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Shadows of War, 1969

Chapter Text

Rain. Fucking figures. Daryl looked out the window from his seat in the back of the taxi. He felt like he was in a dream. It didn't seem real to be safe, dry. He told himself over and over that he was okay, he was home, he was alive, but it was little consolation. He repeated the words in his head regardless and he focused on deep breaths and the gentle rumble of the vehicle as it took him down Alexandria Avenue towards home, a home he hadn’t seen in nearly twenty-four months. Six of those months had been in bootcamp still stateside, but most of the rest had been a blur of noise and fear and confusion. Blood. Death. Just when he was coming up to the end of his twelve month tour, he’d found out that Uncle Sam wasn’t done with him yet, and new orders extended his misery in the unfamiliar jungles of Vietnam...until he was hit.

He could remember being loaded into the helicopter a couple months ago and insisting he was fine. He’d been so busy trying to breathe life into Randall, screaming for the medic even though he’d seen Bob go down first and had to assume the man was dead, that he barely registered the bullet wounds in his shoulder as he worked…or the one in his ass. He could remember the sound of gunshots, explosions and then the blades whirring in the air above him as he looked around for the rest of his platoon. He was the only one that made it to the LZ and onto that helicopter alive. Not a day went by that he didn’t regret going for the Huey; he should have just laid down and died with the rest of them.

He chewed at his lip to try to bring himself back to the present and realized he wasn’t breathing. He gasped, shook his head and tried to focus on what was real. The cab. The street. The States. He looked out the window and focused on the sidewalk and the people on it as the cabbie drove out of the city and to his small, crappy house in his small, crappy town. Although after where he’d been, he felt certain it wouldn’t seem as crappy anymore.

He thought about his last letter from Merle before he was sent back to the States after a month of recuperating in a shithole hospital in My Khe. Slipping his hand into his army duffel, he pulled it out.

Hey little brother,
Got your last letter and shit sounds miserable over there. Had a hairy situation over here the other week. Got myself some brew with the five-finger discount and had a bit of a glitch with the fuzz. Didn’t get taken in, though. Too much else for them to worry about from all the hippies and their protests. It’s a mess and a half, little brother. Sure would like to get you back home. We’d have some grass on the front porch and watch the skirts as they walk by just like old times. Got your chair waiting for you, kid. Stay safe, Merle

Daryl tried to imagine sitting on the front porch again with his older brother, drinking beer and smoking some grass. Could it really be that simple again? Just coming home and leaving all those bodies and screams behind? Swapping out the constant feel of damp socks covering his pruned, aching feet for the feel of his old worn-in rocking chair and the Georgia sun warm on his dry skin? Would the days just pass like they always had? Try to get a job at the garage or the local diner, hang out on the porch chatting, picking up a pizza for dinner instead of shoveling down C-rations? It’s hard to imagine just going back to life, especially when so many of the men he fought beside had their lives cut short. T-Dog, Nick, Randall, Bob, Paul, Morales, Lt. Ford- none of them would ever eat pizza again. None of them would feel the sunshine or have their feet planted on American soil again. It should have been him too, he thought, not for the first time. It wasn’t right for him to survive. Morales had two kids at home. T-Dog was the only son to an aging mother. Randall was just a damn kid, even younger than Daryl was. They all had lives and reasons for why they shouldn’t have gone down fighting in the mud and filth, bodies eaten alive by mosquitos; corpses rotting fast from that oppressive humidity, fighting for shit they didn’t even really understand.

The sound of a blast, loud, low and sudden, jolted him from his thoughts.

Things were so green. Everything was green, in every direction, and wet. Hot and humid and voices were screaming - some in English and some in a language Daryl only knew a few words of. His heart raced and he felt like he was drowning, felt the rain on his face and heard a click and a voice close by, words low and slow and muffled. He couldn’t understand what the voice was saying. But he knew the enemy was near. He knew his friends were screaming. He felt the brush of the jungle against his arm, the heat of an explosion. He FELT it.

Confused, Daryl blinked from the floor behind the driver’s seat of the musty old taxi. He had made himself as small as he could and wedged himself down onto the floor. He didn’t even remember doing it. The driver was leaning in from the passenger side back door, a look of worry in his knitted bushy brows and a gold cross hanging over his T-shirt where dog tags should be.

“Hey, my man. You okay? Thought you was gonna come over the seat when that cat in the Cadillac slammed on the horn.”

Daryl scooted back, confused. He was in a taxi. “This is Atlanta?” he asked, his voice quiet and gravelly.

The cabbie leaned an arm on the top of the car and scratched his head. “Well, yeah, right outside of it, man. You…I just picked you up at Hartsfield.”

Daryl reached up, opened the door he was leaning against and crawled out, his frantic breaths finally slowing. He didn’t even remember how he had gotten so worked up. He slammed the door as the driver walked back around. Daryl reached into a pocket to pull out some money for the fare, watching the driver suspiciously. “How much do I owe you?”

The driver ran his hand through his hair again. “You ain’t home yet. The address you gave me is another seven blocks.”

“I’ll walk it,” Daryl said, monotone, watching all the movement in his periphery and carefully listening to everything around him- the click of heels on the sidewalk, the jingle of a storefront door being opened, car doors slamming shut, and snippets of pointless, idle conversation about stupid shit like having change for the meter or a sale on pot roast. It made him feel surrounded, suffocated but alone at the same time.

“My name’s Dale,” the cabbie said, reaching out a hand and refocusing Daryl's attention. The returning vet just looked at him.

When Daryl didn’t reach out to shake, the man put his hands in his pockets. “Look, man. I appreciate what you done. You’re just following orders, I get that. But, umm…I’m not sure how long you been gone. People have gotten a lot worse about things,” he nodded at Daryl’s army jacket and dog tags. “You might not want to walk that distance home alone. Small town, but people’s still out of sorts here. Friend of mine got spit on, called a baby killer. People aren't treating vets as well as they been treated in past wars.”

Daryl laughed. “Ain’t scared a’ names and spit. Just got back from hell. Gonna take more than that to rattle me.”

Dale nodded and looked towards the direction where Daryl lived. A car slowed driving past them with voices singing out the windows: “Killer! Killer! Killer!”

Daryl jumped at the noise and put his back to the taxi for protection, his eyes scanning the sidewalks for any impending danger.

“See that a lot. What happened with you in the car,” Dale said, “Shell shock.”

“How much for the ride?” Daryl asked, still focused on paying up and getting home.

“Ride’s on me, man,” Dale said and he got back in the cab and took off.

Daryl watched the car until it turned at the corner. Stepping up onto the sidewalk, he kept his head down and walked with purpose towards his home. He hunched his shoulders and tried to be small, walking as close to the buildings as he could. He felt safer when he was as hidden as he could be. He knew where he was- downtown Senoia. He remembered some of the storefronts as he walked by, the Five and Dime, the Barber Shop where he’d gotten his buzz cut before he reported to the draft office, the ice cream parlor where he and Merle would run off to in their childhood when they found change in the pay phones and soda machines. It was like going back in time, everything almost the same but it seemed so much cleaner, clearer, the air so much easier to breathe.

He jumped each time an engine gunned by him and wasn’t surprised, thanks to Dale, when another car of college students taunted him with slurs. “Murderer”, “baby killer”. His heart stopped when he felt a thud against him in front of a dime store, a cold milkshake running down his pant leg. He walked so close to the buildings that the sleeve from his jacket brushed against the storefront windows.

By the time he got to the end of Alexandria Avenue, he’d removed and balled up his army jacket, stuffed it in a trashcan and shoved his dog tags under his shirt. He wanted to be invisible. He just wanted to get home. Finally, after a few more turns, 616 Hilltop was in his sight and it looked just like it did when he left it. A porch that needed painting, a small lawn that needed mowing, Merle’s old El Camino rusting in the front yard and the old Ford truck Daryl parked under the carport. He stopped on the sidewalk and faced their house, book-ended by two other houses that looked as ragged as theirs. The fence from the house on the right needed painting and the oak tree that always towered over the the other neighbor’s roof had been cut down, but Daryl’s chair was on the porch and after a moment, so was Merle.

“Baby brother!” he shouted, bounding down the steps in paisley pants and an unbuttoned striped shirt, his hand missing since an accident at the garage he worked in four years ago, making Daryl wince at the memory of all the bodies without hands and arms and legs he’d seen in-country. Babies. Women. Merle wrapped his arms around Daryl. “Peace, man. Welcome home,” he said quietly.

Daryl didn’t return the hug, but he didn’t push it off either. His throat was tight and his eyes burned as he fought to keep his emotions in check. “Got any grass, man? I’ve had a long couple years,” he mumbled into Merle’s shoulder. His brother smelled familiar, like home, like safety, like Old Spice and weed. He was ten year’s Daryl’s senior and he’d grayed a bit, maybe a new wrinkle or two, but it was Merle and Daryl finally felt like he wasn’t in ‘Nam anymore. He finally felt like he was home. Maybe he’d be okay. Maybe.

Chapter Text

“Because I said so,” Rick replied. Carl was growing up way too fast. A peace rally? What was going on in these schools? Turning kids into anti-American hippies.

“But everyone is going and...”

“Carl! You are nine. You are too young to be getting involved in these kinds of things. Aren’t you watching the television? Don’t you see what’s happening? Kids are getting hurt at these protests.”

“And kids are getting KILLED in Vietnam so no one has the right to stop us from...”

“Carl, you are not ‘us’. YOU are not going out there to disrespect soldiers who are protecting our country. This conversation is over. Go to your room.”

“Dad, you are so square. People are dying over there. And not just soldiers. Kids! Babies!” Carl shouted.

Rick pinched at his nose. “Carl, go to your room,” he said calmly, exhausted from constantly fighting with his son. “Nana will be over in a few minutes to take you to Scouts so I can get back to the barn to help with the evening milking.” Putting his hat on and adjusting his belt, he looked at Carl standing quietly on the bottom step.

“What if YOU get drafted, dad?”

“I’m not gonna get drafted. I gotta stay here and take care of your disrespectful ass. Go get ready for Scouts. And no radio or TV after.”

Slowly and dramatically, Carl trudged up the staircase.

“Carl?”

“What?”

“If I ever see you treat returning soldiers like the people at these rallies do, I WILL put you over my knee. You hear?”

“Yes, sir,” Carl pouted.

Rick stood in the kitchen, listening to the sounds of Carl’s footsteps clomping up the stairs, the music from a Coca-Cola commercial in the living room and the rhythmic tick of the tea kettle shaped clock hanging on the paisley wallpaper-covered kitchen wall. He arrived back in the living room just in time to see another story about a protest gone bad, followed by another investigative report about the latest battle in Vietnam. They’d been calling it Hamburger Hill and the public was getting worked up about the loss of life over the fight for a mountain that there seemed to be no real strategy behind. The whole thing seemed pretty pointless. Rick turned off the television as the front door creaked open.

“Hey, Mama,” Rick called as he stood and tucked his wallet into his pocket, grabbing his keys from the kitchen table.

Betty Grimes walked into the kitchen wearing a peace sign t-shirt with an oversized “Make Love not War” button pinned to it.

“No,” Rick said. “You are not coming in here like that with an impressionable nine-year-old boy here. Are you the one teaching him to be anti-American? What would Dad say?”

“He can't say anything, Ricky. Because he died in a war. And this thing in Vietnam, it has no purpose. Did you know that mountain they just fought for is back in North Vietnamese hands? Did you SEE the carnage on TV? There was no strategic reason to overtake it. The government is just sending our boys over there to die.”

“Mom, you've already forced my hand on this. I should be over there with Shane and Axel, not stuck here doing nothing to help anyone.”

“You are helping someone. You got a kid that don't have a mama to raise him, so you're not going anywhere.”

“You could keep him til I get back, Mom,” Rick tried for the millionth time.

“I'm not losing my baby to this nonsense,” she said putting her big purse on the kitchen table.

“You know your grandson is talking about going to a protest. Did you know that? Don't you see how dangerous this anti-American hostility is? Don’t you watch the news and see how violent these things are?”

Betty stood as tall as she could with her 5’2” frame. “I see plenty of violence on the news, Ricky. And a few bumps and bruises at a protest are the least of my worries.”

“How do you think Dad would have felt coming home from Korea to all this public hatred?”

“I don’t disrespect the soldiers. I just want the politicians to get their heads out of their asses and end this, bring these kids home. Most of ‘em don’t even understand what they’re fighting for.”

Rick rolled his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose as he headed for the door.

“Scouts is at six and I should be back around eight. No TV for him after. He’s being punished...and take off that damn button,” Rick said before letting the screen door slam shut behind him.

He climbed into his run-down mostly rust-colored 1953 Ford truck, and headed towards the Greene farm. He usually only worked the morning shift, handling the first milking of the day, moving the Holsteins to the pasture afterwards and working on any necessary routine maintenance– mending fences, cleaning out the water troughs and basically doing whatever Hershel needed. But Jim had been down a few days with a fever so Rick was putting in some extra hours. He didn’t mind working with the animals, and he truly enjoyed Hershel’s company as well as that of Jim and Otis, the other farm hands, but it wasn’t what he thought he’d be doing in life.

Rick grew up on superheroes– Batman and Captain America, playing cops and robbers and watching Gunsmoke on TV. He wanted to be like those heroes– saving people and setting things right. Wanted to be like his dad, who was a hero in the Korean war. Wanted to rescue the innocent from the hands of the villains. But Lori had gotten pregnant right after they married and she’d worried so much about his safety that he agreed to work on her uncle’s farm instead, understanding that being a husband and father meant he had responsibilities at home. He needed to focus on caring for his family, not saving the world. So he did work on her Uncle Hershel’s farm, thinking that maybe one day, once they were settled and the baby was older, she’d see that he wasn’t happy shoveling shit and milking cattle all day and maybe she’d finally give her blessing for Rick to do something more meaningful.

But as with everything in Rick’s life, things didn’t pan out at all like he’d anticipated. Lori died seven hours after giving birth to their son, Carl, and suddenly Rick was a single father, a farm-hand, and a man who could no longer dream of batmobiles and bank robbers.

He pulled up to the barn and jumped out, heading straight for the milking parlor. Otis was already leading the cattle in and Hershel was on a stool getting the teats on two of the cows cleaned, dried, and ready to milk.

“Sorry I’m a little late,” Rick said as he sat on a stool between two other Holsteins and began prepping them for for the milking machine.

“You aren’t late, Rick. You’re helping us out with Jim being under the weather and all. I appreciate you making arrangements to come in.”

“Happy to help,” Rick answered as he dried off one of the udders and attached the milking machine easily due to his years of experience.

“No you’re not,” Hershel laughed. “We don’t got none of that action you're always itching for here on the farm ‘cept that time one of the calves got its head stuck in the fence.”

Rick huffed a laugh, not even able to fake a smile to go with it. “It’s just hard to be a physically fit, twenty-seven year old, able-bodied man, and see all those guys over there fighting and I’m what? Hiding under udders while all these other men are doing the heavy lifting? Just don’t sit right with me, Hershel. You know that. Still makes me feel guilty even though I didn’t have any choice.”

“You talk like having to raise Carl is nothing but a burden,” Hershel said in that fatherly way of his, as he gave the two heifers he was finished working with a pat on their rumps to move them along so he could get the next two in place.

“I don’t mean for it to sound like that,” Rick said with a heavy sigh, unhooking the machine from one cow and washing down the teats of another. “I love Carl. You know that. I just feel guilty that I have no real purpose. I’m not saving lives here, y’know?”

“Lot of them soldiers look forward to a tall glass of fresh milk after being out in the jungle all that time,” Otis offered.

Rick laughed and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m a real hero.”

“Someone’s gotta do this work, Rick. I wish you could be happier with your circumstances. You’re a good man and a good father and there’s no reason you should beat yourself up with misplaced shame.”

Rick sighed as he patted the cow he was milking. “What do you think, sweetheart?” he asked the black and white Holstein, “You glad I’m here?”

She mooed in response and Hershel laughed. “These ladies couldn’t live without you, Rick.”

Chapter Text

Daryl wasn’t sure why he’d been so hell-bent about going to the store himself. He’d been home a week now and hadn’t left the living room other than having a few beers and smokes with Merle on the front porch. Hell, he hadn’t even slept in his own bed, just stayed on the couch with the TV on until he’d nod off for a few hours a night. He fought sleep. It always brought him back to damp jungles, gunshots and screams, so he tried to avoid it for as long as possible. He’d woken up every night in the short week he’d been home, hair damp with sweat and a voice desperate to scream but only making soft, struggling cries. His cries woke Merle a couple times, his older brother stumbling out of his bedroom, awkwardly trying his best to comfort his little brother, the flicker of TV the only light in the room. “Ain’t no gooks here. I checked the closets and under all the beds.” He was teasing but sincere. “You’re okay. You’re home.” And that was the long and short of it, wasn’t it? Daryl was home. And he had to move on with life, even if he felt like a part of him was still sitting in the Vietnamese jungle.

Merle had been doing enough– getting them weed, beer, and groceries. Daryl was a grown-ass man and he wanted some fucking ice cream. Hadn’t had any since before he was drafted and he wasn’t gonna wait around for Merle to get back from work. He wasn’t a child. He was a man. A man who wanted ice cream and he wasn’t gonna sit around waiting for it. He’d killed a guy with his bare hands, marched through jungles for twelve hours straight, and stayed on his feet fighting after getting shot three times. If he could do that shit then he could drag his ass down the block to the grocery store for a pint of Sealtest ice cream. It took him a good half hour to get the old pick-up going after it had been sitting so long. He didn’t even notice that he had oil along his cheek and his hair was unbrushed until he saw himself briefly through the rearview. For a moment he considered just going home, but he never gave much of a shit about looks anyway. He just wanted the fucking ice cream.

He walked into the store with the same caution he used when he was moving through villages back in ‘Nam, eyes darting back and forth, ears on full alert, trying to be constantly aware of every moving body around him. He felt too conspicuous and vulnerable in the big open store, the lights and white floors making it seem brighter than daylight. After hesitating a moment near the grocery carts, he finally took one and moved stealthy and snake-like around the produce section. He could almost taste the butterscotch ice cream as he headed for aisle three. Maybe he’d even pick up some burgers for the grill later. Merle couldn’t do everything for him forever. He had to start picking up his life somewhere. He edged up and down the aisles, the squeak from a broken wheel on his shopping cart starting to give him a headache.

He’d have to get a job soon. He was drafted straight after high school and had only worked a few weeks at the front desk of an auto parts store before he had to leave for bootcamp. He supposed he could go back there and see if a position had opened. He’d noticed a help wanted sign in a diner across the road when he pulled into the A&P. He’d try there, too. He couldn’t just sit on the couch all day anymore. It gave him too much damn time to think. Too much time to just look down at his hands and remember what they’d done. Too much time to replay moments in the bush where he could have made better decisions. It was a constant. Vietnam ran through his brain every second of the day, waking or sleeping, watching TV or sitting on the porch, trying to listen to Merle talk about mundane things like the girl he’d met walking by a protest. Andrea, he thought her name was. Merle had taken the time to give him a long description of her, mostly about the size and shape of her tits, but he definitely seemed smitten. Daryl was happy for him, but the whole time he mooned on about her, Daryl heard gunshots in the back of his head. Pictured a South Vietnamese woman on fire and running with a child in her arms.

Daryl hadn’t had any girlfriends in high school. He was more interested in cars and hunting. He’d always been a little shy and backwards anyway, and it was a surprise that he bonded so strongly with his platoon at boot camp. Pointless though, he now supposed. Since all of them were dead.

He grabbed some ground beef and a couple potatoes. Got the butterscotch ice cream he’d daydreamed about more than once in the jungle. He kept his head down but his eyes open as he moved down an aisle lined mostly with baked goods. It smelled like fresh bread and a memory of being with his mother when he was just a boy burst into his mind. They’d been at this very store, being handed a freshly baked loaf, Merle trying to give Daryl a wet willy as they waited. It was nice to have a memory that wasn’t from Nam.

Merle was a full ten years older than Daryl. And when one parent died after the other, Merle essentially raised his baby brother. Both brothers mourned the loss of their mother when Daryl was just six. But neither were sad to see their Pa go when Daryl was sixteen. Before the war, Daryl would have nightmares about his father’s abuse. But since he got back from ‘Nam, he hadn’t thought much about the old man. Perhaps there was one benefit to that awful year and a half in-country.

Daryl still had his dog tags on. Every morning he told himself he'd take them off, but he couldn't do it. They were part of him now, more necessary than underwear or shoes. They hadn’t come off his neck since he’d put them on that first day in basic. He vividly remembered Drill Sergeant Negan shouting “These do not fucking come off. I don’t care if you’re shitting, showering, fucking, or crying to your mamas. This is more important than your dick. You don’t want to remove your dick do you? Then you sure as fuck better keep these tags on 24-7, soldiers. You are nothing and nobody without them.” It was the first time he’d been called a soldier and it had been like the hazy edges of an impending nightmare.

Daryl trudged around to another aisle– all long hair, ratty jeans, one of his army-green t-shirts that he’d worn for the past three days...and nights, and the jingle of those dog tags as he walked. He knew he must look like a disaster. Dirt smudges on his face from working on the car and a faraway look in his eyes. He’d noticed in the mirror when he first got home that his eyes didn’t look the same. He could barely stand to look at himself anymore.

He shouldn’t have been surprised when a blond with a sophisticated haircut, polyester pants and a blouse, pulled her child closer and eyed Daryl as he got to the spot where the ice cream cones were. He knew he looked a wreck and he suddenly realized he had forgotten to shower for the last few days. When the woman looked back at him again, Daryl narrowed his eyes at her.

“What?” Daryl asked. “I'm a vet, not a leper.” You ain’t gonna catch nothin’.”

He'd already grown damn tired of the hatred and the news and the protests. Did these people have any idea of what he’d been through? Or how much he hated himself for making it out alive? He didn’t need anyone else’s hate. He had plenty of his own.

He thought again about the guys who didn’t make it back. Thought about Patrick’s shy smile, Randall’s surprising strength, Bob’s stupid jokes. He remembered them sitting around happy as pigs in shit when the rain had stopped one day after weeks of it. It was a happy memory for just a moment. Then he thought about T-Dog taking out a gook that had a gun aimed directly at Daryl’s head. Thought about Lieutenant Ford mowing down a dozen of them when Daryl had twisted an ankle and the VC were trying to take him alive as a prisoner.

