fully equipped which gave them plenty of time to make sure Daryl was comfortable and happy with them and to get all the legal work sorted.

Still, it felt like the day passed at a crawl until it was finally time to head over. “You think he’ll still want to see us,” Rick asked. Shane draped an arm over Rick’s waist, pulling him into his side in a comforting squeeze. “He might need to warm up to us again but he will. Don’t worry so much.”

“Right,” Rick said with a nod. “He had fun last time. I know he did. I guess I’m just worried he changed his mind or that whatever else his dad used to say got to him.” The thought of a child never having toys or being allowed to play at all was heartbreaking. He just wanted to sweep the boy into his arms and never let him go.

“Well then we show him his dad was wrong,” Shane told him. “We knew it wasn’t gonna be easy when Aaron and Eric brought it up. He’s had hard life. Harder than any of them. He was raised thinkin’ this wasn’t allowed and it was beaten into him.” Shane had seen red the first time they saw the pictures of Daryl’s scars. How anyone could do that to a child let alone one as sweet and pleasing as Daryl was beyond him no matter how many times they had similar cases cross their desks.

“I know that,” Rick agreed quietly. “And it ain’t that I’m worried about putting in the work. I want him to feel safe. I want to see him happy. I wish it was faster because I want him to feel better. I don’t want him to be afraid of himself anymore.”

Shane nodded, pulling Rick to a stop in front of the door to the center. “He’ll get there. Because we are gonna be the ones to get him there. He’ll be the happy, giggly baby we saw last week all the time. We just gotta be patient with him.”

Rick sighed, pressing his forehead against Shane’s in the familiar gesture. “Since when are you the patient and rational one?” Shane grinned. “I have my moments,” he teased. He pressed a kiss to his partner’s lips before urging him forward. “We don’t want to keep our boy waitin’.” They were signing in at the front desk when Aaron ran up to them, out of breath.

“I’m,” he gasped. “I’m sorry. We’re going to have to cancel the visit for today.” He ran a hand through his hair, clearly distraught. Something wasn’t right. Shane stepped forward, giving Aaron a hard look. “Why? What happened?”

 

Aaron gave another loud huff. He was stressed and clearly worried. That made Rick and Shane even more uneasy. When he finally turned his eyes to them, the panic in them was clear. Finally, he spoke, voice cracking with barely contained emotion. “We can’t find him.”

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It was ruined. He’d messed it all up. And now he’d never see Rick and Shane again. All he had to do was be good for two days. He’d been so careful. He hadn’t thrown a single tantrum or sassed. He’d even been good for bath and bedtime. All that work just to throw it away because someone had tagged him. He hadn’t meant to hit him. He was loud, hit Daryl hard and he hadn’t seen it coming. It scared him and he’d just reacted. Of everything he had done to be punished here he had never hurt anyone. Now, with Rick and Shane’s visit on the line, he’d slipped up and done the worst thing he ever had in this place.

It wasn’t just the visit either. He felt awful when he saw the other man on the ground, looking at him with fear in his eyes and crying. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice small and broken. He tried to help him up but the other man scrambled back from him, holding his rapidly swelling cheek. “I didn’t mean to,” Daryl pleaded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

Jessie had run over as fast as she could and knelt beside the crying little, trying to comfort him. She turned to Daryl, eyes hard. “What is your problem,” she snapped. Daryl flinched at the tone. “I didn’t mean it,” he answered desperately. All the other wards were staring now, fearful. He felt trapped, pinned by their gaze. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean it,” he whispered to himself as he started to tremble. He felt like he was suffocating. Like every eye locked on him choked the air from his lungs. When he felt the tears building in his own eyes he forced himself to move. He ran.

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

Rick and Shane had flipped instantly to on duty mode. The pair worked to calm their friend and narrow down their options. There weren’t many places to go. He’d run into the building and the only exit to the outside was constantly monitored. That meant he was still inside and the caretaker’s frantic search had already ruled out most of the common areas and bedrooms. That left staff areas, meeting rooms and supply closets.

They stuck close to Aaron, calling for Daryl as they went. There was no response and they were steadily running out of hiding places. The only area left was the laundry closet.

“It’s locked most of the day. We don’t want anyone getting into the cleaning supplies,” Aaron explained. He pulled out his key and opened the door to let the pair in. The room was lined with shelves full of supplies. Sheets, napkins, towels, diapers all piled high. There was a washer and drier in the corner that took up most of the free space and it didn’t leave a lot of places to hide.

Shane huffed, rubbing at the back of his head. Rick hid it better but he could tell his partner was just as worried as he was. “We gotta check the cameras,” Rick said. “See if maybe he slipped by the front desk after all. There aren’t any-”

Shane shushed him, listening for something. This time Rick heard it too. A quiet sniff from the tiniest corner in the room. They nodded to each other, Shane taking point and heading back to the small space between the wall and the washer. The figure curled up in a ball and wedged inside was the most welcome sight Shane had ever seen. He let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding and dropped his head back in pure relief.

“He’s okay, Aaron. He’s back here,” he called. Daryl tensed at the voice, squeezing his legs tighter to his chest. Shane dropped low, one knee on the concrete floor as he put himself on Daryl’s level. “Hey, bud. What are you doin’ in here by yourself huh?” The boy didn’t answer, sniffling and keeping his head down. “We came to see you. Just like we promised. Don’t you want to see us?”

Daryl was quiet. His shoulders were tense as they rose and fell with every deep breath. Shane waited patiently, knowing Rick was just around the corner listening. Eventually Daryl lifted his head just enough to peek over his knees. It was clear he’d been crying, his blue eyes glassy, red rimmed and puffy. His voice was thick and trembled when he spoke.

“Y’ain’t s’posta be here,” he told Shane firmly. He frowned at the comment, not sure what the boy meant by it. “It’s Friday, right? We told you-”

“Told me I hadda be good for you to come visit,” Daryl interrupted. He buried his face in his arms again. “Was bad. You ain’t s’posta come if I was bad.”

“That’s not what I heard,” Shane said. “Aaron tells us you’ve been tryin’ real hard. He said you didn’t have one tantrum the whole time. So what makes you think you were bad?”

Daryl was silent again, gripping his arms tighter as he started to tremble. Shane reached up to take his hands and pull them away before he could hurt himself. He kept his hold on them, ducking his head to meet Daryl’s eyes. “C’mon, bud. Talk to me.”

He could see tears building again before Daryl turned away to hide it. “I punched someone,” he said, sounding small and hurt. Shane nodded. It wasn’t what he had expected. From talking to Aaron and Eric, violence against others was out of character for their sweet boy. To hear he hit someone was a surprise. It came as a shock to Rick too if the sudden hovering was any indication.

He gave the boy’s hands a gentle squeeze. “Can you tell me why?” This seemed to catch Daryl by surprise and Shane got the feeling he’d never been asked that before. He stared at Shane with teary eyes before he dropped his gaze to his lap again. “I didn’t mean it,” he answered. Hearing the way he said it, like he was begging Shane to believe it, was heartbreaking.

“So it was an accident?”

“Yeah. ...no? I don’t know.”

Shane nodded. “Okay. Why don’t you tell me what happened and we can figure it out together?” Daryl looked so torn up over it Shane had a hard time believing it had been malicious. He seemed to get overwhelmed again as he thought about it. “Deep breath, okay? I’m not mad. Neither is Rick. But we want to understand. Just tell us what happened.”

It took Daryl a moment as he seemed to sort things out in his head. Shane was patient and it paid off when Daryl was finally able to talk again.

“Was watchin’ the babies,” he said. He was still talking to his knees but Shane wasn’t going to call him out on it now. He’d gotten Daryl to talk and that was a big win. You had to quit while you were ahead with a case like this. “They came out today.”

“What babies,” Shane asked with interest. Daryl’s eyes flicked to his and back down but Shane could see the subtle change in him as talk of whatever these babies were lightened him just a bit. “Squirrels. Been watchin’ ‘em since I got here,” he explained. “Was waitin’ for it and today they came out. I was watchin’ and… I didn’t hear him.” He bit his lip nervously but Shane was still quiet, letting him get his thoughts together. “They was playin’ tag in the play yard. He came up behind me and yelled loud. Then he tagged me on my back.” He shook his head. “I didn’t wanna,” he pleaded. “It just happened. I didn’t see him comin’ and…and…”

“He scared you,” Shane finished. “He scared you and you just reacted. That right?”

“I didn’t wanna hurt him,” Daryl shouted desperately. “I was careful the whole two days and I didn’t mean it!”

“Hey, hey. Shhhh. It’s okay,” Shane soothed. “I told ya. We ain’t mad. Now you didn’t mean to hurt him. Did you say sorry?” Daryl nodded. “Then I don’t think you were bad at all.”

Daryl seemed uncertain, like he didn’t quite believe it. “In fact, I’d say you were a very good boy. You didn’t fuss or make trouble. You did what you were told. Yes, you hit someone but it was an accident and you said you were sorry.”

“Shane’s right,” Rick said, unable to hold himself back anymore when their baby sounded so upset. “You tried and that’s what’s important. We’re very proud of you.”

The little boy looked between them, confused, as if convinced he’d misheard them. It was clear the moment it sunk in and Daryl pulled his hands from Shane’s to wipe furiously at his eyes. Little choked sobs broke through as he tried to force himself to settle but the surge of emotion was too strong to stop. Rick knew they were trying to give him space. Let him come to them but he couldn’t stop himself. Not when their boy was so obviously upset. “C’mere,” he said, tugging Daryl gently toward them so he could pull away if he wanted. To both their relief, he let himself be pulled in. They each curled an arm around him and comforted him gently.

It was undoubtable now that as much as Daryl held himself back, he wanted this. He was a sensitive little boy who needed to be embraced and reassured. He was their baby. He just didn’t know it yet. When he finally started to settle, Rick offered a smile.

“Don’t you feel better?”

Daryl wiped at his eyes and nose, pointedly not looking at either of them. He was still embarrassed but eventually that too would pass. He nodded reluctantly as Shane rubbed his back. “How about we get you cleaned up and we can go do somethin’. The three of us. That sound like a plan?” Again Daryl nodded. “That’sa boy,” Shane praised. They got to their feet, helping Daryl up to stand between them. Rick passed a look to his partner as they walked and Shane knew he would be up all night assembling the nursery. After today, there was no way either of them could walk out those doors without Daryl a third time.

“Can I watch you build again,” Daryl asked, shy and soft. Rick smiled and squeezed Daryl’s hand.

“We can do whatever you want.”

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It wasn’t easy. Mostly because he kept running away. But eventually Daryl had been able to officially apologize to Axel. Aaron had helped him explain when he had trouble finding the words and the younger man forgave him. Even apologized to Daryl for scaring him. Then he’d asked Daryl if he wanted to help build a castle. He hadn’t participated but he did like to watch people build and he felt like it would make up for hitting the guy. Axel wasn’t as good a builder as Rick and Shane and he kept knocking his own walls down but it was entertaining. Free play went much faster than it usually did that night and it surprised Daryl to find he didn’t want to leave when Eric came to get him for his bath.

As he was being tucked in for the night, Aaron and Eric lingered for a bit. “What’s going on in that head of yours, Sunshine,” Eric asked. Daryl was chewing his thumb again, trying to decide whether or not he should ask.

“They came twice,” he said softly. “And they said they was comin’ back next week.”

“Yes they did,” Aaron said with a nod. “Next Friday. Are you excited?”

He was quiet again, the fingers of his free hand fidgeting with the edge of his blankets. They came twice. Just for him. And they still wanted to see him. They didn’t get mad at him when he got upset. They would build whatever he asked. They didn’t yell at him when he cried and they helped him feel better. They were nice.

“Do ya,” he paused. “Ya think they want me?”

The couple shared a look, smiles breaking out on their faces. “Would you like that,” Eric asked. Daryl shrugged, his cheeks warming. He moved deeper beneath the blankets, covering the lower half of his face. “Wouldn’t be so bad I guess,” he said. The two men watched Daryl in amusement before getting to their feet.

“Maybe next week you should ask them,” Aaron told him. With that, he flicked off the light and left. Daryl rolled onto his side, laying his cheek on one wing of his vest. He shouldn’t even be thinking about this. Merle would be mad if he knew Daryl was actually considering it. But he couldn’t stop the words playing like a broken record in his head.

“We’re very proud of you.”

Chapter Text

Daryl had expected things to go back to business as usual after the play yard incident. He made his apology and he was careful to be aware of where the other wards were. What he hadn’t counted on was Axel sticking around. All of a sudden it was as if the guy was glued to his side and Daryl couldn’t understand why. At first it was uncomfortable and confusing. He wasn’t used to people wanting to hang around with him. Particularly people who’d been on the receiving end of his right hook. He started sitting next to Daryl at breakfast, inviting him to join in with him and the others outside and even trying to share toys with Daryl. He was completely undeterred by Daryl’s refusals, hanging around like a puppy.

Like most begging puppies, Axel eventually got his way. Daryl started to open up a bit more. At least with him. He liked Axel. The other man was honest. He didn’t look at Daryl like he was any different than the others here and went out of his way to try and make his new friend comfortable.

“So who are them guys that keep comin’,” he asked one day. Daryl looked up from where he’d been tracing patterns in the tabletop with his eyes. It was art day and all the others had projects they were working on. Axel was trying to sculpt...something out of play dough but Daryl couldn’t figure out for the life of him what the purple monstrosity was meant to be. “What ya mean?”

“The one’s who keep comin’ to see ya. They visit a lot but they don’t take ya home. How come?” Daryl frowned, eyes dropping back to the table again. He didn’t know why. Normally one visit was all you got. Either you got picked or you didn’t. Rick and Shane seemed to be toying with it. They kept coming to see him but they hadn’t even mentioned taking him with them. The thought of them deciding not to come back one day tied his stomach in knots. He liked them and he didn’t want to go with anyone else.

“I dunno,” he answered with a shrug. “They’re okay. But they just keep visitin’.”

“Do you want ‘em to take you home,” Axel asked. Daryl hesitated. He hadn’t ever actually said it. It felt like something monumental and permanent to admit out loud that he wanted that. But he couldn’t deny it forever. If someone had to take him he wanted someone who could understand him. Who wanted to understand and who could help him do the same.

He nodded. Axel looked over Daryl thoughtfully, smearing glitter on his cheek as he stroked his chin in concentration. Daryl didn’t appreciate the close scrutiny. It felt too much like being a steak sized up in a display case. “What ya starin’ at,” he snapped.

“Maybe you ain’t little enough,” the other man finally said. Daryl stared, confused by Axel’s impromptu assessment. It wasn’t like he was a bodybuilder or anything but he wasn’t that big. A little bit of pudge on his tummy was all. Axel shook his head as he saw Daryl start poking at himself. “No. Not like that. You ain’t actin’ little,” he explained. “You gotta be little if you wanna get picked. Y’know. Play with toys and color and stuff.”

Daryl felt his stomach drop. Axel was right. Of course he was. It was obvious now that he thought about it. That had been Daryl’s whole strategy, hadn’t it? Resist the childish behaviors and stay put. No one wanted to adopt a baby that did nothing. He didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to him sooner. That still didn’t make things any easier. Even if he wanted to, he had never done those things before.

“I...I don’t know how to do all that stuff,” he admitted quietly. “Never got to.”

“Really,” Axel asked in disbelief. “Not even colorin’?” Daryl shook his head. Axel looked thoughtful for a moment, mouth settling into a hard line. “Stay here,” he instructed. Daryl didn’t have time to ask what the boy was up to before he was up and across the room. What was he on about? He hadn’t seen Axel this determined before. It wasn’t long before Axel returned to the table, arms loaded with construction paper, markers and crayons. He dumped them all on the table in front of Daryl before plopping back down on the floor across from him.

“Okay. This is real easy,” he said. “You pick a piece a paper and you draw whatever you want. It don’t even have to look like the thing! You just make it however you want. Then you show it to one of the grown ups. They love that.”

Daryl still wasn’t sure. He looked at the pile of materials in front of him like they would come together and bite him at any second. This wasn’t allowed, screamed a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Merle. He would get in trouble or someone would call it stupid and rip it apart. He wasn’t supposed to do this stuff.

“You want those guys to take you home, right,” Axel asked him.

“Yeah, but-”

“Then draw.”

Daryl still wasn’t sure but if it would make Shane and Rick like him enough to pick him… He picked out a sheet of light blue paper, smoothing it on the table top. With shaking fingers, he reached for a black marker. It hovered above the paper, not yet making a mark. He kept expecting his brother to jump out at him. As if this was all a test and he was about to fail. Taking a deep breath, he dragged the felt tip across the page, making a line. It was a little wobbly and he looked to Axel nervously. The other boy was watching with a smile, staring at the page to see what Daryl would do next. He hadn’t messed up yet, Daryl thought with relief. He drew another line, this one starting at the first and going just a few inches vertical from it. He still hadn’t been yelled at and no one had taken the items from him. So he drew another line. Then another. He started to make shapes, putting the image together as he went.

He started to switch colors as he moved on to other things. Red, yellow, brown, purple, green, over and over until he couldn’t fit anything else on the page. “I think I’m finished,” he announced.

“Turn it! I wanna see,” Axel answered excitedly. Daryl turned it around so it was facing Axel and the boy looked it over with interest. It wasn’t good. Not like an artist or stuff people payed for but it was identifiable. He drew a house in the middle of the woods. Just like where he and Merle used to live. There was the crabapple tree in their front yard that the deer loved to eat from so he drew a doe with a fawn doing just that. The whole place was surrounded by grass and trees and flowers, a yellow sun shining down from the right corner of the page.

“You draw good deer,” Axel told him. “But apples are s’post’a be red.” Daryl shook his head. “Not these kind. They’re tiny ones and they’re real sour but the deer like ‘em. They always eat ‘em all before they can turn red.” Axel seemed fascinated to hear that there were tiny apple trees and Daryl had to explain what they were. He was in the middle of his story about the time Merle dared him to eat a whole one and he got sick when Axel bumped him.

“Mister Eric’s here,” he said. “You should give it to him.” Daryl’s gut knotted all over again at the suggestion. Showing Axel was one thing. He knew the other boy wouldn’t get upset over it or make fun of him. Showing a grown up? “Go on,” the other man urged. “It’ll make him happy. You can practice for when those guys come back.” Again, Axel wasn’t wrong. It would be easier if he started small now and if he couldn’t give it to Eric he certainly couldn’t give it to one of the other caretakers. Swallowing hard, Daryl steeled himself and got to his feet. He could see Eric talking to one of the girls a few tables over while she strung big, plastic beads onto pieces of yarn.

You can do it, he told himself. It’s just Eric. Eric never laughs at you. Not in the mean way. He clutched the drawing to his chest, heart fluttering as he went to stand in front of the caretaker. He didn’t want to interrupt so he waited for Eric to notice him. It felt like it took forever and he shifted nervously from foot to foot, thumb coming reflexively to his lips as he got more and more anxious. Finally, the caretaker looked up. He gave a smile as he stood up straight to give Daryl his attention. “Hi, sweety. Is everything okay?”

Daryl nodded, staring at the buttons of Eric’s shirt instead of looking him in the face. “Did you need something,” the man asked. Daryl’s behavior was perplexing. He was shy, of course but he was never this worked up without a reason. Daryl’s heart was doing backflips in his chest now. Once he did this there was no going back. Once he did this it was done. He dropped his eyes to the floor, face burning as he thrust the paper at Eric.

The caretaker was surprised when Daryl handed him the paper and even moreso when he saw what was on it. He couldn’t stop the grin if he wanted to. “Did you make this,” he asked. Daryl nodded again. “Is it for me?” Daryl shrugged then, shrinking back a little. “S’okay if you don’ wan’ it,” the boy answered softly. “It ain’t so good. But s’my first one.”

Eric pulled Daryl to him, cutting him off with a tight hug. “I love it,” he reassured. “You did a beautiful job and Mister Aaron and I are going to hang it up at our house.”

“You...you’re gonna keep it,” Daryl asked, shy and a little embarrassed but overall proud that he’d made something and Erin had liked it.

“Absolutely. It’s gonna go up on our special wall. Right in our living room.” They hung everything the kids here gave them on the biggest wall in their living room where they could show it all off whenever they had guests.

They weren’t just going to keep it. They wanted to show other people. They were going to put it up in their house. Daryl couldn’t help the small upward twitch of his lips. His drawing made someone else happy. Maybe coloring wasn’t so dumb after all. He started telling Eric everything he’d told Axel about his picture, proudly explaining why it was okay that the apples were green and that the flowers weren’t really in their yard but he thought it made the picture look nicer. Yeah, Daryl decided. Drawing was okay.

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

Daryl’s lessons didn’t stop there. Axel was insistent on helping him. It wasn’t easy and there were there some things Daryl still wasn’t ready for like joining in outdoor games and making friends with other wards. But other things were easier. Story circle was a much simpler transition. All he had to do was sit next to Axel and listen. He wasn’t joining in yet but he was starting to enjoy the experience. Like TV in your head. He still couldn’t stand the kid’s shows they put on. Particularly the ones with dancing characters in costumes that sang about eating all your food and not biting people. Most of the movies were okay though. He drew the line at the one with all animals where the fox and rabbit were friends. You don’t name food and all the animals in it had a name. But if he listened to it, well that was just unavoidable, wasn’t it? And he couldn’t help it if he got a glance at the screen from time to time. ...okay so maybe that one was his favorite. No one else had to know that.

Daryl was slowly learning that it was okay to do these things. No one yelled at him or told him it was wrong. In fact, they all seemed happy to see him taking part. The caretakers made sure to come see whatever he was doing and praise him for it. It felt nice to hear that someone liked his painting or to have them ask what his favorite part of the story was.

There was still one thing Daryl wanted to do. He was ready for it but he wanted to wait. Blocks were something he only did with Rick and Shane and he wanted the first time he built something to be with them. That would show them he could do it. He could be little for them. He could do it if it meant they would choose him. He spent the whole week deciding what he would build with them first. It had to be something big and important. He saw some of the other kids making tall towers or walls, making little towns on the race track rugs for their cars to drive through. Axel kept trying to make that castle even though he was too clumsy to ever finish it before the end of playtime. None of it seemed big enough or important enough.

He only had a few hours left before they came and still hadn’t made a decision. They would be here soon and Daryl had to come up with something. It was Aaron who finally suggested that he make them something even better. He could make a picture of all the things he wanted to do with them. That way he didn’t have to pick just one thing and they could see all the fun he wanted them have together. It was the hardest Daryl had ever worked on a picture.

When Aaron came to get him it felt like when he gave Eric that first drawing all over again. His belly was full of butterflies and his heart felt like it wanted to burst out of his chest and make a break for it. But he held Aaron’s hand and followed him to the lobby with his picture hugged tight to himself. This was it. This was his chance. The two men were waiting there for him when he turned the corner and they looked happy to see him.

“Hey bud,” Shane greeted, hands on his hips and a bright smile on his face. Rick gave a grin of his own, holding a hand out to him. “We missed you.”

Daryl moved closer, standing in front of them. He felt like he was going to throw up or float away all at once. He tried to reassure himself that he’d done this before. He’d given Aaron, Eric and even Denise a picture this week and they all liked them. But, self doubt informed him, this was the one that counted. He chewed at his thumb hard, heart pounding as he looked at each of them.

“Made somethin’,” he said quietly, holding his paper tightly.

“You did,” Rick asked, surprised to hear that Daryl had taken part in something. Daryl nodded. “Can we see it,” Shane asked. Daryl was still for a moment, fidgeting with the picture in his hands.

“S’fer you,” he almost whispered, handing it over. Shane and Rick looked over the drawing, both of them grinning at the group of pictures. Daryl pointed to the first one, a stick figure with blue eyes and brown squiggles on the top of it’s head. “Tha’s you,” then he pointed to another stick figure, this one with dark hair and eyes and an upside down triangle for the torso. “N tha’s Shane and this one’s me.” The last figure had blue eyes like Rick with longer, straight brown hair. All three were circled around a skyscraper made of blocks.

Quickly, Daryl pointed to the next one. Each of their heads in a window. “There’s us in a car. And I drew us campin’ too.” He was worried it might be too presumptuous to draw them doing things outside the center. They still hadn’t said anything about taking him home but they didn’t look too upset. In fact, they seemed even happier. Like this was something they’d been waiting for. “You made this for us,” Rick asked. Daryl nodded and Rick looked like he was going to split his face in two he was smiling so big. “Thank you so much, Daryl. We love it.”

The knot in Daryl’s stomach eased and he felt his own lips tugging up at the corners. “Can we play blocks now,” he asked hopefully.

“Well, we’d love to, bud but we can’t stay long this time,” Shane told him. Just like that, the sick feeling was back. They just got here and they were leaving again? He chewed his thumb harder, pinching the skin beneath his teeth as tears pricked at his eyes.

“How come,” he asked, trying not to sound too upset.

“Well,” Rick started. “We gotta get home soon if we’re gonna have time to show you around the place before dinner and bathtime.”

Show him around? Dinner and bathtime? It all clicked into place and Daryl was up in the clouds again. “I...you’re takin’ me with ya?”

“If you’ll let us,” Shane said. He put an arm around Rick, squeezing his partner’s hip. “We want you to be part of our family. We want you to be our baby.” Daryl was too excited to answer at first. He looked between them as a million thoughts raced through his head all vying for his attention.

“What do I gotta call ya,” is what came out first. The two of them chuckled at the boy’s barely contained enthusiasm. “Well, Rick here’s had the monopoly on Daddy since we started lookin’,” Shane explained. “And I’m partial to Papa.” Daryl nodded. He could remember that. It wasn’t too embarrassing either. He had so many questions. It was all so much running through his brain at once. He was leaving the center. Hopefully for good. That reminded him.

“Wait,” he shouted. “I’ll be right back! Don’t leave!” Daryl took off like a bat out of hell. He couldn’t believe he’d almost left without it. He was in such a hurry he wiped out on the turn to the bedrooms but it didn’t slow him down long. He scrambled back to his feet and ran to his room. It was right there on the bed where he left it. Daryl picked up the vest, his most important possession, and hugged it to his face. He could never leave it behind. Couldn’t sleep without it.

Vest now safely in his hands, he ran back to the lobby. He was relieved to find they hadn’t left him behind but had waited patiently for him. “You alright, bubba,” Rick asked. “You took a pretty big spill there.” Daryl nodded without hesitation. “I’m okay. I got my stuff. We can go now.”

His excitement was contagious. Rick and Shane were eager to get him home and after saying goodbye to Aaron, Eric and Axel he found himself leaving the front doors for the first time since he was brought here. Shane opened their back door for him and he was surprised and a little nervous to see a carseat. He didn’t need one. He wasn’t really a baby. But he didn’t want them to change their minds.

He climbed inside and Rick got him strapped in and the belts adjusted. “Not too tight, right,” Rick asked him. Daryl shook his head. He’d gone quiet again, clutching the vest tight and chewing his thumb. He’d been so excited but now that he was strapped in and on his way he realized he didn’t know what he was getting into. If they had a carseat they might expect him to use other baby things and Daryl wasn’t sure he could go that far.

Shane seemed to notice he was starting to get stuck in his head and he met the boy’s eyes in the mirror. “You excited, bud?” Daryl gave a quiet nod. “You sure you’re okay,” Rick prompted from the driver’s seat. He paused, petting over the wings on his vest. “Tummy feels funny,” he answered.

“Funny like you’re nervous or funny like you might be sick?” There was no mention of car sickness in Daryl’s file but that could easily be the case. He didn’t seem likely to tell anyone if he had trouble with car rides. Daryl shrugged. “Don’t feel sick. Just funny.”

Shane turned in his seat to face Daryl, reaching an arm back to pat his knee. “I think you’re gonna like it with us,” he reassured. “But you gotta promise one thing.” Daryl listened, a little worried about what the promise would be. But he wanted to stay. “See, we got a big ol’ fridge at home and it’s got nothin’ on it. Not a single thing,” he explained. He held up the picture Daryl had made them already. “You think you can make some more a these for us? Fill it up a bit?”

Daryl couldn’t help a small laugh. It was a silly thing to ask for in exchange for everything they would be doing for him but if that was what they were asking it was no hardship for him to draw as many pictures as they wanted. “What kinda pi’tures,” he asked.

“Well that’s up to you,” Rick told him. “We’re giving you full creative license.”

Daryl nodded. He felt a little better about everything now that he had something else to focus on. If the fridge was as big as Shane said he had a lot of drawings to do. The drive wasn’t terribly long but he was surprised at the house they pulled up in front of. It was bigger than anything he’d ever lived in, painted dark grey with a white trim. The porch was long, going from the end of the house to the side of the garage and the windows were so clean you could see the curtains inside. They even had one of the fancy porch swings with a sun cover and everything.

“You live here,” he asked, awestruck by the size and beauty of it. “We live here,” Rick corrected him. “It’s your home now too.” They climbed out, going to the back seat to retrieve him. He was unbuckled from the carseat and before he could slide out he was lifted out. Rick had him settled on his hip before Daryl understood what was happening. It startled and embarrassed him all at once and he wriggled his way back to the ground.

“I-I can walk,” he said, cheeks pink as he clutched his vest tighter. He could see a split second of hurt on Rick’s face before it was whisked away and replaced with an eager smile. “Okay, bubba. Come on.” Rick offered a hand this time and Daryl took it. He kept his vest tucked in the crook of his elbow and his thumb at his lips as they walked up the front steps and into what would be his new home.

It was even bigger on the inside. There were photographs all over of the two of them. Some looked like they were from high school and in others they were just kids. There was a massive, wall mounted TV in the living room and a comfy looking, cream colored sofa. The floors were all a light hard wood, and the walls were a light grey. It was all so clean and pristine looking. Daryl was feeling more than a little out of place in it all.

