Daryl Dixon was one of those kids the teachers wrote off as soon as he walked through the door.
He showed up at Rick’s school on a Monday morning in the middle of term wearing a black hoodie and ripped jeans, mumbling his name to the class with eyes that were not only lined by varying shades of bruises but also refused to leave the floor. He kept his back stock stiff, but hunched his shoulders and had a nasty habit of ripping at the skin around his nails. He was soft spoken, not nervous, but not confident either, a caution to it that made even blatant statements sound like questions. His voice sounded like a scratch, it was hoarse, and Rick remembered thinking that he was just ‘one of those Hicks’ with a particularly unfortunate twang.
The teacher, a lady Rick had thought expressed an air or kindness as easy as breathing, waved a dismissive hand in his direction. She motioned to the empty seat in front of Rick, glancing at the bruises and not saying a word.
Daryl didn't look at Rick as he sat down.
He never looked at anyone really.
And through the whole week that Rick knew him, he never once leaned back in his chair.
Rick wasn't quite sure why exactly he thought that talking to Daryl might be an interesting experience.
The word ‘interesting’ just didn't seem to fit with Daryl Dixon at all. Nothing Daryl had done in his whole first day and part way into his second pertained to anything that could be considered interesting. He’d hardly spoken, he’d made his way to each class on time and sat in whatever seat he was given without fuss, he refused eye contact in a way that was more unintentional then rude and that was about it. He’d made no effort to make friends and no one had made any effort to make friends with him. He sat, stood, moved, breathed and that was about it.
His whole existence was just so quiet.
Half the time it was like the school had never gained a new student.
Rick supposed it wasn't his actions or words that made Daryl interesting, but rather his very specific lack of them.
High school was rowdy, everyone had an opinion and everyone spoke it. Rumors spread through hallways as quickly as the people who walked them and gossip cultivated in every nook and cranny of every conceivable space.
It was loud.
Daryl was quiet.
He was in no way made of glass. He had proved that later that day when an unfortunate student with too much arrogance and not enough sense had made an offhand comment about ‘that new redneck kid and did you hear that his mom fell asleep with a fag and burned to death, stupid bitch’ before he was tackled on his ass and practically pummeled. Daryl threw dirty punches and the kid had a broken nose before the teachers managed to pull him off, hissing and kicking like a feral cat.
But despite the temper, he had an air of fragility around him. And while Rick couldn't really fathom why, it seemed that even the idea of Daryl being loud himself, of making himself noticeable, would hurt him.
Rick didn’t understand the fighter he’d seen in Daryl, he who had been so focused, so feral in his anger. He didn't understand how that could be so subconsciously tamed.
But he thought he might have caught a glimpse of it, a flash through eyes that panicked at being restrained.
And it looked an awful lot like fear.
It was on Daryl’s third day that Rick first contemplated talking to him.
The boy sat propped up against a tree, a cigarette hanging listlessly in one hand, like he’d lit it because of habit rather than any particular craving. His head was craned back towards the sky, his hood having fallen from its perch atop his hair and resting comfortably on his shoulders.
It was the most of Daryl face that Rick had ever seen, and Rick realized for the first time that he had known so little of it that he could've walked directly past him in the street and never noticed. He couldn't help but think that might’ve been the point.
His hair was long, longer then Rick’s own and contrastingly straight. It brushed into eyes that were blue all over. Blue pupils and blue skin with little red lines running through each. Blood vessels both broken and blooming underneath pale skin. He had a beauty mark above his lip on the left side of a face that was shadowed by sharp cheekbones and though Rick had never been an overall aesthetics critic, he thought this particular subject, with its complex color palette and slight asymmetry was particularly appealing.
Rick noticed the bruising around his neck and wondered if his speculation from the first day had been wrong. That perhaps Daryl voice sounded damaged rather than hoarse, that the scratched element may be down to actual injury, rather than incorrect diction.
Daryl shifted, brushing his back against the tree and hissing as if in pain, and in later years Rick would often wonder what exactly had caused it. Whether the knowledge would be inconsequential or if, perhaps… just maybe, the revelation would've somehow altered the unfortunate conclusion of Daryl Dixon’s life.
As of this moment, Rick didn't ponder the action (or its unsuspected reaction) primarily because he had other things on his mind.
That being the fact that Daryl, after looking down at the cigarette in his hand for seconds that Rick could swear up and down were the tensest moments of his young life, put it out on his own hand.
It wasn't a dramatic moment, there was no devolution into fits of tears, no whines, no words, no whimpers. There was nothing that Rick was expecting. He’s always assumed such actions were prompted by an uncomfortable amount of emotion, of a need to transcend emotional pain into physical pain, or to punish oneself.