Why was it that Daryl couldn’t do that? Save any of them like that? He’d already known how to shoot before he got drafted. He was good at tracking. How could he be standing there while his whole platoon died around him, a haze of smoke, nearly deaf from gunshots and screaming. He failed. Fuck the country, fuck the war, fuck the gooks. Fuck Vietnam. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about any of that. But the men in his platoon, his fellow soldiers– several of them also drafted unwillingly– he was fighting for them. And he failed.

He probably didn’t deserve ice cream. Hell, he barely deserved to draw breath, but he finally found himself standing with a box of sugar cones and regular cones, trying to decide what would go best with the butterscotch ice cream that was starting to melt in his cart.

The sound of a landmine shook the ground below him. The sky was a weird yellow and debris was falling thick into his sweat-soaked hair.

“Randall? T-Dog?!” he yelled. It sounded like a dream, the names ringing in his ears with an echo that didn’t seem quite right. But he dove under some brush, grabbing Patrick with him. The skinny kid fought and kicked and Daryl couldn’t understand why. “Quiet! We got Charlie all over this quadrant,” he whispered pleading with Patrick to quiet down.

Daryl felt his own heartbeat pounding in his chest and he was terrified that the Viet Cong would hear it too. To Daryl it was louder than the weapons shooting in the distance, louder than the pouring rain, louder than the soft sounds of Patrick’s sobs. He tried to steady his breathing and slow his heartbeat. He squinted back up at the sky and listened to the weird buzzing in the light above him. Was that a chopper? Fast movers? His vision faded until the lush jungle around him shifted into grocery store shelving and the gentle blue eyes of a man he’d never seen before.

Chapter Text

“Can we get ice cream?” Carl asked, now trying to be all youthful and sweet instead of his rebelliousness from the other day. When he wanted something, he really knew how to turn on that innocent charm.

“Maybe,” Rick said, although he knew (and so did Carl) that Carl would get what he wanted. Rick would justify it easily. Feeding him sweets to keep him happy was better than having him rebel and get involved in those protests.

“Can we get Pop Tarts?”

“What the hell is a Pop Tart?”

“It’s for breakfast.”

“Eggs are breakfast. Cereal is for breakfast. Pop Parts are a gimmick.”

“Tarts, dad. Louis’ dad gets them.”

“Then go live with Louis’ dad.” Rick picked up a few cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and put them in the cart as Carl grabbed a box of ice cream cones. Rick winced as he saw Carl staring at a man that looked like a lot of the returning vets he’d seen on the news– long hair, dog tags still on, dressed in dirty clothes and looking like he hadn’t showered for days. He imagined it was hard coming home from where they’d been. Shane’s letters had stopped being all badass and bravado a few months into his last tour. Now his best friend sounded lost and confused and desperate to come home. Rick wished he could have been there by his side. Shane should never have been able to go over there without Rick. Everything they’d ever done, they’d done together.

“Carl!” Rick called as he noticed his son eyeing the dog tags that hung over the man’s army issue t-shirt. “Put it in the cart or put it back on the shelf. Come on.”

Carl looked back at the man, who seemed lost in a difficult decision between sugar and regular cones, and then came back to the cart and put his selection next to the Dinty Moore. “You think that guy killed people?” Carl whispered.

“Carl, shut your face. I mean it,” Rick seethed. As Rick pushed his cart around the man, he paused to consider thanking him for his service. Vets from this conflict weren’t getting enough credit for putting their lives on the line. But before he could say anything, he saw a catastrophe happen in slow motion.

A young girl, probably a few years younger than Carl, was unattended and reaching for a glass jar of grape jelly from a table set up at the end of the aisle. Rick could tell the one she was tugging at was strategically holding dozens more in place, but before he could react, she yanked it out and glass jars fell to the ground and shattered one after another after another. The very next sound he registered was Carl calling for him as the dishevelled stranger by the ice cream cones grabbed his kid and pulled him under a table set up at the next aisle with sodas stacked on top.

“Hey! Get off me!” Carl shouted, his cries cut off by shouts from the man who was clearly suffering some shell shock.

“Quiet! We got Charlie all over this quadrant,” he whispered loudly.

Rick knelt to the ground and waved off some of the now hovering bystanders.

“Carl, just relax ok?” Rick said calmly, then he turned his attention to the vet. “Hey there. You might be thinking about the wrong place, brother. You’re home, man. You got my kid there. We’re just at the A&P.”

Carl sobbed, mostly just startled, and Rick reached out a hand to him. “Come on, Carl. It’s ok, buddy. Carl started crawling out and Rick looked back to the stranger. “Thanks for looking out for my boy here. He’s ok. You’re okay too, man.”

The man loosened his grip on Carl and his distant eyes seemed to refocus, clinging to Rick’s gaze like a drowning man to a life preserver.

“You’re ok. Just some jelly falling. Damn kid,” Rick laughed nervously.

“Sorry, man,” the stranger said, a gruff voice muffled behind long stringy hair. Rick put a hand on the man’s upper arm and helped him up to his feet. The vet had a tight hold on a clearly crushed box of sugar cones and he dropped it to the ground when he realized he was still holding it.

“I’m fine,” the man insisted as he looked down at the demolished box of sugar cones, crumbs scattered now on the floor by their feet.

“Come on people that’s enough, alright?” Rick said. “Everything is fine here. Back to shopping.”

The crowd started to disperse but their stares lingered. “You alright, Carl?” Rick asked, ruffling his son’s hair.

“Yeah, I wasn’t scared or anything, dad. Just startled.”

“‘M sorry, kid,” the man said, his shoulders hunched as he quickly headed to the exit.

“Hey,” Rick called after him, following on his heels. “I’m Rick.”

The vet stopped and looked Rick up and down. “So?”

Rick laughed nervously. “Um. I just wanted to thank you for serving your country. I...”

“You gonna start preaching to me about being a murderer then save your breath. Been stateside a week and I’ve heard it all, buddy,” he said, falling back into a steady walk again. Rick followed with Carl quietly behind him.

“I mean it. I wish I could have been there too, but...”

Daryl stopped in his tracks and turned back to glare at Rick. “You wish you could have been there? You wish you could have been there? Trust me on this, man. You don’t want to be there.”

They were outside now, just beyond the storefront doors. The sun was bright and the sound of car doors slamming intermittently stood out over the soft murmur of housewives greeting one another as they passed. Each slam made the vet flinch.

“My best friend is over there. I couldn’t go because Carl...” Rick paused and put an arm on his son’s shoulder. “His mama’s gone so it’s just me.”

“Can I look at your dog tags?” Carl asked.

“Carl, don’t be disrespectful,” Rick whispered.

The vet gave him a lopsided half-hearted grin. “‘S okay man. He can see. Hopefully it will be as close as he gets to a set of ‘em.” The man kept the tags around his neck, but held them towards Carl.

“Daryl Dixon,” Carl read.

“Yup.”

“What’s the rest of all this stuff mean? I thought it would be like your address or something,” Carl asked innocently.

“Well, it basically is. Name, Military Serial Number…that’s basically my address. Blood type and religion.”

“What’s agnostic mean?”

Rick watched as Carl seemed to take a genuine interest in this man that he was ready to protest against the other day. He was listening intently to Daryl’s answers and Rick was proud to see his son taking the opportunity to learn.

“Means I don’t know and I don’t care,” Daryl answered. He looked around the parking lot aimlessly and then brought his attention back to Rick. “Where’s your friend stationed at? You know?”

“Last time I got a letter he was on his way to A Shau Valley,” Rick said, speaking the words quietly because he knew from the coverage of Hill 937 that the very words surrounding the fighting in that area should be spoken with reverence, quiet like conversation in a cemetery. Rick cocked his head. “You anywhere near it?”

Daryl’s face paled. “Yeah, man. I was near it.” The lack of any further response told Rick all he needed to know. It wasn’t something Daryl wanted to talk about. And the chances of getting another letter from Shane were probably slim. Daryl brought a thumbnail to his mouth and chewed at it, starting to walk again towards his truck. He looked desperate to get away, but Rick was drawn to him for some reason. Hated the thought of the pain he must carry.

“You didn’t get any groceries,” Rick pointed out as he followed behind Daryl.

“Ain’t hungry no more,” Daryl murmured as he opened the door to his truck.

Rick spoke through the open window as Daryl turned the key. “Well, it’s a small town. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime. I owe you some ice cream cones.”

“Wasn’t your fault,” Daryl responded as the truck inched ahead. “Carl?” he said as he put on his sunglasses. “You stay out of trouble, little man. Ain’t always gonna have someone around to save you from fallin’ jelly.”

Carl laughed. “Yes, sir. Mr. Dixon.” Daryl looked back to Rick and gave a wave. “Sorry about your friend,” he said as the truck drifted out of it’s parking spot and headed out onto the main road.

Chapter Text

Daryl sat smoking a cigarette on the steps outside the diner. He calculated out the days in his head. He’d worked at the diner for a total of eight days over the past two weeks before his new job came to a sudden end. He’d come out and sat on the steps to smoke after they fired him.

“The food sucks,” Daryl grumbled to a pair of women in their Sunday best as they walked past him and into the building. He took another long slow drag of his smoke when he noticed another customer heading towards the restaurant. He recognized this guy. Was he from the jungle? Boot camp? When he got close enough for Daryl to see the ocean blue of his eyes, he remembered. The guy from the A&P a few weeks ago.

Daryl nodded in greeting as he blew out smoke.

“Daryl!” the man said, way more excited to see him than he was used to people being. “We...we met at the A&P a few weeks back. Rick Grimes,” he said extending his hand. Daryl looked at it and crushed out his cigarette into the concrete steps of the diner.

“Yeah, I remember. You’re ‘wish you was there’.” Daryl laughed again at the thought of it, anyone wishing they were there.

“You working here now?” Rick asked nodding to the apron he still had tied around his waist.

Daryl looked back at the diner then to Rick. “Not anymore.”

“Oh.” Rick seemed like he wanted to ask what happened but had the better sense not to. But he didn’t walk away either, just stood there looking at him. Finally Daryl felt like he had to respond with something.

“Nerves in my arm are fucked. Trouble holding things sometime. Kept breaking dishes then half pissing myself at the noise,” Daryl said with a shake of his head.

“Oh shit. I’m sorry.”

Daryl shook his head and bit at his thumbnail. “Just ain’t shook off the uh…y’know being over there. Just a little jumpy.”

“So your arm? That from getting shot over there?”

Daryl just nodded.

“You’re a hero,” Rick smiled.

Daryl squinted at Rick, suspicious. He got the purple heart over in My Khe and he never wore it. Tossed into his bag with his dirty socks and shit, and hell, he didn’t even know where it was now. “You know there ain’t no point to all of that shit, right man?”

“No point to what?”

Daryl leaned forward, elbows on his knees and he looked up and down the parking lot, keeping himself aware of his surroundings. “The whole fucking conflict. That hill we took? The one your buddy was at the base of? You watch the news, man? It wasn’t for shit. It was pointless. My platoon. T-Dog. Paul. Patrick. Morales. Randall and everyone else. What was left of them was brought back in body bags. Just cause I got lucky enough to zig instead of zag under fire don’t make me deservin’ of bein’ a hero.”

Daryl felt itchy. Like his clothes were too wet on his skin or like a sunburn was peeling. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a joint, lit it, inhaled and offered it to Rick.

Rick looked at Daryl like he was trying to memorize every emotion he was hiding behind his eyes. He took the joint and coughed out puffs of smoke after he inhaled. “Sorry,” he smiled. “Never smoked one.”

“Never smoked one? What, you a cop or somethin’?”

“No, I’m a farm hand at Greene’s Dairy. Just too busy to get out and socialize, I guess,” Rick answered.

“Ain’t you got somewhere to be, then?” Daryl asked, part of him wanting to be left alone, but the other part happy to have someone talking to him without spitting or calling him names.

“You know you don’t have to die to be admired. You risked your life over there and I’m grateful…”

“You can quit with the risking my life shit, Rick. I was forced into going. Didn’t want to. Hated every day of it. Was scared to death every single day and every single night. I never wished I was there,” he mocked. “So the hero worship is wasted on me. I ain’t no hero. Didn’t do nothin’ but shoot and get shot at. And for nothin’.”

“Your reflexes in the grocery store? Grabbing my kid like that and protecting him? That’s what makes a hero.” Rick said as he rocked on his feet and looked up at the greying sky and the start of rainfall.

“Pfft. I saved him from jelly.”

“Doesn’t matter that you were a little confused. Your instinct was to save those around you.”

Daryl took another hit off the joint and looked up at the sky. Christ he fucking hated rain. “Well, then joke's on you because I hardly saved anyone around me. Only two guys from my platoon came back from that hill. Two. And one of them was me. The other one died in a hospital in My Khe a few days later.” Daryl inhaled again, pinched off the joint and stuck it in his pocket. The grass helped him relax. He’d smoked on occasion with Merle before he was drafted, but he really picked up the habit in the jungle. It was the only way to relax, to keep from shaking constantly.

After a few more quiet moments that were surprisingly not as awkward as Daryl thought they should be, Rick continued. “So you’re looking for work then?”

“Guess so.” There was something calm about Rick. Something that settled Daryl’s nerves. He was fit, strong. Probably would have made a good soldier but he cared too much. The killing would have done him in. It almost did Daryl in. Still might get the best of him yet with the nightmares and flashbacks.

“Well, I can talk to Hershel. We could use a temporary farm hand. One of our guys has been really sick so we’re a man down.”

“Don’t know shit about farmin’,” Daryl answered as another customer walked past him up the stairs. “The cook spits in the food,” Daryl grumbled to her before biting on a jagged fingernail.

Rick chuckled. “Well, sounds like I should pass on lunch here. You want to grab a bite to eat somewhere else?”

-------

They sat in a booth in a quiet corner of a dive bar that Merle used to frequent a lot before Daryl left. He had no idea why he agreed to go. He didn’t like socializing anyway and he barely knew this weirdo. Just some random guy that couldn’t stop being thankful for Daryl’s service. Shit, he hadn’t been doing anything during the time that he was in-country except for trying not to get killed or let anyone around him get killed. And that obviously didn’t work out at all. He knew what the guy wanted anyway. And he wasn’t sure why he wanted to try to give it to him. He didn’t know this guy from Adam.

The vet chose the seat that was in the corner so he could keep a vigilant eye on everyone coming and going. They’d ordered burgers and each had a Schlitz in front of them, Daryl’s almost gone.

They were quiet. Again, not an awkward silence; just a respectful one, as if Rick knew Daryl would need some liquid courage to be able to talk much more. Daryl took another long pull off his beer and nibbled on a thumbnail. “I know what you want, Rick.”

“What do I want?”

“Want to tell me what your friend looked like? His name. Ask if I saw him? If I know anything?”

Rick looked down and ran a thumbnail over the label of his beer bottle. “Told ya I just wanted to show my appreciation. I know you boys ain’t getting much support. I see these protests and shit all the time on TV and...”

“What’s his name?” Daryl asked.

“Shane Walsh.”

Daryl nodded slowly. “Knew a couple Shanes. Anything else distinguishin’?”

“Thick dark hair. 5’10”. Obnoxious,” Rick laughed. “I broke his nose once in junior high. Fightin’ over a girl. It’s kinda bent outta shape a little.”

Daryl nodded and took a sip. He’d run into a few guys trudging through the bush that might meet that description. Had one guy in mind, actually. The memory of it brushed by him like a moth tickling his skin and leaving him skittish. Cocky guy. Talked tough but his eyes were as distant as everyone else's. Was that one of the Shanes? Daryl couldn’t remember.

“Not sure, man. Sorry.”

Rick looked disappointed. He took a drink of his beer and then met Daryl’s eyes. “Is it really as bad as they say over there?” he asked softly.

“It’s worse.” Daryl knew Rick wanted to hear more, but there was no way he could put words to it. “So did you get the girl?”

“Married her,” Rick answered with a smirk. “But y’know…. Like I said, she’s gone and I had to stay home and take care of Carl.” He ran a hand through his wavy hair and rubbed his neck. “Hated for Shane to go without me. We been through everything together.”

“Well, you had a good reason why you couldn't. That Carl seems like a good kid.”

“He is. And you know what's terrible? I know I subconsciously resent him for holding me back. He’s only got one parent and I'm an asshole.”

“No you ain't.”

“You can't tell that. You just met me.”

“Yeah, well, I seen your kid. He looks well fed, he was wearing decent clothes. He was smart and curious. Polite. He listens to ya. Ya done a fine job ‘s far as I can tell.”

“I don't spend enough time with him,” Rick admitted with a heavy sigh like it was the first time he admitted it out loud.

“Easy enough to fix,” Daryl answered.

Their burgers came and Daryl wolfed his down before Rick had taken his second bite. When Daryl looked up, Rick was watching him with a smile. “So I called Hershel on the pay phone when I went back to the John earlier. He’d be happy to have yah. Can meet me there tomorrow morning if you want. Check it out and see what you think. You interested?”

Daryl shrugged and drained his beer.

“It’s quiet. On the farm. Peaceful. I think you’d like it.”

He liked the sound of it. Not a lot of people around. Shouldn't be any real loud unexpected noises.

“Might help you with the way the war...still haunts you.”

“Ain't nothing gonna help that. Won't never be able to unsee the things I seen or undo the things I done.” But Daryl thought about his other options which only took a second because he didn’t really have any. He knew trying to get a gig working at the garage with Merle would be a disaster. Too much noise there and too much working with his shoddy right hand. He could barely get the cap off his beer, so he was certain he’d be no match for a lug nut anymore.

“What time tomorrow?”

“Five a.m.”

Daryl took a deep breath. He wanted to tell the guy to fuck off, that he’d still be asleep at five a.m. But he knew that wasn’t true. He’d be wide awake staring at the ceiling in the living room and listening to the fuzzy static from the TV that was always on in front of him. The guy seemed genuine. And kind. Daryl ain’t seen that much in the way of kind since he returned. Hell, he hadn’t seen much of kind before he left. And he had to do something anyway. Couldn’t keep living off Merle and doing nothing all goddamn day and night.

“Fine. Gimme the address, man.”

Chapter Text

Beth got to his place at 4:45 a.m. like clockwork. She watched Carl for Rick every morning and then brought him over to the farm for the day during the summer. If it wasn’t for the Greene’s and his mama he didn’t know what he’d do. After getting to the farm, he started mixing up the feed with Otis while Hershel led the cattle in.

“So he just got back home?” Otis asked.

“Yeah. Couple weeks ago. Got a little nerve damage in one arm but he’ll be able to help here.” Rick looked at his watch again. It was 5:20 and Daryl still hadn’t shown. “He’s probably just not used to getting up so early. He’ll be here,” Rick said even though he didn’t really know if he’d be there or not.

He wasn’t sure what it was about the guy that made Rick want to help him. It’s not like he didn’t look like a tough scrappy guy that could take care of himself. He just seemed so...lost. Damaged. Hurt. Rick thought back to Shane’s last few letters. It wasn’t the same Shane. The talk about missing Jessie Anderson’s bikini and stories of getting laid while he was on R&R had long since stopped. Shane hadn’t been drafted. He went in with his head down and his adrenalin high, eager to fight for his country like his dad and Rick’s dad had back in Korea. The letters he’d gotten recently seemed more like surrender than self confidence. More broken than bravado. And that wasn’t Shane. His last letter had talked about losing a guy in his platoon, watching him die. Talked about wanting to come back home, and that was something tough-talking Shane Walsh would never have admitted. Rick worried about him. He really did. Since he wasn’t here, maybe it was giving Rick something to focus on with Daryl. A way to help the soldiers that he should’ve been fighting beside.

He looked up when he heard a truck coming down the old dirt road. It was Daryl’s. Hershel was lining up the first two cows and getting them ready. “Otis can start the milking here with me,” he said. “Why don’t you show Daryl around and then you guys can keep the cattle moving.”

Rick nodded at the instruction and walked out to the gravel drive to greet his new friend.

“Sorry ‘m late,” Daryl said as Rick met up with him outside the barn.

“It’s okay. Tough to get used to farmer’s hours,” Rick laughed. “Let me show you around.”

Daryl followed him with narrowed eyes scanning the barn and the surrounding area. He had on an old white t-shirt, jeans with holes in them and those dog tags around his neck. Rick wondered why he still wore them, but was certain the answer would be hard for him to explain.

Rick introduced Daryl to Otis and Hershel and walked him around the barn pointing out a few of his favorite Holstein’s. Each one had its own personality and Rick often took to talking to them as he walked the herd to the far field after morning milking. He couldn’t stand Lucille– she was always kicking during milking and always seemed to have gone out of her way to lie in shit every day. Shiva and Tabitha were his favorites. They had a very similar black and white pattern and both always responded to Rick petting them. He liked to think Rick was their favorite, too.

An occasional moo had Daryl turning quickly in its direction, but he didn’t seem to get too worked up about it. His eyes stayed vigilant though, and the caution over his surroundings made Rick wonder what it must have been like in Nam. As eager as Rick was to fight for his country and be by Shane’s side, he wasn’t sure what the actual killing would be like. Hell, he had a bad time of it when they had to put one of the calves down earlier that spring after it was born malformed. Daryl had probably been right that Rick shouldn’t wish to be there. But he still felt like it was a duty to serve and he was unable to do it. It made him feel like less than a man.

Once the cattle were through the milking parlor and all the girls were milked, Rick and Daryl walked them out to the far field with plans to walk the fence line and see to any necessary repairs.

“So what do you think so far?” Rick asked as he patted the hind quarters of one of the heifers.

“‘S fine. It’s kinda peaceful out here,” Daryl answered, his hands in his pockets and his eyes straight ahead.

“Jim…the other farmhand. He really ain’t doin’ well. I’m a little worried that he won’t be coming back at all, so….You can stay on for a while.”

“Ain’t got nothing better to do, I guess.”

Rick looked over to the man as they walked. “Shane’s letters. They’ve changed over the past year.”

Daryl didn’t look back but he nodded as he kept his eyes on his footsteps.

“Talked to his mom yesterday. She hasn’t heard anything.”

Daryl didn’t respond.

“I’m sorry to be talking about it. Just wanted to let you know that if you… if you need someone to talk to… I’m a good listener.”

They walked in a companionable silence for quite some time. The sun was warm on Rick’s skin and the slight breeze felt nice as it cooled his sweat-damp shirt.

“Don’t sleep good,” Daryl muttered.

“I bet,” Rick nodded. “Bad dreams?”

“Yeah. Everytime I close my eyes.”

Rick opened a gate and they stood as the rest of the herd continued over to the far field. When they fell in behind them and started walking the perimeter of the fence, Rick looked back towards the barn then again at Daryl.