“Hey,” Rick said gently, drawing his attention. “Come on. We got a lot to show you.” Daryl nodded and let Rick lead him by the hand into the kitchen where Shane was hanging his picture on the stainless steel fridge. “There we go. Brightens up the place, dontcha think?” Daryl wasn’t sure you could brighten a yellow room but he wasn’t going to argue. The countertops were all marble, wrapping around the corner and extending into an island. The appliances were matching, brushed stainless steel and the cabinets the same shade of wood as the floors. The other half housed a small table and, if Daryl wasn’t feeling worried enough, a high chair. He saw more and more baby things as they took him through the different rooms and the more he saw of the house the more he felt he shouldn’t be in it. People like the Dixons didn’t live in places like this.

“You okay, bud,” Shane asked as they finished the tour of the bottom floor in the playroom. He stood beside Rick, chewing his thumb to bits by this point and shifting his weight back and forth nervously. “Daryl, just talk to us, okay,” Rick coaxed. “If we’re goin’ too fast just tell us.” Daryl looked to Rick then Shane, worrying the tattered skin between his teeth.

“Easy. We don’t need you bleedin’,” Shane said, gently tugging his hand down. “Somethin’s botherin’ you. It’s okay. Just tell us so we can help.”

Daryl sighed, even more worked up without his preferred method of self soothing. “What if I break somethin’,” he answered. “What if I make a mess?”

“Then we clean it up,” Rick told him. “Accidents happen. Things get broken. As long as you didn’t do it on purpose it’s okay.”

Daryl didn’t quite buy it. They had so many nice things. Surely they’d be angry to lose them. The couple seemed to notice his unease and it was clear their boy needed a break.

“How about you start on one a those pictures for the fridge while Papa and I get dinner ready. Does that sound good?”

Daryl nodded. He could handle coloring. You couldn’t break things doing that. He let the two of them lead him into the kitchen and Shane set him up at the table with a drawing pad and the biggest box of crayons Daryl had ever seen. His eyes went wide when he saw all the colors, some that he hadn’t even imagined. The box said there were over two hundred and that opened a whole new world of possibilities to Daryl.

“You draw whatever you want and you just shout if you need us, okay sport?”

“Okay,” Daryl answered. Shane went to join Rick at the sink as the boy got to work. “He looked like he was ready to shake right out of his skin,” Rick said, voice soft enough that only Shane would hear him. “I shouldn’t have picked him up. It was too soon. I scared him.”

“Oh, stop your fussin’,” Shane told him, handing him another potato from the bowl Rick had set out. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You saw the file same as I did. A roof over his head that ain’t gonna blow away in a wind storm is all new to him. He’s just gotta get used to the place. That’s all.” He was confident in their little boy. He’d already adjusted so quickly since their first visit. He had come a long way but you had to walk before you could run. They knew they were in for the long haul when they signed the papers. They’d never shied away from hard work before and they weren’t about to start now.

“Time and praise. Remember that. Let him come around at his own pace and-”

“A step back isn’t a loss. I know, Shane,” Rick told him. “I know we’ll get there. We’ll get him there.” Rick handed his partner a peeled potato. “Now get cutting.”

“Pushy,” Shane teased with a grin. Rick returned it with a smirk of his own. “That’s why you married me,” he answered. “Now come on. We got a little boy to feed.”

The pair of them got to work, trying to make something more simple they were sure the baby would like. From what they were told, Daryl wasn’t a fussy eater at the center but that didn’t mean he would be interested in the more adult flavors they usually used when they cooked. Chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans seemed like a safe enough choice.

Daryl watched curiously as the two of them moved around the kitchen. Two men cooking their own dinner? His Pa would be rolling in his grave. But Rick and Shane seemed to like it. They looked like they were having fun even. They were so different from what Daryl was used to but so far it seemed to be a good thing. He would glance up from his drawing ever now and again when he heard something bang or when the mixer turned on, making sure nothing bad was happening before going back to his work. He had a promise to keep after all.

“M’finished,” he called softly. Rick smiled, setting the tray of chicken on top of the stove. “Perfect timing.” He crossed the kitchen to where Daryl sat, looking over his shoulder at what he’d made. “That’s beautiful, Daryl.” The little boy blushed at the praise. It wasn’t all that good but he was getting better. “It’s a lake. Me and my brother use’ta go fishin’ sometimes.”

“That sounds like a lot of fun,” Rick told him. “Let’s get this stuff cleared up and we’ll get you in your chair for dinner.”

His chair. The high chair. Daryl bit his lip nervously. He hadn’t thought about that until now. “I can sit in a big chair,” he told Rick. “Promise I won’t fall off.”

“The high chair is easier to clean up,” Rick told him. “And I bet it’s a lot comfier too. How about we give it a try?”

Daryl didn’t want to sit in a high chair. He wasn’t really a baby. But he didn’t want them to take him back either. Finally, he nodded. Rick gave him a bright smile. “That’s a boy.” They cleaned up the crayons, putting them all back in the box. Rick carefully tore out Daryl’s drawing and closed the drawing pad. “I’ll go hang this up and put everything away then we can get you set up.”

Daryl stayed put, kicking his feet idly. Now that he didn’t have coloring to distract him the funny feeling in his stomach was back. The high chair made him nervous. He knew it was dumb to be afraid of a chair. All he had to do was sit in it, eat and it would be over. Still, he couldn’t help feeling anxious about it. When Rick came back his stomach flipped. He wasn’t supposed to use a high chair. He shouldn’t. But he let Rick lift him into it.

He sat him in the cushioned seat, quickly doing up the straps. Daryl’s face burned the entire time and he was chewing his thumb raw. “No, no, Puppy,” Shane told him gently as he came around with the tray. He tapped Daryl’s hand, getting him to let it drop. “You’re gonna hurt yourself. Suck on it if you want but no more biting, okay?” Shane brought the red, gnawed digit to his own lips, pressing a kiss there. “Now how about some dinner, huh?”

Daryl felt lost all at once. He was in a new place, strapped to a chair and he wasn’t allowed to chew his thumb anymore. He didn’t like it. The straps suddenly felt too tight, like he was trapped. He started tugging at them, trying to get them loose.

“Don’t do that, sweetheart,” Rick told him gently but Daryl didn’t hear it. He started making small, panicked noises, pawing at the straps and whimpering. Rick frowned, coming over to Daryl. He tried to soothe the baby, rubbing his arms and speaking gently. “Daryl, you’re okay. You’re alright. Tell Daddy what’s wrong.” He couldn’t speak. Couldn’t do anything but strain against the straps.

“Daryl, talk to me,” Rick said, voice gentle and calm. “Tell Daddy what’s wrong.”

“Out,” Daryl finally shouted. “Out, please!” Shane came over quickly, pressing the button to release the clasps. Instantly, Daryl was trying to bolt up out of the chair and escape but they caught him. “Daryl, calm down,” Shane told him. “You’re out. You’re out now. Just relax.” He couldn’t. He couldn’t calm down. Couldn’t breathe. He could hear the pounding of his heart and no matter how deep he breathed it felt like his lungs were starved for air. He reached desperately for the chair he’d been sat on to color.

“Rick.” Shane nodded to the chair. Seeing what Daryl wanted, Rick grabbed the vest from where it hung on the back of it. He pressed it into Daryl’s hands and the baby gripped onto it. He hugged it tightly, pressing the leather to his face and breathing it in. Having the vest to cling to was like a rush of relief. He wasn’t fighting anymore and he sank to the floor. It wasn’t long before a sob choked its way out.

“Oh, baby,” Rick said softly. It was heartbreaking to see Daryl this upset. Shane picked him up and this time Daryl let it happen. He pressed his face against the man’s shoulder, cuddling the vest to his chest. He was carried to the living room and the three of them sat on the couch, Daryl staying tucked against Shane. Rick rubbed his back and the two of them just let him cry.

Eventually the tears died down and Daryl was left hiccuping into Shane’s drenched shirt. “Easy, sweetheart,” Rick told him. “You’re alright.”

“Deep breaths,” Shane instructed, carding his fingers through Daryl’s hair. It took another few minutes but Daryl was finally able to settle. He was embarrassed. For his outburst. For sitting in Shane’s lap. For being a grown man being cuddled through a breakdown. But he couldn’t make himself leave. As ashamed as he was, it felt too good for him to give it up just yet.

“Better,” Rick asked. Daryl nodded, one tear tracked cheek pressed against Shane’s chest. “Can you tell us what upset you?” Daryl shrugged. He didn’t know how to explain it. Not without hurting their feelings. “Why don’t you try,” Shane coaxed. “We can’t help if we don’t know what went wrong.”

Daryl took another deep breath, blowing it out against Shane’s collar bone. He stroked over the wings of his vest where it sat in his lap. Kept his eyes on it when he spoke. “Jus’ got scared,” he said softly. It wasn’t a lie and it was better than telling them the whole truth. “You gonna take me back now,” he asked.

“Of course not,” Shane told him, hugging the little boy tighter. “Why would you think that?”

“Cause I had a fit,” Daryl explained. “You said I ain’t supposed to do that no more.” Shane sighed, kissing the top of Daryl’s head. Daryl didn’t want to admit how nice that felt either but he burrowed in closer to Shane.

“That wasn’t a fit, Puppy,” he explained. “You were scared and a little overwhelmed. That’s okay. Temper tantrums are not but that’s a whole different discussion for another time. Either way, we’re not gonna take you back. Not for anything. Even if you do misbehave. That’s not how this works.”

Rick nodded his agreement, settling in closer to his boys on the sofa. “That’s right. You’re our baby. For good. No matter what happens, Papa and Daddy are gonna be here to help you through it. Understand?”

Daryl nodded, thumb coming to his lips. He paused, remembering the reprimand for chewing and dropped his hand again, fidgeting with his vest instead. He’d been enough trouble tonight. He didn’t want to add to the list and test their promise so soon by blatantly disobeying. Rick and Shane shared a look, the action failing to go unnoticed.

“You think you’re ready to eat now, bubba,” Rick asked him. Daryl shrugged. “Tummy feels funny again.” Rick nodded in understanding. “Well how about we try? Do you think you can eat just a little bit?”

“Kay. Can try,” he said.

“That’s a boy,” Shane praised. He stood with Daryl still in his arms, settling the boy on his hip. The blush was back and Daryl held tighter to the vest but he allowed Shane to carry him into the kitchen. He sat the baby in the high chair, doing up the buckles again. “Think we can put this up for now,” he asked, taking hold of the vest. He didn’t do anything more than hold it, not wanting to be the cause of another meltdown. Daryl was clearly reluctant, fingers tangling harder in the leather.

“What if we hang it on the chair behind you,” Rick suggested. “That way it won’t get messy.” Daryl thought it over for a moment. It would still be there if he needed it and he didn’t want to get it dirty. He handed it over to Shane, trusting him to handle it.

“Thanks, buddy,” Shane said with a smile. He hung the vest from the back of the high chair where it was still within reach. Rick brought the tray over and snapped it into place. A plastic plate was placed in front of him and he was given a matching plastic fork. Everything was cut up for him the way it was at the center and it helped him feel a little more comfortable. The sippy cup in front of him, however, was new. It could be worse, he reminded himself. At least the cup was bigger than the juice boxes he was used to. The food was tastier too. It was easier than he expected to get most of it down. He even ate a few of the green beans which were his least favorite. When he couldn’t eat anymore he sat back in the chair with a sigh.

“Guess your tummy feels better then.” Shane took the tray, ruffling his hair affectionately. “And you liked the potatoes so much you saved some for later, huh,” Rick teased. He had a wash rag in his hand and wiped the boy’s face clean. Daryl fussed a little, pushing at Rick’s hand. He never liked having his face washed but Rick got him cleaned up quick.

“Alright. I think you’ve had enough excitement for one day,” Rick told him. “So how about we get you a bath and get you ready for bed, hm?”

Between the upset earlier and having a full belly Daryl was starting to feel sleepy. He waited for Rick to unbuckle him, the man lifting Daryl into his arms. “We’re headin’ for bathtime, Papa,” Rick called.

“I’ll be up in a minute, Daddy,” Shane answered back. “Just gonna get the food put away and get the dishes soakin’ first.”

“All right. Don’t take too long.” He started for the stairs and Daryl started to squirm. “Wait,” he protested, reaching over Rick’s shoulder and back toward the high chair. “Can’t leave it.” Rick turned and saw the vest still hanging there. It was cute that he was so attached to it and Rick got the feeling the blanky they bought him would never compare. He went to retrieve the item and handed it to Daryl. It was instantly tucked to Daryl’s chest and they started for the bathroom again.

“You really like that, huh,” Rick asked. Daryl nodded. “Was a present. Used ta be Merle’s. He gave it to me when he got a new one ‘cause he knew I liked it.” That and his crossbow were the only gifts Daryl had ever gotten. The crossbow he was sure he’d never see again so he was determined not to lose the vest.

“Is that why you like it? It reminds you of your brother?”

“Yeah,” Daryl answered. “He hadda go to jail. Even though I didn’t tell on ‘im.” He laid his cheek against Rick’s shoulder, the vest tucked between them. “He’ll be okay though. Too stubborn not ta be.” Rick gave a soft laugh at that. While Shane and Rick had never picked up Merle themselves he was well known in the Kings County Sherrif’s Department.

“I’m sure that’s true,” he reassured. He opened the door to the bathroom and set Daryl on his feet. “I’m gonna get the tub goin’. Think you can find someplace safe to put that?” He gestured to the vest. Daryl turned, searching the room for somewhere it wouldn’t get wet. He settled for a towel rack on the opposite side of the sink and hung it up there. Still in sight but safely out of range of the bath.

While Daryl decided on a safe place, Rick got the faucet going, checking the temperature of the water before stopping up the drain. They had made sure the bath was baby ready. They had the textured floor stickers to make sure Daryl wouldn’t slip, special bedtime soaps, fun characters on the wash rags and towels and a soft, silicone cover on the faucet shaped like a duck to be sure he wouldn’t hit his head. There was a whole basket of bath toys in the closet too but Rick decided to save them for next time. Their boy was getting droopy eyed already and they needed to get him clean and tucked in before he started to get cranky.

“You ready, bubba,” he asked, turning to face Daryl. The little boy nodded and allowed Rick to undress him. He’d had so many baths at the center that he was all but desensitized to it by now. Rick helped him into the tub and he settled into the warm water. Rick was soaping up a wash rag covered in dinosaur prints when Shane came to join them. “There’s my boys,” he said, kneeling in the open spot beside Rick. “You look ready to drop over there, Puppy.”

“M’okay,” Daryl said, barely biting back a yawn. The warmth of the bath and the lavender in the soap were hitting him hard. Keeping his eyes open was getting more difficult by the second. “I’m sure you are,” Shane said, both men giving gently amused smiles. “Tip your head back. I’ll get your hair washed while Daddy scrubs you down.”

Daryl let his head fall back obediently and Shane used a cup to wet it while Rick started washing him up. The rub down combined with Shane’s fingers working over his scalp had Daryl nodding off in the water and Rick had to pull him back a few times. Once the soap was rinsed out of his hair Rick brought out a big, fluffy towel to wrap him in. He was lifted into the other man’s arms and he could only vaguely remember the trip down the hall to the bedroom. They got him dressed in a pair of pajamas and Rick towel dried his hair.

“Ow,” Daryl protested, groggily.

“Jesus, Rick. It’s attached,” Shane told him, snatching the towel away.

Rick cuddled the sleepy boy close kissing the top of his head in apology. “I’m sorry sweetheart. I’ll be more gentle next time.” Daryl leaned into Rick with a yawn, his eyes slipping closed without his permission. He was lifted again before he was settled on a mattress and covered over with a blanket.

“Here ya go, bud,” he heard Shane say softly. The familiar smell and the feeling of smooth leather under his fingers had his hugging the item to his chest. Twin kisses were pressed into his hair and at his temple. Something clicked into place and the door creaked shut but Daryl was already sound asleep by then.

On the other side of the door Rick and Shane were grinning to each other. “I can’t believe it,” Rick said, head rolling back against the wall. “We’re finally parents.” Shane moved closer, wrapping his arms around Rick and pressing his forehead to his partner’s. “Yes we are,” he agreed. He kissed Rick softly. “Did you see him with his thumb in his mouth?”

“How could I miss it? Just wish he would do that during the day instead of biting on it.” He knew it would be a hard habit to break. “We’re gonna have to do something about the chewing. He’s gonna have his hands all tore up if we don’t.”

“We’ll see how he does tomorrow,” Shane told him. “If we think he can handle it, we’ll try introducing the pacifiers.” Rick nodded, hands settling in the bend of Shane’s arms. “Sounds good. Been a long day. Daryl’s not the one who’s worn out.”

Shane gave a wolfish grin, pulling Rick tighter to him. “Not too worn out I hope,” he purred, pressing a kiss behind his lover’s ear. Rick hummed, tilting his head to give Shane better access. “I think I can squeeze you in,” he teased. Shane growled, latching onto Rick’s neck and sucking a mark there.

“Lead the way.”

Rick took the invitation, tugging Shane by the arm to their bedroom just across the hall.

Chapter Text

Daryl woke slowly to the sounds of birds outside his window. No one had come to get him for breakfast yet so it must still be early. He stretched with a soft sound, ready to roll over and drift off again. He was intent on enjoying that warm, pleasant feeling of waking up before your alarm which he hadn’t experienced in a long time. Then his fingers brushed against something solid. He frowned and blinked himself awake only to find he wasn’t in his bed. He wasn’t even in his dorm. Daryl bolted upright in a moment of panic as he took in his surroundings. The room was painted a pale blue, green grass feathering up from the baseboards and fluffy, sponged on clouds scattered around. Plastic, glow-in-the-dark stars patterned the ceiling, still glowing in the dim light seeping in from behind the curtain. The corner was painted to look like a tree, shelves jutting out from it scattered with books and stuffed animals. The opposite housed an oversized, cherry wood rocking chair with a blanket draped over the back of it. Directly across from him was a matching padded table with baskets stored beneath it and a garbage pale positioned at one end. And he saw it all from behind cherry wood bars. A matching crib complete with a forest animal mobile.

 

He was in a crib. Not just a crib, a nursery. The previous day came rushing back to him and the fear eased somewhat. This was his new home. His new room. Everything after the bath was a bit of a blur and Daryl couldn’t remember having seen any of this. He had a vague recollection of cuddling up to one of them and being kissed goodnight but that was about it. Seeing it made his stomach flip. There was no doubt now what they wanted from him. He brought his thumb to his mouth, pausing as he remembered Shane’s reprimand. He wasn’t supposed to chew anymore. But Shane had said he was allowed to suck his thumb. His cheeks flushed at the idea of doing something so babyish but he needed something. The house was quiet, no sounds of movement anywhere and he told himself that it could be okay as long as no one else saw. He scooted himself into the corner to lean against the crib rail and pulled the vest into his lap, petting over the embroidered angel wings with uncertainty.

 

No one’s here, he told himself. No one’s looking. Hesitantly, he slipped his thumb past his lips. The pad of it nestled against the roof of his mouth perfectly and his tongue curled around the digit as if on reflex. It was something he had done compulsively when he was younger until Merle had informed him he was too old to do it anymore. It had been hard to break himself from it and Merle had been tough on him but it was his father who finally put a stop to it.

 

The memory was still burned into his mind. He’d been six years old at the time, sitting in the living room watching whatever game his father had on and trying to figure out how it all worked when the switch flipped. Daryl could still feel the bruising grip on his wrist as he was dragged off faster than his little legs could keep up. His questions of where they were going were ignored along with his pleas to slow down. When he stumbled, his father drug him, leaving him to scramble desperately to get his feet under him again. He was pulled out of the house and his hand pinned to the work table in the garage. His father’s imposing figure loomed over him, a hammer clenched in his fist. Daryl cried and screamed desperately when he realized what was about to happen, tried as hard as he could to yank himself free. Merle was in the house, banging on the locked door from the other side and shouting obscenities to try and pull their old man’s attention, and by extension his violence, onto him instead. This was one of the times it didn’t work and Daryl was alone, terrified and begging his father to stop. He promised frantically that he would never do it again and only got a nasty snarl in response. “No you won’t! Not after I’m done with ya!” Then the hammer came down.

 

Daryl gasped, yanking his thumb from his mouth as if he’d been burned and tucking both hands under his arms protectively. He curled into a ball, breathing hard as his heart hammered painfully in his chest. “It ain’t real,” he whimpered quietly to himself. His eyes clenched shut and he started to rock back and forth as he whispered brokenly over and over again, “It ain’t real. He ain’t here. It ain’t real. He ain’t here.”

 

The door creaked open slowly and Daryl’s head snapped up, startled by the intrusion. Rick came in, seeming surprised to see him awake. He was clearly just out of bed himself, shirtless with a pair of sleep pants clinging to his hips. “Hey, bubba,” he greeted, coming into the room. “How long have you been up?”

 

Daryl shrugged, dropping his chin to his knees and staring at the plush carpet. The man crossed the room to Daryl’s cribside, unlatching and lowering the bars.

 

“How come you didn’t call for us?”

 

“Didn’t wanna wake ya,” he said, glancing to Rick’s face and back down. Rick reached his arms out to Daryl and he came closer, letting himself be picked up. He wrapped his arms around Rick’s shoulders, resting his cheek against him to reassure himself of where he was. The warmth of him against Daryl, the light dusting of wiry hair against his cheek and the smell of Old Spice reminding him that his father was dead. Reminding him that old garage had burned to the ground with the rest of the house, the bloodied worktable going up with it. This was now and everything else was just an echo of pain long passed.

 

Rick ran a palm up and down the boy’s spine, enjoying the affection but concerned by it in equal measure. He would like to believe Daryl was just warming up to him and that he was adjusting that quickly but it was clear that the boy was shaken. By what Rick wasn’t sure but something had definitely upset him. “Is everything okay, baby?”

 

Daryl was quiet, hiding his face in the crook of Rick’s neck. It seemed foolish now to be so frightened by a memory. Rick wouldn’t laugh at him. Logically, Daryl knew that. But part of him was still afraid to tell him. For fear of looking stupid as well as the learned fear of telling anyone what had been done to him. Telling made it worse. Telling always made it worse. Again, Daryl understood that his father was long gone and couldn’t hurt him ever again but the lessons were still so deeply ingrained in him, carved into his body with pain, blood and bruises, that even now they loomed over him and kept him silent.

 

“Bad dream,” he told Rick instead. The man seemed to accept the answer easily enough. He cuddled Daryl closer, cooing softly and kissing his temple.

 

“Poor baby. You should have called us,” he told Daryl. He bounced the baby gently, rocking in place to try and soothe him. Daryl flushed bright red but he didn’t push away or try to wriggle free. If anything he clung tighter and he burrowed deeper into Rick to hide his face. It was adorable and it took all of Rick’s self control not to tell him as much. “Nightmares are no fun, huh. But we happened to have found a perfect cure for those left over yucky feelings.”

Daryl hummed curiously, peeking one eye out to look at Rick for the answer. He smiled, adjusting the baby in his arms. “Lots of hugs,” he told him, squeezing him gently. “Plenty of kisses,” he kissed Daryl’s forehead, stubble scraping slightly against Daryl’s smooth skin.

 

“And the last and most important part.” He shifted Daryl to his hip, carrying him out into the hallway. The smell of bacon filled the house along with the hiss of batter hitting hot metal. “Papa’s special waffles,” Rick told him in a whisper as if it was a secret he was entrusting him with.

 

Daryl looked at Rick, curiosity winning out. “What makes ‘em special,” he asked. He knew what it usually meant. He’d made the mistake of eating one of Merle’s “special” brownies once in middle school not knowing any better. His experience had been less than pleasant, making him instantly suspicious of anything with special in the title but he didn’t think Shane and Rick were into that type of recreation.

 

“Well you’ll just have to wait and find out,” Rick told him. He carried the boy down the stairs and to the kitchen where Shane was hard at work. Saturday morning breakfast was a tradition Rick’s mother had started and the two of them had kept it going ever since, alternating whose turn it was to cook so the other could sleep in.

 

Shane looked up as he heard bare feet padding into the room and smiled. “There he is,” he greeted. Daryl was sleep rumpled, clinging to Rick like a monkey. Both of them looked so cute, Daryl still bundled in his jammies, Rick’s hair all over the place. It warmed Shane’s heart to see them and know that there would be many more mornings like this. “Mornin’ bud.”

 

“We’re gonna need the special waffles, Papa,” Rick informed him.

 

“Uh oh,” Shane said. He reached out, brushing Daryl’s hair back from his face affectionately. “Rough first night, huh?” Daryl shrugged, his eyes fixed on the floor. “Yeah. I don’t sleep so good in new places either. But we got just the thing for that, don’t we Daddy.”

 

“We sure do,” Rick agreed. “How much longer?”

 

“Half an hour give or take. You two go keep busy. I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

 

Rick nodded, taking Daryl across the way into the living room. “So what do we wanna do until breakfast’s ready?” Daryl was quiet, shrugging again and laying his head on Rick’s shoulder. Whatever they did was fine with him just so long as he didn’t have to leave Rick’s arms. He would never admit to it, wouldn’t dare ask for it but right now he needed the comfort and stability that contact provided. “We can play with some of your new toys,” Rick supplied. “We made sure to get a nice big bin of blocks to build whatever you want.”

Daryl shook his head. “Not yet,” he answered. “Need Papa for that.” It was something they had always done together and Daryl wanted to keep it that way. Especially when he intended to actually build with them this time. Shane had to be part of it.

 

Hearing Daryl call Shane Papa for the first time was huge to Rick and he had to hold back his excitement. Startling Daryl wasn’t going to encourage him to keep doing it. “Well there’s still coloring and we have some other toys to pick from too.”

 

He didn’t have an answer for Rick and he sort of wished the man would just pick something. With another shrug, Daryl laid his head against Rick’s shoulder again. It seemed to be enough to make Rick take pity on him. He pressed a kiss to Daryl’s forehead and carried him over to the couch.

 

“Well, it is Saturday morning,” he said, settling in with Daryl beside him. “Can’t go wrong with cartoons.” Daryl tucked himself into Rick’s side as Rick put his feet up on the coffee table, flicking the TV on. He found a title that had been highly praised on the parenting blogs and settled in beside Daryl. To his surprise, Daryl wasn’t the only one that got sucked into it. The boy was enthralled enough for both of them by the second episode. They were only ten minutes each but they packed a lot into the time they had.

 

“How does he got three moms,” Daryl asked when they finished the third one.

 

“Well you have two dads, don’t you,” Rick prompted.

“Yeah,” Daryl waved him off. “That ain’t the same though. He’s got three moms and a dad. And most of ‘em are funny colors.”

Rick shrugged. “That’s their family. It’s different but it works for them. Just like us.”

 

Daryl still seemed unconvinced, staring thoughtfully at the screen. “I guess. Still weird to have alien rocks as moms.” Rick snorted a laugh. “I’ll give you that one,” he agreed.

 

“Well how about you shut it off and the two of you can get me up to speed while we eat,” Shane said, coming around the couch. He offered Daryl a hand and he took it without pause so Shane could pull him to his feet. Rick stretched lazily, spine popping before he got up to follow the two of them into the kitchen. Daryl was in the highchair waiting for Shane to finish strapping him in and Rick went to the counter. A bowl of sliced strawberries sat unguarded and the man was unable to help himself.

 

“Don’t even think about it,” Shane warned.

 

“What,” Rick asked, feigning innocence. “I’m just testing it.”

Shane looked at his husband over the back of the chair, clearly unimpressed as he snapped Daryl’s tray into place. “Mhm. Well when you test things it always ends up half gone.”

 

Daryl looked at Shane then tried to turn and get a look at Rick. “You guys fightin’,” he asked softly, an undertone of worry there. Shane ruffled the boy’s hair with an affectionate smile.

 

“No, we ain’t fightin’,” he reassured. The smile fell when he spotted Rick’s sticky fingers back in the bowl. “But Daddy’s gearin’ for a time out if he don’t get his fingers outta the food. Did you even wash your hands?”

 

Rick jumped away from the counter, sheepish at being caught a second time. Shane sighed, hands on his hips. “What are we gonna do with him, huh,” he asked Daryl playfully. Daryl gave a soft twitch of a smile. Satisfied that no one was really fighting, the whole thing was sort of amusing. “So what do we want this mornin’,” Shane asked him. “Milk or juice?”

Daryl hummed thoughtfully for a moment. “Milk,” he decided on. Shane nodded and started for the fridge. “Alright. Milk and special waffles comin’ up. Rick Grimes! Do not make me call your mama!”

 

He couldn’t stop a small laugh at that. They were kinda funny. Daryl had never seen couple like this. Of course the only couples he’d seen before now were Aaron and Eric and his own parents. The caretakers were always so busy with the wards at the center that Daryl never saw them interact with each other for more than a few minutes at a time. There were always traded looks and quick kisses but nothing like this. Daryl didn’t know you could shout at people without really fighting and seeing Daddy...Rick, he corrected...looking like the kid caught in the cookie jar made it all the more entertaining. The pair of them came back around into Daryl’s line of vision, Rick with two glass plates of food he set on the table and Shane with a plastic plate and sippy cup that he set on Daryl’s tray. There were little squares of waffle piled on, strawberries on top and a mound of whipped cream in the center. It looked amazing but there was one thing bothering Daryl.

 

“What’s the black spots,” he asked, poking at one of the polkadotted pieces of waffle.

“That’s the secret to special waffles,” Shane told him with a wink. “Go ahead and try a bite. I’m sure you’ll like it.”

Daryl was still suspicious as he nudged a bit with his fork. He was pretty sure black bits didn’t belong in waffles but he didn’t want to hurt Shane’s feelings. He poked the plastic points through a piece, inspecting it more closely before he finally took a tiny bite. Daryl’s eyes went wide at the familiar taste on his tongue. He turned up his face to look at Shane in awe.