Daryl just seemed blank, not quite there, in a way that could almost appear drugged but decidedly wasn't.
He wasn't emotional, he didn't seem shocked, not startled at having done such a thing to himself and Rick would think that such behavior spoke of experience but, in itself, it hadn't appeared to be a particularly practiced action either.
It just seemed like an impulse, an un-driven action, an action made to achieve something that not only was never meant to be attempted to begin with, but had also, quite obviously, not been met.
Rick was no psychiatrist, and he could say that, in all honesty, he had never given much thought to this kind of thing. It had never affected him personally, in his mind he could not see the appeal and he would admit that he didn't understand how anyone else could either. He was no psychiatrist, and it didn't seem like the right way of putting it, but Daryl burning himself honestly seemed like a mistake.
He supposed some people considered their own harming to be ‘mistakes’. After they woke up the next morning and saw blood or burns or bruises in a new light, in a mind frame that, while still quite obviously damaged, was not at the same point of desperation it had been.
But this was different, this didn't seem like a ‘coping mechanism’.
Daryl didn't seem desperate.
It seemed more like routine. Not the harming itself, but the thought process, that seemed pretty rehearsed. That perhaps he’d had a thought that had somehow evolved to a twisted sense of command. Like he’d just obeyed himself in a way that hinted at a deeper, darker sense of possession, obedience of a different kind.
It honestly felt like simple resignation.
Resignation of what exactly, Rick didn't and would never know.
But at that moment, he sort of wanted to. And if he could’ve puzzled it out, if he had thought that any words he could’ve said would've helped rather than hindered, he would've spoken right then. Would've broken the resolute wall of silent isolation that Daryl had shrouded himself in.
But Rick felt out of his depth.
And someday, when it was too late to matter much anyway, he’d realize that Daryl probably felt an awful lot like that too.
If Rick had thought seeing something so personal would change his opinion of Daryl, he was very wrong, because it really didn't.
He felt neither closer to Daryl or further isolated from him. He didn't feel sorry for him, because Daryl certainly didn't feel sorry for himself. He was neither angry, nor pitying, because all in all, as invested in Daryl life as he felt himself becoming, he barely knew him. He wasn't surprised either, mainly because it just didn't seem like a big deal. He didn't really have an opinion on the matter, because Rick already knew that it was hard to have set thoughts on something he couldn't understand.
And, in a premature mind frame (that was very much uneducated in these types of things) he decided that if Daryl had really wanted to talk, he would speak.
The whole ‘speak to who?’ question didn't really cross his mind, because when you've been as obsessively focused on someone as Rick had, it is all too easy to forget that all the things going on inside your head that you yourself have been considering monumental, have probably not even been noticed by the object of your scrutiny.
Which probably meant that the events on day four of ‘Daryl Week’ were vastly overestimated in Rick’s mind.
The teacher had asked Daryl to hand out the books and Daryl had gone along the rows, handing one to each person and not seeming the slightest bit offended when no one offered him a word of thanks. He made it to the edge of Rick’s desk and tripped slightly on the strap of Rick’s bag. It wasn't bad, it wasn't even really a trip, more of a stumble, a small shift of weight and a movement of legs to avoid any actual fall.
But Rick still instinctively moved his hand to Daryl’s wrist, not actually making contact, but a supporting presence none the less.
Rick smiles as he rights himself, looking up just as Daryl looks away, and Rick’s sure he can see just the smallest hint of a smile curling at the edges of Daryl’s mouth.
Daryl hands him his book and carries on, making it through the rest of the class without any other such incident and sitting down in front of Rick again. Rick smiles, because he can’t seem to stop, and hopes that he might’ve unintentionally started something, might’ve helped a little or prompted the idea of conversation.
He never knew that Daryl tried very hard not to think about it. Not out of arrogance, or an unkind nature, or any particular bitterness but because he had learned from a young age not to invest too much hope in potential happiness.
It was a Friday, and since Rick had started Grade 11 he’d come to understand that this was nothing short of a Godsend.
The morning had been a particularly beautiful one, the summer sun had awoken him before his alarm had the chance, emulating the feeling of contentment, of safety and warmth and home. Summer always was his favorite time of year. While others complained of the stifling heat, the bugs, the constant damp feeling to the air and skin that clung to your clothes with sweat, Rick rejoiced. He loved hot weather, he loved running a hand through his hair and feeling that it was damp, he loved swimming in the lake with Shane at the weekends, he loved iced lemonade on the porch.