“You seem tired. Wish there was some way I could help, man.”

“Was you a Boy Scout, Rick?” Daryl asked.

“Yeah, so’s my kid, actually. Why?”

“You just got this do-gooder thing going on. Probably spend your Saturday nights helping little old ladies across the street.” He paused. “Spend your days takin’ pity on vets that done lost their minds.”

“I ain’t taking pity on you,” Rick said. “Barely even like you to be honest. I mean… sugar cones? I’m a regular cone guy myself. Only felt bad for you in that grocery store because it was bad enough having poor taste in the first place and then you didn’t even get the cones at all.”

Daryl actually smiled, putting his hand over his mouth like it was shameful or something he should be embarrassed about.

“It’s okay to smile, y’know?”

Daryl looked somber again quickly. “Ain’t no one else I fought with able to smile no more. Feels wrong.”

“Survivor’s guilt,” Rick said.

“What the hell’s that? Some head-shrinking mumbo jumbo?”

Rick laughed and shook his head as he stopped at a few branches that had fallen against the barbed wire fence.

“I had it after Lori died. Felt like it should have been me. A boy needs his mama. She’d been so excited to see him, to hold him. The doctors told me it was a difficult birth and she wasn’t in the clear yet. But I was still so shocked when I found out that she was gone. Went through some dark days,” Rick said. He thought back to how bad the hurt had been every waking hour. How much he felt like everyone around him looked at him as if he had no right to still be alive if Lori wasn’t. “Ain’t as bad as you got it, though. I didn’t have to see any blood and she died when I was in the waiting room. I didn’t have to watch it happen.”

“I don’t think there’s a comparison. I never had no one like that so I can’t even imagine the pain. Tore my heart out when each of my guys died in front of me. T-Dog. Bob. Randal. Patrick. Even the Lieutenant. But if someone died that I was fuckin’... I’m sorry, I mean, involved with…I bet that would have been even more gut-wrenching.”

“It’s not an easy world,” Rick said absently as he pulled the branches back and tightened the barbed wire.

“What was she like?” Daryl asked as they started walking again.

Rick smiled. He could do that now, after nine years– smile at the mention of her. “She was sweet. Naive as hell, but absolutely sweet. Long dark hair and dark eyes. A bright smile. She was a bit of a worrier. Didn’t want me to be a cop, that was my dream. Hershel’s her uncle actually, that’s how I ended up here. The irony was, that she was always so worried about something happening to me… and…” Rick just let the sentence die out. “You got a girl?” he asked, ready to change the subject.

“Nah,” Daryl answered bashfully as he kicked at a rock.

“It’s such a nice thing, to have someone like that. The intimacy. It’s just nice. You’re still so young. Someone will scoop you right up. You’re a good lookin’ cat. How old are you? Twenty? Twenty-one?”

“Twenty-one. You?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“You think about looking for someone else?” Daryl asked.

Rick shook his head as he looked up at the fluffy white clouds. “Been busy, I guess.” He looked down at his watch. “Lunch time,” he said as they finished looping the field and making a few mends to the fence line.

“What time should I come back?” Daryl asked.

“Come back? No, man. You gotta stay. Hershel’s wife Annette always makes us a big damn meal. You’ll love it. And the best thing– she makes homemade ice cream. Think she’s even got sugar cones in the cupboard,” Rick said with a wink.

A short while later, Hershel, his wife, his two daughters, Carl, Otis, Rick and Daryl all sat around the table eating meatloaf sandwiches and greens, chattering about Beth and Carl’s stop at the library and what Otis’ wife made for dinner the night before. Daryl was quiet, scarfing down his lunch like usual.

“Daddy, the news was bad today,” Bethie started.

“Beth, no,” Maggie interrupted tossing her gaze over to Daryl so her younger sister would understand why.

Daryl froze in mid-chew at the attention.

“Why? What’s going on?” he asked with his mouth full.

“No, it’s not about the war,” Beth whispered to Maggie. To the rest of the table she spoke louder. “Have you seen all that stuff going on at the Stonewall Inn? The Riots? It’s been days and things are still out of control.”

“What’s that, some anti-war protest?” Daryl asked, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve.

“Well, it’s a fight between the gay community and the police…like they want equal rights or something but people are getting hurt.”

Hershel wiped his mouth with a napkin and took a long, slow drink of water. “Maggie, have you heard from Aaron?”

“Who’s Aaron?” Daryl whispered to Rick.

“No, Daddy. I called twice. Neither of them answered.”

“Well, I don’t particularly approve, but Aaron’s my nephew and I don’t want to see him get hurt. You think he and Eric live nearby?”

“They’re in Greenwich Village. That’s the heart of it,” Maggie answered.

Rick leaned over to Daryl. “Aaron. That’s Hershel’s nephew, my wife’s cousin. He’s gay and moved to New York. Thought his life would be easier up there.”

“Oh,” Daryl responded, sounding surprised.

“I’m sure he’s fine, Hershel,” Rick added. “He can hold his own. He’s a damn scrappy kid.”

“If I was up there, I’d be protesting with him,” Carl shouted. Rick was fairly certain the boy had no idea what gay even meant.

“You would protest against candy, kiddo, just to protest. Don’t forget to eat your greens,” Rick laughed.

“I’ll keep trying to call,” Annette said. “Feels like this whole world is falling apart some days.”

“So, Daryl,” Maggie said, clearly trying to change the conversation. “Did you know there are groups of vets that are protesting the war now?”

“Maggie, dear. Don’t treat our company disrespectfully,” Annette chimed in.

“I just wanted to know what he thought about it is all. He was there.”

“Maggie,” Hershel started.

“No, it’s okay,” Daryl interjected. “What do you want to know?”

“Well, are you against the war?”

“Yes.”

She smiled at his answer. “Me too. Maybe we can go to one of their marches some time.”

“I’ll go with you too, Daryl,” Carl chimed in.

“The only march you’ll be doing is back home tonight,” Annette said, combing Carl’s too long hair out of his face with her fingers.

“Maybe I could go with you guys,” Rick said. He had no idea why he was compelled to insert himself. He was fairly certain that Maggie was flirting with Daryl.

“I’m surprised to hear that from you, Rick,” Annette said as she got the ice cream out of her freezer. “Aren’t you the one who was dying to go fight?”

Daryl looked over at Rick, very interested in his answer.

“I’m not so sure I was right about wanting to go.”

“I’m glad you didn’t go dad. You’d probably be dead. Like with maggots and body parts blown off,” Carl added as Rick gave him a sharp look to get him to stop with the details.

“And so am I,” Hershel said with a laugh. “Can’t do all this work myself. Which reminds me– Daryl we are glad to have you on board. I’m sure I’d be able to keep you on even after Jim gets better. Always plenty to do around here, son.”

Daryl tore his eyes away from the carton of vanilla that Annette was scooping from. “Thank you, sir.”

“Annette,” Rick chimed in. “Daryl wants his in a sugar cone.”

After the second milking, Rick and Daryl cleaned up the stalls together while Otis and Hershel moved the cattle. They worked quietly and Rick was glad to see Daryl falling into place with the work.

“What do you think about that Stonewall thing,” Daryl asked out of the blue.

Rick leaned on his pitchfork to consider the question. “Don’t mind me any if someone’s gay. Police gotta do their job, though. Probably a complicated situation.”

“Did that Aaron guy…did he say he was gay to get out of the draft?”

“He’s in school. Hasn’t been drafted, but his boyfriend Eric did. Got drafted and told them he was as gay as they come. Used to think he was a sissy for using that to get out of his duty…but I mean…I still think it’s important to fight for your country. But I don’t like seeing what the war has done to you. Or hearing how much it’s changed Shane in his letters. I met Eric once. I don’t think he’d make a very good killer.”

“Do you think I made a good one?” Daryl asked and Rick froze at the question. It had grown dark and they were surrounded by the sounds of crickets and the flashes of yellow flashes from fireflies.

“I killed sixteen people,” Daryl said when Rick didn’t respond. “Sixteen. Most of them were younger than me.”

“You remembered the number? How did you…how did you get through it?”

“Had to make yourself think of them as less than a man. Had a guy in my platoon, Nick. He would cut the ears off each kill and hook them to a piece of rope around his neck. I started doing that too. Helped me keep count and to just think of them as a notch on my rope. Not a person. I couldn’t let myself think of them that way.”

Rick didn’t respond.

“Confiscated them at customs,” Daryl said then he laughed at himself awkwardly.

“That’s dark, man,” Rick added with an unexpected laugh.

“Whole world is dark,” Daryl answered. “Whole damn world don’t know which way is up anymore.”

Chapter Text

They hadn’t expected the attack. All the intelligence they had was showing a clear path through the jungle. You never put your guard down, but sometimes you like the idea that things might be okay for a day. It was sunny. Daryl should have known that something horrible was gonna happen. No way they’d get both sun and a battle-free day all at once. No way.

“Got a letter from my girl today,” Bob said as they trudged ahead through the jungle.

“Yeah?” Daryl asked.

“Ohhh the sweet things she said to me, man,” Bob sighed. “Can’t wait to feel her arms around me again.”

“Or her hands around your dick, right medic?” Lieutenant Ford chimed in.

“Well, yeah. That too,” Bob laughed.

“Hey, you see that?” Paul interrupted as Daryl held his rifle up and aimed towards the flash of motion in his periphery. Everyone stopped, stayed silent except for the sound of weapons being raised.

“See what?” the Lieutenant asked softly.

“Thought I saw movement in the bush over there,” Paul whispered back.

“Could be a kangaroo or somethin’,” Randall added.

Daryl glared at the guy. He was new, only been in country a few weeks. “We’re in ‘Nam, not the goddamn outback, man.”

“Snake maybe? Pig?” Bob asked. “We’re supposed to be clear this way.”

“Nah,” Paul responded. “Seemed taller than a...”

The first bullet whizzed between Daryl and Nick before Paul could finish his sentence.

“We got Charlie!” Lieutenant Ford shouted.

Suddenly Daryl could see all kinds of movement in the bush, heard the sounds of gunshots and Vietnamese orders being cried out from the enemy. He dropped to the ground and elbow-crawled under some brush with his gun up and ready. He shot a few times but couldn’t tell in the frenzy if he’d hit any specific target. It was only the third close-up gun battle he’d fought in-country. He was fairly certain he’d hit his mark a few times already but these guys were right on top of them. So close. His hands were shaky and sweaty from his nerves and the moist heat of the jungle.

Everything seemed to be moving too fast as he tried to eye up the enemy moving through the woods, taking shot after shot then everything stopped. And the whole world began moving in slow motion as a north Vietnamese soldier suddenly appeared out of nowhere and bent down, gun to Daryl’s head, and made eye contact with him as Daryl lay on the ground helpless. They held their eye contact quietly as the fighting continued all around them. The kid looked about Daryl’s age and there was fear in his eyes that was most likely similar to the fear in Daryl’s. He quietly whispered something in his language that Daryl couldn’t translate, then cocked the trigger of the gun.

Daryl thought of his brother. Thought of the sweet taste of nicotine. Thought about the Georgia sunshine. Thought about the guys in his platoon laughing on a moonlit night during a game of cards. Then suddenly one of the soldier’s comrades came running up screaming, his face and shirt soaked in blood. And he collapsed in pain and shock from his injuries. The man...well, boy, that was ready to kill Daryl became distracted and Daryl moved like a tiger, reaching down to his knife, unsheathing it, and grabbing the gook by the shirt so he fell into the dirt. And Daryl stabbed him. Right in the forehead. He watched as the light faded out of the man’s dark brown eyes. It was his first direct kill, eye to eye, hand to hand. He quickly puked up his c-ration from earlier. Hell, Daryl was only nineteen and this kid seemed younger than him. Did he want to fight anymore than Daryl did?

“Hey, man, you okay?” It was Nick. “Got ‘em all, brother. We can keep moving.”

Daryl looked up at him with glassy eyes as Nick took in the scene around him.

“Oh shit, man. First one up close and personal?”

Daryl nodded.

Nick knelt in the dirt and got out his knife. “Look kid, you can’t think of them as people. This gook was gonna kill you dead as soon as look at yah. It was you or him. And he ain’t no human. He’s the enemy. He’s one in a number of your body count,” Nick said as he sawed the dead man’s ear off. “You don’t think of them as people. They are notches on your bedpost man. Nothing but a souvenir magnet from a tourist trap. He strung the ear onto a rope and put it around Daryl’s neck.

“Next one won’t be as hard. I promise,” he said, tapping at the four ears that hung from his own necklace.

“Alright, Ladies. This ain’t a sewing circle or some shit. We got caught with our pants down but we’re all here. We made it. Well, except for a few of these gooks. And I think Paul’s drawers have seen better days.” The men laughed nervously, still shaking off the surprise and the adrenalin. “Come on now let’s put our big girl panties on and keep moving. We got another 15 klicks to go today,” Lieutenant Ford shouted.

Daryl stood and dusted himself off. He looked down at his kill and the man’s eyes popped open.
“Good luck forgetting me,” he said in perfect english.

Suddenly Daryl was in a cab; he was dry and clean and looked up at the rearview mirror and saw the Vietnamese soldier looking back at him from the driver’s seat. “Told you, soldier. I am with you always. Until the day you die.”

The cab seemed to fade away and Daryl was standing in the graveyard where his parents were buried. He’d never once gone to see them. The nameless man who was his first kill was digging a grave and smiling at Daryl. He was speaking but Daryl couldn’t make out the words and then the graveyard shifted into the jungle. “You know it’s over for me Private First Class Daryl Dixon. You will be haunted forever, but I’m resting in peace. Don’t you wish you could join me?” he asked as he held a gun up to Daryl’s head.

It was then that Daryl bolted upright on the couch, his clothes soaked completely through with sweat. Merle was there trying to shake him awake and Daryl, still confused and disoriented, swung a punch that Merle caught in his big hand before it did any damage.

“Easy little brother. Just a dream. You’re home. You’re safe.”

Daryl stood and pushed Merle away. “Don’t fucking talk to me like I’m a goddamn baby.”

Merle raised his hands in surrender. “Didn’t mean any disrespect. Just trying to help. It’s been almost two months. I was really hoping things would get better for you. Not worse,” Merle said sincerely.

Daryl looked at the clock. “Shit man, 5:43. I’m late for work.” It had been about a month since Daryl had been working with Rick at the farm and it felt good to be there and focused on the animals…and on Rick…during the day. It was the nights that killed him.

“Didn’t he stop by to pick me up? We been doing that for weeks.”

Merle nodded. “Yeah, he was here. We both seen you was sleeping without tossing and turning and neither one of us wanted to disturb you from getting some real shut-eye. He said just to head over when you wake up.”

Daryl grumbled about being a grown-ass man and not wanting the special treatment as he made his way to the shower. By the time he got to the barn, the first round of milking was nearly done. Jim had been back for a while, so there were enough to do the job, but Daryl was still wracked with guilt.

“I’m so sorry, Hershel,” Daryl said as soon as he walked into the parlor.

“No problem, son. We can make due. Rick said you were getting some real shut-eye. That’s good.”

Daryl moved to help Hershel clean out the stalls. Otis and Rick must have been leading the herd to the far field.

As Daryl scooped up the mess the Holsteins had made he looked over to Hershel with narrowed eyes.

“Rick said you was in Korea.”

Hershel nodded. “Yes, yes I was.”

“Ever have nightmares about it?”

“Sure did,” Hershel answered, giving Daryl his full attention.

“Can’t shake ‘em,” Daryl admitted. “They ever go away?”

“I can sleep sometimes,” Hershel said softly. “It does get easier. Nightmares come less…but they still come.”

Daryl nodded as he looked out at the cows following Rick and Otis in the distance.

“I mostly try focusing on the present best I can,” Hershel added. “Focusing on the people that need me. Annette and my girls.”

“I don't have anyone like that,” Daryl said softly.

“You got your brother. And Rick there. Hell, I think that guy would dive on a grenade to keep you safe.”

Daryl laughed. He and Rick had definitely become good friends and since they were both bachelors they tended to hang out even after hours, taking Carl to the pictures or out for ice cream, the three of them tossing a football around after lunch when the weather was good. A couple nights Rick even joined Merle and Daryl on the porch for a few beers and a smoke.

“No idea why.”

“My oldest has herself a little crush, you know,” Hershel smiled.

“Oh. On Rick?”

“No, heavens no. Rick's family. On you, kiddo.”

Daryl blushed beet red at the comment. “Hell, she can do better than me. I'm too broken for anyone.”

“I was broken too, then I met Annette. My Maggie might not be the one for you, but let yourself live, Daryl. It's the best advice I can give you.”

Daryl grunted in response as he finished up his work in the barn.

As they all sat around the table feasting on Annette’s lunch, beef stroganoff and noodles, Carl spearheaded the conversation.

“Louis’ dad let him go to a protest the other day, Dad.”

“Sounds irresponsible to me,” Rick answered as he reached for the pitcher of sweet tea, pouring himself some and topping off Daryl’s glass as he was at it.

“Daryl, Louis said there were tons of vets there. You should really go to one. I could come with.”

Maggie giggled. “Boy, I've never seen someone try so hard to get their way. You know it's not just a big street party, right kiddo. I been to a few with some of my friends and it's downright heartbreaking. Wouldn't hurt though, Daryl. These guys have been through it all, too. Might help to have someone to talk to.”

“He talks to me,” Rick answered, sounding slightly like a jealous high-schooler.

Maggie rolled her eyes. “I mean someone who understands. There’s a protest over in Atlanta tomorrow. You wanna come? Jim’s better. He can handle the cattle, right Daddy?”

Daryl remembered Hershel's comment earlier about the crush and he shook his head, staring at his plate. “Don't think I'm…ready for that. Maybe sometime, though.”

As if Rick could sense Daryl's comfort level shift, he reached for the rolls and changed the conversation.

“Guess who got their merit badge for fishing yesterday?”

“Did you?” Hershel asked looking over at the younger Grimes.

“Yeah,” Carl answered, easily leading away from the previous discussion. “I got all my knots right– even a clinch knot and an arbor knot– and I could totally get a hook out if one got stuck in my arm.”

Rick smiled proudly at his son. “I can’t even tie half of those.”

“What badge is next, kiddo?” Otis asked.

“Well, I really wanna get my archery badge, but Dad thinks it might be dangerous.

Daryl perked up at the mention of archery. “Like bow and arrow?”

“Yeah,” Carl answered with his mouth full.

“I can do that,” Daryl said quietly.

“Do what? Shoot a real arrow?!” Carl asked animatedly.

“Yeah. Used to hunt deer that way.”

“Did you get some?” Carl asked. Rick watched the exchange with a smile, happy to see Carl being focused on things young boys should be focused on and equally happy to see Daryl interacting more with everyone, speaking up instead of only watching warily from the end of the table.

“Well, yeah. Had to eat,”

“Whoa! Can you help me get my badge?”

Daryl looked to Rick. He looked so uncertain and uncomfortable with all the eyes at the table on him.

“Well, I think it’s kind of dangerous Carl, but if you promise to listen to Daryl closely...”

“I will, Scouts Honor!” he shouted.

Outside as they got ready for the next milking, Daryl looked over at Rick. “You sure it’s okay if I help Carl with that badge?”

“Sure. Why wouldn’t it be?”

Daryl kicked at some dirt as he washed the equipment. “I…you know the way I get sometime. What if it happens when I’m with him.”

Rick put his hands on his hips and nodded in understanding. “Carl’s seen it. And you’ve been doing better anyway ain’t yah? Farm’s been good for yah. Even slept good last night.”

Daryl didn’t have the heart to tell Rick that although he was asleep, it wasn’t at all good.

“Carl likes you. He’s comfortable with you. And I think you’d like focusing on something like that. Keep your mind…you know…off thangs.”

This time Daryl nodded. “Okay.”

Chapter Text

Rick caught Daryl's eye and they shared a silent laugh the first time Carl tried to notch the arrow in the bow and hold it steady. Carl. He wanted to grow up so fast, be so big, be so strong. He wanted to save the world in his own way and for all those reasons he was clearly his father’s son.

His first arrow dropped out of the bow about a foot in front of him, and Daryl couldn't help but chuckle. Rick felt guilty that he got such happiness out of that laugh since it was at his son’s expense. But it always felt like a fog lifting when the moody vet allowed himself to crack a smile.

“I can do it! I can do it!” Carl shouted confidently as he picked up the arrow to try it again.

The second time it merely dropped to the ground at his feet Rick couldn't help but laugh out loud. “You’ll get it, buddy. Don’t give up.”

Daryl picked up the arrow and responded to Carl’s pout. “Takes a lot of practice, kiddo. You know when I was at boot camp I almost shot myself in the foot with my rifle while I was trying to load it.”

Carl giggled. “Really?”

“You bet. The other guys called me four-toes the rest of training. Didn't really shoot one off, but I was damn close,” he laughed.

Rick liked to see a smile on Daryl’s face as he not only spoke about his time in the service, but did so voluntarily and with Carl. Rick was no therapist and he knew shit about Shell Shock, but he felt that it was important for the man to be able to talk. Daryl notched the bow and looked down at Carl to show him. “Hold it a little tighter this time and higher. Like this.”

It was a beautiful, cloudless early August day and Rick couldn't think of anything more peaceful than being in the backyard with Carl…and Daryl. There was this instant comfort between the three of them. Almost like some weird kind of family. He'd met Daryl just a few months ago, but he was already starting to forget what life was like without him around. The man could be moody, some days mysteriously quiet, and other days curious and chatty. But whatever kind of day he was having, Rick liked his company, liked having him around.

A flutter of curtains from the kitchen window caught his eye and he saw his Mama watching them. Her signature smile was nowhere to be found.

Only slightly worried about why she was stopping by on a random afternoon, Rick picked up the pace as he walked to the house. Usually they'd still be at the farm doing chores before the evening milking, but sometimes when they were caught up they could sneak off for a few hours in the afternoon.

When Rick walked in, the first thing he noticed was that she wasn't wearing any of her obnoxious shirts or pins. The second thing he noticed was the tear-stained mascara trails she’d tried unsuccessfully to wipe away.

“What's wrong,” Rick asked.

“I just talked to Ella-May.”

“Mrs. Walsh? Did she get a letter? I haven't gotten one in months.” Rick knew it was a stupid question when he heard it spill out of his mouth.

“She had a visit. They came this morning,” Betty said flatly. “Shane died in a battle outside the A Shau valley during a search and clear operation. He was protecting a young medic in his platoon from gunfire. Saved the kid’s life.”