 

“You can put chocolate in waffles?”

 

The boy’s bewildered expression and the unbridled excitement in his voice made both of them grin. “Not all the time,” Shane told him. “It’s not good for you if you do it too much but it’s the best cure we know for the bad dream blues.”

 

Daryl was definitely a fan if the way he practically inhaled the whole serving was any indication. Rick and Shane were only about halfway done with their own when Daryl finished by sucking down the whole cup of milk in one go. The pair looked at each other, smiling at their boy’s new found appetite.

 

“I think we have a winner,” Rick said. “I was worried you were gonna take a bite outta the plate for a second there.” He got up from his place and grabbed a wet wipe from the container on the counter to get Daryl cleaned up. Shane took the empty cup to refill for him.

 

“You wanna hang out here until we’re finished or do you wanna go play,” Rick asked him as he wiped the last smears of chocolate and cream from Daryl’s cheeks.

 

Daryl tried to turn his face away, hating the wet swipe around his mouth as always. He thought of the playroom from yesterday. There was so much in there. He wouldn’t know where to start. Being by himself in the house was still unsettling for him as well but sitting in the chair doing nothing wasn’t exactly appealing either.

 

“Can I play in here,” he asked softly. It wasn’t one of the choices given to him but they had yet to get angry at him so far. Daryl figured it was worth a shot.

 

“Course you can,” Rick answered. He pulled the tray off and unbuckled the straps, setting Daryl back on his feet. “Go on and pick somethin’ out. We’ll be right here. If you need help getting anything just holler.”

 

Daryl nodded and headed off. “He’s doin’ real well today,” Shane said, watching in the direction Daryl had disappeared.

“Yeah, he is,” Rick agreed. “Here’s hoping it stays that way. It’s good to see him happy.”

“That it is.” Shane retook his seat, setting the refilled sippy cup at the place next to him.

 

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

 

The three of them spent a lazy Saturday together, never leaving their pajamas. They watched more of what was clearly Daryl’s new favorite show despite his earlier criticisms and started introducing Daryl to some of the new toys they’d gotten him. So far puzzles, action figures and the plastic animal and dinosaur figures seemed to be big hits. But throughout the day Daryl would continuously bring his hand up only to stop inches from his lips. He would withdraw into himself after every slip, leaving Rick and Shane to coax him back out again. They knew they had to try and give Daryl something to replace the chewing and since thumb sucking seemed out of the question to Daryl for whatever reason, they had to go with their back up option. They agreed as they made lunch that before his nap was the best time to try.

 

“Alright, bud,” Shane said, picking the boy up from the sofa. He was clearly sleepy, the routine already set. “Time for a nap.”

 

“No nap,” Daryl protested. “Wanna see what happens.”

 

Rick turned off the TV, standing up and heading to the kitchen for the item they needed. “You can watch more after your nap,” Shane placated. “We won’t start it without you.”

 

Daryl looked at Shane, brow furrowing. “You promise?”

 

“Extra promise,” he said, holding up his hand. “Scout’s honor.”

“Wrong hand,” Rick chimed in with an amused smile. Shane rolled his eyes.

 

“Alright. So Daddy was the scout. But the promise still stands.” Daryl hummed, smiling at the two of them. If nothing else his daddies sure were funny. He looked to Rick, seeing a package in his hand.

 

“What’s that,” he asked.

 

“It’s a present. Just for you,” Rick answered, making sure to sound extra excited in the hopes Daryl wouldn’t immediately reject the idea. He held up the package, showing six pacifiers with different colors and designs on them. “Which one do you want for naptime?”

Daryl looked at the pacifiers like they would leap out of the package and bite him. “I-I don’t need one,” he answered quietly.

 

“Sure you do,” Shane told him. “They’re made special for little guys like you. It’ll help you feel better and it’s better for you than chewin’ on your hands.”

 

Daryl shook his head. “Nuh uh. Ain’t bitin’ no more. I don’t need it.”

 

Rick and Shane looked to each other, looking more than a little disappointed but pushing the issue would only make Daryl fight harder. He had been very good about not chewing on his thumb anymore but it was clear he needed something to replace it. They just needed Daryl to understand this wasn’t a punishment or something meant to embarrass him. Rick tore open the package and pulled out a light blue one, holding it out to Daryl.

 

“How about you take one with you, huh? Just in case you change your mind.”

 

Daryl still seemed reluctant but he took it anyway. Surely there was no harm in holding it. And if it would make his daddies happy again then he could at least do that much. Shane carried him up and laid him in the crib, handing him the vest to cuddle with. They both kissed him on the head, wished him sweet dreams and left. Now alone, he stared at the pacifier. It was most definitely for babies. But Daryl wasn’t a baby. Not really. Still, he found himself curious. He knew he couldn’t suck his thumb and he wasn’t allowed to chew it anymore either. Maybe...maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. At least when he was by himself. He peeked at the door, listening for any signs papa and daddy would come back in. Hearing nothing, he turned to his side, facing the wall and slipped the rubber bit into his mouth. If anything it fit better than his thumb, curved against his palate and flat where his tongue pressed against it. It was softer too, no nail scraping against his tastebuds as he sucked on it. It was instantly soothing. A balm for his nerves. Daryl’s eye went half lidded and he slipped a finger through the loop on the back to be sure he wouldn’t lose it while he slept. He decided that at least when he was alone in here pacifiers were pretty okay.

 

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

 

Banging. Banging. “Get out here boy!” Daryl was curled up in ball, shaking and crying. He was tucked into the corner of his closet hiding. It was all he could do. “I’ll break this damn door down! You’re gonna learn, boy!”

 

He was so tiny. Just a kid. He didn’t even know what he’d done wrong. So many times he didn’t know what he had done. Only that pain was coming. He could hear the door frame start to splinter and his stomach dropped. He was getting in. He could hear the snap of leather, the clink of a harsh, metal buckle. He was trapped. Alone. Fear gripped him in an icy hold, leaving him trembling.

 

“Mer,” he called out desperately, voice small and terrified. “Mer! Too scawy!”

 

“You lookin’ for my help little brother?”

 

Daryl looked up, seeing his brother knelt in front of him. He was older. Dressed in prison orange. He looked down on Daryl with a disgust. “I already did everythang I could for you and the minute ol’ Merle’s outta the picture you just throw it all away. Everything I taught you just floatin’ on down the river.”

 

“No. No, I didn’t! Had to, Mer,” he said, begging his brother to understand. To realize he did it for him. “They said I hadda tell on ya! But I didn’t! I did good!”

 

The banging got louder, the door finally giving way. Daryl ran to Merle, clinging to him desperately. “Please, Mer! Please!” But then he was gone. Vanished into thin air. It was Just Daryl and the huge, monstrous figure that had broken his door down. It was big and dark, looming over him. The grotesque, distorted image of his father reached into the tiny space, grabbing him and yanking him out. Daryl knew what was coming next. He curled into a ball, protecting his head and soft belly from what he knew was coming next.

 

“Daryl,” it roared, bringing the belt down across his back buckle first. He felt the skin split, letting out a pained cry. “Daryl,” it roared again. Another lash, crossing the first. “Daryl!” The voice was distorted now, something else bleeding through as the belt came down a third time. Again and again, the dark voice shifting to something else. Something frightened in its own right. It turned desperate as it called his name, telling him to wake up.

 

Daryl’s eyes snapped open. He bolted upright, heart pounding in panic as he tried frantically to get away. He couldn’t move his legs and he could hear screaming all around him. The raw pain in his throat told him they were coming from him. He could hear his name, over and over again. Hands gripped his shoulders, giving him a firm shake. He fought against them with blindly swinging fists only to have someone grab him by the wrists.

 

“Daryl! Open your eyes! You’re okay!”

 

The familiar voice hit him like a punch and his eyes opened again. When had he closed them? He stared, frozen in shock at the faces before him. Blue eyes filled with concern, heartbroken. A dark, hard gaze, lips pressed to a thin line in obvious frustration. Rick. Shane. His daddies. He was in his room. In his crib. There was no monster. No belt. He felt tears well in his own eyes. A sob choked out of him and he broke down in sheer relief.

 

Rick let out a sigh, seeming just as relieved as he was. “C’mere, bubba,” he said, holding out his arms to the boy. He threw himself at the man and clung on tight as he cried out every bad feeling left over from his nightmare. “Oh baby,” he said softly, picking Daryl up and cuddling him close.

 

“You’re okay, bud,” Shane comforted, rubbing his back to try and help soothe him. “You’re alright. We got you.”

 

Rick bounced Daryl gently, carrying him to the rocking chair to sit with him. Daryl clung tight with his face buried in Rick’s neck, broken, hiccuping sobs pouring out of him. They started to rock back and forth, Rick soothing him gently and rubbing his back.

 

“Shane, could you-”

 

“I got it,” he told Rick, voice soft. Daryl could hear the sheets being pulled up from his mattress and he turned his head to look. There was a big wet patch right in the center and Daryl was horrified to realize what that meant. He finally registered the cold on his front and burst into tears all over again.

 

“It’s okay,” Rick soothed, petting Daryl’s hair. “Accidents happen. And you were scared. Nothin’ to be upset about.”

 

It didn’t make Daryl feel any better about it. How do you make a grown man feel better about wetting the bed? And Rick must be soaked with more than tears at this point. He tried to slip from the man’s lap but Rick held him tight. “It’s okay,” he soothed. “Just breathe for me.”

 

“G-gettin’ you w-wet,” Daryl protested but Rick just hushed him. He pressed a kiss to the top of Daryl’s head and rocked, cuddling him like it didn’t matter he was soaking through with another man’s piss. Shane came over to them, pacifier in hand and Daryl didn’t have it in him to protest when it was pressed to his lips. He sucked on it greedily, letting it soothe him. Shane tried to give him the vest next but Daryl turned away. It reminded him of Merle and while that was normally a comfort he didn’t want to think of his brother looking at him with such disappointment.

 

The couple shared a look as Daryl’s refusal of his usual comfort item. It gave a little insight into what had their baby so upset. Instead Shane pulled out one of the baskets under the changing table. He came back carrying a soft, blue blanket, silk lining the edges and a stuffed puppy head and arms sewn to the center of it. Daryl’s name was embroidered in swooping, white, cursive letters on the corner so there was no question it was his.

 

“How about this one instead,” he said gently, holding it out for Daryl. He looked from the blanket to Shane, hesitating a moment before reaching for it. Shane gave a soft smile and pressed it into Daryl’s grabbing hands. The baby hugged it to his chest, his tears having slowed considerably since he’d taken the pacifier. He was still clearly upset but the sobs had eased to occasional hiccups. He wiped at his eyes, leaning against Rick as he petter over the softness of the blanket.

 

They stayed like that for awhile, Shane taking the time to put on fresh bedsheets and bring out a new outfit for Daryl. When he was finally settled for the most part, Rick dipped his head to look at him.

 

“You wanna tell us what the dream was about?” Daryl shuddered against him, shaking his head and burying his face in Rick’s shoulder. Shane knelt beside them, reaching up and gently removing the pacifier much to Daryl’s protest.

 

“We gotta talk about it, puppy,” Shane said softly. “We can’t help if we don’t know what’s wrong.” The boy was quiet, hugging the blanket as he thought it over. He started to tear up again, wiping them away and sniffing before he spoke

 

“Ain’t s’posta be doin’ this,” he said. “Ain’t really a baby. It...it ain’t right.” Shane frowned the answer not unexpected but upsetting all the same.

 

“And who told you that?”

“Merle,” he answered. “And my Pa. They says it ain’t right.”

 

Rick reached out, turning Daryl’s face up gently until their eyes met. “And what about you? What do you think?” He brushed his thumb over Daryl’s cheek, wiping away the wetness there. “Does it feel wrong?” Daryl’s cheeks warmed at that. It didn’t feel wrong or bad. It actually felt nice. But he couldn’t help feeling guilty when he could hear what his brother would say. He shook his head.

 

“Are we hurting anyone,” Rick prompted again. Daryl shook his head no. “Then why is it wrong?”

 

Daryl didn’t have an answer for that. He didn’t know why. He just knew what he was told. Now that he was thinking about it he wasn’t sure why they hated it so much.

 

“Every family’s different,” Shane supplied. “Some people may not like it but that doesn’t make it wrong. There’s loads of families like ours. It’s completely normal and as long as you’re happy then there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

 

Daryl fingered the edge of the blanket, feeling the silk beneath his fingers as he considered this new information. He did like being here. He liked Rick and Shane. They were fun and funny and nice. They fed him and played with him and when he was sad or scared they made him feel better. It made him happy. He tangled his free hand in Rick’s shirt and turned his eyes up to Shane. His voice was small and soft when he spoke, pitched higher.

 

“M’sorry I hit,” he said. Shane gave a soft smile and leaned in, pressing his forehead to Daryl’s.

 

“That’s okay,” he reassured. “You were scared. You thought you were somewhere else, right?”

 

Daryl nodded. “And you would never try to hit Papa or Daddy on purpose, right?” Daryl went wide eyed, seemingly shocked that was even a thought and he shook his head frantically. “Then there’s nothin’ to be sorry for.”

 

Daryl seemed relieved and he cuddled against Rick. He looked to Shane’s hand, cheeks going pink as he looked up to the man’s face. He held his hand out expectantly.

 

“Can I have it back now?”

 

Shane looked down, realizing he still had the pacifier. He smiled, handing it back to the boy. “There you go, bud. Now how about we get you changed?”

 

Daryl took the pacifier, slipping it into his mouth immediately. Shane changing him under these circumstances was embarrassing but he didn’t want to sit in his own mess anymore either. He raised his arms and let the man lift him from Rick’s lap.

 

“I’m gonna go get changed myself,” Rick announced, getting to his feet. It made Daryl even more embarrassed and he hid his face against Shane. Rick hummed and kissed Daryl’s temple. “I’ll be right back. Papa’s got this.”

 

Shane carried Daryl over to the changing table, laying him down on it. That made Daryl’s cheeks burn bright red. He tried to hop off but Shane nudged him back onto it.

 

“Bud, we gotta get you changed.”

 

Daryl frowned, squirming uncomfortably. “I can stand,” he said around the pacifier.

 

“It’ll be quicker this way,” Shane told him. “And it’ll be easier to get you cleaned up.”

 

Daryl didn’t want to. But he didn’t want to start a fight either. He was too emotionally drained for it. He whimpered softly, covering his face with his blanket. His face burned so hot he was sure it would melt when Shane pulled his pants and underwear down. A cold, wet wipe ran over him, cleaning every bit down to the crease of his thighs. It was downright humiliating. Shane redressed him in a soft pair of pajama pants covered in dinosaurs, leaning down to press a kiss to his belly.

 

“There. All done. That wasn’t so bad, huh?” Daryl kept the blanket over his face,wanting to hide a bit longer. “Come on now,” Shane coaxed. “Lemme see that smile, huh?”

 

Daryl peeked from behind his blanket. He was still embarrassed by the whole thing even if Shane didn’t seem fazed. Shane frowned, leaning back and seeming to study Daryl for a moment. Daryl squirmed under the sudden scrutiny. Why was Shane looking at him like that.

“Yep. I think you got ‘em,” Shane said with a nod. Daryl’s eyes widened not sure and a little concerned about what that could mean.

 

“Got what,” he asked, clutching the blanket tighter.

 

“You got the bashful bugs,” Shane informed him, giving a solemn nod. “And there’s only one way to get rid of ‘em.”

 

Daryl watched curiously as Shane leaned over him, moving slow and bringing his arms up. Shane had never raised a hand to him before but he couldn’t help the nervous flutter in his stomach at the looming approach. He shrank back against the padding of the table trying to figure out what he should do, how to get away. In an instant, Shane broke into a grin and he lunged for Daryl, digging his fingers into his ribs and belly.

 

Daryl couldn’t stop himself and he squealed with laughter. Shane laughed above him, even as Daryl batted at his hands. Daryl squirmed and kicked on reflex, trying to escape.

 

“No,” he giggled. “No more! No more!”

 

Shane smiled, stopping his tickle assault and helping Daryl sit up. “There’s my happy boy,” Shane praised. Daryl couldn’t help a few leftover giggles and wiped his eyes, this time brushing away tears of laughter.

 

“What is all this racket,” Rick asked as he came back into the room. He was in a new set of clothes, smiling at the pair with his hands on his hips. Daryl reached out for him.

 

“He attacked me,” Daryl reported as Rick picked him up.

 

“Is that so? Papa, how could you?”

“He had the bug, Daddy. I had to chase it out,” Shane defended. Rick smiled, kissing Shane’s cheek.

 

“Well then, you’re very brave protecting our boy,” he told him. His attention turned back to Daryl, tugging the pacifier from his lips. “Well now that everyone’s feeling better, what do we wanna do until dinner?”

 

“Can we build now,” Daryl asked.

 

“Of course we can,” Rick said with a smile, nuzzling at Daryl’s cheek.

 

“I don’t know about you two, but I think tonight’s as good as any to order a pizza,” Shane said.

 

Daryl nodded his agreement. If they didn’t have to make the food they would have more time for building. It was still going to take some time and adjustment but Daryl felt like maybe he could do this after all. Maybe he could be a baby. If it meant he got to keep this new family he decided he could sure as hell try.

Chapter Text

“No,” Daryl mumbled quietly to himself. “No, no, no! Not again.” He sat in his crib, head is his hands as he realized the mess he was in. How could this be happening? He hadn’t even had a nightmare this time. He was having a perfectly pleasant dream of fishing with Rick and Shane. The three of them were having a good time and he’d managed to catch a big one. The fish was blue and almost bigger than the boat but he had caught it by himself. The two men had been excited, ruffling his hair and telling him what a good job he did. Shane had pulled a camera out of nowhere, ready to take his picture when the fish flopped hard and flipped the boat. It had been enough to startle him awake and he’d instantly felt it.

This was the fourth time in as many days and he was starting to worry that the two were catching on. They’d noticed a few times that he’d been in different pajama bottoms than they’d put him in and there would be no hiding the pairs that had gone missing. He had to do something. Daryl grabbed the sheets and pulled them off like he had every other night, tossing them and the blankets over the crib rail. He climbed out after and peeled his wet pants and underwear off him. It made his stomach churn to know that he was a grown man and he suddenly couldn’t keep his bladder under control. He hadn’t had this problem since the brief stint of bedwetting he’d had after his mother’s death. It was bad enough having it then, closer to a teenager than he was to a toddler but now?

Daryl redressed himself in a new set of pajamas, gathering up all the wet things and slowly opening his door. It gave a slight creak and he froze, eyes darting to the room across the hall. Thankfully all he heard were snores. It seemed that he’d managed to keep from waking them for the moment but he needed to be cautious. He stepped out carefully, creeping down the hall on tip toes. All was quiet and Daryl was wary of making any noise. Waking them would out him immediately but if he didn’t get the sheets washed and back on his bed they would know something was up for sure. It was the last set, the rest hidden away in the garbage pail beside the changing table. He’d have to worry about them another night. For now he had to make sure they didn’t come in to get him and find a bare mattress.

It had been awhile since he’d had to do this but he found it was like riding a bike. Measure the detergent, stuff in the washing and turn it on. It started to fill and Daryl heaved a sigh, settling himself in the corner to wait. He had to do something about this but what? He couldn’t keep hiding wet bedding forever. These midnight laundry sessions couldn’t go on forever either. He’d tried staying awake but his body was so used to his schedule by now it ended up being a total bust. He’d been making sure to go before bed but that didn’t seem to help either. His options were limited at this point. But maybe limits were the answer. He forced himself to stay awake, waiting until the sheets and his pajamas were clean and dry and headed upstairs to make his bed and make a plan.

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

“I could call in if you want. One more day ain’t gonna hurt.”

“We’ll be just fine, Papa,” Rick told Shane, fixing the collar of his uniform. “You’re the one who said we needed save our paid leave as much as we could.”

Daryl looked between them as he nibbled at a piece of pancake. This wasn’t part of the routine. Where was Shane going and why weren’t he and Rick getting ready to go too? It wasn’t normal for one of them to leave the house alone and they’d never left for much longer than a car ride. He looked like he didn’t want to go and that made Daryl a bit nervous. Shane sighed hands settling on Rick’s hips.

“I know, I know. Just feels too soon. I don’t wanna miss anything.”

“You won’t miss anything important,” Rick promised. “We’re just gonna have a low key day. Besides, it’s only a half shift. You’ll be back before you know it.”

Shane still seemed reluctant but he gave in, pressing a chaste kiss to his partner’s lips. “I’ll check in on my break and I’ll come straight home after.” He approached Daryl, leaning over to meet his eyes. “Papa’s gotta go to work today. Not real long. I’ll be back before you’re done with your nap and we can do somethin’ fun, okay?” Daryl looked over the brown uniform, seeing the badge pinned on Shane’s chest.

“You guys are cops,” he asked warily.

“That’s right, bud,” Shane told him with a smile. “We keep people safe and make sure everyone’s followin’ the rules.”

“Not if you’re late, you don’t,” Rick told him.

Shane looked at his watch and frowned. “Alright, alright. I’m goin’,” he huffed. He told Daryl goodbye and ruffled his hair before heading out the door, reluctantly leaving his boys behind. Daryl watched after him for a moment as if he was going to come peeking back around the corner. He heard the car door next, then the engine and then nothing. Shane had really left. Daryl’s stomach fluttered at the realization and he found himself feeling uneasy with the other man’s absence. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be alone with Rick. He trusted him and they got along well enough. But he’d never been with just one of his daddies before. Since they’d brought him home it had always been the three of them and it felt strange to be down by one.

“Everything okay, bubba,” Rick asked, breaking Daryl’s trance. He turned to Rick, the man looking as if nothing was amiss even though one third of them was gone. Daryl looked back to where Shane had left his line of sight, chewing on his lip nervously.

“He’ll be back soon,” he asked quietly.

Rick smiled, coming over to the highchair and brushing Daryl’s hair back. “He’ll be home this afternoon. Daddy and Papa fixed our schedules so one of us will always be home with you.”

Daryl looked back to the doorway, staring for a moment. It still didn’t feel right. But he supposed they had to earn their money somehow. Rick promised that Shane would be home this afternoon and Shane had said he’d be back before Daryl’s nap was over. He would come home. He had to. Suddenly, Daryl wasn’t hungry anymore.

“M’finished,” he told Rick, looking up at the man expectantly.

Rick frowned at Daryl’s plate, seeing he hadn’t eaten much at all. It wasn’t typical for Daryl to be a finicky eater but he did tend to lose his appetite and become more distant when his routine was changed. It was why they had intended to ease slowly into returning to their work. This wasn’t unexpected but they had to try and combat it.

“That’s an awful lot of pancake left. And you haven’t even touched your juice. Do you think you can eat a couple more bites for me, bubba?”

Daryl shook his head. “Ain’t thirsty,” he said. “N’my tummy feels funny.”

It was Daryl’s typical response when nerves got the better of him and Rick decided not to push.

“Alright. We can save it for later.” He took Daryl’s tray, wiping his hands and face before unbuckling him. “I’m gonna get things cleared up in here. Why don’t you go pick out somethin’ for us to do?” Over their short time with him, Rick and Shane had found the best method for handling Daryl’s anxiety was to redirect it. Rick was sure if he could get the boy’s focus elsewhere the day would go much more smoothly for both of them and Shane’s sudden absence while daunting could still be a positive experience.

Daryl didn’t know what he wanted to do. They usually did things together and Shane had said he didn’t want to miss anything. He stood off to the side, fidgeting awkwardly. What if he picked something Shane wanted to do with him? Or what if Shane found out they were having fun without him? Would he get angry? Maybe he wouldn’t come back. Daryl didn’t like it. It was too much to think about. Too much he could get wrong.

“What if we drew pictures for Papa,” Rick suggested. “Then you can surprise him when he comes home. I’m sure it would make him really happy to get a present from you after his first day back.”

Drawing. Drawing was good. Shane had seen him draw before and he liked when Daryl made him things. They both did. “M’kay,” he answered. He took his pacifier from the table where Rick had left it during breakfast and slipped it into his mouth, grabbing up the vest from its safe spot and heading off in search of art supplies.

The black leather was tucked securely in the crook of his arm, back to it’s position as his comfort thing though now he was prone to switching between it and the blanket that had been lovingly named Pupper. Pupper was in the wash today which meant the vest was working overtime. It was often a good indication of how Daryl was feeling whether he chose the vest or the blanket. The vest usually meant he was having a harder day with being little. It was a connection to his adult life and when he felt insecure about whether this was truly okay he would cling to it. It was also his choice when he was overly distraught, helping him feel some closeness to the big brother who had looked after and practically raised him. Other times, he simply missed Merle and the token helped fill that hole somewhat.

The blanket was for his good days. When he was feeling at home with this new role and allowing himself to indulge and delight in being their baby. It was also for places he couldn’t or wouldn’t risk taking the vest. He loved Pupper but nothing could ever replace the vest so Pupper ended up taking a beating most of the time. Pupper was also good for nightmares or in situations where he needed comfort and thinking of Merle made the feelings worse, like after accidents or when he was afraid he’d done something wrong. Both were important to Daryl and each had their purpose.

Daryl went to the playroom, sucking on his pacifier as he looked over the shelves. He found and pulled out his drawing pad. He had taken a decent few pages out already and the fridge was steadily filling up. Perusing his materials, Daryl decided he felt like markers today. They were a lot less scary since he learned Papa and Daddy could just wipe them right off if he accidentally went off the paper. The first time it happened he’d been sure they would finally get angry. They would finally scream and yell and punish him for ruining their furniture. He’d been so afraid he’d hidden under the table in a huddled, shaking mass of sniffles and desperate apologies. Instead of getting angry and dragging him out to face consequences they had tried to coax him out with gentle words. When he’d been too afraid to leave his hiding place they’d crawled underneath with him. Again, they were patient and slowly talked him down until he was calm enough to tell them what had upset him. Shane had snorted at the confession. “Is that all,” he’d asked with a wide grin. “Lemme show you somethin’, bud.” He’d guided Daryl out from under the table, gone to the sink and returned with a white, foam sponge. He’d explained that it was a magic eraser and that it could clean up any accidental marks. Rick had gone on to specify that it only worked if it was an accident so he shouldn’t leave any marks on anything but paper on purpose.

Watching the green line disappear with one swipe was the most welcome and amazing sight he’d ever witnessed. Since then, Daryl had used markers and paints without hesitation and found he really liked how different each material made his pictures look. He returned to the kitchen table with the items, returning the vest to its safe spot and taking a seat.

Rick sat Daryl’s sippy cup from breakfast in front of him and ruffled his hair. “Try to drink something, okay? I’m gonna start the dishes. You holler if you need anything.”

“M’kay,” Daryl agreed around the pacifier. He had no intentions of drinking the juice. He had no intentions of drinking anything today. If he didn’t drink then he could be sure the tank was empty when it was time for bed. Not the most practical solution and definitely not long term but maybe it would be enough to retrain his body.

He started in on a picture just for Shane. Remembering how hesitant the man was to leave them this morning, Daryl decided to draw him a picture of them all that he could take to work with him. He figured that maybe if he had something there to remind him of them it would be easier.

With the last plate clean and in the drying rack, Rick went to check up on Daryl. Their boy was happily coloring away, biting at his pacifier in concentration. He always took his artwork seriously and there was something about his complete concentration and focus that made the whole display just adorable. Looking over his shoulder, Rick could see that Daryl had drawn the three of them standing in front of the house. Shane was drawn in his uniform this time. He was walking up the driveway with a big smile on his face. At the front door, Rick and Daryl stood with matching smiles, waiting to welcome him home.

“Oh, he’s gonna love it,” Rick praised. Daryl smiled around his pacifier, returning to his drawing to start coloring in the sun.

“I drew it for his work,” Daryl explained. “So he can look at it if he misses us.”

Rick smiled wide and knelt down beside Daryl. He’d known the boy had this sweetness inside him and seeing it come out was confirmation that he and Shane were doing something right. “He’ll be so happy you made this for him,” Rick told him, pulling Daryl in for a hug. “And I got just the thing to make sure it stays nice.”

Daryl blushed at the praise. Rick kissed the top of his head and stood, leaving the room. Daryl didn’t think it was anything much but Rick seemed extremely happy with his work. And if Rick was that happy, he could only imagine how excited Shane would be. Daryl smiled and went back to his picture, finishing it up. Rick came back with a trio of picture frames in different sizes.

“When you’re finished we’ll see which one fits best. Then Papa can put it on his desk and it won’t get messy.”

Daryl made a happy little sound around his pacifier at the thought of Shane actually taking something he made to put on his desk. He’d thought the fridge was a big deal but his art not just going to work with his Papa but being displayed there? He hurried to finish up the last little details before pushing it at Rick excitedly.

“S’finished. We gotta pick one now.”

Eventually Daryl decided on a simple frame. It was a light, sandy color that wouldn’t stand out more than his picture did. It fit perfectly and Daryl couldn’t wait for Shane to get home so he could give it to him. It was all he could talk about between episodes of his favorite show and playing with blocks. Rick had shown him that you could mix different toys to make up games and have even more fun. The two of them built a city of blocks and then they’d each taken a dinosaur and started tearing all the buildings down. It was just like the monster movies Daryl and Merle used to watch on TV late at night after their father had finally passed out, too drunk for the noise to wake him.

Before Daryl knew it, it was lunchtime. He’d eaten all of his peanut butter and jelly without a fuss but Rick realized that he hadn’t touched his milk.

“You gotta be thirsty by now, sweetness,” he coaxed gently, nudging the cup toward him. Daryl refused and pushed it away yet again.

“Don’t want it.”