Rick rolled over to his side and tuned off his alarm before it could disturb the quiet serenity of the morning, briefly wondering what Daryl’s favorite time of year was.
Of course brief consideration lead to contemplation.
He could wonder all he liked, and it was never going to get him anywhere. Rick was quickly becoming aware of the fact that if he wanted to know anything about Daryl, he was going to have to initiate some kind of conversation.
Daryl was too reserved to even consider making a friend himself, of being ‘audacious’ enough to start talking to someone who had expressed no interest in conversation. It was almost sad in a way, not because Rick was in the habit of over empathizing something that could very well just be a sense of introverted social awkwardness, but because Daryl didn't seem like any of those things.
If anything, over the week that Daryl had been, not a part of, but involved (however unintentionally) in Rick’s life, he doesn't think he’d ever seen anyone so lonely.
It was sad because Rick couldn't get passed the hope that Daryl actually had quite a lot to say, that he just couldn't figure out how to say it.
So on that Friday morning, in his favorite season, with the sun warming his room and his internal monologue succeeding in making him feel a sense of hopeful audacity, Rick got out of bed, got dressed and told himself that he was going to talk to Daryl Dixon today.
Or so help him God.
It was lunchtime before Rick saw a suitable opportunity to start conversation.
Daryl was sat by himself, looking very much displaced and ever so slightly uncomfortable at having to be in the yard at all. It was no major event that lead to Daryl’s voluntary but altogether unwanted change in scenery, merely a teacher that had spotted him walking to the gym and pulled him aside to tell him that the area was off limits. Daryl nodded along to her words and kept his eyes on the floor, looking like he was used to having small comforts taken away from him.
Rick was sat across the yard, at his usual table, with Shane sat beside him opposite Layla, a nice girl, but one Rick could tell was not going to last. He was listening to them, but watching Daryl, trying to convince himself that it was still a good idea to go and talk to someone who looked so damn uncomfortable surrounded by noise.
But the sun was still shining, it was still his favorite season and Rick was hit by the memory of Daryl all alone by the tree that was no longer his and his unconventional use of a cigarette and realized that although it ‘hadn't seemed like a big deal’ he never really wanted it to happen again.
He got up, giving Shane a pat on the shoulder and reassuring him that ‘everything’s fine, I’ll be back in a minute’ before beginning the walk to Daryl’s solitary position atop the waist high wall that bordered the yard.
He was about halfway there when Daryl looked up and Rick would theorize later that it was only that moment of eye contact that kept him from noticing the man stumbling into the school entryway to the side of the wall that Daryl was perched on.
And the sunlight must’ve shone on silver, because people were shouting before the shot went off.
The school was silent for a fraction of a second, and Rick longed for the quiet contentment he knew he should’ve seen in Daryl’s eyes at the silence, but Daryl was on the floor and they weren't making eye contact anymore and after those few seconds of having it the loss of it didn't seem right.
Everything was really loud after that. And for a morbid few seconds, Rick was kind of happy that Daryl hadn't had to hear it.
But then it sunk in that Daryl was dead, and Rick realized he’d rather have Daryl momentarily uncomfortable, see that momentary flinch, then have him so resolutely un-moving, see his chest so permanently still.
He’d fallen from the wall, body slumped on the concrete, looking for all the world like a puppet with its stings cut. Blood oozed out of a hole that was near his temple but behind his hairline, causing that too long, brown hair to matt in bloody clumps.
No one came over to Daryl for an extended period of time that Rick couldn't have kept track of even if he’d given a damn. Out of his peripheral he could see that two burly teachers (‘hero’s Rick supposed the media would call them, putting the kids’ lives before their own), tackled the shooter to the floor, easily overpowering the man with the drunken slur in his voice (same accent as him, what does that mean, why is that important?) who had dropped the gun only as soon as Daryl fell.
Rick couldn't help but feel that it was all a bit too little too late.
He didn't know when he had fallen to his knees, but when Shane came up behind him and wrapped his arms around him ('I was so scared man, I thought he’d got you, thank God you’re okay, thank God') he realized that they hurt.
Shane tried to pull him up, but he didn't want to go, he hadn't spoken to Daryl yet, he was supposed to speak to him, he wanted to help him, he wasn't supposed to die.
“No.” Rick mumbled, so softly, so quietly in a playground filled with screams and cries and sirens, because Daryl didn't like the noise and why could no one else understand that, why were they all so loud.
“Come on man, you gotta get up!” Shane says, louder, too loud and Shane, stop it, he doesn't like noise.
“No.” It’s even quieter then the first and Rick’s not altogether sure he even directed it at Shane.