Rick backed into one of the kitchen chairs and sat down, his face blank, his stomach sinking like a stone in free fall. Neither spoke for a moment.

“When?”

“Two days ago”

Shane re-enlisted twice out of his sense of duty so he’d been overseas for nearly three years. It was hard enough for Rick transitioning to only writing letters instead of going bowling and double dating and drinking beers together. But now this was it. There was no more “when I see you again”. Shane was never coming back home.

Betty moved to the window above the kitchen sink again and peered out into the yard. “Thought I’d take Carl for the night. Give you some time.”

Rick bowed his head and rubbed a hand over his beard.

“Yeah. Gotta tell him first.”

“They’re coming in, sweetheart,” his mother said softly.

Rick stood as the door opened, wiping at his glassy eyes with the back of his hand.

“What's wrong? Carl asked innocently. Daryl stiffened, backed against the door and didn't say a word.

“You remember Uncle Shane, buddy?”

Carl looked from Rick to Betty and back.

“Yeah.”

Carl was only six when Shane left, so Rick hoped it wouldn't be too painful for him.

He sat back down. “Shane was killed in action two days ago. Nana just found out.”

“Oh,” Carl said. He walked awkwardly toward Rick and hugged him.

“Do you think we could have saved him if we went to that protest?” he asked.

“No, buddy. There's nothing either one of us could have done.”

Rick held Carl tight, allowing some tears to spill over.

“He was your best friend like Louis is mine,” Carl said.

“Yes,” Rick whispered.

“I hate the war,” Carl said softly. “It's making everyone hurt.”

Rick looked up to meet Daryl's eyes as he held his son, his hand petting at Carl's hair. Daryl’s presence was a silent strength that filled the room. And Rick felt guilty momentarily for being glad he was here. Rick needed that strength, but he knew that news of any fallen soldier would be hard for Daryl to take.

“Hi. I'm Betty Grimes,” Rick's mother said as she reached out a hand. “You must be Daryl.”

“Yes, ma’am. He shook her hand properly and nodded his head.

“I know you boys didn't want to be over there. I'm sorry you had to go.”

“Me too, ma’am.”

“Carl,” Betty said after a deep breath. “I thought I could take you and Louis out for ice cream and a movie. Have a sleep-over at my place. What do you think?” she asked, straightening her blouse and dabbing at the corner of her eye with a tissue.

“I guess,” Carl said as Rick finally let him go. “Unless you want me to stay, Dad.”

“No. That's okay, buddy. Go have fun with your friend.”

After Betty left with Carl the house fell silent, Rick still sitting in his chair trying to absorb that another person in his life was just gone, while Daryl remained standing stock-still by the door. After Lori, Rick had leaned on Shane so much. They’d been best friends since the first day of kindergarten. Shane had been by Rick’s side for his wedding, Carl’s birth, and Lori’s subsequent death. He’d been there for Rick as he was fumbling through being a single parent...and Rick wasn’t even there for Shane as he left the earth forever.

“Hadn’t gotten a letter in a while. Should have been more prepared than this,” Rick said softly.

“Ain’t never prepared,” Daryl answered just as quiet.

Rick took a deep, steadying breath. He looked at Daryl who was still standing tall and trying carefully to be whatever it was Rick needed.

“Shouldn’t have happened like this,” Rick said.

“None of this should be happening.”

“I mean Shane. Shane shouldn’t have…I…I should have been there!”

“There was nothing you could have done. You just told your boy that and you’re right.”

“There is something I could have done!!! I could have been by his side!!” Rick yelled, immediately aware of his misplaced anger. Daryl flinched at the unexpected raised voice.

“I’m sorry, Daryl. I don’t mean to take it out on you.”

They remained there in the room together for several more long minutes, the shadows of the sun through the trees crawling along the kitchen wall.

“I got a bottle of Jack at the house,” Daryl offered. “Wanna get drunk?”

Rick looked up and cocked his head. “We got milking in an hour or two.”

“I’ll call Hershel. I’m sure he, Otis, and Jim can handle it tonight.”

Rick nodded. “Okay.”

Daryl drove Rick to his place after he’d called Hershel and called ahead to Merle while Rick was in the bathroom, letting him know they were on their way and why.

By the time they pulled up, Merle had brought a third rocking chair from the living room out on the porch and he had three tumblers of Jack poured. As Rick walked up the stairs ahead of Daryl, Merle raised his glass and handed one to Rick. “I’m sorry to hear, man,” Merle said.

Rick nodded, took the drink like a shot, and sat in the middle rocking chair as Daryl sipped at his drink and sat next to him.

The three sat sipping in silence a bit before Merle lit up a joint one-handed, took a hit, and passed it to Rick. “Dull the pain, brother?”

Rick sucked in the sweet smoke and exhaled, much better at it now since he and Daryl had shared many a smoke together.

After a few hits he felt that haze hanging over his brain making everything just a little bit fuzzy and a little less real.

“Daryl said Shane was like a brother to ya,” Merle said after a long swallow of Jack. He shook his head and looked aimlessly across the street. “I can’t even imagine the pain. Ones of us left behind, it ain’t like what Daryl and Shane been through, I know there ain’t nothin’ worse. But it was months, years of being terrified every day. Worried every time the phone rang or an unfamiliar car pulled up near the house. Went a month and a half once without a letter and I got drunk and cried my damn eyes out. ME! I don’t know if you can tell, but I ain’t typically no crier.”

Rick nodded, familiar with the feelings.

“And here I thought you just missed bumming cigarettes off me while I’s gone,” Daryl said, adding a bit of levity to the heaviness in the air around them.

“I’m every bit as glad as Merle that you made it back Daryl. Just glad I hadn’t met you before you went. I’d have been a complete wreck.”

Daryl cocked his head at Rick’s words and looked at his friend like he was trying to figure out a puzzle.

“One time,” Merle started, “A car came. One of them black ones with two uniformed Army getting out.” He shook his head at the memory. “I closed the shades, turned up the stereo as loud as it would go and hid in the bathroom for two hours getting high as a kite. Came out later and that Rhee woman from across the street come out. I froze. She said that officers had been there and for a minute I thought they really were knocking at my damn door. Then she says it was for Mitch two doors down. Never felt so relieved in my life.”

“That Glenn kid ever get drafted? Ain’t seen him around,” Daryl asked.

“Nah, off to college,” Merle answered. “They probably would have had to drag him kickin’ and screamin’, while he’s shoutin’ about bein’ a conscientious objector or a queer , flat foot, or anything that would get him out. He wouldn’t have cared if it made him look like a pussy. I ain’t never seen him as much as swat a fly since he was a kid.”

“I used to look down on people like that. Ones that lied to get out of their duty,” Rick said. “But now, I seen what it’s done to you, Daryl. I’ve heard your stories. Heard Shane’s from all his letters. If folks find a way to get out, then more power to ‘em. You were right, we’re not doing anything over there but dying” He poured himself another shot and sucked it down as the joint was passed back to him. He inhaled deep and held in the smoke as he gazed up at the stars. When he let the smoke go, he turned to Daryl.

“What do you think his last moments were like?” He asked, unsure if it was out loud or just in his head.

Daryl rocked forward with his elbows on his knees. “So fast. Probably scared but focused. Once he was hit, he probably thought he was glad to take the bullets so they didn't end up in anyone else around him.”

“That how it was for you? When you were shot?” Rick asked.

“Yeah. But I had to live through watching the others die. At least Shane didn't have that burden.”

Merle refilled their glasses and they all sipped at the whiskey without words.

“Hey,” Merle exclaimed so suddenly out of nowhere that Rick noticed Daryl jump in his seat. “I know what will do us all some good. Come with me and Andrea to New York.”

“What the hell’s in New York,” Daryl grumbled.

“Music festival. Joan Baez, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, The Who. Should be a damn good time. Me and Andrea already got our tickets.”

Daryl looked to Rick as if he’d only be interested if Rick was. “Might be nice to get away,” Daryl said. “Hershel’s got two men there, and I’m sure the three of them could handle things for a while.”

“When is it?” Rick asked as he took another hit of the joint that was still being slowly passed around.

“Mid-August. We was gonna head up on the 13th.”

“That’s only a week away,” Rick said.

“Sometimes, Rick, you gotta be spontaneous,” Merle said.

Daryl looked over at Rick again. “You sure the noise won’t be too much for you?” Rick asked.

“I think I need to get out of this shell I created around myself. Don’t wanna be like this forever,” Daryl admitted.

Rick nodded and poured himself another glass of whisky. “Yeah. Maybe we can just head up with you. Get tickets on site.”

“Groovy, man. It’s gonna be all peace and love, something we all could use. I’mma go call Andrea and let her know.” Merle got up and went inside, leaving Rick and Daryl on the porch alone.

Sipping at his glass of whiskey, Rick listened to his friend speak, his voice low and quiet. “You can stay over. Your mom’s got Carl and I think you might be too fucked up to find your way home,” Daryl said with one of those rare smiles.

Rick nodded as he drank.

“You know…I been thinking about maybe going to that protest Maggie was talking about tomorrow,” Daryl said.

“Yeah?” Rick asked.

“Mhm. Don’t really want to like…go without you though, man. Mags…a while back her old man said she’s got a crush on me.”

“Mags is a cutie,” Rick said with a grin. “You don’t want to go just with her? Make it a date?”

Daryl turned beet red and took a final hit of the barely-there joint. “Nah, she ain’t really my type.” He picked up the bottle of Jack and, noticing it was almost completely gone, took a final guzzle straight from the bottle. “I sleep on the couch. You can have my room.”

They walked inside and Daryl turned the TV on low. “You still fighting off sleep?” Rick asked.

Daryl bit at a nail. “Just not tired.”

“Can I watch with you for a while?” Rick asked as he heard the intro music for Bonanza.

Daryl shrugged so Rick sat down next to him. They watched for a good half-hour before Rick looked over to see Daryl very much fighting sleep. His eyelids drooping shut then opening wide just a moment later.

Rick wasn’t sure what it was about Daryl that drew him so intensely to the man. He’d actually started to wonder if he had something in common with cousin Aaron after all. Just looking at the man gave Rick an overwhelming desire to hug him, touch him, comfort him. He watched as Daryl licked at his dry lips, eyes opening wide again.

“You’re tired. You should let yourself sleep.”

“Nah. M’fine.”

Rick thought about Shane. Thought about all the things he’d miss about his old best friend. He felt his eyes sting with tears. The thought of Shane being gone was gut-wrenching, but when the thought of Daryl being gone entered his mind, it was not survivable. He’d somehow become so invested in this man. So connected, so connected, so...infatuated? A hippie commercial came on touting free love and Rick wondered if that’s what free love meant. Being free to love whoever you wanted to love.

Tentatively, Rick put his arm around Daryl’s shoulder. “If you want, you can sleep against me and the second I feel you caught in a dream, I’ll wake you up and I’ll be right here.”

Daryl looked at Rick, his head already leaning towards him on the couch.

“Ain’t right for you to be comforting me, Rick. You’s the one had the bad news today.”

“So what’s that mean then, you have to comfort me?” They looked at each other, wordless, their bodies still, breaths growing slightly stronger. Their lips way closer than what two men would normally be comfortable with.

“Yeah, it does,” Daryl finally answered. “So…what do you need?”

Rick kept his eyes on Daryl, on the way his overgrown bangs almost hid one of his eyes, at the mole above his lip, at the deep, dark, storm blue looking back at him. Rick was high. He was drunk. But he still felt well within his faculties to make a decision like this. For whatever reason, he felt like Daryl was comfort personified and he wanted to feel it, to feel that comfort against him. He leaned towards the vet and gently kissed his lips, just one soft peck, and then he moved back, arm still around Daryl’s shoulder, almost ready to throw up from nervousness at how Daryl would respond.

“Why?” Daryl asked.

Rick felt hazy from the high, he felt like he was making decisions in a dream, like he was opening a door he didn’t even realize was closed. “It’s what I needed.”

“But…I, uh…I didn’t know you was like me,” Daryl said with a thumbnail between his teeth.

“Like you?”

“I’m into guys, Rick. Didn’t mention it cause I was scared you wasn’t gonna wanna be friends no more.”

“I’m not…I didn’t think I was…Fuck, Daryl. I don’t know what I am…but I feel something with you I never felt before. A connection and a closeness even more so than I remember feeling with Lori,” Rick said. He leaned in again to catch Daryl’s lips and this time the vet opened his mouth to grant Rick entrance. They kissed gently for a while until breaths and heart rates built up and before Rick knew it, he was laying Daryl down on the sofa, kissing him passionately, full on the mouth, and holding on to his friend’s head with both hands.

Daryl seemed to melt underneath him, their bodies slotting together perfectly, Daryl’s hands holding Rick close to him, running up and down the farmhand’s back.

Once Bonanza ended, Rick leaned up and looked down at Daryl. “Maybe you’ll sleep better now. Something sweeter to dream of?” Rick grinned.

“Yeah,” Daryl whispered, still seemingly stunned that all this was happening. “Is it gonna be weird for you in the morning?” he asked. “I mean, maybe this is just from the whiskey and weed and you’re grieving and...”

“Daryl, I’ve felt a draw to you since we met in the supermarket. I couldn’t really explain it, but I wanted to get to know you. And I have. And I...like you a lot. And I like feeling you against me like this. Are you gonna feel weird? I mean, you said you were gay but that don’t make you automatically into me.”

“I’m into you, Rick Grimes,” Daryl said, his eyes fighting sleep again.

“Let’s sleep then. We could both use it.”

Rick laid against the back of the sofa and made room for Daryl to lie sideways in front of him. The farmhand put a firm arm around Daryl’s waist, holding him tight. “Sleep, Daryl. It’s okay. I’m here.”

Chapter Text

He was in the jungle, bullets whizzing past and Rick by his side. He looked all around him and the rest of his platoon was nowhere to be found.

“Shit, we got separated from the rest. Come on, we have get to some high ground,” Daryl said.

Rick nodded and followed Daryl through the thick Vietnamese jungle. Daryl was frantic about having lost track of where the rest of his platoon was, but at least he had Rick. They finally made their way out of the jungle and onto a grocery store parking lot and Daryl could see his truck. They ran to it and both jumped in, out of breath and adrenaline high. They looked at one another when Rick suddenly grabbed Daryl by his camouflage jacket and pressed a kiss to his lips. Daryl moaned into the kiss and climbed over the stick shift to straddle this man who he suddenly realized he couldn’t live without. Hands were everywhere, their bodies writhing together as they kissed frantically.

When Daryl pulled back he noticed the string of ears around the farmhand’s neck. Daryl ripped them off. “We don't need these memories.”

“You're right,” Rick responded, and he pulled Daryl’s dog tags off over his head. Daryl felt naked without the feel of them against his chest, felt like he was missing a limb.

“You're home now. You're more than rank and serial. You're Daryl,” Rick said, his voice gentle and affectionate. He rolled the window down to throw out the ears and the dog tags, but when Daryl looked out he saw his first kill standing there eating ice cream on a sugar cone.

“Not that easy to throw me away, private,” the man said as blood dripped from the center of his forehead and suddenly Daryl was back in the jungle alone, explosions and bullets, and damp green brush all around him. He could feel the bug bites and the sweat as he watched, frozen, as Bob dropped, Randal, Lieutenant Ford. Then the whirring of the chopper above him, Rick inside it and reaching out his hand.

“Come on Daryl, wake up!”

Daryl stirred awake. The first thing he noticed was that his body was warm, an arm was around his waist.

“Daryl,” Rick whispered. “Wake up. You're here. Home. With me.”

He turned slightly to make eye contact with Rick behind him. The farmhand brushed Daryl's hair back from his eyes. “Sorry I didn't wake you up in time,” he said with a disappointed pout.

“S’ok,” Daryl said groggily. “Some of it wasn't bad.”

Rick smiled. “Oh yeah? What were the good parts?”

Daryl wondered for a moment if all their making out was part of the dream too, but then he realized how they were lying and how Rick was looking at him.

“You was there.”

Rick looked at Daryl like he was the only important thing in the world and he leaned down to kiss him, just a brief brushing of lips.

Daryl sat up. “Need a smoke. He grabbed a pack of Newports from the coffee table and headed to the front porch as Rick got up from the couch and followed.

When they were sitting alone in the dark, silence except for the crickets and toads, Daryl offered Rick a drag of his cigarette. “No thanks. I only like the other kind of smokes.”

Daryl laughed out a puff of smoke. After a few quiet moments, Daryl looked over to Rick.

“Best we keep things to ourselves. World ain't ready to let people in our situation be open about it. You remember them Stonewall riots.”

Rick nodded. “I know. I understand.”

“I mean, assuming you wanna kiss me and stuff again,”. Daryl said as he stubbed out his cigarette.

Rick smiled at the thought. “Yeah. I do.”

Daryl flashed Rick one of those rare lopsided smiles of his. “Groovy,” he whispered under his breath.

“Thanks for being there for me yesterday,” Rick said as he ran his hand along his beard. “I...I really needed that.”

“Didn’t do nothin’” Daryl said with a snort.

“You were there.”

“Wish I could do more after everything you done for me. Ain’t never…y’know had no one like this. It feels…like I’m not enough.”

“That’s all you feel?” Rick asked softly with his eyebrows knit in concern.

Daryl shrugged. Their friendship had been growing for months. They could finish each other's sentences and knew one another’s thoughts. Rick was a constant source of calm and comfort and Daryl had been craving that since he set foot back on U.S. soil– comfort and peace. “No, that's not all. I feel warm, nice. Makes my heart race. Makes me wanna do right by you even if I have ta die doin’ it.”

“For the record, Rick said. “You’re more than enough. You’re…every thang. Parts of me working that haven’t worked in nine years. I’d have been a wreck over that news about Shane. Probably would have worked up a good self-loathing anger, busted up some dishes, scared the bejesus out of Carl. But you were there. Strong. Someone I knew I could count on. Someone to understand me and say the right things when I needed to hear them.”

They fell quiet again for a while, both gazing up at the stars. After a while, Rick continued. “I know Carl deserves more than I’ve given him and you’ve helped me remember how important he is. Made me see him again through fresh eyes, remember how he needs me.”

“What are you talking about, you’re a great father,” Daryl answered.

Rick shook his head. “House used to be filled with a lot of yelling. Felt like almost all we had between us was arguing and yelling, both of us hard-headed and wanting things our own way. You’ve been a great influence on him, and me. Showing us how to appreciate what we have.”

Daryl thought about one of the afternoons the three of them tossed a football around in Hershel’s front yard. Remembered the smiles on both the Grimes’ faces, as if they’d just learned to have fun.

“Think you could’ve figured that out without me.”

“Will you learn how to take a damn compliment?” Rick asked with laugh.

Daryl grinned and looked down at his fingers, trying not to remember what they did in ‘Nam. Trying instead to think of them running through Rick’s curls and up and down the muscles of his back.

“You serious about going to that protest? You sure it’s something you want to do?” Rick asked.

Daryl nodded. “Yeah. If you come with me.”

Standing up and stretching his back, Rick pulled his car keys out of his pocket. “I better head home. Almost morning anyway and I want to pick Carl up from my mom’s. Call Maggie and let her know we’re going.”

Daryl nodded from his chair. Rick took a step down the porch stairs and turned back. “Just so you know, I’m dying to kiss you goodbye. But I know it’s not proper.”

“Thought that counts,” Daryl grinned.

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

It was still too early to pick up the boys or to call Mags, so Rick went home, grabbed a shower and stretched out on his couch to wait for the sun to come up. He stared aimlessly at the ceiling, his thoughts racing, one thought on top of another while a third whizzed through between them.

What had happened last night? Hell, what had been happening the past few months? He went from being content with lipstick, curves and soft bodies to being completely consumed with the hard lines, broad shoulders and unbrushed hair of a man. But it wasn’t just any man, it was Daryl. He tried to picture Shane, to remember his cut features and stubble. His six-pack and all those muscles. Rick had never considered him attractive or had any of these nervous feelings in the pit of his stomach with Shane. He thought about Hollywood, some of the actors that even he had always been able to admit were on screen because of their good looks. Jimmy Stewart. Cary Grant. Tony Curtis. Yes, they were good looking, but did Rick fantasize about them in his bed, naked and willing? No, not really.

He thought about the women he’d had the occasional date with, unsuccessfully, since Lori. Sherry. Amber. Tonya. He knew they were attractive women- long, lush hair, soft features and smooth bodies. But he’d never felt enough interest to date them long enough to get them into bed.

The only person he had the desire to touch, to kiss, to confide in and be intimate with was Daryl. He was a good looking man, it wasn’t like Rick hadn’t noticed that from the start. But now that they’d grown so close, become so inseparable, developed this intense loyalty and affection for one another, Rick knew that Daryl was what he wanted in his life. He’d grown so used to just being content in having what he had and doing what he had to do, that want had become a foreign concept to him.

Sure, he wanted good things for Carl. Wanted the water heater in his house to last longer than he knew it would. But with Daryl, the word want had become something more intense. More like a craving, a longing. Yearning that buzzed through his body from head to toe. He wanted Daryl in that deeper more intense sense of the word, wanted him in every way there was to want someone.

He was snapped out of his thoughts by the dawn sun finally coming through the living room curtains. He had things to take care of, getting Carl and Louis, calling Mags. And he had things he wanted. And that was such a pleasant feeling. Before he walked out the door, he looked down at his watch, actually counting the hours until he’d be picking up Daryl for the protest.

Chapter Text

Daryl was waiting on the front porch when Rick finally pulled in to his drive.

He opened the passenger side door as Carl was scooting to the middle seat. “Daryl! Guess what!? I get to come with you guys to the protest! Can you believe it? I made a sign and everything!” He held up a piece of poster board with “Stop the War” scrawled on it with blue magic marker.

“Looks great, kid,” Daryl responded.

“This is my second draft. First I had “Make Love, not War” but Dad said I wasn't old enough for that one yet.”

“You're dad’s right,” Daryl said, with a smirk.

Daryl didn't have a sign. Way he saw it he was the sign– a broke down vet still wearing dog tags and an Army green tee. Eyes vacant more often than not and prone to one of his episodes if the noise got too overwhelming.

“We’re picking up Mags. You two can sit in the back. It's not a far drive into the city.

“I don't even know why I'm not old enough,” Carl piped up. “I mean, I love dad. I love Nana. And that’s better than war, right?”

Rick and Daryl shared a chuckle over that.

“If you don't want to come I can leave you with Bethie, kiddo,” Rick teased.

“No way! I'm going with you guys! Wait til Luis finds out!!”