Rick was worried by this point. Daryl had to drink something or he’d make himself sick. “Well what do you want then,” he asked. “We’ve got Orange juice, Apple juice, water, iced tea, what sounds good to you?”

“Ain’t thirsty,” Daryl answered. He hugged the vest, clearly uncomfortable again. Rick wasn’t sure what would make him so nervous about a drink but it was definitely eating at him. Daryl raised his arms to Rick, silently asking to be picked up instead. “Too sleepy. M’ready for my nap.”

Rick was hesitant. Daryl hadn’t had a drop to drink all morning. He was going to get dehydrated at this rate and then they’d have a fussy baby when the headache set in. “Daryl, you gotta drink something for me. Just a couple sips and we’ll get you tucked in for naptime.”

Daryl was quiet, refusing to look at Rick or the cup. He hugged the vest to his chest and hid his face in it. How could he make Rick understand without telling him why he didn’t want to drink it?

“Daryl,” Rick said gently. “Come on. Just a little bit, baby? Please?”

“Nuh uh,” Daryl fussed.

“You have to. You’ll make yourself sick if you don’t.” Rick set the cup in front of Daryl again. He was calm and quiet when he spoke but it still seemed to upset Daryl more. He was growing steadily more frustrated, straining against the straps of his high chair now.

“Daryl,” he tried to soothe. “Sit down, baby. You’ll hurt yourself.”

Daryl fussed louder, desperate to get out of the chair and move on with his day but Rick wouldn’t let him. He was keeping him strapped into this stupid chair and all over that stupid cup.

“Don’t want it!” He swung an arm across the tray, sending the cup flying and smacking into the wall with a loud crack. The lid came off, flying in the opposite direction and spilling milk everywhere. It wasn’t something he’d meant to do and Daryl’s heart sank when he realized how bad it was. Even worse was the look on Rick’s face. He wasn’t mad. He looked hurt and disappointed and that cut far deeper than anger could have.

Rick sighed, removing the tray from Daryl’s chair and undoing the straps. “Daryl,” he started softly, like every word hurt him as it left his mouth. “You’re going in time out for throwing your cup. It’s okay to be upset but throwing things is unacceptable.”

Daryl’s chest tightened at the words. He’d never gotten a time out with Rick and Shane. Not ever.

“You’re going to sit on the steps for five minutes. Then we can talk about it.”

“I’m sorry,” Daryl pleaded. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to. I won’t do it again. Promise!”

It broke Rick’s heart to hear Daryl so distraught but he couldn’t let that kind of behavior go without consequence. As much as he didn’t want to, he knew not disciplining Daryl would do him more harm than good. He picked the boy up, carrying him to the stairs and ignoring the pleading tone and tears despite the ache in his heart. Rick sat him down on the third stair up and knelt down to meet Daryl’s eyes.

“I’m gonna set the timer in the kitchen and when five minutes is up I’ll come and get you. If you leave this spot the time starts over. Do you understand?”

Daryl nodded, biting his lip hard against the sobs that threatened to spill out. With that confirmation, Rick left him there and went back to the kitchen. He hated this. He hated being separated from Rick and he hated that it was his own doing. He knew better than to throw things. He knew he wasn’t supposed to make messes on purpose. So why had he done it? He was frustrated but he didn’t know how to tell Rick why. Still,he shouldn’t have thrown it. And now Rick was upset with him. There was a huge mess and he could hear that Rick was the one cleaning it up. It wasn’t right.

Daryl wiped at his eyes, sniffling and taking a hiccuping breath. He knew better. He knew better, dammit. And now here he was, sat by himself and crying over a stupid time out. He’d never gotten upset over it at the center. Time outs had been something he got on purpose. But when it was Rick putting him there looking gutted to have to do it in the first place it was so much more distressing. He’d hurt Rick with his behavior and that was worse than any punishment.

It felt like ages before the timer went off. When it did Rick was there in an instant. Daryl did his best to keep himself together but it was hard not to break down and finally cry with the man right in front of him.

“Daryl,” Rick started, his voice calm and even. “Daddy had to put you on time out today because you threw your cup and made a mess.” Daryl nodded quietly and Rick continued. “It’s okay to be upset or frustrated but when we feel that way we have to talk about it. Throwing things doesn’t solve our problems. It just makes more.”

Daryl sniffed and wiped at his eyes. He stared down at the steps and listened, waiting for Rick to finish telling him off. For whatever came next. Rick was still relaxed, his tone gentle as he spoke.

“Do you think you can tell me why you got so upset?”

He still couldn’t tell Rick. He shook his head, and kept his eyes down. There was no explaining this to Rick without giving himself away. He could hear Rick’s soft sigh and the man moved to sit beside him, pulling Daryl into his lap.

“You miss Papa, huh,” he said softly.

That wasn’t it at all. Sure, Daryl missed Shane but it wasn’t anything to do with this. Still, Rick had given him an out and Daryl was more than eager to take it. He snuggled into Rick’s shoulder with a nod. Rick hugged him tighter and cooed softly, rubbing his back.

“I promise he’ll be back soon, sweetheart. Before you know it.”

“Said he’d come back while I was nappin’,” Daryl said softly. “Wanna take my nap now.”

Rick smiled, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. “Okay, bubba. Let’s get you snuggled in.”

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

With Daryl sound asleep, Rick was left to worry on his own. Shane would be home any time now and he would have to talk to his partner about what was going on with their baby. Missing Shane was understandable and it could easily be responsible for the emotional reaction but it didn’t explain why Daryl was specifically refusing to drink. Usually his appetite suffered when things changed but he’d eaten his lunch without complaint. There had to be more going on here and Daryl wasn’t talking. There was a very real chance that Daryl didn’t quite know why which meant it was up to him and Shane as his daddies to figure it out and help him through it.

That didn’t mean they couldn’t get a little help, he thought. There was nothing wrong with asking for a little guidance from those who had tread this path before. Rick settled on the couch with his laptop and pulled up the familiar forum. It had been a great source of support and information while they’d been looking. He hadn’t been on since they brought Daryl home, too busy and excited to even get on the computer. His last posting telling them all they were picking him up the next day were full of happy and congratulatory responses and it only reassured him he was looking in the right place. Hoping for the best, he clicked New Post.

Problem Drinking?:

As you know, we brought our boy home about a week ago. Thank you so much for all the well wishes. We’ve had a few bumps but he’s been doing well up to this point. Then today he stopped drinking. I’ve offered different options, all things he’s liked before but he’s refused everything. He’s reluctant to the point that he had a temper tantrum over it and that isn’t normal for him. I would have thought it was because my husband started back to work today but usually changes in routine affect his appetite and he’s eating just fine. He won’t talk to me about it but I’m not sure if he doesn’t want to or doesn’t really know himself. Has anyone dealt with this before? Any advice or possible insight would be appreciated.
King County Dads.

It was there now out in the world for anyone. Rick only hoped someone would have some answers. With that taken care of, he checked his emails then put the computer away and set about clearing away toys.

“Papa’s home,” Shane called. Rick felt the tension bleed from him in relief.

“In the playroom,” he answered back.

Shane entered, giving Rick a broad smile where he was sat clearing away the remains of their monster plagued city. He reached for Rick and pulled him to his feet for a kiss. “Missed you,” he murmured against his partner’s lips. He squeezed at Rick’s hips and tugged him closer. “How’d it go?”

Rick sighed into the kiss. He rested his forehead against Shane’s and his hands on Shane’s biceps. “We had our first time out today.”

That had Shane’s attention and he looked at Rick in surprise. “What happened?”

“I couldn’t get him to drink anything all morning,” Rick told him. “Tried to push it at lunch. Didn’t want him to get dehydrated and hurt himself. But he got so upset. He ended up having a tantrum and smacked the cup so hard it hit the wall and broke open.”

“He broke it?”

“He full on swayze’d the thing.” Rick shook his head in frustration. “He wouldn’t even tell me why. I’m not sure he knows.”

Shane hummed thoughtfully. It wasn’t like Daryl to throw a tantrum. Anxiety attacks, sure and they were slowly learning how best to handle them but tantrums hadn’t been a problem since their first meeting. There had to be something going on.

“Well I’m home now. Let’s see if that changes anything. If not, we’ll start looking into it a little more. We gotta get some fluids in him somehow. That ain’t optional.”

Rick nodded his agreement. “It’s gotta be soon too. He hasn’t had a drop to drink since dinner last night.”

Shane hugged Rick closer, kissing his temple in reassurance. “We will. Don’t worry. Ain’t gonna let anything hurt our boy. Specially not himself.”

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

Daryl slept longer than usual, the earlier outburst having tired him out. Eventually, his eyes peeked open with the gentle encouragement of a soft, familiar voice and a hand on his shoulder. He blinked sleepily up at the figure leaned over his crib and rubbed at his eyes to try and clear his vision.

“There he is,” he heard, the sound of a smile in the words. Daryl sat up in his crib as things started to come into focus. He still wasn’t quite awake but he knew the voice. With a yawn, he lifted his arms to his Papa in a silent request to be picked up.

Shane willingly obliged and lifted Daryl out. “You’re a sleepyhead today, aren’t you bud,” he laughed as the boy tucked himself into his shoulder and closed his eyes again. Shane tried to coax him awake by rubbing his back. “C’mon. Gotta wake up or you won’t sleep tonight.”

Daryl didn’t seem at all bothered though. He mumbled something incoherent and tangled his fingers in his Papa’s shirt. “Hey now. I heard you had a surprise for me. Can’t give it to me if you’re sleepin’, can you.”

Reluctantly, Daryl realized he was right. He gave another wide yawn and leaned back to look at Shane. The man smiled happily and brushed his sleep mussed hair back from his forehead. “There we go. Good mornin’, sleepy.”

“Mornin’,” Daryl greeted back. “You’re all done?”

“No more work today,” Shane told him. “And Daddy doesn’t go until lunch time tomorrow.” Daryl didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t like when either of his daddies left but after his experience with Rick today, time out aside, he thought it might be nice to get some one on one time with Shane as well.

“Downstairs now,” he asked quietly.

Shane butted his head gently against Daryl’s, nudging their noses together. “Of course, darlin’. We can sit on the couch for a bit until you wake up. That sound good?”

Daryl nodded in answer, laying his head on Shane’s shoulder again but keeping his eyes open this time. Shane carried him downstairs and into the living room where they settled on the sofa. Daryl quickly made himself comfortable wedged between Shane and the back cushions, head on the man’s chest. It warmed Shane’s heart to have Daryl being so affectionate and he planned to soak up every bit of it.

Daryl yawned as Shane’s fingers played through his hair. It had quickly become one of his favorite things, the repetitive motions and gentleness soothing. Normally this would be the point where Daryl was back to being stubbornly independent. But Shane had been gone all morning and if that had Daryl feeling a bit more cuddly today...well, he didn’t hear Shane complaining. “Ya catch any bad guys,” he asked.

“Nah, not today, bud,” Shane reported with an amused smile. “Just traffic stops and parking tickets. What did you do today?”

Daryl gave a soft sigh, rubbing his cheek against the cotton shirt that had replaced Shane’s uniform as he let his mind catch up with the question. “We played blocks,” he answered. “And Dinosaurs. Then Daddy showed me how to play ‘em at the same time.”

“Sounds like fun.” Daryl nodded. It was taking him longer than usual to recover from his nap and while it was nice to be able to hold him Shane couldn’t help but worry that it was related to Daryl’s problem of the day. “I also heard we had a bit of a rough patch today. You wanna tell me about it?”

That seemed to wake him up a bit quicker. Daryl was suddenly very alert, eyes flicking nervously to Shane’s face then back down to his chest. His fingers played at the frayed edge of the man’s old T-shirt and his shoulders hunched, legs pulling up what little they could to make himself smaller. Shane stayed relaxed and patient. There was nothing for Daryl to be worried about. Rick had already handled the consequences and Daryl had paid his due time. He wouldn’t be disciplined for it again and Shane tried to reassure Daryl of that.

“It’s okay, buddy. You’re not in trouble. You already did your time out. This is just a discussion.” He took the hand Daryl was fidgeting with and held it in his, giving a gentle squeeze. “Daddy said you got upset about your cup. How come?”

Daryl shrugged, tucking his face between the couch and Shane’s side. What was it with these guys and the dumb cups? Why did they care so much? It was just a drink and it wasn’t like he was stopping permanently. He just needed to make it one day, he was sure. One day and his body would be back to normal.

“Come on. Talk to me,” Shane coaxed. “Why don’t you wanna drink anything today? Does your throat hurt?” Daryl shook his head. “Stomach hurt?” Another no. “Then what’s goin’ on?”

“Not thirsty,” Daryl answered for what felt like the millionth time. Shane sighed, tugging gently on Daryl’s hair to get him to look up.

“You haven’t had a drink all day, puppy. If you don’t drink somethin’ real soon you’re gonna get a headache and you’ll start feelin’ dizzy. That’s no fun for any of us. So how about we try to get somethin’ down, hm?”

Daryl frowned, ducking his face against Shane again. “No thank ya,” he tried.

“Shane.”

Rick was stood in the doorway of the kitchen, watching the interaction. “Come help me a second.” The look on his face told Shane it couldn’t wait. Reluctantly, he eased himself away from Daryl.

“I’ll be right back. Keep my spot warm for me?”

Daryl nodded, relieved that the conversation was over for the moment. Shane followed Rick into the kitchen and Daryl was left on the couch by himself. Today was proving a challenge and Daryl almost wanted to go back to bed just to get it over with sooner. He hadn’t anticipated the two of them being so observant. His parents never noticed or cared if he got a meal in a week, let alone what he drank that day.

Whatever they were doing in the kitchen was taking a long time and Daryl was starting to lose patience. He played with the tassels on one of the throw pillows idly, watching the bunch of gold strings swing back and forth. It was awfully quiet, like they weren’t even talking and Daryl couldn’t help but be curious. He climbed off the sofa and went to quietly to the kitchen. The two of them were hunched over a laptop, looking at something and speaking to each other in hushed tones. Daryl didn’t like secrets. It made him nervous to think there was something they didn’t want him to know.

“What’cha doin’,” he asked softly. The pair looked up at him, seemingly startled. Daryl was pretty used to that. He’d always been quiet and light footed. Merle had threatened to put a bell on him more than once in their childhood.

Rick was the first to recover, giving Daryl a warm smile and beckoning him over. “Maybe you can help us out,” he said. Daryl approached them, cautious but excited that he was being asked to help with something. He squeezed his way between them to see what they were looking at. Shane’s arm curled around his back and Rick pointed to the screen to show Daryl their dilemma.

“We wanted to try somethin’ new for dinner tonight and we just can’t decide. Which one sounds good to you?”

It was a list of soups, some familiar and some Daryl had never heard of. A lot of them looked good but a few had him turning his nose up when he caught sight of an onion or broccoli in the pictures. Eventually, Daryl came to the conclusion that you couldn’t go wrong with plain old chicken noodle. It looked a lot different than the stuff that came out of a can but at least it seemed to have more than three little cubes of chicken.

“I like that one,” he answered, pointing to the recipe labeled “Grandma’s Old Fashioned Chicken Soup” since it had the fewest greens in it.

“That sounds like a good choice to me,” Shane said.

Rick nodded in agreement. “Chicken soup it is. I’ll start gettin’ things ready.”

Daryl couldn’t help the flutter of happiness in his chest knowing that he’d picked out their meal for the night. Shane hugged him and thanked him for his help, steering him away from the counter to give Rick space to work. “Now what’s this surprise I keep hearin’ about?”

“Oh yeah,” Daryl gasped. “I gotta go get it.” He knew just where Rick had put it to keep it safe until he could give it to Shane. Running off to the playroom to fetch it, Daryl paused as he spotted something beside it on the shelf. He thought to himself that it was something he and Shane could do together while Rick worked on dinner and tucked the box beneath his arm with the picture. Poking his head around the corner, he paused. “You gotta close your eyes.”

Shane gave an amused look but complied, covering his eyes. He tried to look through his fingers but Daryl caught him. “No peekin’,” he pouted.

“Alright, alright. You got me,” Shane laughed and covered his eyes completely. Satisfied, Daryl set the box on the table. He gave the picture a final once over, making sure it was centered in the frame and that he hadn’t forgotten anything. It passed his inspection and Daryl turned it over, holding it out to Shane.

“You can look now.” Shane let one eye peek between his fingers playfully but when he saw the picture the joking stopped. He dropped his hands, a smile taking over his features as he took it from Daryl.

“You made this for me,” he asked.

Daryl nodded. “S’fer your desk. Fer when you miss us at work.”

Shane was beaming as he looked the picture over again. Daryl had made it just for him and it made Shane’s chest swell with pride. “It’s beautiful,” he praised. “And it’s gonna go right next to my computer so I’ll see it the whole time.” He pulled a blushing Daryl into a hug, squeezing him tight. “Thank you so much.”

Daryl shrugged. “Was nothin’,” he said even as a smile tugged at his lips. He fidgeted with the edge of his shirt, proud and shy all at once. “Will ya do a puzzle with me?”

“You bet, bud,” Shane told him. Rick cleared his throat suddenly. It pulled Shane’s attention to him and the two shared a look. It was an entire conversation in silence and Daryl didn’t know how he felt about not being a part of it. Something seemed to click in Shane’s expression and just like that the talk was over. His attention was back on Daryl, leaving him to wonder what exactly that was. “Why don’t you get the pieces out and I’ll get us a little treat, hm?”

“Okay,” Daryl said softly, wary of what was going on right in front of him but still entirely in secret. He took a seat and started to unbox everything. There were a lot of pieces but he liked the picture. It was a farmhouse with horses and cows out in the fields.

“You like animals a lot, don’t you,’’ Rick asked, taking a peek at the picture on the lid. Daryl just shrugged.

“Know stuff about ‘em. Use’ta hunt a lot with Merle. Didn’t really see any up close though. Not alive anyway.”

“Would you like to?” Daryl looked up at Shane with a curious sound. “Would you like to see some animals,” he clarified. “Live ones.”

Daryl’s curiosity was instantly apparent and he looked from Shane to Rick. How would they see live animals? “We have a good friend named Herschel,” Rick explained. “He’s got a farm with cows and horses, chickens. They’re all real friendly too. And I think him and his kids would love to have us come visit sometime.”

Daryl’s mind flooded with questions. Could they ride the horses? How many cows were there? Who was Herschel? Could he feed the animals? “Can we go tomorrow,” was what fought it’s way out first. Rick and Shane both laughed, Daryl pouting at the table. What was so funny about that?

“Well we’re glad you’re excited but it’s a little short notice for a visit,” Rick explained.

“But I’ll tell you what,” Shane started. “I’ll give the old man a call tomorrow. We’ll see when we can make plans when Daddy and I can both go and we’ll take you on your first horse ride. How does that sound?”

“Yeah,” Daryl answered. “I wanna go. Real soon.” Shane came back to the table with a smile and a bright red popsicle in his hand, sitting beside Daryl.

“Alright. Sounds like a plan. For now, we got popsicles to eat and edge pieces to find. Here you go, puppy.”

Daryl took the popsicle happily and started to suck on it as he helped separate out all the pieces with flat sides. By the time they had the outer frame put together the popsicle was long gone and good smells had started to fill the kitchen. His daddies were good cooks and Daryl wasn’t sure he’d ever eaten this well. He and Shane continued to work on their puzzle, starting on opposite ends and working their way closer to middle. Rick would look over from cooking every so often to watch and tell them what a good job they were doing. It was so peaceful and for the moment it was easy to forget the time out from earlier. It was easy to forget his little problem and just enjoy spending time with his daddies.

The puzzle was too big to finish before dinner was ready so Papa slid it all down to the other end of the table without losing any pieces. “It’ll be safe there for now,” he told Daryl. “Then after dinner Daddy can help us finish it.”

“Kay,” Daryl agreed. He climbed up into his chair eagerly. He was excited to taste the recipe he’d picked out and even more excited to get to finish the puzzle all together. Shane laughed while he strapped Daryl in.

“Someone’s hungry, huh.”

Daryl held his arms out of the way for Shane to put the tray on. “Mhm,” he agreed. “Daddy does good and I picked it by myself.”

“Yes you did,” Rick said proudly. “My big helper.” He brought over a bowl, cooled off by a brief stint in the freezer and gave it to Daryl. The boy picked up his spoon but made no move for the food.

“What’s wrong? Woulda thought you were starvin’ a minute ago,” Shane asked. Daryl shook his head.

“Waitin’. You guys don’t got yours yet.”

The two of them gave surprised but pleased smiles. “Good job, Daryl,” Rick praised. “That’s very polite.”

Daryl shrugged watching his tray with a tiny smile. It was still taking some getting used to, having someone be proud of him, and he still didn’t quite know how to respond to it but it always made his tummy feel funny in a good way. Shane and Rick were quick to get their own bowls and settle in at the table. Satisfied that everyone had food now, Daryl took his first spoonful. He made sure to get a little bit of everything but the celery. Celery was too stringy and Daryl thought it tasted like wet pavement smelled. It was quickly decided that Daddy did a good job and Daryl ate the whole thing, even asking for seconds which Rick was happy to oblige him.

Two full bowls was plenty and Daryl was full and happy. He stayed in his chair, content to lounge there for a bit while Rick and Shane ate. “Looks like someone really liked your work, Daddy,” Shane told Rick, looking over at the content and lazy boy slouched in his high chair.

Rick laughed, getting up from the table to take his bowl to the sink. “Well he’s a good recipe picker.” He brushed Daryl’s hair back out of his eyes and taking his empty bowl too as he passed. He was thrilled Daryl had eaten so much.

He was too full to do more than whine when Shane came to wipe his face. When he was cleaned up, they let him out of the chair and he hurried back to the table, eager to finish their puzzle. With the three of them working together, it was much easier to finish and Daryl would excitedly call out what each animal was as they finished them.

It was an easy night for all them, finished off with some lazy time spent watching what had become all of their favorite show and another popsicle. “You ate so good tonight I think you earned an extra treat,” Rick had told him. He was so sleepy by that point that he wound up wearing more than he ate, chin and shirt stained purple. It was half gone, only a quarter of it actually eaten the were sure, before Shane took pity on him and called it.

“I think someone’s ready for bath time.” Daryl nodded, letting Shane take the treat from him to put in the sink to melt. He was wiped down just enough and Shane picked him up. Daryl yawned and laid his head on Shane’s shoulder as he was carried up the stairs. Rick was following close behind. Daryl tried his hardest to stay awake enough to play a little bit. He loved to play with the bubbles but he just didn’t have it in him tonight. As soon as he was clean he was ready to come out. Shane carried him to the bedroom, laying him on the changing table to get him dressed in his pajamas. Rick came up beside the table, offering Daryl his pacifier which he took happily.

“And look who else is all clean,” he said. He held up the little, blue blanket for Daryl, fresh and still warm from the dryer. Daryl reached for Pupper with grabby hands, snuggling it tight. It smelled fresh and clean and the warmth seeped into his cheek as he sucked greedily at his pacifier.

“Man, we gotta get a camera,” Shane said with a smile. Rick hummed in agreement.

“Now if we could figure out what we did with his puppy pajamas it would be perfect.”

“They gotta be here somewhere,” Shane reassured. “We’ll find ‘em.”

Daryl was almost out on the table when they picked him up and moved him to the crib. As soon as the blankets were over him, he turned onto his side and curled into a ball. He was fast asleep.

With Daryl settled into bed, they headed downstairs to get everything cleaned up. “I still don’t like trickin’ him like that,” Shane said, shaking his head as he caught sight of the popsicle melting in the sink.

“We didn’t trick him,” Rick answered. “We just tweaked his menu to suit what he needed. If he wouldn’t drink anything then we had to get fluids in some other way.”

“Yeah, I know,” Shane sighed. “We had to do it. Still feels sneaky though.”

“It’s part of bein’ a parent. You give them what they need even you have to be a little...inventive to do it. Like when Mama used to give me gummy bears and sneak a vitamin one in.”

Shane nodded. He didn’t have to like it, but he knew it was necessary.

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

Something was wrong. Daryl blinked sleepily. He didn’t want to wake up yet but he couldn’t make himself go back to sleep. He was too uncomfortable. He wriggled a bit, trying to get back into a comfy position but when he lifted his hips a feeling of wrongness hit him hard. Daryl gasped and sat up.

“No,” he whined. His eyes prickled with tears as he realized he was wet. Again. But how? He’d been so careful. He hadn’t had even a sip of anything all day. This shouldn’t be possible.

He was broken, he thought to himself. He must be. What other explanation was there? Daryl sniffled, curling into a ball. He was broken and they wouldn’t want him anymore. Who wanted to wash sheets every day for a grown man who wet the bed? Why couldn’t he fix this? Why couldn’t he sleep without waking up in a puddle? Exhaustion mixed with frustration and Daryl was helpless to stop the shaking of his shoulders and quiet sobbing.

The door creaked open and Daryl’s froze.

“Whats’matter, Daryl,” he heard Shane ask, half asleep and bleary eyed. He flicked the light on and as soon as he laid eyes on the bed it was clear. “Oh, Puppy,” he said softly. Daryl burst into tears all over again, sobbing loudly into his knees.

“Hey. It’s okay, bud.” Shane stood beside the crib, rubbing Daryl’s back to try and soothe him. “Rick, I need a hand in here,” he called before turning back to Daryl. “It’s alright. It happens. Take a deep breath for me.”

It didn’t take long for Rick to come in looking just as tired as Shane had. When he saw the scene before him, his heart clenched. “Aw, poor baby,” he cooed softly. “Come on. Let’s get you outta those wet things.” He picked Daryl up and set him down on the changing table, trying his best to soothe the boy.

While Rick pulled of his wet pants, Shane stripped the bed sheets and went to the closet for a new set only to find there weren’t any there. “Did you move the sheets,” he asked Rick, checking the other shelves and cubbies and coming up empty.

“No. They should be where they always are.” Rick used a wet wipe to clean Daryl down as he sobbed beneath his Pupper. When he opened the garbage pail to toss it in the smell that came out was enough to make his eyes water.

“Ho, Jesus. What is in there,” Shane asked from across the room. Daryl cried harder. It was all falling apart right in front of him. They were going to be mad. He just knew it.

Rick started pulling out the mass of urine soaked bed sheets, pajama bottoms and underwear. “Daryl,” he said softly. “Why did you hide this from us?” Daryl couldn’t answer. He couldn’t get a breath. He was too upset.

“Easy, bud,” Shane soothed, coming over to try and calm him down. “C’mon. You gotta breathe for me. You’ll make yourself sick goin’ like this.” He pulled Daryl to sit up, hugging him and rubbing his back. “C’mon. Do it with me. In-two-three-four-five, hold-two-three, out-two-three-four-five.”

Shane coached him gently, doing the exercise with him. It took a few tries but soon Daryl could take a breath without stuttering. He could breathe evenly even though the tears hadn’t stopped completely. “There we go,” Shane praised. He kept Daryl held against him, stroking his hair as he listened to Daryl breathe.

“Baby,” Rick started gently. “How long has this been going on?”

Daryl sniffled, voice small and broken sounding. “All week,” he admitted. A wave of hot shame went through him at the confession and he tucked his face against Shane.

“You should have told us, sweetness,” Rick said softly. “We can’t help you if we don’t know what’s happening.” He kissed Daryl’s temple, brushing his hair back to try and get a look at his face. “Is this why you wouldn’t drink anything today?”

Daryl sniffled, clutching Pupper tighter and fisting his other hand in Shane’s shirt. “Thought I could fix it,” he whimpered.

“There’s nothin’ to fix, puppy,” Shane explained. “It’s normal for little boys like you.”

Daryl shook his head. “It ain’t normal,” he fussed. “Nobody wet the bed at the center. Not even the real little ones. Somethin’s wrong with me.”

“Nothing is wrong with you,” Rick told him firmly. “And I don’t ever wanna hear you say that again.”

“Daddy’s right. You’re our perfect boy.” Shane kissed the top of his head before gently pulling him away to meet his eyes. “And I promise you that you are far from the only one. There were definitely little ones at the center that didn’t stay dry. They just had something very important that kept the bed dry.”

Daryl sniffed, wiping his nose on his sleeve and looking between the two of them. “What did they do,” he asked. He didn’t want to wake up in a wet spot anymore. And he didn’t want to hide his sheets and pajamas anymore.

Rick and Shane seemed hesitant, looking to each other. They seemed to be preparing themselves for something. Finally, they nodded to each other and Shane gently nudged Daryl to lay back on the table.

“Lay back for me, bud,” he told him. “We’re gonna take care of it.”

Daryl didn’t like this. What were they going to do? How would they fix this if he couldn’t? He felt sick, afraid of what they had planned. Rick was going through the bins on the changing table, pulling things out. Each one made that sick feeling worse as Daryl started to put the pieces together. More wipes, a tube of cream, powder. Finally, the last item was pulled out and that was it. Daryl panicked.

“No! No! I don’t need it!” He screamed and thrashed against the table, trying to escape but Shane’s hand on his shoulder kept him down. “I don’t want it,” he cried, bawling and kicking. “I don’t want it! No!”

“Daryl Walsh-Grimes, that’s enough,” Shane barked. The tone made Daryl freeze. He couldn’t stop the sobs but that didn’t seem to bother either of them. “You do not kick, you understand me? You’re allowed to be upset but you don’t kick Papa or Daddy. Not ever.”

Daryl hated this. He didn’t want it. It was too much. “I don’t want it,” he cried.

“But you need it, sweetness,” Rick soothed. “It’s no fun for us either. We don’t like seein’ you this upset but sometimes you have to do things you don’t like.”

Daryl wasn’t convinced. He sniffled, reaching out for Rick. “Don’t make me. Please don’t make me.”

“We have to do what’s best for you,” Shane told him. “It ain’t gonna hurt you and I promise it’ll feel better than wakin’ up in a wet bed.”