“Rick, get up man, come on.” Shane obviously decided to take it as an answer anyway, because he pulls Rick up by his arms and spins Rick around to face him. He can see the paramedics in the distance, running this way, running towards Daryl with a stretcher and a sheet.
There gonna take him away and I haven’t spoken to him yet, I didn't speak to him, he was so lonely, he’s still alone, oh God, he’s dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dea-
“Rick man, I know you’re in shock but-” Shane let’s go of him to run a hand through his hair, and without his support, Rick’s honestly not quite sure how he remains standing. “You barely even knew him.”
That brings him back slightly, makes him focus and he can see the paramedics picking Daryl up, arranging him on the stretcher and pulling the sheet over his head. It hits him, deep in his chest and it hurts, his heart feels like it’s trying to pump molasses through his bloodstream and his eyes are cloudy with tears and Shane is right.
He doesn't understand why he’s in so much pain.
He feels involved, he feels like he’s a part of this. Its takes him a couple of minutes to understand that the rest of the school, while in shock, while startled, isn't going to feel like this. Isn't going to feel this crippling loss. No one else had been watching Daryl like Rick had, no one else had been interested. They’d looked right through him. Seen nothing more than bruises and dysfunction. They hadn't seen a fight, a flinch, a burn, a smile.
Rick had seen Daryl.
Rick had looked into blue eyes for precious few seconds and seen the shock, the confusion, the fragile, timid flicker of hope, all because someone had taken the time to even walk towards Daryl with some kind of positive intent and that look would haunt Rick forever because it broke his fucking heart.
He didn't manage to speak to Daryl.
And that’s what hurts, not the things he had done, but the things he hadn't.
He never got to speak to him, to see his face free of bruises, to hear his voice when his throat wasn't half crushed.
And now he never will.
Daryl’s funeral would have been pathetically small if most of the school hadn't felt the need to attend.
Rick could see a grand total of two people who were not from the school. Both sat on the front row, shaved heads and broad jaws, mouths full of chewing tobacco. The older hands a flask to the younger and says something along the line of ‘Get that down you before the cops come to pick you back up.’
They look related and Rick’s pretty sure they must be members of Daryl’s family, but for the life of him he can’t figure out how. He doesn't put much thought into it anyway, his own Dad killed him, and that’s all Rick think’s he want to know about the other Dixons.
The crowd from school begins to disperse, and once Shane leaves, giving him a pat on the shoulder and an ‘I’ll be outside’, it’s just the three of them left.
There were no official speeches at the funeral, but the younger man on the pew stands up and stumbles over to the coffin anyway, giving it a solid thump that makes Rick flinch.
He just starts talking, nothing particularly good and nothing particularly bad. He was neither reminiscing nor nostalgic, merely speaking, filling the silence, making noise. The things he was saying were roughly about Daryl, but more about himself and as Rick listens further he feels like something clicks, like something makes itself clear. The guy carries on, going on about how ‘this one time this tweaker pulled a gun on ma baby brother and said he was gonna shoot him and heh, ain’t tat ironic.'
Eventually the guy talks himself into a rage, throwing the flask to the ground and destroying the decorations set at either side of the aisle.
Rick could understand it, in a way. Because the man was evidently saddened and people grieved in different ways. But Rick sort of wished he’d shut up, because Daryl had always seemed to like the silence and Rick hated that his funeral turned out to be so loud.
He becomes a policeman.
“Because I want to help people.” He says, smiling a smile that’s one part nostalgic and two parts bitter.
He gets shot.
Realizes that the pain of getting shot doesn't even compare to watching someone else go down.
The world ends.
Rick loses and finds his family.
Loses them again, finds them again.
He stabs Shane in the chest. His best friend. A man he has known for most of his life. Spoken with damn near every day for years.
Watching him die doesn't hurt as much as watching Daryl die did.
Sometimes, when his little family is as safe as it can be, Rick wonders how Daryl would've fared in this life.
He goes back and forth a lot, not sure whether Daryl would've found it freeing or constricting to run for the entirety of his life. To fight or die. To survive. Not sure whether it would even be any different than the life he had lived before.
It’s when they find the prison, when it’s secured and everyone is safe, at least for now, at least for this moment, that he finds his answer.
He wanders out into the woods, knowing that he had something productive in mind when walking out here, but choosing instead to just be, for a few minutes, for just a while, Rick stands. He listens to the birds, to the rustle of the leaves as they move with the breeze, to the bubbling of the creek he can just hear in the distance.
This life isn't peaceful.
But it can be pretty damn quiet.
He closes his eyes, tips his head back and breathes, feeling tears on his face and not minding in the slightest.
Daryl would've fit right in.