When they got to the farm, Maggie was already walking out with a handful of signs on pieces of wood.

She leaned in Rick’s window. “Made extra cause I didn't figure you fella’s would think about it.”

“I made mine, Mags!” Carl squealed, holding up his sign for her to see.

“Far out, kiddo!” she replied.

Daryl got out and Carl slid out after him.

“Hop on in Mags,” the boys’ll ride in the back.”

Maggie got in with her signs, and once Daryl gave a thumbs up from the back they took off.

Daryl liked the feeling of the wind and the sun as he lay in the bed of the truck and closed his eyes. He felt free and he could replay in his mind Rick’s soft touches and gentle kisses. It was nice to have something to fill his mind with that wasn’t ‘Nam. He thought about the way the kiss happened. So unexpected, so chaste and innocent. He’d never kissed anyone before, not girl or boy, mother or father. It was his first kiss and in mere moments it became his second and third and more than he ever thought he’d get in this life.

The way Merle talked, Daryl expected any man he’d become intimate with to be out for one thing– the main event. But not Rick. It wasn’t about sex or pheromones or alpha male tendencies. It was about being gentle. And comforting. It was nothing like Daryl ever expected. It was so much better that it almost brought tears to his eyes.

His interest in Rick had sparked the very first day he began working at the farm. It was the first time since he was stateside that he could keep his thoughts in the present. There was a calming and familiar presence about Rick that just felt right. An instant connection. And Daryl was going to be totally okay with just being friends, even though he’d taken quite a notice to Rick’s long, lean physique, his heaven-blue eyes, and his rugged good looks. It had never, not once, dawned on him that Rick might be interested in him the same way.

The shock when Rick leaned in and brushed that first kiss against his lips nearly stopped Daryl’s heart. He was frozen, afraid any movement or sound would take him out of the wonderful daydream he must have been having. All he managed to stutter was “why?”. And when Rick started moving his hands over Daryl’s body, it was like the sun shining through months of grey skies. It was like knowing that ice cream was good even though you hadn’t tried it yet.

A bump in the road made his thoughts shift briefly to being in a jeep at Firebase Airborne basecamp between missions. The lush green of the jungle flashed before his eyes and the echo of gunshots peppered the wind, but it was brief. And Daryl was soon able to dedicate his thoughts to Rick again, to the possibilities, to all the things he’d always dreamed of, not thinking that a Dixon would ever really get. Merle got girls. Plenty. But they were just for sex. One and done and on to the next. He never got, or seemed to want, the other things that came with the package. The intimacy, the understanding, the care, the love. Daryl imagined those things. Especially when he was sleeping in the bush, trying to put himself somewhere else. He never had anyone specific in mind, just a faceless, voiceless man that made him feel whole and loved. Protected. And now here he was, suddenly finding himself in an intense friendship with a man who made him feel things he’d never felt. And it was becoming more.

“You excited, Daryl?” Carl asked.

Daryl startled for a moment, thinking irrationally that the kid was reading his mind before he realized it was just about the protest.

“Not really,” he answered honestly.

“I was surprised you wanted to go cause I know you don’t like a lot of people and noise and stuff.”

“Well, can't be scared of that stuff forever,” Daryl sighed.

“And my dad will help you if you start to feel bad. He’s good about that kinda stuff.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, like one time I was trying to reach these cookies that I wasn’t supposed to get into and I was on a kitchen chair and I fell. The cookies hit the floor too and I broke the dish. I was so worried about getting in trouble when I heard dad running down the stairs, but when he got there he was way more worried about me cause ‘a my head was bleeding. And I didn’t get in trouble for the cookies or the dish. He scooped me up and rushed me to the hospital and I got five whole stitches, see?” Carl said, pushing his hair aside so Daryl could see his battle scar.

Daryl nodded at it.

“So see, if you need my Dad to take care of you he will. He always does for people he cares about.”

Daryl tried not to react to the part that implied Rick cared about him. He looked back up towards the sky.

“He says you're special,” Carl said.

“Pfft. He’s just obsessed with vets,” Daryl said, trying to blow it off.

“He’s been a lot happier lately. I didn’t know my mom, but he told me all about her and I think he was sad over it a real long time.”

“Losing people makes you sad,” Daryl said in Rick’s defense.

“Is that why you’re always sad? Cause of all your friends in the war?”

Daryl shrugged and bit at a nail. “Yeah.” It wasn’t the full truth, but it was hard enough for Daryl to grasp the concept of survivor’s guilt and he didn’t want to get into that with a nine-year-old. “Somethin’ like that.”

The conversation finally died down as Rick slowed the truck. There were people all over the road, some in worn green Army jackets, unshaven and hair left unbrushed like Daryl, and some like Maggie, all flowery dresses and sandals.

“HOLY CRAP!” Carl shouted, surprised at the crowd around them.

 

“Don’t think your daddy is okay with that language,” Daryl said, trying to breathe in and out calmly. There was so much going on, so many people – there was singing, guitars strumming, shouts. He couldn’t keep up with his habit of observing his surroundings for safety. They were just in the thick of it and the enemy could be hiding anywhere.

Before he could get lost in those thoughts, he felt a warm hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” Rick said, “We’re gonna have to park here. You okay, man?”

Daryl nodded and climbed out the truck. Carl was already on the ground and proudly holding up his sign.

“Signs, guys?” Maggie asked.

Rick took one that said “Bring them home now! Stop the war!”

Daryl shrugged off the offered sign, so Maggie handed it to another protester. Hers said “All You Need is Peace” and she held it high.

“Carl, remember. I told you the only way you were coming was if you held my hand the whole time.”

“Okay, Okay,” Carl shouted, reaching back to grab hold. Maggie led them straight through the crowd. Daryl’s eyes were everywhere – he heard a group singing Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, heard a chant to their left “One, Two, Three, Four, We don’t want your fucking war!”

He swung his head around when he heard a loud voice in the crowd yelling “Drop Acid Not Bombs!” Signs were everywhere – ““Bombing for Peace is like Fucking for Virginity”, “Peace and Love”. Some of them were held by veterans – “We won’t fight another Rich Man’s War!”, “Vietnam Veterans against the war!” Most of those men had vacant eyes like Daryl’s. Probably lost every bit as much as Daryl. Suffered just as much.

Rick leaned down to make eye contact with Daryl and held onto his elbow as they got closer to the podium where someone with a microphone was ranting about the injustice of the war.

Daryl liked the comfort of Rick’s subtle touch. He couldn’t believe he was making it through the crowd without much incident. Just some flinches. Rick leaned down to Carl and gave him a reprimand when the kid started shouting “Drop Acid Not Bombs”. It actually made Daryl snicker a little bit.

When they found a spot to stand, Daryl’s eyes went to a vet in a wheelchair. He had no legs and was wearing his Army fatigues.

“Hey, Brother,” the vet said. “Where’d ya fight?”

“I was at Hill 937. Got shot, hadda come home,” Daryl answered. “What about you? Bouncing Betty?” Daryl asked as he pointed to the missing legs, a sight he saw way more than he wanted to during his time in country.

“Yeah. Gave ‘em my fucking legs and they give me a piece of tin. Well, they can choke on their stupid medals. This whole conflict is bullshit!”

“Yeah, man. Yeah it is,” Daryl said quietly.

“You gonna get up there and talk?” the vet asked, pointing to the podium.

“Me? No way, man.”

“Well, scoot aside, son. I got some shit to say and I want to be heard.” The man rolled up to the podium and a bunch of the protesters helped him and his wheelchair get up to the stage before handing him the microphone. The protesters near the front had all quieted down and the chants and singing were only coming from the back, too far for the microphone’s reach.

“My name is Ryan Samuels. And I’m gonna tell ya, there ain’t nothing over there for us.”

A cheer raced through the crowd.

“I went in because I was a delinquent. It was jail or join the Army. I should’ve chosen jail. It’s nothing but killin’ over there for no reason, nothin’ but shootin’ and runnin’ and watching people die. Nothing but losing arms and legs. And the Government says it’s gonna end. We’re gonna end it, but it never ends. Soldier after soldier comes home wounded and broken. Injuries you can see and ones you can’t. I done things I ain’t proud of and I don’t know if I’ll ever be right about it. But I’m just here to say…FUCK THE WAR!”

The crowd started chanting “Fuck the war” as Ryan wheeled his way off stage. Rick held his hands over Carl’s ears, clearly rethinking his decision to allow his son to join them.

Daryl was in awe of the vet’s bravery, facing a crowd like this and talking about the most awful things he’d ever lived through. Half the crowd was civilians, could have been some of the very ones that were screaming “baby killers” at anyone with an army duffle. He was at least glad to see that the vets here were being cheered and listened to.

“You heard it!” the woman with the long blonde hair shouted. “You hear it directly from these soldiers. They’re against the war!! They don’t want to fight it anymore. You –” she said pointing right at Daryl. “Come tell us your story, will you?”

Daryl took a step back and Rick spoke up. “He really ain’t much of a talker, ma’am.”

She knelt down and kept her eyes on Daryl. “My name’s Amy. And the only way we can stop this war is to tell the stories and shout about the injustice to the rooftops. Will you come up and just tell us why you want the war to end?”

“You don’t have to,” Rick reassured him, his hand still gripping Daryl’s arm tightly.

Finally, Daryl nodded, patting Rick on the back before slowly walking up to the microphone.

“‘M Daryl,” he said quietly into the microphone, keeping his eyes on his shoes. The crowd quieted so they could hear him better. “Got drafted. Watched my whole platoon get killed around me. For nothin’. They’re calling it Hamburger Hill on the news cause there was so much carnage.” Finally Daryl looked up. He felt overwhelmed by the mass of people that was listening to his every word, so he focused on Rick like it was just the two of them sitting on the porch talking.

“I shot people. Had to or else we’d get shot. Came home, but part of me is still there reliving it every day. None of the boots on the ground had any idea why we’s fighting. We just follow orders and try not to die. The guys still over there are getting killed. Our guys. Our neighbors and friends and family and the government don’t give a damn. I get flashbacks a lot. Feel like I’m right back there in the rainy goddamn jungle. Can’t sleep. The ones of us made it back alive ain’t really livin’ no more.” Daryl paused. “Lieutenant Ford, Nicholas, Bob, Patrick, Morales, Randall, T-Dog, Paul. They can't be here today. They all died in ‘Nam. They were my friends. Got me a medal, too, like Ryan. Don't mean shit. What I really got was nightmares, shakes, guilt, pain, memories I relive every moment of every day. And what did I accomplish for all that? Nothin’. Killed some people that I didn’t know for reasons that I still don’t understand.” Daryl stopped there and just walked off the stage, handing Amy the microphone.

When he got back to Rick, Carl, and Maggie, Rick hugged him tighter than anyone else ever had in his entire life. Ain’t been that many hugs to compare it to anyways, but it was so comforting to be in his arms, escaping from the crowd as the next speaker stepped up to the mic. Carl gave Daryl a hug, too.

“I’m sorry you're still so sad, Daryl,” he said.

“Thanks, kid.”

Maggie flashed him a wide smile. “Proud of you, Daryl. Daddy will be, too.”

When Maggie and Carl looked back to the stage, Rick leaned over and whispered in Daryl’s ear. “That had to be hard. You wanna head out of here?”

“Nah, they want to stay,” he answered, nodding at Maggie and Carl.

“Carl’s lucky he’s even here right now, and Mags has been to dozens of these things. You seem worn out.”

And before Daryl could admit that he was, Rick read his mind and shouted over to the others. “Hey, guys. I’m sorry to flake out, but this has been really heavy man and I’m getting a hell of a headache. Okay if we head back?”

“Sure, Rick,” Maggie said, and Daryl could tell by the way she glanced over at him that she knew it wasn’t Rick’s headache. But she didn’t mind. Carl didn’t even pout. Well, he started to, but Daryl caught Mags pinching the kid on the arm.

They went back through the crowd, some of them thanking Daryl for speaking out as they made their way back through the chanting and the singing and the guitar music, and finally climbed back into the truck. Rick guided Daryl to the passenger seat and Mags and Carl climbed in the back without questioning it. Rick grabbed Daryl’s hand as they drove out of their parking spot.

“You okay?”

“‘M alright,” Daryl said, giving Rick’s hand a squeeze. “I just want it all to stop.”

“I know, man. I know.”

Chapter Text

They made it back in time for the second milking and afterwards Hershel had asked them to drag some fresh hay out of the barn for the cattle in the morning. They’d worked quickly throughout the evening with Hershel during the milking, but in the dimly lit barn, when it was just the two of them, Rick could sense Daryl’s tight shoulders sag in relief from a long day coming to an end.

“Do you regret going today?” Rick asked as they hoisted a hay bale to stack it against the wall.

Daryl shrugged. “Nah. It was good for me to see. People finally understanding this shit wasn’t our choice and wanting to hear our side. Better than getting spit on and called names by the citizens you were supposedly fighting to protect.”

Rick leaned on a wall of hay bales. “I wanted to hold your hand so bad when we were in that crowd. I don’t think they’re the kind of people that would mind. But I didn’t want to make you any more uncomfortable than you already were.”

“‘Preciate the way you was holding my arm. Anchored me. Was…nice.”

Rick walked over to Daryl and gently put his hand on the vet’s arm again, leaning in to kiss him. Daryl responded, lips parting and arms coming to rest around Rick’s waist.

“I didn’t expect this,” Rick said as he let his forehead rest on Daryl’s. “Never even considered finding someone after Lori died. Guess I know why now. I was waiting for you.”

“Pfft. Ain’t never thought anyone would talk like that about me.” Daryl said. “Never thought a Dixon really had much of a chance at anything.”

Rick peppered Daryl’s mouth with soft kisses. “You are such a good man. So brave, So easy to talk to. You’re…you’re beautiful. Your eyes so eager to be seen and understood and loved. Your hair. Some may think it’s just unkempt, but I love the way it hangs, love running my fingers through it. Those rare smiles. They’re like gold. You’re filled with kindness. How could you possibly think no one would ever love you?”

“Ain’t used ta nice things, I guess.” Daryl backed up and sat down on one of the bales.

“You saying I’m a nice thing?” Rick smiled.

Daryl laughed. “Well, you helped me outta that jelly situation, got me a job. Make me laugh and that ain’t no easy task, Grimes. But mostly, you see me and ain’t afraid of what you see. And I've never known anyone with a heart like yours. You know how to talk to me, touch me. And I love your smile. Love trying my best to put it there as much as I can. I got a overwhelming desire to make you happy.”

“Well, you've succeeded.”

Rick sat down next to Daryl and ran fingers through the other man’s hair, pulling him in for another kiss.

“You make it all disappear for a while,” Daryl said between kisses. “When you have me like this, I don't think about nothin’ but you. It's nice.”

Rick lowered Daryl down on the bales of hay and hovered protectively over him, kissing his neck, the one ear that kept peeking out from his hair, his collarbone.

Daryl let out a sob that he couldn't stifle.

“You okay?” Rick asked.

“Yes,” Daryl breathed. He hooked one leg around Rick, trying to keep him right where he was. Rick could feel Daryl's hardness next to his own. God, he hadn't done anything but jack off for the past nine years. Being with someone, someone like Daryl, feeling the other man’s body respond the same way as his own, it was exhilarating! The heat of him, the rise and fall of his breath, the adrenaline running through his body. It was like a growing fire, hot and bright and alive.

Rick moved his body so they could both feel some friction and Daryl sobbed out again and wrapped his arms around Rick, digging his fingers into the long curls at the base of Rick's neck. “Yes,” he whispered again.

And Rick obliged. Because Daryl wanted this, wanted him, and Rick hadn't felt that kind of desire from anyone in a long time. As he rutted against Daryl they both started moaning and whimpering in pleasure. They didn't speak, just moved their bodies and looked one another right in the eyes to express without words how they were feeling. Daryl came first with gasps of relief and Rick followed, the explosion of his orgasm rocking through his entire body.

Rick rolled over, boneless and out of breath, with one thing on his mind. He was completely in love with Daryl Dixon. He’d felt an overwhelming happiness since Daryl came into his life. A sense of peace he hadn’t felt in more years than he could count. Becoming more physically involved seemed like the natural progression of the bond they’d already created. And it felt downright euphoric to be laying next to the man, spent and glowing with pleasure.

“That was so fucking good,” Rick whispered in the dim light of the barn. He turned his head to look at Daryl, reaching a hand over and twisted their fingers together.

Looking back at him, Daryl smiled. “Made me feel real and here, nowhere else. Just this place with you, nothing but the sound of you and the feel of you. I like being lost in you, Rick. I like disappearing into you where other shit can’t get me.” He paused as he sat up, a bashful grin on his lips. “Maybe we could do something like this again?”

Rick sat up, beaming, and leaned in to kiss Daryl, tender and loving, speaking volumes in just their brush of lips and tongues. “I think that’s a great idea.”

Later that evening, Rick dropped Daryl off and he and Carl headed home. While Carl ran inside to catch one of his favorite TV shows, Rick sauntered down the drive to grab the mail. He pulled it out, still dreamy-eyed about his moment with Daryl in the barn, but his breath stopped when he shuffled through the envelopes and saw a familiar one with a return APO address from S. Walsh. He looked up at the house and saw that Carl had the light on in the living room and was probably watching Green Acres already. He walked up to the house and opened the letter to read it outside by the light from the living room.

Rick,

Got your last letter but haven’t had time to write until now. We are constantly on the move. I want to tell you something. Each time you write, you tell me you wish you could be here. You’re my best friend so I understand why you say it. But, brother. Stop that wish. And don’t go asking your mama no more if she can watch Carl so you can enlist. It’s hell over here, Rick. It rains twenty-six hours a day, the jungle is full of mosquitos and those are the things that are tolerable.

The things that ain’t tolerable is the killing and watching men you’ve fought beside die right in front of you. It’s gotten worse and worse over here and there’s rumors that the public is outraged and protesting. You stay home, Rick. Don’t ever come here. Don’t ever feel guilty. You’re raising a great young man over there and over here you’d just be killing young men. Also – there ain’t much deodorant out here in the bush and we all stink to high heaven.

I’m gonna be real honest with you. I don’t know if I’m gonna be making it back. Fighting’s been really heavy. Lost a lot of my buddies, either dead or sitting in Da Nang with their legs or arms blown off. I can see the writing on the wall.

If I don’t make it, can you please check on my Ma once in awhile? I miss you, man. Miss everything. But I ain’t the same no more. This war is killing me every day.

Your best friend,
Shane

Chapter Text

The next morning Rick pulled up at Daryl’s house for work and saw him talking to someone he hadn’t met. He climbed out of the truck and walked over as Daryl introduced him.

“This is Rick,” he said, pointing. “Rick, this is Glenn. Neighbor of mine.”

“Ah yeah,” Rick answered. “Daryl’s mentioned you. Shit, you didn’t get drafted did you?”

“I did,” the Asian boy said, not looking the least bit worried about his pending deployment. “Told ‘em I was gay to get out of it. They believed me.”

“I was just tellin’ him it’s the best thing he coulda done,” Daryl said. “And that he don’t need to harbor no guilt about it. Tellin’ him about some of the shit I seen over there. Shit I done.”

“I’ve never even hunted,” Glenn said as if trying to get Rick’s acceptance of his decision to dodge the draft. “I once broke an ankle trying to get a turtle out of the middle of the road. I...I can’t do it. I can’t shoot. I can’t even swat or nudge or persuade.”

Rick attempted a warm smile despite the emptiness in the pit of his stomach from Shane’s late letter. “Then something tells me you made the right decision.” Rick was glad to see Daryl talking about the war in a positive way by trying to show this kid that he didn’t have to be ashamed to do what he’d done.

“We went to a protest downtown the other day,” Daryl said. “If you ain’t been to one, you should go. Lot of like-minded people. Makes you feel like you’re in the right place.”

“I don’t know. I don’t really have anyone who’d go with me to something like that and…”

“Maggie!” Daryl said excitedly and looked over at Rick with a wink. “She’s going again this weekend,” he explained to Glenn. “Friend of mine. I’ll have you come down to the farm and meet her. She loves dragging people to those things.”

Rick smiled again even though it didn’t reach his eyes. “Glad you’re staying on U.S. soil, kid,” he said to Glenn with a handshake as Daryl opened the passenger side door and climbed into the truck.

Once they were on the road, Daryl could tell instantly that something was wrong. Rick’s smile hadn’t been full as they chatted in the driveway and his voice sounded like it was holding something back. He knew the man too well by now not to miss subtle changes like that.

“What is it?” he asked. “You weren’t really with me just now.”

Rick ran a hand over his beard and handed Daryl the posthumous letter as he continued to drive, keeping his eyes on the road. When he opened it and realized who it was from, the vet’s heart ached for his friend. His boyfriend? His lover? Daryl shook the terminology issue out of his head, and as he read the letter he felt like he was sitting right back there in the jungle with Shane.

“Wow,” Daryl said when he finished. “At least you got to hear from him one last time.”

Rick nodded, his eyes glassy from holding back tears. “Yeah, sounds like he’d given up. Ready to die.” A tear finally escaped from Rick’s burning eyes and Daryl frowned.

“Pull over.”

“What for?” Rick asked, wiping the tear away with his shirt sleeve.

“Just pull over, will yah?”

Rick pulled over on the dirt road that led down to the barn, and Daryl looked out both windows to confirm they were only surrounded by empty fields. Then he leaned over and pulled Rick into a tight hug. “I’m so sorry, man,” he whispered, as Rick accepted the hug and cried quietly with his head tucked between Daryl’s shoulder and neck. The vet kept Rick pulled close as he released those much needed tears and he kissed at the other man’s temple. They stayed that way for a few minutes, the sun coming up over the horizon and the sounds of roosters from a farm down the road. Daryl loved being able to give comfort back like this, loved holding Rick close and quiet. He wished he could take the other man’s pain away, but since he couldn’t, a shoulder to cry on was the best he could do.

“I hate that there was never anything I could do to help him these past few years,” Rick said after pulling himself together.

“You check on his ma yet?”

Rick sniffled and wiped away some more tears, smiling at Daryl. “You know for some reason I knew you’d ask that. I haven’t, but I’ll swing over tonight.”

“That’s what you can do for him. It’s what he asked, what he wanted. His last gift to you was a way for you to help him out, a way for you to be there.

“Yeah,” Rick said, scooting back over to the driver’s side. “Thanks for that, man. Needed that.”

“Any time.”