There was nothing left to discuss. It was going to happen and there was no sense in putting it off any longer. Shane started in, opening the tube and covering all Daryl’s sensitive areas in a thin layer of the cream. Daryl hid beneath Pupper and bawled despite Rick’s attempts to soothe him. It was humiliating. He wanted a trap door to open beneath him and he didn’t care what was in it. The powder came next and then, the final and most mortifying part. Shane carefully lifted his bottom off the table and slid the diaper under, pulling it up between his legs and taping the sides.

This had to be the most demeaning thing Daryl had ever been put through. He was back to his earlier hysterics, crying so hard he was starting to gag from it.

“There. All done,” Shane told him. He pulled Daryl to sit up and he felt even worse as the bulk of the diaper forced his thighs apart. Shane tried to hug Daryl against him but Daryl was having none of it.

He fussed and wriggled his way to the floor. Immediately, he was across the room from both of them and huddled in the corner. He sniffled through hiccuping sobs and glared at them.

“Daryl,” Rick tried. “Don’t be like that, sweetheart.”

“No,” he shouted back. He hugged Pupper tighter to his chest. Daryl was angry and embarrassed. He didn’t want to look at either of them. He wanted to be angry forever. But the look on Rick’s face sent a spike of guilt through him.

“We didn’t do it to be mean,” Shane told him. “Didn’t do it to punish you.”

Daryl didn’t care. He sniffled and turned away, staring at the wall. He wanted to be angry. He wanted them to feel as bad as he did. ...but that was the problem. Daryl felt bad. There were so many things swirling around his tummy and making him feel sick and he wanted them to hold him. He wanted them to make it better. But anger was easier. It was familiar and Daryl knew how to be angry. He didn’t know how to be sad. He didn’t know how to be hurt and upset or how to let someone comfort him. All he new was the anger.

“Alright then. You sit and pout if you wanna,” Shane told him. “We’ll be right here when you’re done.”

That wasn’t how this was supposed to work. They were supposed to keep talking to him. They were supposed to try and make him forgive them and try to get him to cuddle with them. Instead they just sat there waiting. Daryl frowned, confused by their action, or rather inaction.

He found it hard to stay angry when they were giving him his space. Eventually it receded completely and Daryl was left watching them with a tear streaked face and a longing look.

“Are you ready to come talk to us now,” Rick asked, breaking first. Shane didn’t look happy about that but Rick couldn’t care less. He held his arms out in invitation and Daryl slowly pushed himself to his feet. He went to Rick and pressed his face into the man’s chest.

“There’s our boy,” Rick said as he embraced Daryl. It made the sniffles start over again but much calmer this time.

“What can we do to help you feel better,” Shane asked, giving in himself and rubbing Daryl’s back.

Daryl sniffed. “No diapers,” he answered.

“Well that’s not an option,” Shane told him, ignoring the resulting whine. “But I got an idea of somethin’ we can do. How about you come sleep in Papa and Daddy’s bed tonight.”

“Better than waiting on clean sheets, isn’t it,” Rick encouraged.

Daryl gave a reluctant nod. He wanted to stay mad, to sleep on a bare mattress out of defiance, but hugs and cuddles felt so much better.

“Alright then. Let’s get some jammies on and get everyone tucked back in. It is way too early,” Shane complained.

They got Daryl zipped into warm, fleece, footed pajamas. They were green and patterned with footballs, one of Shane’s favorites. Laundry could wait until daylight. Right now, they all needed sleep and as he cuddled between the two of them on the big bed, surrounded by warmth and love, Daryl drifted off.

Chapter Text

Daryl rubbed at his eye, yawning wide. The night’s ordeal had him feeling more tired than usual. He’d slept until nine, very late for him with his internal clock still tuned to a lifetime of rising with the sun to hunt. Even still, he felt sluggish and sleepy. Rick and Shane were suffering the effects just as much if Rick overflowing his coffee mug and Shane dropping an egg into the pan shell and all were any indication. Eventually they had breakfast ready, a plate of scrambled eggs and toast sitting on Daryl’s tray.

“Ain’t hungry,” he mumbled, moving his food to the side to lay his head down on the tray.

“Nuh uh, bubba,” Rick told him, gently nudging him to sit up again. “It’s already a late breakfast. We aren’t letting you get away with no breakfast.”

Daryl groaned in protest but pulled himself back upright. “Don’t want it. M’too tired for food.”

“Tell you what,” Shane told him, bringing his own mug of coffee to his lips. “You get at least half those eggs down and we can go for a nap an hour earlier. How’s that?”

It wasn’t what Daryl wanted. He wanted to sleep now. But, he reasoned, it was better than nothing. He picked up his fork and took a hesitant mouthful. Rick smiled and ruffled his hair affectionately. They still had another hour or so before he had to leave for the afternoon shift at the station and Daryl didn’t like that either. He didn’t like them being split up. Yesterday with Rick had been fun though. Maybe spending the day with Shane would prove to be a rewarding experience as well. He’d already promised Daryl earlier that he would put in the call to Herschel today about them getting to visit the farm.

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

“So what do we wanna do today,” Shane had asked. It was Daryl’s first morning change and the tension was palpable. He wanted to keep Daryl talking and keep him from getting lost in his own head. Hopefully he could get him excited about something instead of focusing on the moment of unpleasantness. Daryl just shook his head, hiding his face beneath Pupper. “I’m gonna talk to Herschel later,” he told Daryl. “We might be able to go visit next week. He’s got horses and cows, some chickens. He’s even got goats that fall over if you scare ‘em.”

Intrigued by the promise of falling goats, Daryl peeked from behind his blanket. “That ain’t real,” he scoffed.

“Is so,” Shane defended. “They go stiff as board and they tip right over.”

Daryl rolled his eyes, not believing such a thing could possibly exist. “Think you was dreamin’, Papa.”

“Aren’t we chock full of sass this mornin’,” Shane said with a grin. He zipped Daryl back into his pajamas and sat him up. “All done. That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Daryl didn’t answer, cheeks going pink. Shane had leaned in and pressed a kiss to his forehead before picking him up to head downstairs.

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

Daryl took another mouthful of eggs as he watched the pair talk quietly about work and the coming day.

“Probably not this time,” Shane said, catching Daryl’s interest. He’d drifted out and wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about. “After last night we’d better wait. Think you can just make a run on your way home?”

“Yeah. I can do that.” Rick took another swig of coffee, emptying his mug and checking the clock on the wall. Seeing the time, he picked up his plate and started for the sink. “But next week we should start takin’ him with us. It would do us all good to start getting out of the house.”

“I like the house,” Daryl said, giving another jaw cracking yawn. Rick ruffled his hair as he walked past.

“We know you do, bud,” Rick told him. “We like it too. But it does everyone good to get out once in awhile.”

Daryl didn't like the sound of that. If they left the house there would be people. A lot of people. Daryl didn't like strangers. He didn't like being stared at and there were bound to be tons of people looking at him. Who wouldn't point and laugh at a grown man dressed like a toddler?

“But that's a little ways off yet,” Shane told him, bringing him out of his thought spiral. “What do we wanna do today? Let's think about that, hm?”

Daryl still didn’t like the idea of leaving the house but he resolved not to think about it today. Today was Shane day and he was looking forward to finding out what that would mean. “Daddy taught me a new game,” he said, pushing his eggs around the plate with a piece of toast. “Taught me the monster attack game.”

“Oh did he,” Shane said. His mouth twitched up in a smile and his eyes turned to his husband. “So I suppose I’m gonna have to compete with that.”

“Good luck,” Rick told him. “Not much that can beat a monster attack.”

“We’ll see about that.” Shane stood, taking another sip of his coffee. Approaching Daryl’s chair, he gestured to his plate, half the eggs gone as agreed. “You all done, bud?”

Daryl nodded. Shane took the tray and Rick released the straps, letting him out of the chair to play. He retrieved Pupper from his safe spot on the table, tucking him into his arm. Rick approached him, draining the last of his coffee in one last swallow and kissing him on the forehead. “I gotta go get ready. You gonna be a good boy for Papa today?”

Daryl gave a tiny twitch of a smile, eyes showing just the smallest glimmer of mischief. “I’ll try.”

Rick laughed and combed his fingers through their boy’s hair. “Well we wouldn’t wanna make it too easy for him,” he teased, giving Daryl a wink. He came up behind Shane, kissing his husband on the cheek before heading upstairs to shower and dress for work.

Shane left the dishes to soak a bit before washing them and went to Daryl instead. “How about we go outside and play today,” he asked. Surely Daryl would be thrilled to get some time in the grass and the sunshine.

Instead, he hesitated. “Outside where,” he asked. He didn’t want to go to a playground where there would be people. Playground were for real kids. Normal kids. Daryl had never been to one before even when he was little. He certainly didn’t want to go like this. At the center there were walls around the play area so no one could see. Being out in the open was very different.

“Daddy and I have a surprise for you in the back yard,” Shane told him. He could read the nervousness in Daryl and he wanted to reassure him. They wouldn’t push him into the outside world until he was comfortable. “Just us, bud. Promise.”

The back yard. That could be okay. Their house was right in front of a small wooded area that blocked the view from the neighbors behind them. And the other neighbors would be at work, this time on a Wednesday. More importantly, Daryl really wanted to know what the surprise was. He bit his lip and nodded.

“Alright. Let’s go,” Shane said, holding out his hand. Daryl took it and followed behind him as Shane led him to the back door. “Eyes closed,” he told him. Daryl huffed and pouted but closed his eyes. Smiling, Shane stepped out onto the back deck and carefully helped Daryl step out after him. “Alright, Puppy. Open ‘em.”

Daryl peeked one eye open, glancing around the big, fenced yard. It was green and open and Daryl liked it all on its own. But when he laid eyes on it, he gasped. “S’fer me,” he asked excitedly. Shane nodded. “All for you, darlin’.” Daryl grinned and tore off down the stairs, heading straight for the brand new swing set. It was one of the big, wooden ones with two swings, a twisty slide and even a sandbox. He’d always seen them, watched other kids play on them as he passed by, but now he had one. It was all for him. He laid a hand on the slide, bending over to look up the tunnel curiously.

“Go on, bud,” Shane encouraged. “Try it out.”

Daryl circled around to the ladder, inspecting the structure the whole way. There was a little, peaked roof covered with striped tarp, turning the top before the slide into an almost clubhouse. Climbing up, he looked around it and smiled. Sitting his blanket in the corner, he moved to the top of the slide. “Pupper, you wait here where you won’t get all dirty, m’kay?” Of course there wouldn’t be an answer, but he nodded to the stuffed dog as if there had been.

“Come on, Puppy,” Shane called up to him. “I’ll catch ya.”

Daryl waited a beat, took a deep breath and let himself go. He was completely closed in but the sun shined dimly through the yellow plastic so Daryl could still see everything inside the tube. There was wind in his hair and his heart was beating fast but it was amazing. He hadn’t even realized he was laughing until he reached the bottom and Shane caught him just like he promised. Shane was grinning from ear to ear as he lifted him up. Slides were definitely fun.

Daryl ran back to the ladder as soon as his feet touched the ground, climbing up into the little alcove and sliding down to Shane all over again. Fifteen seemed to be the limit for Shane’s arms, however and he was starting to get winded even in his shape. “How about we try the swing, huh bud?”

Daryl nodded eagerly and darted over to them. He hopped up onto the seat easily enough but then his feet no longer touched the ground. It suddenly registered to him that he was sitting on nothing but a piece of fancy plywood held up with rope with nothing but his balance to keep him from falling face first into the dirt. He swallowed nervously. It didn’t feel as secure as the slide had, surrounded by walls that would guide him safely down to Shane every time. It felt rickety and volatile, like the slightest shift would make it turn on him and he’d fall.

He was going to hop off and tell Shane he liked the slide better but the man had come up behind him. “Alright. Here we go!” Shane gave him a strong push and the swing went forward, sending Daryl’s body tilting backwards. He was sure he was going to fall. His stomach sank and his grip on the ropes went white knuckled. Terrified, He squeezed his eyes shut and screamed. As quickly as it started, Daryl was the right way up again and the swing was stopping with hands holding firm on the seat. Daryl scrambled off and straight into Shane’s arms in a panic.

“Hey, hey,” Shane said softly. He let Daryl cling to him, hugging him close and trying to soothe him. “What’s wrong? I thought we were havin’ fun? You’re shakin’ like a leaf.”

Daryl shook his head. “I don’t like it,” he whimpered.

“How come? What’s scary about it, huh?” Shane’s voice was gentle as ever as he held onto Daryl and rubbed his back. Daryl shook his head and hugged tighter to the man. “C’mon, Puppy. Talk to me. Tell Papa what’s wrong,” he coaxed. Daryl didn’t want to say it. It made him feel even more like a baby. But Shane just held him like a grown man clinging to him for dear life over a swing was just a normal day.

Daryl kept his face hidden and his voice was still shaky. “I don’ wanna fall,” he admitted. Shane hummed in understanding and gave him a squeeze.

“You think Papa would let that happen?”

Daryl paused. Did he think Shane would let him fall? Of course not. But he wasn’t naive enough to think that Shane would be able to stop it from happening. “Slide’s better,” he answered instead.

“What about this.” Shane turned so his back was to the swing, sitting down with Daryl in his lap. “We can try it together. Does that sound okay?” Daryl still didn’t know if he liked this idea but Shane seemed confident. And Daryl didn’t want to be a little baby that was afraid to ride on a swing. He gave a reluctant nod and Shane smiled encouragingly. “Alright. Lets try it, huh?”

Daryl closed his eyes tight again and held onto Shane tight. But when he pushed off it was slow and easy. They were barely tilting as all and the movement was so lazy that Daryl had to peek an eye open to check they were moving at all. This wasn’t bad. Not when he had Shane to keep him safe. He watched as they glided back and forth. It wasn’t nearly as bad.

“Is this better,” Shane asked. Daryl nodded. “It was just a little too fast the first time, huh?”

Daryl paused, looking around them as they moved. “Maybe we can go a little higher,” he admitted softly.

“You sure it’s okay?” Daryl nodded. “Alright. You tell me if you wanna stop, okay?” Shane started to kick his legs, using the momentum to swing them higher. He still took it slow but the made progress. Daryl was really starting to warm up to the swing. He was thinking of asking to try on his own again but there was an unexpected voice.

“Well look at that.”

Daryl froze up. He’d been seen. He’d been seen on a swing. On a swing in a man’s lap. He wanted a hole to open up beneath him in that moment but Shane was smiling as he brought them to a stop.

“Hey, Dale. How goes it?”

“Fine, fine. So it looks like you two finally found the right one.” Daryl slid off of Shane’s lap as soon as they were stopped, scrambling up the ladder to the slide.

“Daryl,” Shane chastised gently. “Come on. Say hi to Mr. Horvath. He’s our neighbor and he’s nice.” Daryl wasn’t interested in meeting anyone and he tucked himself into the far corner of the clubhouse. He could watch and listen but he wasn’t in the direct line of sight for the old man. He was kind looking, like Shane had said. An energy of positivity and friendliness radiated from him. His eyes sparkled under his wide brimmed hat and his smile was kind. It reminded Daryl a little of Arin.

“Aw, that’s alright,” he said, waving Shane off. “He’s probably had too much excitement to add a new face into the mix already. When did you boys bring him home?”

“It’s been about three weeks. We’re just startin’ to get back to work now though so he’s a little thrown off. He’s used to havin’ both of us here.”

Had it really been that long? He’d been with Rick and Shane for three whole weeks already? He couldn’t remember clearly enough to count back. Didn’t know what date it was anymore. His days were measured in baths and naps and play. He couldn’t help but wonder exactly when that had happened.

“So he’s settling in well,” Dale asked.

“For the most part,” Shane answered. “There’s always bumps in the road. Especially with cases like his. But he’s doin’ better than we expected. Sleeps good. Eats good most of the time unless somethin’s upsettin’ him. We’re still findin’ out what sets him off but overall we’re doin’ great. He’s a real sweetheart.”

Daryl blushed at the praise, curling up in a ball and listening as Shane continued.

“We’re hopin’ to take him up the farm soon. Animals seem to be easier for him than people. Ain’t that right, bud,” Shane asked, turning to him. He shrugged, staring down at his shoes. They were easier than people. Animals didn’t lie and they never hurt you without a reason. Shane went back to talking to Dale. They seemed to know each other well, Shane asking about the man’s wife. He answered that she was settling in well but her memory was getting worse and she hadn’t recognized him on his last visit. That made Daryl sad for him. It must hurt to have someone you loved that much forget you. Shane seemed sad too but he tried to keep the smile on. The conversation went on and on, Daryl migrating closer to the door and stretching out on his stomach as he listened. They talked about the weather and their sports teams, how the local college teams were looking this year, Shane’s work, Dale wanting to retire but having no one to leave the garage to. It felt like hours and Daryl was starting to get warm and sleepy.

“M’tired, Papa,” he said, cutting Shane off mid sentence.

“Tired? It’s only-” the man checked his watch, eyes going wide. “Woah. I guess you are.” He turned back to Dale. “I gotta get him down for a nap or Rick’s gonna kill me. But it was nice talkin’ to ya, Dale.”

“You too,” the old man said with a smile. “It was very nice to meet you too, Daryl.”

Daryl ducked back into the tiny almost room. He didn’t like the attention but he gave a soft, “you too” from his hiding place. Dale headed over to a full vegetable garden which Daryl assumed was the reason he’d originally come outside and Shane came to the ladder. He held his arms out for Daryl and Daryl reached for him, letting Shane carry him back to the house. “Did you have fun on your new swing set,” Shane asked him. Daryl nodded against his shoulder.

“How come Dale’s wife don’t remember him,” Daryl asked.

Shane sighed, hitching Daryl up higher so he could free a hand to open the sliding door. “Well, she’s very sick, Daryl.” It was clear that this wasn’t an easy subject and Shane was having a hard time talking about it. “It’s very rare and it makes her forget a lotta things. The part of her head that has her memories doesn’t work so good anymore.”

Daryl decided that was very sad. It had to be very hard for Dale. He loved her and she was so sick she didn’t even remember him. But he still seemed so happy and nice despite it all. He looked back at the yard, thinking. Maybe if she couldn’t remember on her own they could do something to help her. If her head wasn’t working so good, maybe they could keep the memories somewhere else.

“Papa?”

“What is it, Puppy?”

Daryl leaned his head against Shane’s cheek, eyes still fixed on the back door until they turned onto the stairs and it was out of view. “Do you think it would be okay if I drew Miss Irma a pi’ture? Maybe she can remember him better if she can see it when he ain’t there.”

Shane paused and Daryl was worried he may have said something wrong but he just hugged Daryl tighter. He hid his face in Daryl’s shoulder and took a long, deep breath.

“You okay,” Daryl asked.

Shane laughed and nodded. “I think that would be very nice of you, Daryl. And it think it would make Dale very happy that you thought of her.” Shane carried Daryl the rest of the way up the stairs and into the nursery. There was another awkward change and Shane left him in just his shirt and diaper when he laid him down in his crib. He pulled the blankets up over Daryl and pressed a kiss to his forehead before giving him his pacifier. “Get some rest, bud. Daddy’ll be home before you know it.”

Daryl nodded and once Shane left he rolled onto his side. He would work on the picture as soon as he woke up.

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

Rick came up to wake Daryl just as Shane had the day before. He yawned and sat up, feeling better for the extra sleep. “How did your day with Papa go,” Rick asked as he lifted Daryl out of the crib.

“We played on the swings,” Daryl told him, excited even though he wasn’t fully awake yet. “The slide is my favorite.”

“Is it,” Rick asked. Daryl nodded. “And you met Mr. Horvath today. Papa said you did very good.”

Daryl just shrugged. “He ain’t so bad. He prolly likes havin’ someone to talk to.” He rubbed at his eye as Rick settled him down for another change. Daryl didn’t know if this would ever get easier but he knew he didn’t have to make it harder than it already was.

“I imagine he does,” Rick answered. “Papa talked to Herschel while you were sleeping.”

Daryl perked up quickly at that. “What did he say?”

“Well you’ll have to ask Papa that, won’t you?” Rick smiled and lifted Daryl up again. He carried him on his hip down the stairs. Shane was at the counter, unloading bags piled on the counter. They were full of food and Daryl figured Rick must have stopped at the grocery store before coming home.

“Look who’s up, Papa,” Rick said with a smile. Shane turned with one of his own.

“Hey. You sleep good, Puppy?”

Daryl nodded, grabbing onto Shane’s sleeve when he was close enough. “When can we go to the farm?”

Shane and Rick shared a laugh at his obvious excitement. “Well, Daddy and I have Saturday off. We go up and make a day of it, how does that sound?”

Daryl nodded enthusiastically. “I wanna ride a horse. A real one. Can I?”

“I think that can be arranged,” Rick told him. “You can meet Herschel too. And his daughters Maggie and Beth. They’re so excited to see you. And they’re very nice, just like Mr. Horvath.”

The meeting people didn’t sound as exciting but he decided the horses were worth it.

“Don’t worry,” Shane told him. “Pupper can come too. Will that help?”

Daryl’s stomach dropped. His heart skipped a beat and he looked to the back door. It was pouring rain outside. It was falling in buckets and the wind was blowing hard enough to bend the treetops.

“Oh no!” Daryl fought to get down, running for the glass and trying to slide it open.

“Daryl! What are you doing!” Rick caught up to him, pushing it back shut and flipping the lock. “It’s storming out. And you can’t just run off out of the house without us.”

“But he’s out there,” Daryl shouted, still trying to pull on the door. “He’s out there! I left him all alone!”

“Calm down, bud,” Shane said, pulling Daryl away from the door and hugging him from behind. Rick moved in front of him, trying to catch his frantic, tearing eyes.

“Who, baby? Who’s out there?”

“Pupper!” Daryl started to cry then. How could he have forgotten him? How could he ever leave him behind? “I left em in the clubhouse! He’s alone and scared! I gotta get him!”

Rick and Shane shared a look, Rick sighing and turning to the door. It was really coming down hard. “Are you sure that’s where he is?”

Daryl nodded. It was the only place he could be. Rick visibly steeled himself, preparing. Finally, he unlocked the sliding door and threw it open, running through the yard as fast as he could.

Shane held their distraught boy, finger combing his hair and reassuring him. “Daddy’s got it. Pupper’s gonna be just fine. Promise.” But Daryl was still so upset that he’d forgotten him at all. He’d forgotten something as important as Pupper.

Before he had time to worry if he’d maybe blown away, Rick was coming down the ladder. He ran back to the house, arms empty and Daryl started to cry harder. Pupper must have blown away. He was gone and it was all Daryl’s fault. Door sliding shut behind him, Rick shivered. He was soaked to the bone in the short time he’d been out there.

“Sorry, bug.” Rick huffed and unzipped his jacket. Daryl sobbed. “Hey,” Rick said softly, reaching out to rub his back. “It’s okay. A trip through the wash and he’ll be good as new. Nothin’ to be upset about.”

The wash? Daryl opened his eyes and in Rick’s hand, limp and dripping and spotted with mud and stray leaves, was Pupper. Daryl reached out for him, hugging the wet thing to him without hesitation. “Pupper,” he sobbed. “I thought you was gone. I won’t leave ya ever again. I promise.”

Rick and Shane both sighed in relief. They were lucky it hadn’t blown away with the mind as hard as it was. But while Pupper was safe, he was filthy. They gave Daryl a few more seconds to calm down and reunite with his lovey before they interrupted. “Come on, baby,” Rick coaxed. “Let’s put him in the wash, now. He’ll be clean and ready in time for bed.”

Daryl nodded. He followed Rick to the laundry room and sat there, watching as Pupper went through the washing machine. Maybe it was easier to forget someone or something that you loved than Daryl thought. It had been an accident but he’d still left Pupper behind. It made Daryl start thinking. He thought about Merle. Would Merle forget him while he was in prison? Would Daryl forget Merle now that he had Rick and Shane? That couldn’t happen. Daryl couldn’t let it happen. Who knew how long he would have Merle? He was sure Dale didn’t think he would lose Irma so soon.

Rick came in to get Daryl when dinner was ready, promising him he could go back and check on Pupper after he ate. He was quiet as he sat in his high chair. Quiet as Rick and Shane talked. Daryl was lost in thought. So lost he didn’t realize he’d even spoken the quiet “Papa? Daddy?” until he had Rick and Shane’s attention on him. He hadn’t meant to say it and he didn’t know if he should finish. But they were looking at him expectantly and all he could think of was Dale and Irma and Merle and how he didn’t want to forget or be forgotten and-

“I wanna see my brother.”

Chapter Text

Daryl worried at the satin along the edges of pupper, his leg going a mile a minute as he sat on the sofa between his daddies. He felt like his heart would burst or he would start crying all at once.

“Wanna go home,” he near whimpered.

Rick reached up to brush his hair back, carding his fingers through it to try and sooth the boy. “I know, sweetheart. We will. As soon as we’re done here.”

Daryl looked up at the clock on the wall. Just two minutes until the big door would open and he felt the urge to run deep in his bones.

“It’s alright, Puppy,” Shane told him. “All you gotta do is talk. Just tell the truth.”

“Please. I won’t say it again,” he begged. “I won’t talk about it no more. I’ll be good. Promise.”

“Daryl, this isn’t a punishment.” Rick dipped his head, trying to meet Daryl’s eyes but he kept his gaze down. “Baby, you are not in trouble, okay? You didn’t do anything wrong. Papa and I understand.”

“We just wanna make sure that you’ll be okay if we do this,” Shane explained. “We wanna make sure you’re in a good place to take that step so we know seeing him won’t undo all the progress you’ve made. We need to know this isn’t gonna do more harm than good.”

Daryl didn’t like doctors. Especially not this kind. He remembered coming to one once or twice after his mom died. He was in one of his brief stays in foster care at the time. The waiting rooms always smelled good with soft lighting and music that was supposed to help you feel calm. They acted really friendly and nice, like they cared about you, but even when he finally caved and admitted everything to one, he’d still gone right back to his Pa. They didn’t help. They never helped. And telling them only got you beat worse than before for being a narc. He didn’t want to do this. All he wanted was to see his brother. Why did he have to see one of these people to do that?

“Tummy feels funny,” he whined.

“I know, bud.” Shane rubbed his back. “All you gotta do is talk. That’s it.”

“Daryl?”

His head shot up as a woman came out holding a clipboard. She didn’t look like any doctor he’d ever seen before. Her hair was in dreads, a bandana keeping them out of her face. She wore fancy looking gray dress pants but her shoes were flats and she had just a plain, white, V-neck T Shirt with it, her arms full of bangles. Her smile was kind, eyes warm as she waved him back. He looked to Rick, then Shane, waiting for at least one of them to get up.

“Go on,” Rick encouraged, nudging him forward instead. “We’ll be right here waiting.”

Daryl didn’t want to go alone. He didn’t know this lady. He didn’t know this place. But she was waiting and neither of his daddies were moving to follow. So he went on his own, feeling sicker than before. The woman led him back to a second room, closing the door behind them. It was different than the other feeling-doctors he’d been to. The offices had always been cold and clinical with leather sofas and people in suits staring at him as they sat in their armchairs and asked him questions. This office was welcoming and familiar. She had a little table in the middle of the room, toys and crayons and books, puzzles. It was almost like the meet and greet room at the center and that nice smell from the waiting room was here too.

“Hi, Daryl,” she addressed him. “My name is Michonne. Do you wanna come and sit with me?”

Daryl shrugged, hugging pupper tighter. She brought him over to the table, sitting on the floor and patting the spot across from her. “Don’t worry. I don’t bite.”

Sitting cross legged on the floor, Daryl stared at the table top as he hunched and tried to make himself small.

“I like your puppy friend there,” Michonne complimented.

He looked down at pupper then glanced up at her before reverting back to the spot on the table. It was chipped there, the black core showing through the divot and he wondered idly how it happened. “Fank ya.”

“Your daddies said you like to draw pictures. Is that true?” Daryl shrugged again. “Can you draw something for me?”

He was hesitant, not sure where this was going. Shane and Rick said he had to talk but she wanted him to color? Well, if that’s what she wanted then they couldn’t get upset. Pictures were easier than words anyway. Looking up at her through the curtain of his hair, he nodded. She gave him another broad smile like the one she had when she’d called his name in the waiting room.

“I’ve got some crayons and a stack of paper right here,” she told him, sliding the mentioned items toward him. “How about your family. The one before your daddies. Can you draw a picture of them for me?”

Daryl didn’t want to. He didn’t like to think about them. It was too hard. He gave a quiet whine, shying away from the items.

“That’s okay. We can try something else. What about your favorite thing in the whole world. What does that look like?”

She was so calm and she didn’t seem at all disappointed or angry about the first picture. Daryl thought about it and pulled a black crayon out of the box. He was careful, outlining the white as best he could before coloring in all the black parts. It took a few minutes but when he was finished he handed the paper over to Michonne.

She took it and looked over the simple image, nodding to herself. “That’s your vest, right?”

Daryl nodded. Papa and Daddy must have told her about that too.

“And that’s your favorite thing in the whole world, huh? Can you tell me why it’s so special?”

Daryl shrugged, looking down at his lap again and playing with Pupper’s ears. “Was Merle’s. He gave it to me.”

“Is Merle your brother’s name,” she asked. Daryl nodded. “Well I think that is one sweet statement piece.” Michonne grinned at him and Daryl couldn’t help a small laugh. “Did he give you a lot of good presents like that?”

Daryl shook his head. “Only ever got two,” he told her. “The vest was ‘cuz he got a new one and he knew I liked that one. And one year he saved up from his job and got me a crossbow for my birthday.”

“Wow. That sounds pretty cool too,” Michonne said. “What about your parents? Did they ever give you presents?”

Daryl shook his head. “Never had the money. Pa always spent it all on beer and...Mama weren’t around long enough.”

“But Merle saved up his own money to get you something like that?”

Daryl nodded. “He couldn’t get presents usually. But he would take me to the IHOP for breakfast on my birthday and we’d spend the whole day fishin’ just us.”

Michonne gave a soft smile. “Did you spend a lot of time with your brother?”

“Sometimes,” Daryl said softly. “When he weren’t in juvie or out on a bender. When I was bigger though, he’d take me too. We would go wherever we wanted. He took me to the swimmin’ hole one time? And we stayed for two whole days. Then he gave me a piggy back home.”

“That sounds really fun,” Michonne agreed. “Can you draw me something like that? Something you and your brother used to do?”

That was easy enough. Daryl thought it over and started to draw.

It was an entire hour of drawing and intermittent conversation before they were finished. Michonne had looked over all of his pictures and asked questions. Daryl answered as best he could but there were still things he wasn’t able to say. When all was said and done, Michonne stood, putting his drawings in a folder.

“It’s been a lot of fun talking with you, Daryl,” she told him. “Why don’t you stay here while I go and tell your daddies how good you did? You can pick out whatever you want to play with.”

Daryl didn’t want to be alone but he nodded anyway. If he was good his daddies might let him see Merle so he had to do what Michonne said. So Daryl stayed put.

---------

Shane and Rick sat across the desk from Michonne, the three of them able to see Daryl in the next office through a one way window. Rick had his eyes fixed on the boy who looked so lost on his own and wanted to go in and just hold him. But they needed to have this conversation and it was best Daryl wasn’t present.

“Well, it’s definitely one of the more complicated cases I’ve had,” Michonne told them, leafing through the pages of drawings Daryl had made at her request. She laid out all the ones that had Daryl’s old house in them. “Tell me what you notice.”

The pair of them looked over the drawings, Shane being the first to speak up. “All the windows are shaded in.”

“Exactly,” she answered, nodding. “That’s typically an indication that there’s depression or hopelessness there. Home was somewhere he felt negatively about.”

Rick studied the drawings as well, pointing out one where Daryl and Merle were out front of the house. “Merle looks angry in this one,” he said. “But Daryl just looks blank.”

Michonne nodded again at the observation. “Merle’s eyebrows are furrowed and angry but both of their mouths are straight lines. It can indicate that they felt silenced, like they couldn’t talk about what was happening to them and while Daryl numbed himself to it, Merle’s reaction was anger and frustration.”

She pulled out the pictures of people next, showing them to the men. “These are the pictures he drew of his brother,” she indicated two on left, “and this is when I asked him to draw his family now. We can see a lot of mixed signals here. He told me the first one was when his brother taught him ‘how to scrap’.” She made air quotes around the phrase, using Daryl’s words. “He drew himself frowning and Merle has exaggeratedly sharp teeth and an angry expression. This tells us that in some capacity he’s afraid of his brother. He sees him as an aggressor.”

Pointing to the next picture, the scene was happier. The crude human drawings were on a boat, fishing lines in the water. “Here we see them doing something together. Both of them are smiling. There’s bright colors. It’s an indication of very positive feelings and a closeness to Merle. Then,” she pointed to the most recent picture. “When I asked him to draw his family now, he drew things much differently. The windows of the house are bright. Everyone is smiling and the three of you are standing together. But then he drew this darker building in the background with bars on the windows.”

“For Merle,” Rick answered. “In prison.”

Michonne nodded. “Exactly. While his relationship with his brother has been both positive and negative, he feels incomplete without that relationship. They were close. From what Daryl’s told me, Merle was the closest thing he ever got to a guardian. That connection, imperfect as it is, is important to him.”

“So you’re sayin’ we need to let him see Merle,” Shane summed up with a nod. He still felt conflicted about it. They knew what Merle’s feelings about their family would be from the way Daryl had talked and felt when he first came to them. There was a very real chance of everything they’d accomplished with him unraveling with how much his brother’s opinion mattered to him.

“Maybe not so soon,” Michonne told them. “Throwing him into the deep end won’t help anyone and if that’s the route you choose I would advise you to take things slowly. I don’t doubt he could be very happy with you both and never having contact with Merle again. But it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of hurt and he probably won’t ever be fully settled. However, if Merle can be involved in a supportive and positive way, it could make a world of difference toward building his confidence. If you choose to give him the opportunity, just remember that, while it doesn’t excuse his actions and the decisions he’s made, Merle is a victim too.”

Rick and Shane looked to each other. They had a lot to think about.

-----------

Daryl looked up as the door opened and Michonne came in, Rick and Shane waiting just behind her. “We’re all done now,” she told Daryl. “I had fun hanging out with you today, Daryl. You should come see me again soon.”

Daryl wasn’t sure about that. It hadn’t been awful. It had actually been kind of...good. Daryl didn’t know why. He just drew pictures and talked. It didn’t make sense to him how, but it made him feel better. He got to his feet and nodded. Shane and Rick waved him over and he went to them. They thanked Michonne and said their goodbyes before heading out the way they’d come.

“You did such a good job, Puppy,” Shane praised, taking Daryl’s hand as they crossed the parking lot. Daryl didn’t like holding hands where everyone could see but his daddies made it clear holding hands where there was traffic was not optional.

“Yes you did,” Rick told him, opening the door to the van for Daryl to climb in. “We’re proud of you.”

Daryl just shrugged as he was strapped into his seat. He hadn’t done anything special. But knowing that his daddies were proud of him made him feel fuzzy and warm inside. He liked that his daddies were proud.

“Can we go home now,” he asked as the two of them got in up front. He’d had enough excitement for one day and all he wanted to do was cuddle up with his daddies and watch cartoons.

“We sure can.” Shane turned in the passenger’s seat to face Daryl. “But first, I think someone earned themselves McDonald’s for lunch.”

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

Daryl was curled on the couch between Rick and Shane, happily slurping down milkshake as the three of them watched the new movie Daryl had gotten to pick. If this was what seeing a therapist got him, Daryl would go everyday. He giggled as the big bat started shouting and spouting nonsense at all the fairies gathered in the tree. “He’s funny.”

Shane and Rick had smiles of their own at seeing Daryl like this. It seemed like the session with Michonne had done him good in more ways than one. He wasn’t even trying to hide how much he was enjoying the movie, just letting himself have the experience. It was as if just a little of the weight he carried with him was lifted, leaving him lighter and happier. Shane couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t thought to try it sooner.

“Yeah. Batty was always my favorite,” Shane agreed.

“I liked Zack,” Rick answered. “Probably should’ve been my first clue, huh?”

Shane smirked at his husband over Daryl’s head. “You sayin’ you want me to go blonde?”

Rick snorted. “I think you have enough fun already.”

“But imagine how much more fun havin’ a blonde could be for you.” Shane’s voice had dropped to a growl, his signature grin plastered on. Rick shook his head at him with a huff of amusement. “Come on,” Shane teased. “Think about it. Just for a minute.” He leaned closer to Rick as he spoke and Rick gave in, rolling his eyes before he leaned in for a kiss.

“Yuck,” Daryl complained, slinking off the couch onto the floor.

Shane looked down at their boy with a snort. “What’s your problem?”

“Don’t want y’all droolin’ on my head when I’m tryna watch,” he complained. “Sides, s’how you get that momo stuff.”

That had Shane confused but, beside him, Rick was shaking with barely contained laughter. He looked at his husband questioningly but Rick waved him off until he composed himself. “Daryl,” he forced out, his voice still wavering as he fought another wave of laughter. “Do you by any chance mean mono?”

The boy gave a grunt of agreement, eyes glued to the screen. Now Shane was laughing too. Daryl dropped his head back to pout at them both. “What? It’s the kissin’ bug. Everybody knows that.”

Rick wiped the corner of his eye, smiling as he spoke. “That’s right, bubba.”

“We ain’t laughin’ at you,” Shane told him when the boy continued to sulk. “We’re laughin’ because it was cute.”

Daryl mumbled something along the lines of only girls being cute and turned back to the movie. Seeing Daryl open and comfortable only had Rick and Shane more worried about the possibility of bringing Merle back into the picture. Michonne had said it could be good for him and it was important to Daryl. It was reason enough to explore it. It was going to take planning and a lot of discussions on their part. When Daryl was safely tucked in bed that night, they sat together at the kitchen table to talk it through.

“I know we have to give this a chance for Daryl’s sake,” Rick said. “But you heard what she told us. Merle’s hurt him too. What if he’s responsible for some of those marks?”

Shane shook his head. “I don’t think so. He may have taken some of it out on Daryl but I don’t think he ever hurt him the way their old man went after ‘em. That don’t excuse it but I can understand the frustration.”

Rick sighed, rubbing at his forehead. “It doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re tired of the violence how does more violence help?”

Shane was quiet for a moment, staring at Rick’s free hand where it lay on the table. He laid his own over it and sighed. “Do you remember right after my Mama...passed?”

Rick’s expression turned solemn. How could he forget? A 3AM phone call their junior year, flying to Shane’s house to see him sitting on the back of a fire truck in a blanket, so out of it he hadn’t even known Shane was there. He hadn’t seen anything but he knew from the police report that she had overdosed. And Shane had been the one to find her. The woman hadn’t been the same since her husband abandoned them. She had been battling depression since Shane was in grade school and while her son had done his best to do right by her and help her get better, the darkness eventually won out. He nodded.

“And do you remember how I acted,” Shane asked. It had been such a drastic change. Shane had come to live with Rick and his family and the Shane they knew, the goofball who always had a grin on his face and a joke to make, was missing. In his place was a young man who was wounded and irritable and would rather lock himself away from the world. He would snap and yell at any of them, stopped going to his job, he shut down. “I was angry and hurt and I felt like she gave up on me. I felt like she abandoned me or that I could have done more. I felt helpless. It doesn’t make any sense that I’d lash out on the only people in the world I had left that I cared about. At the time, to my messed up head, it made plenty of sense. Pretend you don’t care, don’t get attached and you won’t get hurt.” He lifted his head to meet Rick’s eyes, guilt for how he’d acted still lingering there after all these years. “Trauma has a way of shutting down what’s rational. We see it as trying to fix violence by spreading it but to Merle? It probably felt like control. He may have even thought he was helpin’ Daryl for all we know. It doesn’t excuse it but I can understand why it happened.”

Rick turned his hand palm up, grasping Shane’s and giving a comforting squeeze. “He’s a victim too,” he said, repeating Michonne’s advice. “But we can’t let him around Daryl if he’s just gonna keep using him as punching bag. Emotional or physical.”

“That I agree on.” Shane brushed his thumb over Rick’s hand. “Like she told us, we can take it slow. I say we talk to him. Tell him Daryl wants him in his life and we’re willing to allow it but on our terms.”

“The first of which being none of that anti regressive propaganda,” Rick nearly sneered. Shane nodded. “And if he ever raises a hand to Daryl it’s done. No second chances on that front.”

Again, Shane agreed. “And it goes at our pace. He doesn’t see Merle face to face until we decide he’s ready.”

The two of them discussed the details, trying to be sure there was no opening for Merle to do damage if he wanted to stay involved. They had plenty of phone calls to make.

Chapter Text

“Cows!”

Daryl pointed out the window of the car excitedly as they passed a field full of dairy cows grazing. They were all different colors, some of them lifting their heads lazily to watch them pass by. “That’s right,” Rick answered. “Those are the cows our milk comes from.”

Daryl watched them all, turning in his carseat to keep sight of them as long as he could. They'd long passed the closely clustered houses and scattered businesses of the city, leaving them behind for unlined pavement, dirt roads and open, country air. It felt like it was taking forever to get there but there were so many new things to see that Daryl didn't really mind. So far they'd passed the cows, horses, some giant rolls of hay and a cornfield. Daryl had never seen so much wide, open space. He was used to the forest and now their suburban neighborhood where things were closer together. The fields were so spacious it made something in Daryl want to run through them just to see how far he could go. To feel the wind in his hair and the fresh air in his lungs. He couldn't wait to get to the farm.

“Are we there yet?”

“Almost, Puppy,” Shane laughed. “You see this field up here on the left?” Daryl looked out, seeing a field full of even more cows. “That's Herschel's. We should be comin’ up on the mailbox in a few more minutes.”

Daryl watched eagerly as they passed the spotty, black and white, brown and white and some just brown cows. It took longer than he would have liked for them to come up on the mailbox like Papa promised but there it was. They turned onto the dirt road, taking it all the way back to a big, plantation style house.

Daryl looked up at the house, suddenly remembering there were people here. He'd been so excited about the animals that he forgot he would have to meet new people too. Daryl shrunk back into his seat. “I wanna go home,” he said softly.

“What? Daryl, we didn't even get out yet,” Rick told him. “Don't you wanna see the horses?”

“Yeah,” he whispered.

“Then what's wrong, bud,” Shane asked.

Daryl bit his lip, holding Pupper tight. “Tummy feels funny.”

Rick and Shane softened, knowing by now what that meant. They had expected the nerves to show up sooner or later as they always did when Daryl had to meet new people.

“It's alright, bubba. Everyone's excited to meet you.” Rick reached back to lay a hand on Daryl's knee, squeezing gently. “They're all very nice. Just remember your manners and take your time.”

Daryl was still worried. What if they didn't like him? Or what if they made fun of him?

“You need a minute before we go in,” Shane asked. Daryl shook his head. Best to get it over with. Rick and Shane were skeptical but they took Daryl at his word and started to get out. They came to the back to get Daryl out and as Shane unbuckled him he spoke. “This might be a lot for you. If you need a break just let me or Daddy know. We don't have to do everything in one day and nobody's gonna be mad.”

Daryl fiddled with Pupper’s edges, looking up at Shane through his lashes. “Promise?”

“Cross my heart,” Shane answered, tracing an x over his chest with a finger and smiling to his boy.

The knot in Daryl’s stomach loosened just a bit. He felt a lot better knowing he had an out if he needed it. He could just tell his daddies and they would take him home and not be mad at him. He slipped from the van to the gravel outside and took Rick's hand while Shane got the diaper bag. He had Pupper tucked safely in the crook of his other arm and his teeth worried at his lower lip until Shane gently tugged it free. He gave Daryl one of his pacifiers instead and while it made Daryl's stomach twist to think of these new people seeing him with it, the comfort it gave him was winning out.

“Come on, sweetheart,” Rick told him with an encouraging smile. “Let's go say hello.”

Daryl stuck to Rick like glue as they made their way around to the back door. Just the screen door was closed, letting them see inside. “Hey, hey,” Shane called as they approached. A blonde girl, no older than sixteen came running to let them in.

“Rick! Shane!” She smiled wide and hugged them both tight. “I was startin’ to think someone would have to die to get you two back out here.”

“Nah. Nothin’ that drastic,” Shane told her. “How’s the boyfriend?”

She rolled her eyes with a huff, crossing her arms over her chest. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

Shane and Rick laughed as the old tease got her riled. Rick squeezed Daryl’s hand, getting his attention and nodding to the girl in front of them. “Daryl, this is Beth. She’s Herschel’s youngest daughter.”

Beth smiled kindly at him, excitement sparkling in her blue eyes. “Hi, Daryl,” she greeted. “We’re all so excited to meet you. You’re Daddies waited a long time find you.”

Daryl hid behind Rick, sucking harder on his pacifier. “It’s alright.” Shane nudged him forward. “Say hello.” Daryl looked at his Daddies nervously, then back to Beth. She was still smiling at him and letting him take his time.

“Hi,” Daryl finally said softly, wringing pupper between his hands. Rick and Shane smiled approvingly at him.

“So where’s your dad at,” Rick asked. Daryl was happy to have the focus off of him for the moment and melted back in behind his Daddies. This time they let him.

“He’s upstairs. I’ll go get him. We pulled some of our old toys out of the attic if you want to play with them, Daryl.” Shane thanked her and she went up to let her father know they had company while they took Daryl into the living room.

The place was old and it showed in the craftsmanship. The living room and dining room were connected in one big, open space. The floors were all hardwood and uneven in places from decades of wear, old fashioned rugs strategically placed throughout where there was the most foot traffic or where people would sit. The furniture looked like it had been here since the house was built though it seemed to have been reupholstered a few times. There was a large, china cabinet in the dining room and a sturdy looking, oak table with matching chairs. Through the entryway, you could just see into the kitchen with a farmhouse sink and pastel green cabinets. It was homey with its own country charm and everything had the smell of fresh air and upturned earth.

There was a big, wicker basket placed in the middle of the sitting room full of things to play with just like Beth had promised. Rick led Daryl over and sat him down in front of it. “Go ahead, bubba. See if you can find anything good in there.”

That, Daryl could do. He started looking through the basket, finding all sorts of things. There were colorful cups that stacked together, some little, plastic, counting bears like they had at the center, a toy phone and a duck on a pull string. It was a treasure trove of neat, old things and Daryl was intrigued. He decided the linkin’ logs were the place to start and set to work building a house from them.

Slow, uneven footsteps made their way down the stairs and Daryl looked up from his project. An elderly man was making his way down with the help of Beth and a cane. This had to be Herschel, the man who owned the farm. He was clean shaven and stern looking, the kind of man that Daryl would avoid when he was growing up who would shake their fists and tell him what a no good waste of space he was just because he was a Dixon. He shrunk in on himself, turning his attention fixedly back on his toy and hoping the man wouldn't notice him.

“Well. We were beginning to think you boys had gone missing on us,” he heard the man say, his voice raspy with age but surprisingly pleasant to Daryl's ears.

“Naw. You ain't gettin’ rid of us that easy,” Shane said. Daryl looked up as his papa stood and gave the man a one armed hug before moving aside to let Rick do the same.

“You know how it is with kids,” Rick told Herschel. “He's a little shy. We wanted to let him get comfortable before we started taking him places.”

Herschel looked at Daryl and the boy couldn't help but flinch at the attention. “Hello, Daryl. I hear you're very excited to meet my horses.”

The man spoke fondly to Daryl as if he was talking to a grandchild and his gaze was soft despite the man's strict appearance.

“Yes, sir,” Daryl answered softly.

Herschel laughed quietly and took a seat on the sofa in front of Daryl. “There's no need for formalities. I've known your fathers since they were pups just putting on their uniforms. You can call me Herschel.”

Daryl nodded. “Okay Mr. Herschel.” He was still reluctant to give up the honorific, not wanting to be disrespectful. The old man only smiled, seeming amused by the new title even more.

“Well, once Abraham finishes up his morning rounds he'll be happy to get the three of you saddled up. There's plenty of trails around here and he knows them like the back of his hand.” Daryl nodded, his tummy twisting at the thought of more new people but still excited to see and ride his first horse.

The four of them started to talk and Daryl went back to building his house, happy to be ignored. He listened to the conversation though. Maggie, Herschel's oldest, and her husband Glenn would be stopping by later. One of the cows had calfed earlier in the week. Beth tried slipping talk of a dog into the conversation only to be shut down gently by her father.

“Beau is enough, Beth.”

“But he's not ours,” the blonde girl pouted.

Daryl stopped following along somewhere after his daddies asked Beth about college. Figuring out how to put a chimney on his house was much more important. The calm was interrupted by the roar of an old truck pulling up. Daryl quickly covered his ears when there was a loud pop, his heart thumping in his chest.

“Jesus. He ain't fixed that yet,” Shane asked, he and Rick seeming just as startled by the sudden sound.

Herschel laughed. “You know him. He won't stop until he kills that old thing.”

The engine sputtered and stopped and there was the creak of a squeaky door followed by the slam of it shutting again. The screen door opened and a dog came barreling inside. It’s fur was a salt and pepper color with black freckles and brown patches. His ears were straight up and his tail wagged wildly as he ran up to Rick. The dog sat obediently at the man’s feet but his trembling body belied his excitement. Rick laughed and scratched behind the dog’s ears.

“Hello, Beau. I missed you too.”

Beau took that as permission and immediately flopped onto his side for a belly rub. Daryl watched, smiling around his pacifier as the dog’s leg started kicking wildly when Rick scratched just the right spot. He crawled closer and sat beside the pup.

“Hi, Beau,” he said happily. The dog lifted his head at the unfamiliar voice. He looked Daryl over, one ear pricked up and rolled to his belly to sniff at the new human. Daryl giggled as the dog’s breath tickled over his hair and face and down to his belly. When the animal started giving him wet kisses the baby laughed even harder and pushed his head gently away.

“So this is your boy then,” a man’s voice boomed. Daryl flinched away from the loud, deep sound of it. When he looked up, there stood one of the most intimidating looking men Daryl had ever laid eyes on. He was tall and muscular. His hair and mustache were flaming red and he had this air about him that made Daryl uncomfortable. There was a militaristic vibe about him, commanding and stony. Beau whined and nudged at Daryl’s belly, noticing the change in the boy.

“Daryl, this is Abraham,” Shane told him. “He works on Herschel’s farm and he’s gonna take us to see the horses.”

Daryl whimpered and hid himself behind Shane’s leg.

“Come on, bud. Say hello.”

Abraham snorted. “You city people. Too good to say hi to a farm hand like me.”

He sounded angry and Daryl clutched tighter at his papa’s pant leg. He was more afraid when Shane laughed. “Maybe if ya didn’t smell like the cow pasture we’d be more inclined.” Daryl flashed wide eyes up to the big man, worried his papa was going to get punched right in front of him.

Instead of swinging, Abraham let out a loud bark of a laugh that made Daryl startle again. Daryl didn’t think he liked Abraham very much.

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

After some more conversation, most of which Daryl ignored in favor of playing with Beau, they were finally making their way to the barn. Daryl and his daddies got to ride in the bed of the truck which Daryl thought was the best thing ever. It was fun to feel the bumps in the dirt road and the wind in his hair and, more importantly, it meant he didn’t have to sit right next to Abraham. Shane and Rick pointed out different animals to them as they passed them. The truck backfired violently as they passed the goat pen and Daryl’s eyes went wide as several of them went stiff and flopped onto their sides. He looked over at Shane.

“Told ya so,” he shouted over the engine, laughing at Daryl’s amazed look.

They pulled up to the stables and Daryl could hear the sounds of the horses. His eyes lit up like Christmas had come early. “Horses!”

“That’s right, bud,” Rick told him. Abe came around to the back and dropped the tailgate.

“Alright. Everybody out. The girls are gettin’ impatient.”

Rick slid out first and took Daryl’s hand to help him down. He looked at Abraham out of the corner of his eye and glanced away quickly. They didn’t seem to notice as Shane jumped down and dusted off the seat of his pants.

“Who’d you pick out for us,” Shane asked.

“We got a foster who just came in.” Abraham led the way into the stable, Beau hot on his heels. “She’s real gentle though. We’ve had Beth and Mags take her around a few times. And of course, we got Miss Tilly. You’re gonna have to win her favor again, Rick. You been gone too long.”

Daryl stayed close to Rick and Shane. Once they entered the barn, there was a loud braying. A blue roan with a white blaze on its face tossed its head and pawed at the ground.

“Same old Gambit,” Shane said, shaking his head fondly.

The next stall housed a gorgeous bay mare. She tossed her head and nickered at Rick’s approach as if offended by his presence. “Aw, come on now, sweetheart,” he said softly and reached out to stroke down her nose. Daryl watched his Daddy pet the horse as if it were nothing more than any other pet. But they were so big! Daryl had known horses weren’t exactly house pets but seeing one in person really put their size in perspective.

“You wanna go say hi to Tilly,” Shane asked. Daryl bit his lip. He did want to say hi but he was nervous.

A puff of hot air blew Daryl’s hair into his face and he startled. He pressed against Shane and turned to look wide eyed at the mare in the stall beside him. Big, brown eyes stared back at him, framed by dark lashes. She nickered softly at him and Daryl could only watch in wonder.

“I think she likes you,” Shane told him. “You wanna pet her?”

Daryl’s eyes stayed locked on the pretty, chestnut and he nodded. His Papa’s hand covered his own and he brought it up slow and easy, laying it against her forehead and guiding it down to her soft muzzle. Daryl was in awe of this giant, gentle creature. He continued to pet her even when Shane’s hand left his.

“Pretty,” he said softly. She whuffled at him, dropping her head to butt against him gently. He felt a tug on his shirt and her lips moving against his belly and he jumped. “Hey!” He tugged his shirt back from her and, startled by the noise, she trotted off to the back of the stall.

“You scared her, bubba,” Rick told him with a disapproving look.

“But she was eatin’ me!” Daryl pulled his shirt down indignantly, patting down the wrinkles.

“She wasn’t eating you,” Rick soothed. “That’s how horses give kisses. Why don’t you try and get her to come back?”

Daryl didn’t know horses gave kisses. Now he felt bad for scaring her. She was trying to be nice and he yelled at her.

“M’sorry, horsey,” he called to her. The mare stayed put in the back of her stall, not trusting him enough to come back to the front. Daryl frowned. “She’s mad at me.”

The adults laughed and Abe reached into a pouch on his belt. All the horses seemed to perk up at the sound of the snap opening. “Hold out your hand, kid.”

Daryl looked at Abraham nervously but did as he was told. The man placed something small in his palm. The little, white cube didn’t look like much but all the horses seemed interested.

“Now keep your palm flat and let her come to you.” Abraham didn’t hesitate to lift Daryl so his feet were planted on the first wrung of the gate and he could get his arms over the top. Daryl clung to the rail for dear life, afraid Abe was going to put him straight in with her but he was left there on the bottom wrung.

The mare looked at him with interest and slowly, Daryl held his palm out to her. “Here you go,” he told her. “S’fer you.” The mare approached slowly. She watched Daryl closely as if anticipating another scare. When Daryl didn’t move or make a sound, she came the rest of the way. He lips moved against his hand as she took the sugar cube. Daryl couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re tickly,” he told her. Seemingly satisfied with the apology, she stayed and Daryl petted her nose again. “You’re pretty too.” The mare blew at him, ruffling his hair again and Daryl smile and blew back at her.

“Looks like you made a friend,” Shane said.

Daryl smiled. He liked having a horse friend.

“Well I guess that decides who’s ridin’ who.” Abraham opened the gate to the first stall and Gambit trotted up excitedly. “Let’s tack ‘em up and move ‘em out.”

Tacking up the horses was a process, Daryl soon realized. He thought you just put on a saddle and that was that. He had no idea about saddle blankets, bits, all the different straps and buckles. It looked like torture to him but the horses seemed unperturbed. Gambit and Tilly were all too eager and the chestnut was compliant.

“Alright, kiddo. All aboard.” Abraham, as Daryl was learning, was a very hands on kinda guy and he lifted Daryl up into the saddle. When the surprise wore off he couldn’t help but smile. He gave an excited little laugh and petted the horse’s neck.

Shane planted his left foot in the stirrup and swung himself up into the saddle behind Daryl. His arms bracketed Daryl as he picked up the reigns and he pressed a kiss to the boy’s cheek.

“You ready, puppy?”

“Yeah!” Daryl bounced slightly in the saddle and took hold of the saddle horn. “Come on, horsey. Let’s go.”

Shane chuckled softly. With a firm kick and a click of his tongue, the mare started forward out of the barn. Daryl giggled as the horse carried them along, bouncing in the saddle as she moved. Shane looped them around in front of the stables a few times while they waited for Rick and Abraham to join them. It wasn’t long before Rick was riding up beside them.

“Hey, cowboy,” he said, smiling at Shane. “You come here often?”

“Now I don’t think my husband would appreciate that kinda talk,” Shane answered with a grin of his own. The two of them leaned in for a kiss and Daryl rolled his eyes.

“Don’t be gross.”

The two of them separated with a laugh and Rick brushed the hair out of Daryl’s eyes.

“We need to get you a haircut soon,” he told Daryl. Daryl ducked the hand and shot a glare at his Daddy. His hair was just fine the way it was.

“Alright,” Abraham called, riding out on Gambit. “Let’s hit the trails. This girly’s gettin’ antsy.” As if to prove his point, Gambit nickered and pawed at the dirt.

Abraham went out ahead of them, Shane and Daryl following next with Rick and Tilly bringing up the rear. They walked along the main road until they came to the treeline where open paths turned to deer trails. A feeling of rightness settled over Daryl as they went deeper and they were swallowed up by the forest. This was familiar. He’d been raised in the wilderness, working for everything he had, outsmarting his next meal. His eyes and ears tuned in to everything around them. The singing of birds, tinier trails in the brush made by its small inhabitants, the spring of grass as something darted away with their approach, it was like he’d never left.

His eyes caught a squirrel clinging to the trunk of a tree not far away from them. On reflex, his arm moved to his back only to come in contact with nothing.

“You okay bud,” Shane asked, Daryl’s sudden silence having caught his attention.

“Yeah,” he said quietly. “M’okay. Just forgot I don’t have my bow no more.” He brought his thumb to his lips in the old habit, not having anything to distract him from the missing weight in his hands.

“What would you need it for,” Shane asked. “You got all the food you could ever eat now, remember?”

Daryl nodded. The fridge was never empty living with his Daddy and Papa. All he ever had to do was ask and he’d get his belly filled. There was no need to hunt anymore. It was just that he didn’t know what else to do with himself here if he wasn’t trying to catch something.

“So that means you can just watch all the animals for fun now, right?” Shane laid his chin on Daryl’s shoulder and pointed ahead of them. Now Daryl could see that there were two of them. Their bushy tails flicked as they watched each other. When one finally moved, the other took off and they were running around the tree trunk chasing each other.

“They’re playin’,” Daryl realized with a smile.

“That’s right,” Shane told him. “And you wouldn’t have seen that if you were huntin’ them. Huntin’ can be fun but sometimes just watchin’ is fun too.”

They rode along, Daryl now keeping an eye out for all the fun and interesting things to see out here. He spotted a bird’s nest and some rabbits that darted away when the horses came tromping through. There were deer grazing a ways off from the trail that looked up and just stared at them as they passed. He even got to see a fox. The sun was beautiful as it filtered through the leaves and branches. Flowers and moss grew here and there. Daryl, of course, made sure to point these things out to everyone else as well.