They worked that day in the hot sun, and now that things were what they were, Daryl couldn’t keep his eyes off Rick – so tanned, tight abs and strong arms, dripping with sweat, his curls even damp with it. It kept his mind off other things and ‘Nam only popped into his head a few times. When it did, he’d reach up and rub at his dog tags. He still hadn't taken them off since he put them on. He felt like they were tied to him, like the chains Jacob Marley forged during his life and was forced to carry with him as a reminder of his deeds.

“Hershel wants us to check in on the pregnant heifer that’s due soon and bottle feed the four calves.”

Rick’s words pulled Daryl from his roaming thoughts. “Yeah, okay.” He actually liked that there were so many different things to do each day on the farm. It was relatively calm, wasn’t boring, and it was hard, honest work.

Before they even walked into the barn they could hear the heifer bellow. Rick hopped over a fence to get to her quicker and Daryl followed.

“She okay?”

“She’s ready,” Rick said excitedly, lifting her tail to show him two hooves sticking out.

“Hershel!” Daryl shouted. He didn’t know jack about a cow giving birth, but he assumed Hershel should probably be there. The older man came around the corner.

“She’s ready. She’s gonna need some help,” Rick said as Daryl stood by, dropping his jaw at the sight before him.

Hershel gave her a look over. “I’m not as strong as I used to be, Rick. Maybe Daryl can help you. Jim and Otis are off already. I’ll take care of bottle feeding the little ones over here.”

Rick looked over to Daryl’s wide eyes and open mouth. “Nothing to be afraid of, Daryl. It’s just nature. Sometimes nature needs a little hand,” he said, groaning as he tugged the calves hooves more, so that some of the leg was finally extricated.

Daryl put a hand on the heifer to calm her and pulled her tail out of the way so Rick could see what he was doing.

“Don’t seem like it really wants to come out yet,” Daryl said as he watched in amazement.

“It does. It just needs a little help.”

Hershel handed Rick a pair of long plastic gloves that went clear up to his shoulders.

“Just keep her steady and calm for me, Daryl. And keep holding her tail, that’s helping.”

Daryl did as instructed and watched as Rick tugged with all his might on the calf’s skinny legs. As he ran a comforting hand over the cow’s back, Daryl peaked over the backside of the heifer to take a look at what was happening.

Rick looked up and smiled. “Amazing, isn’t it?”

“It’s gross actually,” Daryl said with a grin, “But you look like some kinda superhero doctor.”

Rick laughed and pulled again, the heifer bellowing and Daryl patting it’s flank, telling her she was a good girl.

Hershel came back into the pen with another pair of gloves and handed them to Daryl.

“What’s this for?” Daryl asked.

“I’ll steady her. You go back and help Rick. Sometimes takes a lot of strength.”

Daryl put the gloves on in a daze and stood by Rick’s side. “What do I do?”

“Here,” Rick said, “Hold its legs and let me try to get inside and help nudge it out.”

Daryl held the legs as instructed and Rick reached a hand into the heifer, his arm sliding in all the way up to the elbow.

“Tug hard, Daryl. You’re not gonna hurt her. This is her second calf. She knows the drill.”

Daryl pulled and with Rick’s help manipulating the calf from the inside, they finally saw the calf’s bottom.

“Ain’t it ‘sposed to be head first?” Daryl asked.

“Not this time. That’s why she needs a little help.”

Rick pulled his hand out and he and Daryl both held onto the legs.

“On three,” Rick said. “One, two, THREE” They both pulled with all the muscle they had and the calf slowly started slipping out from the heifer. The only noises were the grunts from Rick and Daryl pulling and the soothing voice of Hershel as he comforted the mama.

Finally, the full calf was freed from the womb and fell to the ground.

“Oh shit!” Daryl shouted. “It’s dead!” He knew he sounded a little hysterical. He hadn’t seen this much blood and gore since the war, but he was fighting hard to stay present. Stay in the moment. He didn’t want to desert Rick for a flashback to that fucking jungle when the other man needed him.

“No, no, no,” Rick said soothingly. “She’ll be just fine.”

He dropped to his knees and started pulling out, mucus from her nose and mouth, rubbing the calf aggressively as Hershel allowed the heifer to turn around and nose at its young. Suddenly, the calf shook its head and started moving its legs.

Rick was all smiles which Daryl was happy to see, even if he was covered in cow slime. He couldn’t help but smile back.

“You just helped bring a life into the world, Daryl!” Rick said proudly. “How’d it feel?”

Daryl looked down at the calf as it attempted to stand for the first time. He couldn’t help but smile at how damn cute it was. “Feels better than taking lives outta the world,” he said in a sudden moment of sadness.

He hated how moments like this were stolen from him, how the war would rear its ugly head and ruin something like a new life coming into the world. “We need a damn shower,” Daryl finally said, trying again to stay where he was – on the farm and next to Rick.

“Yeah,” Rick laughed. “Hershel. It okay if I leave Carl here with Bethie for a little longer tonight? Me and Daryl have to stop by and check on Shane’s mom after we get cleaned up.”

Daryl looked over to Rick, perplexed. and Daryl?

“Sure, Rick. No problem. And please give her my sympathies. Shane was a damn good kid.”

We gotta check on Mrs. Walsh?” Daryl asked as he and Rick climbed into the truck.

Rick looked over with his most innocent expression. “I thought…yeah. That like...you could come with me. Maybe if she has questions about what it was like over there you’d be able to talk to her. Be another voice if I suddenly lose my own from…ya know…just being too sad.” Rick paused and took a deep breath. “And I kinda need you. You’re my strength when things get hard,” Rick admitted.

I’m YOUR strength?” Christ, who hadda talk who down after they’s scared ta death ‘a grape jelly?”

Rick smiled again. It was warm and knowing and sincere and just for Daryl. That smile gave him butterflies, the good kind, not the scared kind.

“Guess we both just need each other,” Rick said as he started the car. “You wanna just grab a change of clothes and shower at my place?”

“I own a shower, Grimes,” Daryl said rolling his eyes.

“I don’t think you’re getting where I’m going, man.”

Daryl looked over again and could tell by Rick’s suddenly dark eyes and the way he licked at his lip what he meant.

“Uhhh, yeah. We can uhhh…shower at your place.”

Chapter Text

Once they were back at Rick’s house, they walked in wordlessly. Rick grabbed Daryl’s hand and led him in silence to the master bath.

“Somethin’ I ain’t told ya yet, Grimes,” Daryl said as he shifted from one foot to the other nervously.

“What is it?”

Daryl hesitated as Rick pulled off his shirt.

“Nothing’s gonna make me not wanna be right where we are, Daryl,” Rick said as he dipped his head down to catch his eye.

“Got a lot of scars,” Daryl said, with a thumbnail between his teeth.

“Course you do, man. You were shot three times.”

“More than that. So umm…I ain’t easy on the eyes with my shirt off.”

Rick thought for a moment and remembered dozens of times where it was hot as hell out in the field and he’d taken his shirt off, but Daryl never did.

“I don’t care about scars,” Rick said. Hell, he had a few himself from not being great at working on the tractor.

Rick started taking his pants off, leaving him in just his underwear in front of a still-fully-dressed Daryl.

“I don’t want you to have to worry about anything with me,” Rick coaxed.

Daryl gave a short nod and undressed, keeping his eyes on Rick’s the whole time. Both just in underwear, Rick sighed, pleased at what he saw. This gorgeous, sweet man, bare in front of him. Trusting him. Willing to show parts of himself that no one else would ever see.

After they both stepped out of their boxers, Daryl walked to the shower like he was trying his best to be brave and he bent down to turn the water on, showing Rick a clear view of his back. Rick could spot the gunshot wounds, two in the shoulder and one in the ass, but in addition he saw whip marks that had healed into calloused white scars. Not just one or two – dozens that were intermingled with what looked to be old cigarette burns. Some of the whip scars even ran down to Daryl’s ass. Rick focused on not gasping as Daryl straightened back up and faced him.

“Can I ask?” Rick wasn’t sure if it was an off the table topic, but he really wanted to know everything about this man.

Daryl shrugged. “Old man weren’t no good.”

“Nothing for you to be ashamed of, Daryl. Those scars say more about your piece of shit old man than they do about you. And they don’t make me care for you any less. In fact, letting me get to know you more intimately like this makes me care even more.” Rick took a step towards Daryl and placed a gentle kiss on his lips.

“We better get in ‘fore we run out of hot water,” Daryl said as he stepped into the tub.

Rick stepped in behind him. After the conversation they just had, neither of the them were hard, but it was the first time they had actually seen each other and time seemed to move in slow motion.

“You’re fucking gorgeous,” Rick sighed.

“Pfft. You are. All tanned and shit. And…” Daryl let the sentence die as Rick positioned the younger man so that he was the one under the spray. Leaning Daryl’s head back so his hair would get wet, Rick grabbed his bottle of Head and Shoulders, squeezing a dollop into his hand. Running his fingers through Daryl's hair and massaging the other man's scalp, he watched him with affection. The younger man seemed to be melting under the gentle ministrations of his hands.

“Lean back and rinse,” Rick said and Daryl obeyed.

Then he grabbed his bar of Coast and lathered up his hands while Daryl watched. They were both hard now and Rick could see that Daryl outranked him in size. As someone who only recently realized he had gay tendencies, he wasn’t sure if he should feel emasculated or excited that his boyfriend was huge. He ran his soapy hands all over Daryl’s body, from neck to shoulders, from back to chest, even giving the dogtags a little clean-up, then on to arms and down his legs to his feet. Once he was on his knees and done with the feet, he looked up at Daryl and then down at younger man’s cock, and he stood. He soaped up with more Coast and turned Daryl so his back was against Rick’s chest. He rubbed some soap over Daryl’s ass, dipping into the crack and then slid his fingers slowly to his front, gripping onto Daryl’s engorged cock and jerking at it with his soap-slippery hand. Daryl’s head fell back onto Rick’s shoulder.

“Wanna see you come for me, Daryl,” Rick whispered into his ear.

“Ain’t gonna take long. Jesus,” Daryl groaned. Rick put his other hand over Daryl’s chest. He could feel his lover’s heart beat faster as his breaths became more like gasps and groans.

“Rick,” Daryl managed to cry out before he orgasmed, spurting out onto the shower floor. “Jesus Christ,” he said as Rick hugged him and kissed his temple.

“All clean now,” Rick said with a satisfied grin.

Daryl turned to face Rick. “But you’re filthy.” Daryl cocked a brow, as he moved Rick under the shower, a devious smirk on his face.

Daryl took his time washing Rick. He seemed to be savoring every minute and Rick felt like he was in paradise. He had Daryl’s hands and his attention and his…heart. By the time Daryl was jerking him off, Rick felt like he was ready to collapse. It felt so fucking good to have a hand that wasn’t his. Felt so good to be leaning back against the warm body of someone he could not stop thinking about. And with a shout, he came too, immediately feeling bonelessly exhausted.

“Think we’s both clean now,” Daryl said as he turned off the water and reached for a towel, drying Rick off first then using the same towel on himself.

“That was the best damn shower I’ve ever had in my life,” Rick moaned. He looked at the clock in the bathroom. Definitely not enough time for a nap if they wanted to visit Mrs. Walsh at a reasonable hour.

Daryl had noticed too, and was pulling on the change of clothes he brought which looked shockingly similar to the clothes he’d just shed. Torn jeans and an army green T-shirt. Rick pulled on jeans and a button up and fussed with his hair in the mirror. He should probably get it cut, the curls were getting out of control.

Daryl was leaning against the bathroom wall watching. “I love them damn curls you got.”

Okay, so maybe Rick would leave them the way they were.

They got in the truck feeling relaxed and sated and made the short ten minute drive to the Walsh house. As they stopped the car and Rick could see the living room light and flickers of TV, he knew he had to go in. He needed to be strong, and not to submit to his own grief. He looked over at Daryl.

“I’m here,” Daryl said.

And it was all Rick needed to know.

Chapter Text

Rick knocked on the door and Ella-May Walsh opened it, surprised to see him.

“Ricky!” she said with a weak smile. “So good to see you. So good.” Her voice was already starting to crack and Daryl’s heart ached for her. Her only son, lost to this madness.

“This is my friend, Daryl. Thought we’d stop by for a visit.”

“Hi, Daryl. Come in, come in. Please ignore the mess. I haven’t…cleaned much or really done much of anything since…y’know they came to the door.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Walsh,” Daryl said as he reached out to shake her hand and instead found himself pulled into a hug.

“Thank you. I’m sorry for it, too.”

Rick hugged her next and Daryl heard her whisper into his ear. “You were always his best friend. Ever since kindergarten. I’ve seen you grow up. I’m so sad my boy is gone, but I’m glad you’re safe, Rick. Glad you’re here. Shane would be, too.”

As they broke apart, she continued. “His letters were getting more honest at the end,” she said with a hiccup of sadness.

“Yeah,” Rick said as he sat down on one of the chairs at the dining room table. Daryl and Mrs. Walsh joined him.

Mrs. Walsh looked over at Daryl’s dog tags. “Did you serve?”

“Yes ma’am,” Daryl answered.

“I’m glad you made it home. Glad for all the mama’s that get their babies back.”

Neither Rick nor Daryl mentioned that there was no mama waiting on him.

“How’s Carl doing? What’s he eight now?”

“Nine,” Rick corrected.

“Oh my goodness. Time goes so fast. So fast.” After she drifted off into a memory for a moment, she stood. “Oh my goodness, I haven’t offered you boys lemonade or anything yet!”

“It’s okay, Mrs. Walsh,” Rick said. “Just wanted to stop by and see if you needed help with anything. Need you to know that I’m right down the road.”

“I’m getting us some lemonade,” Mrs. Walsh said stubbornly. “Just because I lost my only baby doesn’t mean I have to lose my manners.”

“I’ll help, ma’am,” Daryl said as he stood and followed her into the kitchen, giving Rick a look that said I got this., before he disappeared into the next room.

“Glasses are on that top shelf,” she pointed as she opened the fridge door. Daryl looked out the window over the sink at her backyard. It was overdue for a mow.

“Mrs. Walsh?” Daryl started.

“Oh Daryl, please just call me Ella-May. Ricky isn’t gonna ever do that cause he’s known me since he wasn’t any taller than my kneecap. But Ella-May is fine.”

“Okay, Ella-May,” Daryl answered. “Who mows your yard?”

“Pfft. I do. I’m not that old, son. I can still walk slowly back and forth and...” she stopped in mid-sentence as she joined Daryl to look out the window. “Oh, I must have forgotten lately.”

“Ella-May, let Rick and me take care of the yard for you from now on, would you?”

“So you boys can pity a hopeless old widow that lost her only child?” she asked with a bit of spunk.

“No ma’am…Ella-May.” Daryl said, his voice now low and quiet. “Rick needs to feel like he’s done something to help Shane. He NEEDS it. He’s overwrought with guilt that he couldn’t be over there to have Shane’s back.”

“Oh pish-posh. He’d just be dead, too.”

“Ain’t the way he sees it. He’s beatin’ himself up over not being there. And...Shane asked him. Asked him to check in on you and Rick needs to fulfil his best friend’s dying wish.”

Ella-May stood with the lemonade pitcher still in her hand as her eyes grew wet with tears. She nodded. “He was always a good mama’s boy, my Shane.”

When they returned to the dining room with the lemonades, Rick was at the front window looking out. “Who mows your grass, Mrs. Walsh?”

“Apparently you and your friend here,” she answered, handing him his glass. Rick looked at Daryl with an affectionate smile. Daryl loved to make Rick feel loved, feel like he had someone else in this world that would be by his side for everything.

They sat together sipping lemonade as the conversation continued. They talked about old neighbors and friends. Talked about a vacation Rick had gone on with the Walsh family when he was young. But finally she looked over at Daryl.

“How’d you manage to get home alive?” she asked with innocent curiosity.

“Got shot a couple times,” Daryl answered. “My one arm’s all messed up. Can’t pull a trigger very easily anymore.

“Well, I’m glad you got shot. It got you home.”

Daryl nodded politely. “Lost my whole platoon before they put me in the chopper to My Khe. Hard to find peace with being the only survivor.”

“Awww,” Ella-May said, patting Daryl’s arm. “I just hate what this war is doing to you boys. Even the ones that aren’t killed outright aren’t okay. All of our boys are gonna come back with wounds that no one can see but them and it’s a goddamn shame. Pardon my language.”

“I’ve heard worse in the jungle, ma’am,” Daryl said with a soft smile.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Walsh. I’m sure Shane wasn’t cussin’ over there,” Rick added and the two of them laughed at what they knew was pure bullshit. They knew Shane always had a bit of a mouth on him.

Daryl just watched them, feeling some warmth in his chest at the smiles on both their faces.

When it was time to go, Rick told her that they’d be back after the first milking the next day to mow and tend to the flower bed. At the door Daryl noticed some pictures on the wall. “This him?” Daryl asked as he looked at a photo of a soldier.

“Yeah,” Rick and Ella-May said at the same time. Daryl took a moment to look closely. That was the same Shane, the one he pictured when Rick had first described him. Daryl had met him when their platoons were passing through the jungle and they all paused together to eat dinner in the bush. Daryl started to hear the sounds of spoons scraping against tin trays from their C-rations and the murmur of tired, frightened soldiers as he slid back into ‘Nam, sitting on the damp jungle floor, almost suffocating from the humidity.

“Shane.”

“Daryl,” he’d responded as he fought with the army issue P-38 can opener that came with each C-ration.

“Ham and lima beans,” Shane said out loud as he read one of his own cans. “What do you got?”

“Turkey loaf.”

“You like that one?” Shane asked with a mouthful of ham.

“I ain’t ever eating anything that comes in a C-ration again if I make it home. That goes for the Ham and lima beans, the stale cookies, the spaghetti with ground meat, turkey loaf, cheese spread, beans and franks,” Daryl said.

They were sitting at the base of a tree surrounded by other soldiers, mostly just murmuring quietly as they rushed to eat while it wasn’t raining.

“What food do you miss most from home?” Daryl asked.

Shane didn’t even have to think. “My Ma’s Lasagna. Ricotta cheese, Italian sausage, her special sauce. No one else makes it like she does. She's got a secret recipe that she’s gonna take to her grave. How about you?”

Since Daryl never ate nothing special, just whatever he could get his hands on, he answered “After hearing that, I suppose it would be your Ma’s Lasagna. Sounds goddamn good right about now.”

He looked over at Shane’s tray and noticed that he’d tossed his four-pack of Benson & Hedges to the side.

“You gonna smoke those?” Daryl asked.

“Don’t smoke,” Shane replied.

“Give ya my pecan roll for ‘em,” Daryl offered.

Shane took a ridiculously long time to decide on the trade considering he had no plans to smoke the menthols.

“Yeah.” Shane tossed them over and Daryl handed him the canned pecan roll.

“How long you been in country?” Shane had asked.

“Ten months,” Daryl answered. “You?”

“My third tour,” Shane said as he took a huge bite of pecan roll.

Daryl laughed without humor. “I ain’t doing no more than I have to.”

“Drafted?”

“Yeah.”

“I enlisted. Wanted to serve my country.”

“Still think you’re serving the country?”

Shane sighed and leaned back on the tree, looking up at the setting sun. “Don’t know what I’m fucking doing anymore to be honest.”

Daryl nodded in agreement.

“You got a girl to go home to?” Shane asked.

“Nah. Got drafted right out of high school. You?”

“Got like ten girls at home,” Shane laughed, playing a tough guy act that Daryl could tell was his usual. “Miss my mom most, though. My friends.”

Daryl nodded. “Miss my brother. Miss sunshine and bein’ dry and going through a day where I ain’t scared shitless.”

Shane laughed at first then grew quiet. “You think you’ll make it home?”

“I don’t know,” Daryl answered. “You?”

Shane looked around at all the soldiers near them scarfing down their rations. “Can’t see it. Can’t see a future that ain’t in this jungle.”

Daryl tried to imagine it, tried to imagine a future. But all he saw was the North Vietnamese boy he’d first killed with his bare hands, the green lush jungle and wet mud.

“Hope you get home,” Daryl said as he swallowed the rest of his coffee and lit up one of the cigarettes.

“You too,” Shane answered. And as night fell, Daryl lost track of the man. At dawn the platoons split up. And that was all he ever saw of Shane Walsh.

As the jungle started to disappear, Daryl’s vision refocused on the picture of Shane and the beige living room walls. He remembered Rick and Ella-May were behind him.

“I met him,” Daryl said without turning to the others. “One day passing in the jungle. Ate dinner with him.”

When Daryl turned around both Mrs. Walsh and Rick were too shocked to even ask questions.

“Heard you make a hell of a Lasagna, ma’am,” Daryl said as he gave a quick nod to her and opened the door.

“That was his favorite,” Ella-May whispered.

“He had it on his mind. Had you on his mind and his friends. Even more than the ten girls he claimed he had waiting for him back home.”

“Yeah, that was definitely Shane,” Rick said with a wistful smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

“I’ll be sure to make you boys some of that lasagna one of the days you’re over mowing,” Ella-May said.

When they climbed into the truck, Rick looked at Daryl. “I would have broken down if you hadn’t been with me.”

Daryl was glad to know that he wasn’t always the broken one that needed to be “handled”. With Rick, he could sometimes be the strong one, the helpful one. They seemed to have a rhythm together, when one was in need the other was right there for support.

“I got your back, Rick. I’m here.”

Chapter Text

It was August 13th and a relatively cool summer day in Georgia. Rick was dropping Carl off with a bag full of clothes for the next four days.

“You listen to your nana, now,” Rick told Carl.

“I still don’t understand why I can’t go,” the boy pouted.

“It’s a long drive, buddy and nine is still a little young for your first concert.”

“I’m gonna be ten next month!” Carl complained.

“Tell you what, for your birthday, you pick out a concert and I’ll take you.”

“Okay, deal,” Carl said, holding his hand out for Rick to shake.

“Remember, since Daryl and I will be gone for a few days, you’re going to fill in on lawn duty for Mrs. Walsh on Saturday. Daryl and I already got the flower beds under control but the grass is ready for another mow. Nana will bring you over.”

“Okay, Dad, but YOU remember that you were gonna pay me two bucks for that.”

Rick pulled out two ones and handed them to his son. “I trust you so much I’ll pay up front.” He roughed up Carl’s hair and gave him a hug. “Be good for nana,” he said.

“He’s always good for me,” Betty interrupted. “You boys just be careful up there.”

“Be careful of what? It’s Three days of peace and music. not three days of murder and mayhem.”

“Awful big crowd for Daryl, don’t you think?” she asked.

“He wants to go, Mama.”

Rick could see in his mother’s eyes that she’d grown suspicious of how much time he was spending with Daryl.