“Can we see the baby cow when we get back,” Daryl asked.

“Course we can. And if you ask real nice, Abraham might even let you feed her a bottle.”

Daryl looked at the back of the man ahead of them. He didn’t know about that. What if Abraham got mad? What if he was mean? Daryl wasn’t sure Abraham liked him all that much and he didn’t know if he liked Abraham either. The man was always so loud and serious. It was hard for Daryl to read him and that made him even more nervous. They were coming up on a break in the trees that gave way to a wide open field.

“Up here’s where we’ll turn around and head back,” Abe called over his shoulder.

Shane ruffled Daryl’s hair. “There we go, bud. You’ll get to see the baby cow.”

Daryl smiled and leaned back against his Papa, ready to enjoy the rest of the ride. Truth be told, he was starting to get a little sleepy from the leisurely pace and sounds of nature. As nice as it was to listen to, there was one sound that you never wanted to hear. He heard the rattle just before he saw the coil beside the path.

“Papa,” he shouted but that was all he could get out. The mare had noticed it just as quickly as he had. Her eyes went wide and, with a scream, she reared.

Daryl hugged around her neck on instinct, giving his own scream of fear. Shane, caught completely off guard, cried out as he was bucked off and hit the ground.

“Shane,” Rick called out in alarm, quickly dismounting his own horse and running to pull his husband away from the mare’s stomping hooves.

She pawed the air frantically before she hit the ground running. Daryl clung to her mane as she took off at a sprint. Rick and Shane shouted his name as he was carried off with no idea how to make it stop. His face was buried against her, eyes clenched shut and heart pounding with fear. The wind whipped through his hair and he could feel her mane over his face.

The chestnut showed no signs of slowing. Her hooves thudded against the earth. Slowly, Daryl peeked one eye open. They were in the field. The horse was running through the open space at breakneck speed. Suddenly, the fear in his chest shifted. He lifted his head to look around. It felt like flying. Daryl carefully sat up and his face broke into a smile. In a burst of bravery, he threw his arms up and out to the side. It was exhilarating.

“Woohoo,” he called, grinning ear to ear.

There was a second set of hooves thundering up on his left. Abraham and Gambit were quickly gaining on them. They pulled up next to Daryl and the mare and, like something out of a movie, Abraham made the jump from one horse to the next. He quickly grabbed the reins and pulled back hard, the mare skidding to a stop.

“You okay kid,” Abraham asked, sounding unsettled. Daryl, however, was still riding the adrenaline high. He turned to Abraham with stars in his eyes.

“Again!”

Abraham looked at Daryl like he’d suddenly grown a second head. Then he broke into loud laughter. He ruffled Daryl’s hair and slid out of the saddle. He was lifting Daryl up and off when Rick and Shane caught up to them on foot. They were panting and out of breath and Rick went straight for Daryl.

“Are you okay,” he gasped, looking Daryl over for any injuries.

“Daddy, I flew,” Daryl told him excitedly. “She was goin’ so fast and I put my arms out like this!” The boy seemed oblivious to the paling of his Daddy’s face as he demonstrated exactly what he’d done. “Then Aberham was even faster and he jumped over! It was just like the cowboys on TV!”

“Well at least he’s not scared off horses for good,” Shane said, running a hand through his hair as he panted for breath.

“You got some kid there,” Abraham told them both. “And I think we finally got a name for the horse out of it too.”

After Rick and Shane got their bearings, they rounded up the other two horses who were grazing nearby as if nothing was amiss. They saddled up and headed back for the farm, this time with Daryl joining Rick on Tilly and Shane riding the newly named “Nervous Nelly”. Daryl was happy to tell everyone at the house about his adventure, talking animatedly through lunch. After a much needed nap, he got to meet the chickens, feed the newborn calf just like his Papa had promised and even got to hold a baby goat. The screaming match between it and Daryl would forever be Rick’s favorite video.

The sun was setting when they finally loaded up to head home. Daryl was reluctant to go and he was turned around in his carseat waving goodbye until he couldn’t see the house anymore.

“Can we go back tomorrow,” he asked as he turned to settle in for the ride.

“Maybe not tomorrow, bud,” Shane told him, in the driver’s seat this time. “But we’ll come back soon. Promise.”

Daryl nodded. In the front, Rick nudged Shane. He looked over and saw Rick holding up the phone. There was an email from the prison communications department.

Merle has expressed that he is open to speaking with you as long as it is in regards to gaining visitation with his brother. Please provide your contact information or schedule an appointment for visitation.

Shane looked up to Rick and nodded and Rick returned the gesture with a grimace.

“There’s the cows,” Daryl announced. Shane caught sight of him in the mirror and smiled.

“We see them bud.”

Chapter Text

Daryl sat on the sofa, watching his Daddies and trying his hardest not to cry. They moved around the house in a rush and called things to each other rapid fire.

“Did you check the emergency contact list?”

“Three times. There’s clean cups for him?”

“Plenty of them. Pacifiers. I forgot to put them around-”

“Already done.”

Daryl didn’t like this. He didn’t like it one bit. They were so busy getting ready it was like they didn’t even notice him. He held onto Pupper and his vest tightly. This was a double lovey kinda day. Rick came into the living room, buttoning up his shirt.

“I wanna go wif ya,” Daryl said, voice wobbling with the threat of tears.

“I know you do, sweetheart. But not this time,” Rick told him gently. “Papa and I have a very important meeting to go to.”

“But I’ll be good,” Daryl pleaded. “I’ll be quiet and sit real still and I won’t talk at all. I promise.”

Rick looked guiltily at him, kneeling in front of Daryl to give him a big hug. “It’s not about behaving, bubba. I’m sure you’d be a good boy for us but this is a grownups only meeting.” Daryl whined and hid his face in Rick’s shoulder.

“It’s only for a couple hours, baby. And you like Glenn and Maggie.”

“Don’t want Glenn and Maggie,” Daryl sniffled. “I wanna go wif you and Papa.”

“I know, bud,” Shane said from behind the couch. He leaned down to drop a kiss to the top of his head. “But it’s not in the cards tonight.”

“Then...what about one of ya goes. Then someone can stay here wif me.” Daryl looked between them hopefully but their expressions weren’t very encouraging.

“Sorry, Puppy,” Shane told him gently. “We both gotta go. But Mags has plenty of fun things for you to do while they’re here. I bet you won’t even know we’re gone.”

The doorbell rang and Daryl whimpered. He hugged his loveys tight, hiding his face in them. He did like Maggie and Glenn. They were nice when he met them at the farm. But Daryl had never been away from both his daddies at once before and the young couple were no Daddy and Papa. He sniffled and started to cry.

“Oh, honey,” Rick said softly, rubbing his back.

“Is everything okay,” he heard Glenn’s voice ask and that only made him cry harder.

“He’s just a little sensitive right now,” Shane explained. “It’s his first time with a sitter.”

Daryl didn’t want any time with a sitter. He wanted his daddies. They promised they wouldn’t leave him but now they were both going and leaving him with people he barely knew. How could they just leave him behind after everything?

“Do I get a hug goodbye,” Rick asked.

“No!” Daryl kept his face buried. You couldn’t leave without goodbye hugs so if he didn’t hug them then they couldn’t leave.

“Daryl,” Rick asked, his tone hurt. Well it was his own fault, wasn’t it. Daryl was hurt too but that didn’t seem to matter. “Come on. Just one little hug?”

Daryl turned away from him, curling into a ball on the couch. Rick sighed and stood.

“Alright then. We’ll be back before bedtime. We love you.” Daryl hmphed. You didn’t leave people behind if you loved them. He could hear Daddy and Papa talk the two of them through his routine, where to find the emergency numbers and anything else they could think of. Eventually, Maggie laughed.

“I think we can manage. It’s not my first time babysitting. Besides, Daryl’s a sweetheart. We’ll call if we need you, don’t worry, everything’ll be fine.”

“Alright, alright,” Shane nodded reluctantly. “You two got this.” He looked over at the couch where Daryl was still curled into a ball of emotions. “Last call for hugs,” he said, waiting for some kind of acknowledgement. Daryl only curled up tighter.

“That’s okay,” Shane said, trying to keep his voice even despite how much it ached to see Daryl in distress. “We’ll see you when we get home.”

He heard them walk away. He heard the door close. It wasn’t until he heard the car start that he felt his heart sink. He did want hugs. They couldn’t leave without hugs!

“Daddy!” Daryl sprung up from the couch, crying harder than ever and running for the door. Glenn caught him before he could throw it open and run outside.

“Hey. Easy there, big guy,” he soothed but Daryl only fought harder.

“Lemme go! I want my Daddy and my Papa! Le’go! Papa!” He was sobbing through the screams, hiccuping things as he fought desperately to get outside and chase after them.

“Hey, buddy. It’s okay,” Glenn tried to soothe again. “They’re coming back. Don’t even worry about it.”

Daryl sobbed harder as the headlights disappeared. They were gone. They just left him behind. He hiccupped, dropped to the floor and dissolved into a full on meltdown. Tears ran down his cheeks in rivers and so did his nose. He wailed loudly where he’d planted himself and wiped at his eyes but the tears were coming so fast it didn’t make a difference.

“Hey. What’s all this about,” Maggie’s soft voice asked. “It’s okay, sugar. They’ll be home before you know it. Why don’t we play for a bit?”

“No.” Daryl shouted, jerking away when she tried to rub his back.

“It’s gonna be fun,” Glenn coaxed. “Don’t you wanna have fun with us?”

 

“No!”

“Okay,” Maggie said. “You’re allowed to be upset. Take your time but when you’re done I have somethin’ for us to make together.”

Daryl grunted stubbornly and stayed planted where he was.

“Alright. We’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready,” Glenn told him just as gently and the two of them left him sitting there on the floor.

Daryl sniffled and cried, wiping at his face intermittently. He needed his daddies. They were supposed to be with him. How could they just leave without him? It wasn’t fair. It was wrong. Eventually he cried himself out and the tears slowed. He sat sniffing and hiccuping, just staring sadly at the door. There was another few minutes of quiet before Maggie came back into the room. She didn’t say anything, just squatted down beside him with a kind smile. Daryl sniffled and glanced away. Maggie offered her hand and Daryl took it. She helped him to his feet and lead him into the kitchen where Glenn was waiting. He wiped Daryl’s face clean with a damp cloth and Daryl was loathe to admit that it made him feel a little bit better.

“Do you wanna help us make somethin’ fun,” Maggie asked him.

Daryl shrugged. He didn’t feel much like making anything.

“Okay.” Glenn handed him a juice cup and moved over to the kitchen table where there were art supplies spread around. “Well why don’t you come sit with us then? You can watch.”

Shrugging again, Daryl followed Maggie and took a seat. He laid his head on the table and pushed his cup sadly around the surface. Maggie drug over the paper lantern and turned it in her hands thoughtfully.

“Hm. I just can’t decide what animal we should make. What about you, Glenn?”

“I have no idea,” Glenn played along. “It’s so hard to pick one. What do you think, Daryl? What animal should we turn it into?”

Daryl frowned at the white, paper ball. How would you ever make an animal out of that? He tilted his head in thought. It was round. What animal was round.

“Could be a bushpig,” he answered. Glenn looked at him in confusion.

“What’s a bushpig?”

“You know,” Daryl insisted. “They got spikies all over and they make a ball when you scare ‘em.”

“A hedgehog,” Maggie asked with a smile. Daryl nodded. “I think that’s a great idea, Daryl! Let’s figure out how to make this into a hedgehog.”

Daryl wasn’t ready to join in but he was certainly curious. He watched as Glenn started cutting up some long, skinny triangles from dark brown construction paper.

“Are those the spikies?”

“Yup,” Glenn said with a smile. “We’re gonna need a ton of them. I don’t know if I can do it all by myself. Think you can give me a hand?”

“Daddy says I’m a good helper,” Daryl answered.

“That’s great,” Maggie told him. “You can cut out the face. Can you make a heart shape?”

She handed him a pair of green safety scissors and a piece of light brown paper. Daryl picked it up and folded it in half the way he’d learned at the center. He cut a big curve around then down to a point. When it came free he opened it up and showed it to them.

“Like this?”

“That’s perfect,” Maggie told him encouragingly.

“Now he needs a mouth, don’t you think,” Glenn asked. “I’m not good at faces. What about you?”

“I’m good at faces,” Daryl answered proudly.

“Oh good. Then you should have this.” Maggie handed Daryl a marker. He took it with a smile and started to draw on a happy mouth. He liked helping.

 

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

Rick’s mask was on. He was cool and collected, ready to ask the important questions and get the truth out of whoever was sat down. Only this wasn’t an interrogation room. No, this time he and Shane found themselves in an open room with high windows. There was a television in the corner of the room and round tables placed here and there. You could almost convince yourself you were in a breakroom or a doctor’s office if it weren’t for the man in an orange jumpsuit at the next table over visiting with his family. He had a little baby girl balanced on his lap in a pretty, pink dress and a headband with little roses on it. He was promising his wife or girlfriend that he’d straighten out and they’d be a real family while the baby stared up at him and gummed at her fingers.

“Man. Never thought we’d be on this side a things,” Shane said quietly so as not to disturb other people’s visits.

“I know,” Rick answered. “Can’t say I’m happy about it.”

“But this is for Daryl,” Shane reminded him firmly. “The therapist said-”

“I know what the therapist said,” Rick snapped, catching himself off guard with the sudden irritation. “Sorry. I just...I know what she said but I don’t think there’s any getting through to this guy.”

“Well we have to at least try.” Shane leaned back in the chair, hands in his pockets. “Then we know we did everything we could to try and get Daryl his brother back.”

The door to the back of the room opened and a guard came in, one Merle Dixon in tow. The guy looked like he felt right at home in the orange jumpsuit, walking in like he owned the place. He took a seat at the table in across from Rick and Shane.

“So you must be the two sausage jockey’s who got my brother.”

Well. This was off to a great start.

“And you must be the tweaker who got him arrested in the first place,” Shane answered. Merle’s smile dropped. He didn’t seem to like being reminded that he was the reason Daryl had been put into the system to begin with. Shane and Rick both noted that for future use.

“Well what the hell ya want,” Merle asked gruffly. “Here to rub it in my face that I ain’t never gonna see him again?”

“We’re here,” Rick started, “because Daryl’s asked to see you.” This gave Merle pause and he looked them over, not saying anything for once. “His therapist thinks having you around could be good for him as long as you’re willing to be supportive of him and the life he has now. We’re here to determine if that’s something you’re willing to do.”

Merle’s jaw clenched, staring them down. “It ain’t enough you got ‘im actin’ like a fuckin’ baby, you takin’ him to some head doctor on top of it? Boy, he must be scared outta his pants to go along with somethin’ like that.”

Shane’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not likin’ your implication there, Dixon.” He leaned forward, elbows resting on the table. “We aren’t the ones he drew beatin’ the tar out out of him. Which is our first condition, by the way. You lay a finger on him again and, when you come outta the coma I beat you into, you’ll have a pfa in your lap.”

“Second,” Rick interjected before Merle could get out the comeback that was boiling beneath the surface. “We don’t care what your opinion is of regressed individuals and their caretakers. You don’t have to like it. You just have to keep your mouth shut about it in front of Daryl.”

“So you can keep the kid brainwashed,” Merle snapped. “I know my baby brother. Ain’t no way he’s doin’ this ‘cause he wants to. You sick fucks are the only reason he’s doin’ this.”

Shane pulled out his phone, pulling up pictures from their trip to the farm. “This look forced to you?” He turned the screen to Merle. It was Daryl feeding the calf, a huge smile on his face. Then another of Rick and Daryl taking Tilly around the paddock, again smiling like he hadn’t a care in the world. Another Rick had taken that night of Daryl and Shane passed out on the couch, snuggled up after the long, eventful day.

“Get that shit outta here,” Merle growled. He pushed the phone away. “That don’t mean nothin’.”

“No, you just don’t want it to.” Rick had his arms folded over his chest, watching Merle. “The fact of the matter is, Daryl’s been making progress. He’s happy with us and that’s not changing. The only reason we’re here is because he wants you to be a part of it. You really think we’d even entertain this if we didn’t care about him?”

Merle paused, seeming to think it all over. It was easy to see that he wanted to tell them exactly where to stick their offer. He wanted to fight and yell and make a scene. Instead, it seemed he did care about Daryl. He cared about him enough that he swallowed down that instinct.

“What the hell do I gotta do?”

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

Daryl slapped down his last card, throwing his hands up happily.

“I win!”

“Awe man,” Glenn complained. “I thought you said you never played this game before.” He raised an eyebrow at Daryl who just grinned back at him.

“No one likes a sore loser, Glenn,” Maggie told him, smiling and playing along.

Daryl stacked all the cards together, handing them to Maggie to shuffle. “Again!” He watched in fascination as she separated them into two halves, shuffled them together and bridged them into one deck again.

“Alright,” she said after shuffling a few more times. “I think it’s Daryl’s turn to pass the cards out. And no peeking.”

“I won’t,” Daryl promised, taking the deck and starting to hand them out.

The sound of the front door opening caught Daryl off guard. He sat up straighter and turned in his chair. When he heard the keys get tossed into the bowl, he knew for sure who was here.

“Daddy! Papa!” He jumped up from his chair, running to them in the entryway. He threw his arms around Rick who was the closest and snuggled against his chest. “Daddy! Maggie and Glenn is teachin’ me Uno! And we made a hedgehog! And we made little pizzas!”

Rick laughed and hugged Daryl back. “Take a breath, sweetheart. I’m glad you had fun.”

“Hey. Don’t I get a hug?” Shane held his arms out and Daryl went to him too. He hugged Shane tight.

“I still missed you though.”

Rick and Shane smiled to each other, glad Daryl had enjoyed himself his first time without them. It could have gone badly but Maggie and Glenn seemed to have brought him around.

“Come see the hedgehog! It’s got little spikies and everything. And I drawed the face by myself!” Daryl lead the pair of them to the kitchen where Maggie and Glenn were gathering things together.

“Seems like you guys hit it off,” Rick said, coming to give Maggie a kiss on the cheek in gratitude.

“Told you it would be okay,” Maggie reassured him. “Daryl’s a sweetheart. We’d sit for you again any time.”

Daryl grimaced at that. “Maybe only sometimes,” he said. The adults laughed, Glenn and Maggie not seeming to take any offense to that. Of course he’d want to be with his daddies given the choice but he wasn’t completely rejecting the idea of having them watch him again.

“Hey,” Shane started. “I believe I was promised a hedgehog.”

Daryl brightened at the reminder and ran to the counter where they’d left it to dry. The paper lantern was covered in rows of brown, construction paper triangles. The front had a heart shaped piece of light brown with happy smile, black dots for eyes and a triangle of dark brown for the nose.

“His name’s Neil,” he announced, holding it out to the two of them.

“Neil, huh,” Shane said, taking it and looking it over. “This looks awesome, bud. You worked hard on this, didn’t you.”

Daryl nodded. “The spikies were the hardest but Glenn did most of ‘em.”

He went on happily telling them about his night and all the things they’d done together. Maggie and Glenn cleaned up the cards and the art supplies, getting ready to head out.

“So what do you think, dude. Can we come hang out again,” Glenn asked.

“Yeah,” Daryl announced happily. He gave them both hugs and the two of them left, heading home for dinner.

“I like Glenn and Maggie,” he announced as he plopped himself down at the table to play with Neil. “I missed you guys though.”

“We missed you too,” Rick told him, kissing the top of his head. “How about you show us how to make some of those Pizzas. Daddy and Papa didn’t have dinner yet.”

“Yeah!” Dary ran to the fridge to pull out the leftover sauce and cheese from where he’d seen Maggie put it away.

“Easy, bug.” Rick came behind him and plucked the glass bowl from Daryl’s hands. “We wanna make pizza, not mop it up off the floor.”

“Sorry, Daddy,” Daryl said. He carried the cheese over to the counter instead, the ziplock bag far less fragile. “We gotta get the bagels from up there.”

They got things set up for assembling the pizzas and Shane turned on the oven.

Shane was rolling up his sleeves to help when the phone rang. Rick paused. The two of them looked at each other, hesitating to answer. Shane looked at Daryl, happily gathering the spoons they needed and talking to his hedgehog lantern, and was tempted to just ignore it. Instead he picked up on the fourth ring.

“Y’know, we didn’t mean today,” Shane said in lieu of a usual greeting. There was a moment of quiet as the person responded. “You upset him and I’ll pullin’ the plug for the night.” Shane sighed and walked over to Daryl with the cordless phone.

“Daryl, it’s for you.”

Daryl looked up in surprise. “For me?” Shane nodded, giving him a smile. Daryl grinned big and took the phone. He’d never gotten a phone call just for him before! He held the phone to his ear with both hands.

“Hullo?”

“Daryl,” the familiar, gruff voice answered.

Daryl’s eyes went wide and he almost dropped the phone. His heart leaped in his chest and he couldn’t tell if it was good or bad. “Merle,” he said softly. “Merle, is that you?”

“It’s me, little brother. Are you okay?”

“Yeah! I-I’m good,” Daryl said, struggling to try and make himself sound older. Merle wouldn’t like him being a baby. Daryl knew that. “I miss you.”

Merle was quiet for a minute. Daryl could hear him taking deep breaths, like he did when he was trying not to be angry. It made his heart twist in his chest.

“I’m sorry,” Daryl blurted, not even sure what he was sorry for. He just wanted to fix whatever was wrong and for Merle to not be mad at him anymore. “Merle, are you still there?”

More quiet.

“I’m gonna ask you somethin’,” Merle finally growled out. “And don’t you dare lie to me, boy.”

Daryl swallowed hard, worried about what he would ask. “Okay.”

“You...are you happy there? They treat you good?”

That caught Daryl off guard. Of all the things he’d expected from Merle, that wasn’t one of them.

“I...yeah. Yeah, Merle. They’re good people. I know you don’t like it,” he said, starting to tear up. “I know you says it’s wrong and gross but they’re nice to me. And they feed me and spend time with me and I know you still don’t like it but-”

“Daryl,” Merle cut him off sharply. His mouth snapped shut and the tears welled up and spilled over.

“You’re happy,” Merle asked again.

“Yeah,” Daryl answered softly. “But I’d be happier if I had you too.” He knew his voice was wobbly and he sounded so small but he couldn’t help it. He wanted his brother but he wanted his Daddies too. “Please don’t be mad, Merle.”

The other man went quiet. Daryl’s chest ached and his stomach twisted in knots. It felt like his heart was doing somersaults and he wished so badly for something between his teeth.

“I ain’t exactly happy,” Merle finally ground out. Daryl’s heart sank. “I need ta think. I’ll call again.”

The line went dead. Daryl sniffled and wiped at his eyes. He should have known better. Merle wasn’t the type to change his mind. Still, it hurt. He’d thought for a brief moment that maybe he wouldn’t have to choose. Now he knew that was nothing but a fantasy. Shane took the phone from him and brushed his hair back out of his face.

“Everything okay, Puppy?”

Daryl nodded. “Says he’s gotta think and he’ll call back.” He stared at his feet, wiggling his toes in his shoes. “I think he’s mad at me.”

“Well if he is then that’s his loss,” Rick answered. “But he said he’d call back. I think that’s a start, don’t you?”

Daryl nodded. It was better than he’d expected from Merle in a million years. He wiped his eyes again and turned into Shane. He didn’t even have to ask. His Papa just wrapped his arms around him and let him snuggle into his shoulder. Maybe there was still hope but right now Daryl just wanted to be sad. Just for a little while.

“Can I have a story,” he asked softly.

Shane brushed his hair back again and gave him a soft smile. “You sure can. We can make pizzas another time, okay?”

Daryl nodded. He wrapped his arms around Shane’s neck and Shane took the que, picking Daryl up and carrying him up the stairs. Rick turned off the oven, grabbed Pupper and Neil and followed closely behind. He could put the pizza stuff away later. Daryl was more important.

When they reached the nursery, Shane laid Daryl down for a change and Rick got his pajamas out. While Rick got Daryl dressed for bed, Shane went to the bookshelf.

“What story do you want, Puppy,” he asked.

Daryl seemed to think for a moment as Rick lifted him up. He carried Daryl to the rocking chair and sat with him.

“Green book,” Daryl decided, pointing at the shelf. Shane smiled and pulled it down off the shelf. He sat across from Rick and Daryl, Daryl cozied up in Rick’s lap with his pacifier and Pupper and Shane started to read.

“Once there was a tree. And she loved a little boy. And Every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.”

Daryl let Shane’s voice soothe him and tried to let thoughts of Merle slip away for the time being. Right now he had his Daddies and his lovies. He had his bed and his toys and his safe, warm house. His troubles could wait for another day. Right now, he was safe and loved and happy.

Chapter Text

Rick peeked into the playroom curiously. Daryl had been near silent the whole time he was cleaning out the fridge and he hoped he hadn’t fallen asleep this early. What he saw near broke his heart. Daryl was laid out on his stomach, head resting on his folded arms. He was sitting and staring at the phone where it stood in the middle of the rug, silent as it had been all day. Silent as it had been the day before that and the week before that. Rick wanted to strangle Merle. After that one upsetting phone call he hadn’t contacted Daryl or them at all. Daryl hadn’t given up hope though. Every time the phone rang he would jolt to attention and stare at them until they told him who it was and every time his face would fall and he’d spend the next hour or so looking dejected.

“Hey,” Rick called softly. Daryl didn’t say anything for a bit, as if he was afraid that talking would somehow cover the phone ringing and he’d miss it.

“He’s gonna call,” Daryl finally said. His voice was soft but certain. “He’s prolly just busy with the lawyer lady.”

Rick ached for his baby. He wished he could just make him forget all about Merle so he didn’t have to feel this way. But he couldn’t work miracles and he couldn’t make all Daryl’s problems disappear. The best he could hope to do was take the boy’s mind off it.

“I’m sure he is, bug. Hey, do you think you could help me for a bit?”

Daryl perked up at that. He loved to help with things. “Okay. What are we doin’?”

“I need some help with the laundry,” Rick told him with a smile. “I need someone to be my towel basket.”

Daryl got to his feet, taking the phone with him. He always liked being the laundry basket. Tucking the phone into the pouch on his overalls, he took Rick’s hand and let his daddy lead him to the laundry room.

It worked for a little while. Rick would fold the clean towels and pile them into Daryl’s arms, sending him off with one bundle at a time to deposit them in the bathroom closet. He would ask Daryl questions about his favorite things and his cartoons, anything but Merle, and Daryl would chatter on about it all until he had to make his next drop. Unfortunately, there was only so much laundry to be done and Daryl went right back to being glued to the phone.

“Daddy,” he said softly from where he sat on the couch. “Do you think...do you think Merle hates me now?”

“Oh, honey,” Rick said gently. “I’m sure that’s not true. He’s your brother.” He wrapped an arm around his baby’s shoulders and hugged him close. “Sometimes people are afraid of things they don’t understand.”

“Merle ain’t scared a nothin’,” Daryl answered back, offended on his brother’s behalf.

“I’m sure he is. And it’s okay to be scared. You were scared when you first came to live with us, weren’t you?”

Daryl blushed, staring down at his lap. “Maybe a little.”

Rick smiled and kissed the top of Daryl’s head. “But you learned, didn’t you. You learned that it wasn’t scary at all.”

“Only sometimes,” Daryl said. “But when I get scared you and Papa help me.”

“That’s right,” Rick told him. “You learned you didn’t have to be afraid of us and you didn’t have to be scared to be our little boy. Merle doesn’t understand that he doesn’t have to be scared yet. We’ll do our best to help him too but in the end it’s up to him. No matter what happens, you’ll always have Papa and me.”

Daryl nodded. He leaned against Rick and tucked his feet up underneath him, snuggling into his Daddy.

“Can I go see him, Daddy? Maybe if he can see he’ll learn quicker.”

Rick sighed, laying his cheek against Daryl’s hair. “I don’t know about that, bubba. At least not yet.”

“How come?”

“Well, we want to help Merle too but you’re our first priority. We don’t want to put you in a situation that might be scary and confusing.”

“Cuz Merle might get mad,” Daryl asked, eyes turning up to look at Rick.

“That’s right.” Rick hugged Daryl tighter. “We never want you to feel like you’re stuck in the middle.”

But he did feel stuck in the middle. Daryl knew that eventually he would have to make a choice. It made his stomach twist in knots and he wanted to ask his Daddy about it. He wanted to talk like they usually did but he didn’t think Merle would like that. Instead, he cuddled into Rick’s side and tried not to think about it so much. It was difficult to shut his brain off and push it from his mind. He’d been trying so hard but it always circled back in his head. It always came back to Merle.

“How about we put on a movie, hm?” Rick leaned forward for the remote and kicked his feet up on the coffee table. “I think there’s a new superhero movie on Netflix.”

“I like superheroes,” Daryl said with a smile that brought a grin to Rick’s face.

“I know you do,” Rick answered.

Just as Rick was sifting through the movie titles, the phone trilled loudly. Daryl jolted upright and fumbled the phone out of his chest pocket. The display was lit up and the name was just about to pop up when Rick plucked it from his hands. He bit his lip and listened as Rick answered.

“Hello?”

Quiet.

“Oh yes. Hello, Ms. Harrison. What can I do for you?”

Daryl’s face fell and he sighed. He laid on his side on the couch and hugged one of the throw pillows to his chest.

“Excuse me?”

The tone of Rick’s voice garnered his attention again. He seemed oddly unsettled. His expression was suddenly cold and stony. He stood up suddenly, pacing into the kitchen and Daryl sat up to watch over the back of the couch. Rick paced back and forth in the kitchen entryway seeming to be more agitated by the second.