She opened her arms to give him a hug and whispered in his ear. “You two be careful about what you are, you hear me? You saw all that stuff at Stonewall. It’s simply not accepted. So when I say be careful, I mean it.”

Rick backed away and cocked his head in confusion. How could she possibly know?

“I’m no dummy, Ricky. And I’m sure as hell not blind. Be careful and have fun,” she said with short nod.

“See you guys in a few days,” he said and then walked to his truck, already packed with the tent and sleeping bags.

By the time he got to Daryl’s house, a pale blue Volkswagen Beetle was parked out front covered in flower stickers and peace signs. As he walked up the front porch he noticed a handmade sign in the window of the Beetle that said Woodstock or Bust.

A girl with long blond hair, hip huggers and a halter top came out the front door and walked down the porch steps. She was barefoot and wore flowers in her hair.

“Oh, hi there. You Rick?” she asked in a dazed, soft voice.

“Yeah.”

“Far out,” she said twisting a finger in her hair. She smelled sweet, like a combination of Patchouli and grass. “I’m Andrea. Daryl says you’re hip, man.”

“Yeah,” Rick answered, scratching at the back of his head, “I’m totally hip.”

Daryl came out, making Rick completely forget that Andrea was even standing there. He was smoking a cigarette and wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt with his dog tags dangling from his neck. It was the first time Rick had seen him out of his army greens and maybe there’d been a reason for it. Daryl’s broad shoulders and strong arms barely fit in his old concert T-shirt. It fit him tightly and Rick loved the way he looked in it. He must have gotten a lot of that muscle while he was away.

“I like your shirt,” Rick smiled. He himself was just wearing jeans and a white T-shirt.

Daryl tried to hide his blush. “You pack the tent and sleeping bags?”

Rick nodded. He was practically speechless at the sight of Daryl, snug jeans with holes in them, the colorful T-shirt that really helped accentuate those broad shoulders and his narrow middle. Daryl smiled at him as he exhaled smoke slowly. He was a vision. And if Rick had a Polaroid of Daryl standing there like that, he was pretty sure he’d be able to jack off to it every night. Finally, Rick tore his eyes off the other man as he heard Andrea digging into the back seat of her car.

“We taking the Volkswagen?” Rick asked

She pulled out of the vehicle with a hand full of bumper stickers. “Too small,” she said. “Gonna give the El Camino a little flower power.”

“Far out,” Rick replied, trying to speak her language. As she walked over to Merle’s vehicle Rick raised a brow at Daryl and joined him on the porch.

That’s Merle’s girl? I thought he’d be a little too…gruff for that type.”

Daryl shrugged his shoulders. “That’s exactly what I thought, man but she stayed the night last night…and let’s just say it sounded like they’re heavy into each other.”

Rick chuckled as he locked eyes with Daryl. “Seriously. I like your shirt. It fits…really nice.”

Merle came out of the house with another set of sleeping bags and a tent and headed towards his car.

“Hey there, farmboy. Glad you’re joining us,” he muttered as he passed by.

Daryl tugged at Rick’s arm to get him in the house. As soon as the screen door shut behind them, Daryl shut the main door, leaned his back against it and pulled Rick close for a desperate kiss. It sucked having to hide what they had but Rick knew, and so did Daryl, that it was very much taboo and they didn’t need any more issues than they already had.

“Miss you so much when you ain’t here. I’m so excited to share a tent with you for four nights,” Daryl murmured into the kiss. Rick let his hands roam down to Daryl’s ass.

“Me, too.”

They jumped apart as Merle burst back into the house. “Well, I think we’re all packed up. Just need you to put your stuff in the back, Rick. Then we’re ready to beat feet. Andrea’s got the Camino lookin’ ready for the drive.”

“Let’s roll out then, man,” Daryl said.

“You and Rick in the bed, dig? I need to have my lady up front with me.”

“Understood,” Rick said with a smile, totally happy at the thought of being together with Daryl for fourteen hours in the back of the truck bed of the vehicle.

When they walked outside, they saw that Andrea really had given the Camino the royal treatment. Flowers, stickers, slogans, the “Woodstock or Bust” sign. It suddenly did NOT look like something Merle would drive, but he was obviously hot for Andrea and she could do no wrong.

“Load up. It’s Woodstock or bust!” Merle said as he grabbed Andrea and gave her a more than affectionate kiss before walking over to the driver’s side.

Daryl helped Rick into the back of the El Camino and they sat down against the sleeping bag rolls. He pulled out a joint and a lighter. “Little toke before we’re driving too fast on the highway,” Daryl offered.

“Yeah, man.”

They passed the joint back and forth, mostly just eyeing each other and enjoying the intimacy of sharing the smoke from one of their lips to the other. At a stop sign, Andrea hung out the window. “You all gonna bogart that joint?”

Daryl smiled and handed it to her. “Right on, man,” she said, flashing him a peace sign before the vehicle started moving again.

By the time they were on the highway, they’d hunkered down, rolled out one of the sleeping bags and used another as a pillow. They lay side by side pointing out pictures in the clouds, feeling the haze of the mary jane mellow them out.

“That can’t be all you see,” Rick laughed after Daryl pointed out the fifth cloud that he swore looked like a tree.”

“Well they don’t look like no dinosaurs,” Daryl teased.

“Hey! That one did so,” Rick said defensively.

“Okay, how about that one?”

Rick looked at it and cocked his head. “I think it’s a clown. That’s his hat and there’s his big shoes.”

Daryl laughed. “That’s terrifying. Clown staring down out yah while you’s trying to catch some Z’s.”

“Well, what do you see. And it can’t be a damn tree,” Rick said trying to hold back his laugh. He grabbed Daryl’s hand and held it. They were low enough in the bed of the El Camino that no one would be able to see. Daryl leaned his head against Rick’s and looked up.”

“A baby calf.”

“Aww, you worried about lil’ Stumbles? She’s okay. Jim, Otis and Hershel will take good care of her until we’re back.

“They don’t know how high to hold the bottle. She likes it a certain way. And she won’t drink if you’re talkin’ at the same time. She likes quiet when she’s feeding.”

“You told them all that, baby. She’s fine.” Rick was surprised to find the term baby feel so natural.

“It’s just, she’s the first…life I ever seen happen. Right ‘fore my eyes.”

“She’s a miracle. And there’s no doubt she’s fixated on you.”

They lay quietly for a while as the wind whipped by.

“Forgot to tell you, Glenn is picking up Maggie to go to a protest today,” Daryl said.

“They seemed to get along when you introduced them at the farm,” Rick smiled.

“Get along? Glenn was drooling. Like, literally. I had to hand him my hanky,” Daryl said with a laugh. They were quite for a few minutes, both floating in their own haze from the weed. “It’s nice to see people love each other instead of all the hate I seen in Vietnam. Just so much hate and anger. Fear.”

“You sure you think you can handle this concert? News this morning was already talking about traffic back ups. Might be a little bigger of a happening than we thought.”

“I want to be normal, again, Rick,” Daryl sighed. “I want to be able to walk down the street and not flinch when car doors shut. Want to sleep and dream of nice things like shared showers and nice days on the farm. I want to be able to stand in a crowd and not see the enemy hiding behind every corner and I want to be able to do things with you without going blank and losing myself back in Nam. If I don’t try, I’ll never shake it. I don’t want my eyes to look like the vets we saw at that rally. Empty, haunted, clouded, dead. I want you to be able to look in my eyes and see how much I think about you.”

Rick leaned over and kissed Daryl full on the mouth. “I know,” Rick said as he looked deep into Daryl’s dark blues. “I know. And we are in this together, whether you can shed some of those ghosts or not…I’m here.

Daryl rolled sideways facing Rick and ran his fingers through the mess of wind-blown curls.
“I love looking at you. Always makes me feel…peaceful.” And they fell asleep cuddled together in the back of the El Camino.

The ride was bumpy and each bump made Daryl remember again exactly where the bullet wounds were. And suddenly he was feeling the pain of them, like balls of fire exploding from his flesh.

“I need to go back,” Daryl said weakly, his mouth dry, dirt and blood coating his clothes.

“You need to go to surgery.”

“Where’s everyone else? Where’s the Lieutenant? Randall? Nicholas? Where’s...”

“I’m sorry, soldier,” the nurse said. “They didn’t make it. You were the only one we got out of there. Your whole platoon perished. They were strong and brave and they’ll receive medals for their service. You will, too.”

“I don’t want no goddamn medal!” Daryl shouted. “I’m not supposed to be here!”

“Not supposed to be in Vietnam?”

“Not supposed to be alive. Not if no one else is.”

Suddenly the bumpy ride in the field ambulance was gone and Daryl was clean, dressed in a hospital gown and watching static-laden TV in an all white hospital room. His possessions were in a plastic bag on the floor. Daryl stared at the TV. He was disappointed every time he woke up. He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be here.

He managed to unhook the IV’s and stood, stumbling over to his bag as he winced in pain from the fresh stitches. He pulled out a handgun. The one he and Merle kept at the house. He wasn’t sure how it got to Vietnam, but he cradled it in his hand and climbed back onto the bed. The sun was out. It was bright. He held the gun to his temple but before he could pull the trigger, he felt a hand run up and down his arm.

“Daryl, no.” It was Rick.

“What are you doing here!? You could get killed. You need to get back to the States so you can take care of Carl.”

“I can’t. I was drafted,” Rick answered solemnly. “Put the gun down, please. I need you.”

“I’m not supposed to be alive,” Daryl said with a cracking voice, tears starting to spill.

Rick ran fingers through Daryl’s stringy hair and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. Daryl pulled away. “You can’t be doing that shit. Someone might come in here and see.”

Rick looked at the door. “Oh, Right.”

When Daryl looked down for his gun, it had disappeared. Instead he found his rifle there and suddenly he was surrounded by the wet jungle and the shouts of the North Vietnamese. He looked around at his platoon, ready and waiting. And beside him was Rick, dressed in fatigues and holding a rifle of his own.

“You even know how to shoot that thing?” Daryl asked with a smile.

“Guess we’ll find out,” Rick answered.

When the fighting started it was as if Daryl had lived the scene a thousand times before. Randall went down, Bob got hit. Dary fired on every gook he could get a line on as everyone around him was dying. He turned back to where Rick had been and saw him just as bloody as the rest, collapsed in the weeds.

“No!” Daryl shouted and he crawled over to Rick, holding his head and sobbing. “No….”

He heard a helicopter above him and suddenly all the dead and dying were gone from the jungle around him. It was just Daryl, the soft moo’s of a baby calf that was trying to stand up in front of him, and the sound of Rick’s voice calling his name.

“Daryl. Daryl!” Rick said as he shook the other man awake. “You were shouting ‘No’ in your sleep. Think you were having a bad dream.” Daryl sat up and shivered at the dream as it slowly slipped from his memory.

“I’m okay,” Daryl said. “Thanks.”

Merle was turning into a White Castle as Daryl rubbed his eyes with his fists.

“Thank God,” Daryl said. “I could definitely eat.”

The four of them sat around a table stacked high with mini burgers and french fries.

“Well, the radio is saying it’s already getting jammed tight up there,” Merle said with his mouth full and a fry falling out of it.

“Everyone’s looking for peace, man,” Andrea said in her airy voice. “It’s going to be a real trip, man. Peace and harmony and sun and music and everyone just there to hang loose, to feel like one and to love one another.”

“That’s fucking poetry, baby,” Merle responded, kissing her far more intimately than one should in public. Maybe it’s okay on Haight-Ashbury or maybe even at Woodstock. But a White Castle in Middleburg, North Carolina, not so much. Though at the same time Daryl had to admit how jealous he was. He’d never be able to kiss Rick without hiding behind closed doors like they were some kind of abomination. It’s just a kiss.

“So who's driving the next leg?” Rick asked in an obvious effort to get them to stop making out over the food.

“I can take it,” Daryl offered. There was no way he wanted to fall asleep again. As much as his nightmare had faded from his memory, the uneasy feeling in his belly was still there.

“I’ll take shotgun so you guys can get some rest in the back,” Rick added.

“Sounds like a plan, man. Let’s all hit the head before we hit the road.” Merle held his arm out to escort Andrea to the ladies room and Rick and Daryl shared an eyeroll.

Once they were back on the road, they talked like they’d known each other forever. Daryl noticed again that there was something about Rick’s voice that made him feel a little more tethered to earth. Something that made him want to…live. Rick was happy just to be sitting in a car talking to Daryl. And Daryl had never known anyone that was happy just to know him. And he’d sure as hell not cared what anyone else had to say more than he did with Rick. Daryl wanted to know everything. His favorite football team, his fondest memories of Carl’s first year, the first concert he went to. He wanted to be normal for Rick, to stop being trapped back in Nam. He wanted to be what Rick needed. And he hoped that he’d be able to get through the next three days unscathed.

Chapter Text

Rick was the one behind the wheel on Thursday night when the road they were traveling on became a literal parking lot.

“Think this is the end of the road,” he said.

Daryl banged on the outside of the car door. “Hey, Merle, Gonna have to hoof it from here on out!”

Merle and Andrea jumped out of the back and came around to the driver’s side.

“How long ya think? Mile?” Merle asked.

“Probably a couple miles but I’m pretty sure it’s in that direction,” Rick answered.

Daryl snickered at the sarcasm, as hordes of people walked past them headed the same way. God, Rick loved the sound of Daryl’s quiet laugh.

“This is sooo far out,” Andrea sighed as she flashed a peace sign at a group of hippies that walked by.

“Alright,” Merle said. “If we get separated, meet back here at the El Camino on Sunday afternoon. Let’s go, girl.” He squatted down and Andrea climbed on his back as he carried her through the crowd.

Rick and Daryl climbed out of the car and stretched their legs.

“You good?” Rick asked, leaning down to catch Daryl’s eye as he grabbed their bedrolls and tent.

“I’m good. You don’t wanna just leave that shit here and we’ll come back out this way at night?”

Rick looked at the crowd around him streaming past like the flow of a creek when the water was high.

“Rather have it with us in case we get disoriented,” Rick said. It was just a little white lie, and the narrowed suspicion in Daryl’s eyes may have revealed that he read through it. Daryl hadn’t had a flashback in a quite a few weeks but if there was ever a time for one to sneak back up on him, it was now. And with the tent, Rick could pull him in for some privacy and shelter if he needed it.

“Alright, Grimes. Let’s go check the place out.”

They walked along with the throngs of people headed for the stage which was nowhere in sight yet.

“Christ, the show doesn’t even start til tomorrow,” Rick said. “Look at all these people!”

When Daryl didn’t respond, Rick looked over and saw his eyes scanning everyone around them, his shoulders tight with stress. Rick held onto Daryl’s arm again, like he had at the protest.

“Thank you,” Daryl whispered.

They continued walking, Rick babbling on about any damn thing he could think of, until they could finally see the stage. It took nearly two hours with the crowd and they never saw a ticket booth, just a knocked down fence that everyone was trampling over.

Rick pointed to another area that had a lot of tents set up already. “Let’s get situated for the night.”

They stopped at a hot dog stand and waited in line for another hour to get two overpriced hot dogs at a dollar a piece and some water. They ate as they walked through the less crowded tent area and found a spot to set up. The sun was almost completely set and it looked like everyone gathered at the stage was gonna stay right where they were.

Rick and Daryl sat on the outside of their tent just observing their surroundings as other concert-goers strolled by. Daryl jumped at an unexpected squeal of laughter and Rick laid a hand on his knee, trying to think of conversation from back home.

“So what did you really think about Glenn dodging the draft?” Rick asked, “You wish you’d have told the draft board you were gay, too?” Rick cringed when the question came out. Asking anything about the war probably wasn’t a way to settle Daryl’s nerves. “Shit. That was a bad question. I meant how did you like Annette’s banana bread yesterday?”

Daryl smiled, something that doesn’t come easy and Rick relishes each one. “You don’t have to tiptoe around me. I don’t mind talking to you about anything. He lit a cigarette and took a puff before he answered. “I don’t know, really. I mean at the time it seemed like the only thing that made sense for me was to just accept my fate and go. What else was I gonna do? Dixon’s ain’t known for having a lot of options.”

“That’s not what I know of Dixon’s.” Rick said as a group of shirtless hippies walked by.

“And what do you know about Dixon’s?” Daryl asked, challenging but without the venom.

“What I know is, a shitty father had two sons who care about each other, who route for each other, who protected one another even as young children. I know Merle, and he’s worked his ass off one-handed to help keep a roof over his baby brother’s head when your Pa died. Lot a guys his age woulda just lit outta town. I know you, Daryl. And you saw what it meant to be a stereotypical Dixon and chose not to be. You’re no Dixon. You’re strong, generous, brave, giving and gentle. You’re your own person. You aren’t defined by your last name or who your father was. You can be anything you want.”

Daryl looked up at the stars as he absorbed Rick’s words. He’d never understand how the other man could see these things. Rick made him feel like the person Daryl always wanted to be. Without Rick, all Daryl saw was a redneck, a victim, a killer.

“Wanna hear what I know about you?” Daryl finally asked, eyes still on the stars.

“Yeah.”

“I know you’ve got your Mother’s instincts and strength. I know your Carl’s father, a father I could have only dreamed of having. You’re someone who’s not afraid to...y’know...show how much they care. Someone who don’t walk past a stranger in need and that ain’t a trait a lot of people have.”

Rick smiled. “I had a good day today,” he said, a hand rubbing his lover’s back briefly before he remembered he couldn’t do such things in public.

“Same,” Daryl said. “Planning on having a good night, too.”

Daryl smiled at Rick as he stubbed out and then flicking his cigarette. “Getting dark. Maybe we should turn in.”

Rick had the zipper of the tent opened before Daryl could even look at him for his response. Rick climbed in with Daryl behind him and they zipped up. For being in the middle of hundreds of thousands of people, they seemed to have instant privacy and safety.

“It’s hot as balls in here,” Daryl said as he fought his way out of his T-shirt and pulled off his jeans, laying down in nothing but a pair of boxers.

Rick just watched Daryl, dumbfounded at how comfortable the man already was with him.

“Ain’t you hot?” Daryl asked, his voice low and soft.

“Yeah, shit,” Rick said as he shook off the way he was so easily mesmerized by Daryl’s body. He removed his white shirt, wiggled out of his jeans and laid down next to Daryl, both in boxers and both staring up at the top of the tent. Rick reached out and held onto Daryl’s hand, running a thumb over his knuckles.

“Whatcha thinking about?” Rick finally asked.

“You.”

“What about me?”

“Wonderin’ if you was gonna take them boxers off,” Daryl said, looking over at Rick as he bit at his bottom lip.

“You gonna take yours off?” Rick asked.

“Thinkin’ about it.”

Rick sat up and tugged at Daryl’s boxers, helping him out of them. Daryl was already hard as a rock and Rick wondered what it would be like to taste him. Lori had gone down on him a few times and he always loved that wet, hot feeling, the slide of a tongue along his length. He could probably figure out how to do it. He had to because he was dying to pull sounds from Daryl that he hasn’t yet made.

“Ain’t you gonna take off...”

Rick made Daryl drop his sentence as the farmhand leaned down and took Daryl’s length into his mouth.

“Holy fucking...Fuck, Rick. What are you...”

Rick licked up the shaft and swirled his tongue around the head and smiled to himself as Daryl whimpered and gasped in pleasure.

“Fuck. Fuck. I ain’t gonna last long.”

Rick redoubled his efforts and Daryl lifted his hips off the sleeping bag. He moaned and his breath sped up as he murmured Rick’s name over and over like a prayer. Rick loved this, loved making Daryl feel this euphoria, taking his mind away from everything else and making it all belong to him. He loved the sound of his name on Daryl’s tongue.

He felt Daryl’s hand fist into his curls, felt his thighs rise and fall as he chased after the ecstasy he knew was so close. Rick looked up at him as he sucked and licked, memorizing the way his brows knit in concentration, the little bit of drool that formed at the corner of his mouth, the beautiful sound of anticipation in his gasps and moans.

“You better pull…off…I…I can’t...”

Rick didn’t listen, he wanted everything of Daryl and as he used a hand along with his slick tongue, Daryl finally fell over the edge with a cry as a warmth filled Rick’s mouth. He swallowed and wiped the saliva from his lips before he sat up to look down at a completely wrecked Daryl Dixon, chest moving up and down as he gasped for air, the rest of his body boneless as if he wouldn’t be able to move if he tried.

“That was…good,” Daryl finally managed to say and Rick chuckled.

“Sounded like it was better than good,” he teased.

“I don’t think there’s a word invented yet for what that was,” Daryl said with a soft laugh.

Rick leaned back down and kissed Daryl, their lips coming together like the pedals of a tulip closing at night. Daryl rolled over onto Rick and kissed him more aggressively.

“Ain’t never had anything like this, Rick – someone to be everything with.” Daryl continued to kiss Rick’s soft, full lips, latching on like a calf to its mother. I...I really...” Daryl started between clashes of lips.

Rick put his hand on Daryl’s strong chest and held him back a moment so they could lock eyes. And they could read each other that way.

“I’m in love with you, too, Daryl. You’re everythang to me. My friend, my lover, my safety net, my strength. Just…mine,” Rick said as he let his hand slide from Daryl’s chest around to his back, arching up for another kiss.

“Ain’t used to hearing such nice fancy things,” Daryl said as he nibbled at Rick’s neck. “Wish I could say it as fancy but I ain’t got the words. You just…you make me want to be alive.”

Daryl shimmied down Rick and tugged off his boxers. Rick was engorged at this point and even just the thought of Daryl touching him there in any way was almost enough to make him come.

Daryl ran his fingers lightly up and down Rick’s length, playing with him like a cat with a mouse.

“You don’t have to do what I did if it isn’t comfortable for you,” Rick whispered, followed by a groan as Daryl squeezed Rick’s cock.

“Ain’t that. Just like seeing you dying for it. You’re sexy when you’re horney, Rick. Cheeks all flushed, body squirming, eyes all pupil,”

“Fuccck,” Rick groaned, as Daryl continued to run his fingers gently up and down the farmhand’s shaft until he was writhing in desperation. “Please, please, please,” Rick moaned.

And finally Daryl bent down and licked long and slow up Rick’s cock. The farmhand’s body got rigid and his hips started moving a bit on their own.

Daryl laughed and Rick’s heart swelled at the sound of it. Jesus, he loved Daryl. Something he never would have expected. To love anyone again. For it to be a man. For it to be so deeply intense that he could melt at just eye contact, shiver from just a hand on his back, lose his breath at just the sight of him.