“And you’re just calling us now?!”

Daryl’s heart jumped and he ducked down to hide behind the back of the sofa. He never heard his daddy yell like that before.

“How long ago?”

Daryl peeked over the back again to watch and listened as close as he could. Rick paused, his jaw working in barely repressed anger. It was a look Daryl was familiar with and it made his stomach feel tight and sick. He watched as Rick hung up the phone and scrubbed a palm over his face. He took a deep breath and started heading back into the living room. Daryl dropped down and curled up into a ball facing the TV. Rick came around to kneel in front of him. Instead of shouting or speaking in a tight voice, he sounded as patient and gentle as ever though there was a sense of urgency underneath.

“Hey, baby. We’re gonna take a little trip, okay? You and me are gonna pack a few things for us and Papa and we’re gonna go visit Nana for a couple days. Papa’ll meet us there after work. Does that sound like a good plan?”

Daryl stared at Rick, confused and upset by not knowing what was happening.

“Daddy, what’s wrong,” he asked softly.

“Nothing, sweetheart,” Rick answered a little too quickly. “Nana’s just really excited to meet you. And she has a very friendly kitty. You’ll love him.”

Daryl knew something wasn’t right. The whole situation felt off. Rick and Shane never just sprung things on him like this. They always gave him at least a few days warning before meeting anyone new or going somewhere he’d never been before. For this to come on right after the phone call was strange and it had Daryl feeling off kilter and upset.

“Can’t we wait for Papa,” he asked nervously.

“Well we need to make it there in time for dinner. Papa’s coming with us. I promise. He’s just gonna make his way down a little later, that’s all.” He put his hands on Daryl’s thighs and gave a comforting squeeze. “Can you help me get everything packed?”

Daryl nodded hesitantly. He didn’t know what was happening and it was scary but he trusted Rick. They went upstairs together and Rick pulled out suitcases. He told Daryl to go pick out some outfits and toys to take with them. Daryl listened and grabbed his favorite shirts and a few pairs of pants, three pairs of jammies and his pillow. He took The Giving Tree and a few more books that he thought looked good, some pacifiers and Neil. He tucked his vest into the bag and paused, realizing instantly what was missing. He’d left Pupper in the playroom. He couldn’t leave without Pupper. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep without him. He darted down the stairs and to the back of the house. Pupper was right there where he left him, spread out on the rug with his head tilted to the side.

“I got you, Pupper,” he reassured. He scooped the blanket up and hugged it. “I won’t leave you behind.” Cuddling his blanket close, Daryl made his way back toward the stairs. “It’s okay, Pupper. Don’t be scared. We’re gonna go visit Nana. That’s all. Daddy says everything’s okay.”

As soon as he stepped into the living room, he paused. There was someone peeking in the front window through the curtain. It set Daryl’s heart racing and he almost ran straight to Rick until he recognized a familiar face. His eyes lit up and he ran to the front door, throwing it open.

“Merle!”

His brother startled, turning quickly and spotting Daryl. He shushed his brother and moved to cover his mouth. Merle peeked in the door, seeing no one and pulled him off to the side.

“Keep your voice down, boy. Come on.” Merle waved for Daryl to follow him and started down the front stairs toward the sidewalk. Daryl hesitated but ran after his brother like a little puppy.

“Merle, I thought you was in jail. What are you doin’ here?”

“Some dumb ass mishandled evidence. Charges got thrown out.” Merle turned to Daryl and walked to his beat up truck. “We’re home free, little brother. Get in.”

Daryl paused for a second, not seeing a carseat in the cab. Merle didn’t seem at all bothered by that as he went around and climbed in the driver’s seat. He looked at Daryl expectantly. Glancing back at the front door, he felt the twinge of something in his belly telling him this was a bad idea. He was supposed to be helping Daddy pack and going to Nana’s. Merle could drop him off later though, he thought, like Papa. He could take Daryl to meet them at Nana’s house and he’d missed Merle too much to walk away. He climbed into the truck and closed the door.

“I thought you was mad at me,” Daryl said. Merle turned on the engine and pulled away from the curb.

“Nah. I knew you did what you had to,” Merle answered. He gave Daryl one of his crooked grins. “Blondie told me you took that bullet for me. You were doin’ right by me. I knew you wouldn’t be one a them diaper wearin’ pussies for real.”

Daryl’s heart dropped into his stomach like a rock. Merle hadn’t come to visit him. He didn’t think he would drop him off at Nana’s house either. This was bad. Very bad.

“Merle, where are we goin’?”

“Anywhere we want, little brother,” he answered. “I hear ocean city’s nice this time a year. Half naked women and gamblin’ sounds like my kinda town.” He pulled onto the highway. “Put that thing down already, will ya? They ain’t around now.” He knocked Pupper out of Daryl’s hands to the floor and it took everything in him not to reach for it again. He was scared and this time his daddies weren’t here to help him. He was alone in this and he didn’t know how to fix that without upsetting Merle. Daryl didn’t know if he’d ever felt this trapped in his life.

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

Rick and Shane were devastated. The instant Rick came downstairs and saw the open door he’d known the worst had happened. He called Shane who had sped home with three squad cars in tow.

“He was in his bedroom,” Rick answered as one of his fellow officers took his statement. “I asked him to pick out what he wanted to bring to my mother’s house. I was right across the hall. I don’t know how I didn’t hear him.”

Shane held Rick’s hand, giving it a supportive squeeze.

“I went to check on him and he wasn’t in his room. When I came down, the front door was wide open. I should’ve never let him out of my sight.”

“You couldn’t know,” Shane reassured him. “Daryl’s never tried to leave the house without us. You had no reason to think he would now.”

“But I knew Merle would be on his way here,” Rick argued.

“And you tried to remove Daryl from the situation,” Shane told him. “Rick, it’s not your fault. You didn’t know this would happen. You did the best you could have on short notice and right now we need to focus on finding them.”

Rick sighed, scrubbing his hand over his face. He still felt like he was responsible. Now Daryl was alone with Merle going to god knows where.

“All I can think of is him scared and alone in some motel room somewhere. He’s afraid to tell Merle to bring him back and even if he wasn’t, he’d just tell Daryl he was brainwashed and keep going.”

Shane pulled Rick to him and the pair of them just clung to each other.

“Good news is that a neighbor saw the truck and we have a description,” said another officer as he came back inside the house. “We know who he’s with and we know there’s no intention of physical harm. His odds are much better than they could be. We’ve got an Amber alert out on him and APB on the brother.” He flipped his notebook shut and looked to Rick and Shane with a grim look. “Bad news is, we’ve done all we can do for now. I don’t have to tell you that your best bet is to stay here in case he makes his own way back.”

Shane nodded. “Thanks, man. Let us know the second you hear anything.”

The man nodded and after a few more minutes of gathering evidence and collecting statements they all left. It was just Rick and Shane alone in the big, empty house and suddenly the absence of their little boy was glaring. Everything was too quiet. There were no cartoons playing, no clatter of toys or idle chatter. There was nothing but silence. It hit like a brick wall and Rick sunk to the floor in grief. Massive sobs rocked his entire frame and tears sprung forward in rivers. Shane wasn’t much better. He sat beside Rick on the floor and held him. The two of them clung to each other and wept. To lose Daryl now would be agony. They’d waited so long to find someone. Years of searching had led them to him. He was so tender hearted, so kind and gentle and oh so fragile. The happy boy who loved to draw and build and who lit up every time he got the chance to do something with them, who they’d laughed and cried and spent sleepless nights with, the boy they loved with all their hearts had been ripped from them in an instant.

Everything hurt. Every breath was agony without him there and they wanted nothing more than to hold him in their arms again. They needed their boy back. They needed their family to be together again. They had to have faith and do everything in their power to find him. Anything less would mean failing Daryl and Rick was not going to let that happen a second time.

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

Daryl didn’t know what to do or say. He wanted to go home. He wanted his daddies. More than anything for the moment though, he wanted to pick up Pupper. The music was too loud in the cab of the truck and it hurt his ears. It was starting to get dark out now which meant it was close to his usual bedtime and he hadn’t had lunch or dinner yet. He was tired and his tummy was rumbling but Merle didn’t seem to notice. He just kept shouting over the music about how he was gonna pay Daryl back good when they got there. They finally pulled off the highway and Merle told Daryl to wait in the car while he got them checked into a motel whose sign was half broken, the office door looking as though it had been punched through at one point.

He bit his lip and reached down for Pupper once his brother was out of sight. He couldn’t let Merle know he had him or he would be mad. Daryl knew he would. He would take Pupper away just like he used to take Daryl’s toys away. He tucked the blanket down the front of his overalls, out of sight and safe from whatever the sticky stuff was on the floor mats. He wished he could call his daddies and tell them where he was. He wished he could just go home. This place was dark and scary looking and definitely nothing like his nursery.

Merle came back to the truck, dangling a room key between his fingers and started to pull the truck closer to their door.

“Now you get your ass inside and I’ll run for somethin’ you can wear. Look ridiculous in that thing.” He gestured to Daryl’s overalls and Daryl looked down at his clothes, suddenly self conscious in a way he hadn’t been for a long time.

 

He liked his overalls. There was a puppy that peeked out of the pocket and little paw prints for buttons. It wasn’t very grown up though, he realized. Merle wanted the old Daryl but the old Daryl… All Daryl really remembered looking back to life before the center was feeling sad and lonely, eating cheap fast food and drinking all the time, not having much he could call his own. He realized he didn’t miss his old life all that much. Just Merle. He couldn’t tell his brother that though.

Merle parked the truck again and jumped out and clearly expected Daryl to do the same. He hopped down from the passenger’s seat, hugging himself against the nerves. Following Merle inside, Daryl immediately went to sit on one of the beds.

“Alright. I’ll be back. Just...I dunno watch TV or somethin’.”

Daryl didn’t say anything, just nodded but this just seemed to annoy Merle. He frowned at Daryl, jaw tight and turned to leave. Now Daryl was really and truly alone. That was the scariest part yet. With Merle gone, he couldn’t hold back any longer and he pulled Pupper out from his hiding spot. He cuddled the toy close to his chest and breathed in the scent of home.

“Don’t worry, Pupper,” he told the toy, his voice wavering. “I know it’s scary here. But we’ll get home somehow. And we’ll go back to our warm bed and have cuddles with Daddy and Papa. We can see Herschel and Beth and Aberham again. And Maggie and Glenn and Beau. We’ll meet Nana and all their friends and never ever be scared again. I promise.”

He hiccuped against tears and laid on his side, petting his toy and taking comfort that he at least had him. He may be wet and hungry and lonely and scared but at least he had Pupper. Eventually he cried himself to exhaustion, the smell and softness of his lovey giving him some form of comfort to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

Rick hadn’t slept a wink. Shane hadn’t either. No matter what they tried, sleep evaded them. Rick had forced himself to give up on getting any rest around six AM and instead went on his morning jog for the first time since bringing Daryl home. He hoped the exercise would help somehow. Maybe it would clear his mind if nothing else. It was on his third time around the block that he realized what he’d actually been doing. He’d been scanning every vehicle he passed in the hopes it would fit the description of a beat up old truck. He came home to find the house as empty and silent as he’d left it. Hopefully Shane had at least gotten some shut eye while he’d been gone. He went to their bedroom to take a look and found the bed entirely empty. Rick frowned and instead turned to face the nursery. The door creaked open and he found Shane right where he knew he’d be.

“We should eat somethin’,” Rick said gently. “I didn’t even think about it last night. Haven’t had anything since breakfast yesterday and I know you haven’t either.”

Shane didn’t say anything. He sat on the floor, back against the wall, holding Neil and staring into that messily drawn but smiling face as if the toy held all the answers.

“Shane please. Talk to me.”

There was a long stretch of silence, the air in the room heavy and stagnant. Rick moved to sit beside Shane on the floor, shoulders pressed together.

“I just can’t stop thinkin’ about it,” Shane finally croaked out. “Fortyeight hours, Rick.”

“Don’t think like that,” Rick reprimanded. “It’s not the same. Merle wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t take it that far.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that we ain’t ever gonna see him again!” In a fit of anger, Shane threw the paper lantern across the room and it hit the wall with a loud thump.

“We know how this goes, Rick. Fortyeight hours and you’re lookin’ for a body. We know he’s with Merle and he ain’t gonna take it to that point but he’ll be still be long gone by then. If we don’t find him soon…”

Rick’s eyes slipped shut and he laid his head against Shane’s shoulder as his husband started to break down. He couldn’t argue with it. He couldn’t take away the pain either of them were feeling. He could only sit beside Shane and hold his hand as he cried. They could only support each other and hope for the best even though every passing minute ticked down to slimmer and slimmer odds of ever finding their baby.

“We’re gonna find him,” Rick reassured. “I promise you, we’ll find him.”

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

Daryl woke slowly. His eyes felt sore from crying and his face was crusty feeling. He was uncomfortably wet at that point and he wished his daddies were here to get him changed and clean his face so he could feel better. Instead he was on a grimy feeling comforter in a run down motel room far away from home. He snuffled against his Pupper and rolled over, ready to try and get some more sleep despite his discomfort. Instead he froze, seeing Merle staring at him from the edge of the other bed.

Daryl jerked upright, sitting on his hands in his first reflex to get them away from the baby toy. His brother’s icy gaze was intense, as if he was staring through Daryl’s soul. He had a beer in his hand and it clearly wasn’t his first if the pile of empties at the foot of the mattress were any indication. His jaw was clenched as he stared and Daryl only felt worse with each passing second.

“M’sorry,” he blurted out, not knowing what else to do to try and mitigate some of the anger.

“The hell you keep sayin’ that for,” Merle snapped.

Daryl flinched and dropped his eyes to his lap. If he shouldn’t say sorry then what else could he do?

“You sorry for takin’ that deal or are ya just sorry you ended up likin’ it!”

Daryl winced, tucking his chin to his chest. He curled up into himself to try and block out the yelling. Merle stood, towering over Daryl with a bottle in his fist. It made Daryl feel sick, eyes clenched shut against memories of how he got so many of his scars.

“The hell happened to you, Daryl? You’re a Dixon, boy,” Merle shouted. “Ain’t I taught you nothin’! Took care a you all those years for you to throw it away first second I’m gone!” He grabbed Daryl by the hair,rough but not enough to really hurt, and lifted his little brother’s face to his. Daryl barely choked back a whimper. “A Dixon don’t just roll over for some perverts!”

“They ain’t perverts!”

The room went quiet, Daryl’s outburst catching even him by surprise. He found himself standing over Merle now, hands tingling from where he’d shoved the man down onto the opposite bed. He hadn’t meant to say anything, hadn’t even realized that he moved until he was on his feet but Merle talking bad about his daddies seemed to trigger something in him.

“Excuse me,” Merle growled.

Daryl clenched his fists against at his sides, his anger outweighing his fear. His whole body shook with it. He’d been taking crap all his life. He was used to being everybody’s punching bag but no one was allowed to bad mouth his family without consequences.

“They ain’t perverts! They’s my daddies and they love me! They don’t never make me feel stupid and they listen to me and spend time with me! They make me feel better when I’m sad and I don’t feel lonely all the time no more! They make me happy and they take care a me and they don’t yell and make me feel bad and scared all the time like you!”

He was crying, emotions running high from everything that had been building up. Years and years of blindly following Merle bubbled to the surface and once it started there was no stopping it.

“They love me just the way I am instead a try’na make me somethin’ differ’nt and I missed you before but not no more! You don’t care about me! You only care about you!”

With that, Daryl snatched his Pupper off the bed and ran for the bathroom, slamming the door shut and locking it behind him. He climbed into the bathtub with his toy and pulled the curtain shut so he could feel closed in and safe at least for the moment. Cradling Pupper in his arms, he started to rock back and forth.

“It’s okay, Pupper,” he cried. “Don’t be scared. It’s okay.” He smoothed his fingers over the soft fabric of the dog’s ears and spoke gently to it like his daddies had so often done for him. “I’ll tell you a story, kay? Once there was a tree. ‘n she loved a little boy.”

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

A knock at the door had Shane trudging from the kitchen to answer it. Part of him was hopeful it would be an officer at the door with Daryl in tow but he wouldn’t let that part take the lead. He knew what the odds were and the logical part of him was already mourning. He pulled the door open to see Dottie Grimes standing there. Her face was determined, framed by her curly, now gray hair. She had a bag beside her and a cab pulled away from the curb as the door opened.

“Mama,” Shane said, surprised to see her. “What are you doin’ here?”

She didn’t say anything, just threw her arms around him and hugged him tight. For such a tiny woman, her hugs were still the best in the world.

“I came as soon as I got your message. I’m so sorry, sugar.”

Shane hugged her back, closing his eyes and resting his head on her shoulder. He couldn’t say anything to her, couldn’t trust his voice right now. Instead he just let himself take comfort in her presence. She’d been a mother to him long before he’d married Rick and there was just something about being held in a time like this that made Shane feel small again.

“You didn’t have to come all this way,” he said softly. “It’s a two hour drive.”

“Never you mind,” Dottie scolded as she gently pulled away from Shane. “I’m here to take care of my boys. That’s what mama’s are for and I won’t hear another word about it.”

Shane couldn’t help a weak smile as he took her bag to bring inside.

“Well, there’s no use arguin’ with that,” he told her.

“Finally. You’re learning,” she teased, patting him on the cheek and heading inside the house.

Rick was coming down the stairs, looking as numb as Shane had felt just a few minutes ago.

“Who was at the-” He cut off, seeing his mother standing in the entryway. It was all it took to have Rick falling apart again. It felt like all he’d done since the police left was cry. “Mama,” he choked, going to her and hugging her tight. She held him and stroked her fingers through his curls the way she’d done when he was just a boy.

“I know, sweetheart. I know,” she comforted. “My poor boys.” She held an arm out to Shane and he knew better than to refuse. He joined the two of them, only just holding himself together.

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

The bathroom door came open hours later, hitting the wall with a bang and Daryl startled. He hugged Pupper tight to his chest, prepared now to face whatever Merle had in store this time. The shower curtain was flung open and Merle looked down at Daryl, his expression unreadable. Daryl stared back defiantly. There was a brief twinge of pain in that look but Merle quickly whisked it away again, dropping a plastic shopping bag into Daryl’s lap.

“Get dressed,” was all he said before turning away. “Don’t want your piss on my seats.” He shut the door behind him with another loud slam.

Daryl wanted to refuse just out of principal but sitting in his wet clothes was starting to get itchy. For the first time in a long time he had to undress himself, wash up and redress. He cursed the fact he’d ever picked these overalls in the first place as his fingers fumbled with the buttons. He eventually got them unfastened and slid the wet denim off. The shirt was easier but just as wet as everything else and he let it plop to the floor. He didn’t think Merle would have the patience for him to work out how to run the motel bath so when he was completely bare he wet a washrag in the sink. Daryl wiped down all the wet places, extra time spent on the itchy spots. He opened the bag and found boxer briefs inside, not that he’d expected Merle to get him diapers but he wasn’t used to underwear anymore. They were snug in all the wrong places and it didn’t feel right. The jeans were easier though the button was still a pain and he didn’t have much trouble with the T-shirt. The dark wash denim and black cotton felt far too much like the old him for comfort but he would guess that was the idea.

Once dressed, he tucked Pupper into the crook of his elbow. Daryl opened the bathroom door to find Merle waiting outside and he glared at his brother through his bangs though he would deny the pout on his lips. Merle got that twisted look to his face again, his eyes wrinkling at the corners and his mouth a hard line.

“Let’s go,” he mumbled, waving Daryl to follow. Daryl didn’t want to go anywhere with Merle anymore but he didn’t have much choice. Maybe he could ask someone in ocean city to call his daddies and come get him. He pouted all the way to the truck and slouched in the seat. They pulled away from the motel and Merle drove them in silence. He stopped for some cheap, drive-thru breakfast sandwiches and Daryl, despite wanting to defy anything Merle told him, couldn’t ignore the rumble of his stomach when his brother thrust it at him with the demand to “eat”.

Daryl stayed silent, staring out the window petulantly as the road passed them by and Merle got them back on the highway. It was another good thirty minutes before anyone spoke.

“What ya said,” Merle asked suddenly. “That time I called ya… You mean what you said? They treat you good?”

Daryl looked at his brother in surprise. Of all the things he’d thought would come from Merle’s mouth, that was one of the last he’d expected. He turned to stare at the dashboard, fumbling with the edge of Pupper and nodded.

“They don’t make you do stuff?”

Daryl shrugged. “Sometimes,” he said. “Like if I don’t wanna go to bed or somethin’.”

“No, I mean…they don’t…” Merle paused, his jaw clenching. “They don’t touch ya, do they?”

“Ew,” Daryl blurted out, shoving at Merle. “They don’t do that yucky stuff.”

“Alright, well,” Merle defended, “it was an honest question. Seen stories on the news about stuff like that before, people gettin’ touched when they didn’t wanna in that kinda setup.”

Daryl huffed, his cheeks puffing up at Merle. “Told ya they ain’t perverts.” He turned to stare out the window again, effectively ending the conversation and Merle put his focus back on the road.

Unfortunately, the stop for breakfast didn’t seem to be the start of a pattern. Merle Just kept driving until the sky started to get dark. Once again, Daryl was hungry and homesick. It wasn’t until they passed a pizza place that Daryl perked up. It couldn’t have been right. It had to just look very similar. But then they passed a flower shop and the little corner store. Daryl turned to his brother.

“Merle?”

Merle didn’t say anything. His hands clenched on the wheel and he kept driving. Daryl kept watching, sure he was seeing things but it only got more and more familiar. They pulled up outside the little, suburban house and Daryl felt his heart soar. All the lights were on and he just knew they were waiting for him. He turned back to Merle as if he would pull away again at any second just to taunt him.

“Go on,” Merle grunted.

Daryl paused, swallowing the the lump in his throat.

“But, what about you?”

“I said go,” Merle snapped. “Get outta my truck!”

“But Merle,” Daryl whimpered.

“This is where you wanna be,” he growled. “So go.”

Daryl’s heart hurt as he realized Merle wasn’t just bringing him home. He was running.

“I didn’t want you to leave,” Daryl pleaded.

Instead of an answer, Merle blew the horn loud and long. The front door opened and light spilled out onto the sidewalk, lighting Daryl’s face. After a moment, the figure identifiable as Rick came rushing out, Shane’s broader frame following close behind.

“Merle, please,” Daryl begged, turning back to his brother with the last few seconds he had. “Please don’t go. I didn’t mean what I said. I do miss ya. Please don’t leave.”

The passenger door was ripped open and Rick pulled Daryl out into a crushing embrace. Daryl hugged him tight, unable to resist the familiar warmth and scent of his Daddy. Rick was trembling against Daryl in a way Daryl had never felt before.

“M’okay, Daddy,” he cried, the high energy around him making all of them emotional. “M’fine. See? It’s okay, Daddy. Don’t cry.”

“Oh, baby,” Rick half laughed, half sobbed. “I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. These are happy tears.”

Daryl snuggled into Rick and clenched his fists in the back of his shirt. “I missed you,” he sniffled.

“We missed you too,” Shane told him, kissing the top of his head. “Why don’t you take Daddy inside, huh? He’s gonna need a lot a cuddles.”

Daryl nodded and pulled away from Rick gently. He took Rick’s hand and started to head inside. He paused and gave one last look toward Merle, his heart breaking and went inside.

When Daryl was safely out of hearing range, Shane turned back to face Merle. There was no anger there, surprising even him with it’s absence. Instead he just stared calmly at the man in the driver’s seat.

“You brought him back,” he said quietly. “You could’ve gotten away with it. Why bring him back to us if it upsets you so much?”

Merle’s jaw clenched and he stared resolutely out of the windshield.

“He don’t belong out there no more,” Merle admitted though it seemed painful to do so. “He don’t belong with me. This is where he needs to be.”

Shane nodded. “You’re right. He doesn’t belong out there. He never did.” He shut the door to the truck and leaned on the open winow. “But maybe instead of hidin’ out there from a brother that loves you, you could belong here.”

Merle was silent, his hands clenching on the steering wheel. His jaw was locked tight enough to break a tooth and Shane knew he was battling with himself. He leaned back, looking Merle over one last time.

“Don’t be a stranger, Merle,” he said. “For his sake.”

Shane stepped away and the truck sped off. Merle would need time to come to terms with things. When and if he ever did was up to him but Shane could rest easy knowing he’d left the door open. He went inside, closing the door behind him and was immediately greeted with an armful of Daryl. He clung to Shane like an octopus, rubbing his face into his Papa’s shirt and soaking in his warmth.

“I’m sorry I scared you and Daddy,” he said, muffled by Shane’s shirt.

“It’s okay, Puppy,” Shane told him, holding him just as tight and letting himself bask in the knowledge that their baby was home. He was safe and right where he needed to be. “You’re home. That’s all that matters.”

“That and a bath,” Rick teased, his eyes still swimming as he came up and ruffled Daryl’s hair.

“M’hungry too,” Daryl told them, still not peeling himself away from Shane to do so.

“It’s settled then,” Dottie chimed in from the entryway, dabbing at her own eyes with a tissue. “You boys get my grandbaby cleaned up and I’ll get dinner in the oven. Look at you, sugar. You’re so skinny. Don’t they feed you around here?”

Daryl looked to the unfamiliar face and Shane was sure he would be his shrinking violet self but Daryl didn’t hide. He hugged Shane and took Rick’s hand in his, proudly declaring,

“They take good care a me. They're the best daddies in the whole world.”

Fin

Chapter Text

“Now I must dress the chicken. I wonder if she wants a he Chicken or a she chicken, said Amelia Bedelia. Amelia Bedelia went right to work. Soon the chicken was finished.”

Daryl shook his head at the pictures, knowing even before his Daddy turned the page that Amelia was going to do something silly.

“Bless her heart,” he said. Rick looked at him like he’d grown a second head though he was clearly amused.

“I think someone’s been spending a little too much time with Nana,” he said.

The front door opened and Daryl looked up from where he and Rick were snuggled on the couch to see Shane coming in from work. He had a small, brown package tucked under one arm and a gallon of milk in the other hand. He kicked the door shut behind him and smiled at Daryl as he came through.

“Mail call,” he announced.

Daryl gasped in excitement and scrambled from the couch to follow Shane into the kitchen. Shane set the milk down on the counter and then set the box next to it.

“Open it, open it,” Daryl cheered, bouncing impatiently on the balls of his feet.

“Hang on. I’m gettin’ it,” Shane laughed. He took a kitchen knife and cut through the packing tape before handing the box off to Daryl. He smiled as he watched their boy dash off to the table to see what was inside.

“Where’s it from this time,” Rick asked Daryl, leaning over his shoulder to see. Daryl pulled a postcard out of the packing peanuts first, a beautiful picture of a black bear in the forest on it. He thrust it at Rick.

“Read it, Daddy, read it!”

Rick smiled and turned the card over.

“Dear Daryl,” he started, Daryl’s eyes fixed on him. “Montana is a pretty okay place. The bars aren’t much but the hunting’s real good. Elk is good eating and there’s more black bear than you can shake a stick at. You’d like the woods around here. It’s green all year long. I’m thinking about heading to Florida next. Get myself to that Gatorland place and try to bag myself a wild hog. I’ll call when I can. Merle. P.S. I found another nice one for your collection. I hope you like it.”

Daryl had listened, enraptured as Rick read the messy scrawl he and Shane had gotten so accustomed to reading. At the mention of his collection, his eyes widened and he started to dig through the packing peanuts. He found what he was looking for and pulled it out, to get a good look.

“Wow,” he breathed, eyes wide. The heavy base was decorated in rock formations, grass and other foliage, the clear sphere on top housing a black bear and a cub with trees around them. He shook the snow globe and smiled. “Pretty! Daddy, Papa, look!”

Rick and Shane smiled at Daryl’s happy face. The postcards had started maybe a month after Merle had driven away in the night. They’d been skeptical, reading through it themselves before ever letting Daryl know it came but it seemed innocent enough. Then, two weeks later, another one arrived from an entirely new place, telling Daryl little things about what it was like there and what he’d been doing. Since then, a new postcard came every two weeks like clockwork. Daryl would get excited every time a new card came and had started watching diligently for the postman when one was due to show up. Then Merle would call every so often and let Daryl talk his ear off about anything and everything for an hour or so. The snowglobes became a thing soon after and Merle would send them intermittently when he found one that was really nice. It meant the world to Daryl and Shane couldn’t help thinking it made Merle a little happier too.

The man was like an ornery Tom cat. If you tried to bring him in, he’d hiss and claw and fight you with everything he had but if you left the door open, allowed him to come and go as he pleased, he would always come back. Merle wasn’t meant to be tied to one place. He was a drifter and he liked it that way but he always made his way back to Daryl. When he did, they’d feed him and welcome him in and when he was ready to leave again they would wave him off and let him know the door would still be open when he decided to come around.

“You wanna go put them up, bubba,” Rick asked.

“Yeah,” Daryl cheered and took off for the stairs.

Shane and Rick followed behind him into the nursery where a new cork board and three box shelves had taken up residence. The shelves were steadily filling with snow globes, most featuring animals, and Daryl carefully set his black bear right next to the horse one. The cork board was a cluster of all the postcards he’d gotten so far, picture side out. Rick handed over the newest one and Daryl pinned it right between the wolf and the killer whale. He stepped back proudly to take a look at his work then moved to hug Shane, burying his face against him.

“What’s wrong, bud,” Shane asked, wrapping his arms around Daryl in return.

“Nothin’,” Daryl answered and when he turned his face back to the wall he looked content and happy. He may not be right beside him but that didn’t matter. Daryl had Merle and his daddies. In the end, he hadn’t had to choose.

“You just in a snuggly mood,” Rick asked and Daryl nodded.

“Cuz my heart’s smilin’.”