Daryl swallowed Rick’s cock, sucking and licking and bobbing his head eagerly. That was all it took.

“Please, Daryl, don’t stop,” he begged. “Yes, yes...I’m gonna come.” And with that he did, a burst like an explosion went off in his core, nerve endings tingling from his head to his toes, and his cock pulsing out his seed in strong bursts.

Rick went limp as he listened to Daryl slurping up all the mess he missed. Then he crawled up and put an arm around Rick’s waist and rested his head on Rick’s shoulder. “Okay if I lay like this?”

“Jesus Christ, Daryl. You can do any goddamn thing you want,” Rick laughed. And they fell asleep, sated and happy with the sounds of night in the air and concert goers in the distance.

Chapter Text

Daryl opened a can of turkey loaf, sitting under a tree in the jungle. Looking up, he realized with a start that the man next to him was VC. The other man had a similar C-ration and when he returned the glance, Daryl knew who it was him…the man with no name, the one Daryl stabbed in the head, his first up close and personal kill during his tour. The one who always haunted him.

Daryl just eyed him as the other man twisted open his own can. Scanning his surroundings, Daryl saw a whole army platoon sitting around eating. Did none of them notice this intruder?

“What’s your name?” Daryl asked, finally.

The man looked up. “I don’t have one. What’s yours?” It was perfect English, which was odd.

“Daryl.” He pushed his food aside untouched and went for the matches and the cigarettes instead. He lit up, eyes still fixed on the young VC struggling with the can opener.

“How old are you?” Daryl asked as he blew out a plume of smoke.

“I don’t remember,” the kid said as he used his spoon to empty the contents of his can onto a tin tray that sat on his lap.

“Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be with your own side?” Daryl asked.

The kid shrugged. “What’s it matter?”

Daryl shrugged back and inhaled deep, breathing the smoke back out slowly.

“Sorry I killed you,” Daryl finally said, his voice soft and sad.

The nameless kid looked up again. “It’s okay. I was going to kill you.”

“You hesitated,” Daryl said as he thought back to that day in the jungle.

“I did. Just because you’d have been my first kill. But mark my words, Daryl. I was going to kill you.”

“Why?”

“Orders. And that’s why you killed me. I understand.”

Daryl bit a nail, smoke from the cigarette creating a fog around them.

“You should think about leaving,” the kid said.

“Leaving where? Vietnam?”

“Yeah,” the kid answered as he pushed around his food with a spoon.

“Why?”

“Cause you’re not here anymore anyway. Neither am I.”

“Where are you?” Daryl asked, forgetting about his cigarette and working on his thumbnail with renewed intensity.

“Having lasagna with Shane. It’s a special recipe.”

Daryl woke with a start. He was in the same position, lying on top of Rick and it was getting humid as hell. Both of them were covered in a sheen of sweat. He looked up to see Rick’s bright blue eyes already open and watching him.

“Seemed like you were sleeping okay. Nightmare?”

“Just...just the usual,” Daryl answered, peeling himself off Rick. “Why didn’t ya push me off? It’s sticky as hell.”

 

“Don’t mind it,” Rick said with a smile. “Almost ten. Should be starting soon. Wanna head out to the stage?”

Daryl started pulling on his jeans and shoes while Rick did the same. “I’m not wearing a shirt today,” Rick said. “Too damn humid.”

Daryl bit his lip. “I don’t really do that.”

Rick kissed him softly. “Well, we should get you some water so you don’t keel over.”

They got up and headed over to a wooded area to relieve themselves. The noise of the crowd around them had been going on all night and Daryl was getting accustomed to the sound of it. It was hot though. For the first time in ages he cursed his father for giving him the scars that were a constant source of embarrassment.

As if Rick was reading his mind, he suggested that Daryl at least tear off his shirt sleeves and after doing so, he did feel a little less overheated. When they got to the food stand that had the high-priced hot dogs the night before, it was all out of food. But one of the groups of hippies nearby were handing out Dixie cups of water and Rick and Daryl thanked them profusely for it, flashing them peace signs as they walked away.

They weren’t hearing any music as they made their way through the crowd and once they got close enough to the stage to see, they noticed that no one was up there. Daryl saw Rick check his watch. “Eleven o’clock. Should have started at ten,” he said.

One of the girls in front of them turned around. “Radio says a lot of the acts are stuck in traffic.”

Daryl looked around again. It was more people in one place than he’d ever seen in his entire life. He felt Rick’s hand hold onto his arm above the elbow and he smiled to himself. He was…happy. He was safe.

They waited in the muggy, overcast weather for hours. Several times Daryl flinched at the sound of helicopters overhead, and Rick would immediately squeeze his arm and whisper conversation to him. Anything to get his mind grounded. Talking about lil’ Stumbles back at the farm, or how Carl was doing on that Archery badge, or how sexy Daryl looked when he came. It worked for the most part, but Daryl would watch the helicopters and quick flashes of the medivacs from Nam would shift into his vision.

Finally, a little after five, someone on stage announced Richie Havens. He talked to the crowd a bit and started strumming his first song. Rick was all smiles, bobbing his head to the music, and Daryl found he was more interested in watching Rick than trying to see what was happening on stage. The crowd around them grew excited, all swaying to the music, mesmerized, many of them from the acid they’d been dropping all day. The air was thick with the smell of weed and one of the guys behind him tapped his shoulder.

Daryl flinched just slightly and looked back at an offered joint.

“Thanks man,” he said. He pulled out his lighter and lit up, passing it to Rick after he took a long hit.

Rick inhaled and held it in like a pro, only losing the smoke when he started to giggle at Daryl. They shared the smoke as the music continued. Both men finally zoned out, gazing up at the stage, clapping after each song, and taking the occasional hit of a stray joint when it passed by them.

Around midnight, during Ravi Shankar’s set, it started to rain. Daryl fucking hated rain, but he was determined to stand there next to Rick and enjoy the music. This wasn’t Nam rain. It was peace and love and freedom rain, Daryl thought.

Rick leaned over a few times, asking Daryl if he wanted to go back to the tent, but the younger man shook his head. They came for a concert and they were going to see one. By the time Joan Baez was singing her last song at around 1 a.m., the two men started to walk back to their tent to the sounds of her voice singing strong, We shall overcome.

They passed a group of people that were handing out cups of granola which both men accepted, devouring the contents since it was all they had to eat that day. Crawling into their tent, they stripped and were immediately ready for sleep after their long exhausting day, the final verse of Baez’s song, the raindrops on the tent, and the murmur of the crowd gradually fading into nothingness. Rick turned towards Daryl, slid an arm around his waist and rested his head on his shoulder. “Okay if I lie like this?” he asked, his voice rough from shouting out lyrics all night.

“Absolutely,” Daryl said and he kissed Rick’s forehead. He fell asleep with a smile on his face at the way Rick relaxed and enjoyed himself throughout the day.

Daryl closed his eyes and fell asleep after the last lyric, ”We shall overcome some day.”

Chapter Text

The next day the music started at noon. It was still hot, humid, and rainy. A nun handed Rick and Daryl each a sandwich and some water.

“Are we so high that we’re imagining food from God?” Rick asked, dead serious. He’d smoked a joint here and there with Daryl on a lot of occasions but that was just one joint at a time. He had no idea how many they’d had so far that morning.

Daryl laughed as he took a huge bite. “Eat it, it’s real, man.”

“Is it weird that there was a nun out here?” Rick asked before he bit into his sandwich.

“Everything about this is weird, Rick,” Daryl said.

They made their way as close to the stage as they could. The music started but the rain didn’t stop.

“This rain okay?” Rick asked. He knew how much Daryl associated it with ‘Nam.

“‘S fine. There weren’t no sandwich-bearing nuns out in Nam so I know I ain’t back there.”

“Yeah, you’re here. With me,” Rick said as he squeezed at Daryl’s elbow again, giving him that subtle touch that Rick knew grounded him.

They could barely see the stage from where they stood, but they could still hear the music.
The rain was on and off, at one point coming down in a deluge and the grass they were all standing on was becoming nothing more than mud and puddles.

Rick and Daryl had been passing joints back and forth for most of the day; they were drenched, hungry, but they were together. The music stopped occasionally because of technical problems and the crowd was so thick around them that Rick finally grabbed Daryl’s hand, subtly. No one was looking at them. Everyone was looking at the stage or the kids that were literally rolling around in the mud. They stood like that for a good half-hour, hand in hand before Rick felt Daryl’s fingers slip from his. He turned, but Daryl was gone. Rick swiveled his head around looking through the crowd. Just like that he had disappeared, swallowed up in the crowd...just gone.

“Daryl!,” he called out. “Daryl!” He looked at all the faces that surrounded him, peered through the bodies and continued to call out. Finally, Rick tried to wiggle out of the crowd. Maybe Daryl was heading back to the tent. “Have you seen my friend?” Rick asked a few of the people that had been surrounding them. But they were all too stoned to understand the question.

Rick pushed his way through the crowd as the rain came down harder. “DARYL!” he shouted again and again frantically, his heart beating out of his chest with worry. It took him the better part of an hour to get out of the mass of people around the stage as he continued screaming Daryl’s name so much his voice had gone raw. When he finally broke through, he ran to the tent, slipping only once. Rick looked inside and around the other tents. He even walked up to the treeline where they’d been pissing. He wasn’t anywhere. Rick looked back out over the sea of people. “Shit,” he muttered as his fist clenched his hair, pulling in fear and frustration. He was near frantic. His heart was racing and he felt dizzy from lack of food and worry.

He made his way back towards the crowd, his hands shaking and his eyes darting everywhere. Santana was onstage and Rick felt the crowd swaying to Soul Survivor as he shouted for Daryl. It had probably been hours since Rick lost him. Jesus. He could be anywhere.

“Daryl Dixon?” a woman called out. “Daryl Dixon?”

Rick turned around and ran to her. “You just say Daryl Dixon?”

“Yeah,” the woman said. “He’s in the medical tent. Shellshock. He’s been looking for a Rick. That you?”

“Yes! God, yes! That’s me!”

Rick followed her to get to the medical tent. “What happened? Is he okay?” Rick asked, trying to pick up their pace as she walked way too slow through the throngs of people.

“Shell shock, like I said. We’ve gotten a few of them today. No bumps or bruises, just confusion.” she said, stopping a moment to face Rick with a frown. “That fucking war. I can’t even imagine what these boys have been through.” She pointed to a big white tent in front of them with the words Entering a Safe Haven on it in red. “He’s in there resting. Rick ran to the tent. “Daryl!?” he yelled. “Daryl!?”

“‘M here,” a weak voice answered.

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

His mind flickered. Music festival – Nam. Music festival – Nam. There were people covered in mud. Camouflage. There were thousands of people he didn’t know. Daryl must have somehow wandered into their camp. Had to be VC; Daryl didn’t recognize anyone. Christ, with all these people, the US was never going to win this war. Daryl dropped to the ground, his heart throbbing in panic as he elbow walked through the mud, seeking shelter and hoping no one would notice him. He was in the jungle. He’d gotten away, but he still heard them on his heels. Gunshots pounding like drums and VC chattering all around him. He stayed low and focused. He moved from one spot to the next, rubbing the mud into his face to help him hide. He must have crawled a couple of miles before he finally heard a chopper above him and he felt the wind from the blades. Daryl looked up, waving the chopper down. He needed help. He’d been shot. He could feelthe pain in his shoulder and in his ass.

“I’ve been shot!” he shouted up to the helicopter. “I’ve been shot and I lost my platoon!”

The helicopter left as if it had never even seen him, and the kid with no name was kneeling in front of him. He was going to die. This was it.

The kid with no name slowly morphed into a woman with short grey hair. She was on her knees in the mud with him, holding his hands. “Hey there, welcome back. You’re at Woodstock. My name’s Carol.”

“What?” Daryl croaked.

“Shell shock. We’ve seen a few of those today. Come to the medical tent with me. Let me look you over, make sure you’re okay.” Daryl looked around and saw the mass of concert-goers and finally registered the music, Keef Hartley Band Too Much Thinking.

Daryl sat on a table, numb, cold. “Rick,” he mumbled, noticing he was losing his voice.

“Who’s Rick?” Carol asked, her voice gentle and soothing as she felt around for any bruising. “That who you came with?”

Daryl nodded. “Need to find him,” he said, trying to stand and push Carol off him.

“Drink some water for me first. Please?” she asked as she looked at his dog tags.

“I have to...”

“Daryl Dixon. You are dehydrated and filthy. Let’s get some water in you and get you cleaned up a bit. Then I’ll head out to look for a Rick that’s missing a Daryl, Okay?”

Daryl pouted but gave her a terse nod. He tried to be patient as she shined a light in his eyes and ran fingers through his hair checking for a head would. When she gave him a bottle of water and supervised him drinking it, she crossed her arms and smiled.

“You seem fine other than the flashback and confusion. I prescribe water. Drink it and shower in it.” Daryl gave her a weak smile after he drained the bottle.

“My grandfather,” she said, “he was in WWII. This happened to him, being haunted by what he’d seen. If it makes you feel any better, things did get easier for him.”

“He got over it?” Daryl asked with a glimmer of hope.

“No,” Carol answered with a sympathetic sigh. “He just learned how to live with it.”

Daryl was exhausted, both mentally and physically. He must have fallen asleep after Carol attempted to wash the mud off his face, because the next thing he knew he was waking up to Rick’s voice and the sound of his own name.

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

Rick ran over to a mud covered and exhausted Daryl and wrapped his arms around him, kissing him without care of who saw it. “Jesus, I thought I’d never find you! What happened? You were there one minute then just…gone.”

“‘M sorry, Rick,” Daryl said, hanging his head in shame.

“What are you sorry for?” Rick held both of Daryl’s hands in his own. “You hurt anywhere?”

Daryl shook his head, ashamed. Rick was wise enough to know that it wasn’t the time to force Daryl to talk. He had him back and that was all that mattered.

“There’s that creek we saw people swimming in yesterday. Wanna go wash up a bit?” Rick asked, looking down at the mud that now covered both of them.

“Okay.”

Rick pulled Daryl by his hand through the crowd to the stream, but this time his grip wasn’t subtle. It was tight and strong and determined.

Chapter Text

Daryl allowed himself to be dragged through the crowd. He hung his head in disappointment. He’d put Rick through a hell of a scare. He’d been sure he was going to be okay. He’d made it just fine the first day and almost all the way through the second. He didn’t even remember what flipped his switch and that was the scariest part of having ‘Nam in charge of you, crossing your wires, owning you. You couldn’t control it. You were helpless, totally at its mercy.

There was no music from the stage – they were announcing a delay from electrical problems or something. The rain was still coming down in sprinkles. When they got to the stream they saw quite a few groups swimming around naked, men and women. Rick finally turned to him. “Come with me,” he said as he held both Daryl’s hands and walked backwards into the stream. And Daryl followed.

They were neck deep in the water and Rick didn’t take his eyes off Daryl’s the whole time. He wiped at Daryl’s cheek with wet hands and ran fingers through his mud-caked hair. “Christ, Daryl. You’re even beautiful caked in mud.”

No one was paying them any attention; a group of kids up a ways was singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and they were the ones garnering all the attention.

“I’m so sorry. I thought I had that shit kicked, man,” Daryl said, his eyes pleading for forgiveness.

“It’s not a bad habit, Daryl,” Rick said, looking at him with sympathy. “It’s a part of you. You went through hell. That won’t just wash away cause you want it to.”

“I guess,” Daryl answered.

“Lean your head back a little,” Rick instructed and he scrubbed his fingers through Daryl’s hair, doing the best he could without soap or shampoo. “You don’t got a thing to be sorry for. I should be the one apologizing. I let you slip right out of my hand.”

“You shouldn’t have to be watching over me like a child,” Daryl frowned.

“I’m not, I’m watching over you like a lover that needs me as much as I need him,” Rick answered.

They splashed their faces clean and Rick worked on Daryl’s hair a little more. They tried to scrub at their clothes to clean them up a bit as well. Finally, they’d both done the best they could with clean up.

“Okay if we just go back to the tent?” Daryl asked.

“Absolutely. Just one quick minute, though,” Rick said, running his fingers through Daryl’s hair again. “If there’s ever a place we’ll get away with it, it’s now,” Rick said and he kissed Daryl in the water. Not a peck, not a soft meeting of lips, but a desperate, urgent clash of lips and tongue and Daryl felt the other man’s arms snake around him. They were filthy, wearing drenched clothing, and soaked to the bone in dirty water. They were hot and hungry and tired, but that very moment instantly became one of Daryl’s favorite memories ever.

Rick was kissing him. Out in the world and kissing him regardless of how broken he was or who might see them.

When they finally pulled apart, Daryl splashed water at Rick. “You’re gonna get us killed, man.”

“Ehh, nobody’s even looking,” Rick said. “Couldn’t help it.”

“Listen, Rick,” Daryl said, stumbling through the words he hadn’t really thought through yet. “I ain’t never gonna be like these other guys. Just singing songs and breathing fresh air and being happy and knowing where they are at any point in time.“

“I don’t want guys like that. I want you,” Rick interrupted.

“Came here to try to get stronger and fight it, overcome it,” Daryl said. “I just need you to know I ain’t ever gonna be easy. I’m...complicated. And I don’t think...I don’t know if I can do things like this anymore. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like noise.”

“Then why did you even want to come?” Rick asked, a hand grabbing at Daryl’s under the water. “I thought you wanted to be here.

“Wanted to try to be better for you. Be able to do normal things like everybody else is doin’.”

“I don’t want anything different, Daryl. I want you.”

Rick kissed him again and Daryl splashed water at him.

“We better get back to the tent before you totally seduce me out in the middle of all these people,” Daryl said with a laugh.

They got back to the tent as it grew dark and the distinctive sound of the Grateful Dead was playing in the distance. Most of the people were still at the stage, so the tent area was relatively quiet. Rick started stripping even before he unzipped the tent.

“What are you doing?” Daryl asked with a snort of laughter.

“Not getting in there with these sopping wet clothes.” Rick took everything off, including his boxers, and tossed them on the top of the tent to dry.

Daryl’s jaw dropped as he looked around, but nobody was paying them any attention.

“I’ll be inside,” Rick winked.

Daryl started ripping off his shoes and pants, leaving his shirt for last. He pulled it off and dropped it on the ground before crawling in after Rick, zipping the door behind him.

He felt better already. Alone in the tent with just Rick. He didn’t know how he got so damn lucky. Luck was never on his side. Not with parents, not with the draft, not with anything. And in Nam when he started realizing that he wasn’t interested in girls, he thought he’d have no luck in love. But here he was with the most beautiful man in the world, inside and out. And he wanted Daryl.

They were lying on their sides, just letting their eyes graze one another’s body.

“You know, if you think about it, if it weren’t for those pesky flashbacks, I’d have never met you,” Rick said.

“Guess that’s true. Still hate it though.”

“Of course, and I hate that you have to deal with it. But I’m here. Whatever you need, I’m here.” Rick’s voice was so soothing, so hushed, and so sincere. It was impossible not to believe him.

Daryl scooted closer and curled up in Rick’s arms. They slept off and on as the music in the distance continued through the night. Once they’d both rested a bit, they started with the hands and the lips and bodies, rocking against one another and both came in one another’s arms, just from the friction as they writhed together, moaning and whimpering. They slept the rest of the night peacefully and dreamlessly, tangled together in one another’s arms. When the sun came up the next morning, Daryl was ready to go home.

“Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane was playing as they walked up to the road with their sleeping bags and tents, clothes still damp, stomachs growling.

“I’ve never wanted a shower so bad in my life,” Rick said as they reached the pavement.

“I’ve actually been worse,” Daryl said with a smile. “One time we was stuck in the bush during a downpour that lasted nearly four days. All of us caked with mud and stinking to high heaven. Bob had the beans and franks C-ration right before it all started and he was practically shitting himself. We were covered in mud, rain, sweat, and Bob’s farts for four days. That was a good day for a shower.”

“Sounds like it,” Rick said, laughing.

“Hope Merle got to hear all the bands he wanted. Show got all messed up.”

“I’m sure they had a good time. Merle seems like the kinda guy that can have a good time anywhere.”

Daryl laughed. “Yeah, that’s about right.”

They got back to the El Camino around 11:30 and Merle and Andrea were already there.

“You kids have fun?” Merle asked.

“Yeah,” Daryl said. “Ready to go home, though.”

“Me too, baby brother.”

Andrea climbed into the passenger side looking completely worn out. And Rick and Daryl started to climb in the back.

“God damnit! Am I gonna be the one has to navigate us out of this mess?” Merle barked.

“This whole thing was your idea, man,” Rick said, as Daryl was faking a headache.

“Can’t do it, man,” Daryl said, holding his head in both hands. “My head, it’s killing me.” He looked over to Rick from behind his hands and winked.

“Bunch of pansies,” Merle muttered and he climbed in to drive them all home.

Chapter Text

It was Saturday and Rick was making pancakes. It was a cold November morning and although he never usually took the time to make much more than an egg or a bowl of cereal, he actually felt like cooking. He was happy. He’d been happy for months now and that was new. Daryl was always by his side – at work, mowing or shoveling snow at Mrs. Walsh’s, doing things with Carl like movies or tossing around a football. For many years Rick had fluctuated between sad and vaguely content, and now he barely remembered what that felt like. Since he met Daryl it was like the colors around him were brighter, the air tasted sweeter, and it was more fun to cook for three than for two.

“Pancakes?” Carl asked as he stood in his pajamas scratching at his mop of slept-on hair.

“Yeah, wanted to make something different. And Daryl’s coming over for breakfast before we all head out to go fishing.”

“Oh yeah,” Carl said as he sat down at the table. “Why didn’t he just stay over? He was here till after midnight last night.”

Rick froze. Did Carl see them on the couch the night before?? They never did anything completely indecent without being behind closed doors, but they had cuddled up under the same blanket to watch TV and as always they ended up kissing excessively.

“How do you know he was here til midnight?”

“Heard his truck door and looked at the clock.”

Rick exhaled a long held breath.

“Dad?”

“Yeah, buddy.”

“Are you and Daryl like cousin Aaron?”

The color ran out of Rick’s face, he dropped the spatula to the floor, and knocked over a chair in his effort to pick it up. Why did Carl always seem to know more than a kid his age should.

“What would make you say that?”

“Well,” Carl said as he pulled two pancakes off the platter in the middle of the table, “You guys hang out like ALL the time. He’s always over here or you’re always over there. And you hold his arm sometimes like how boys and girls do.”

“We’re just good friends, Carl.”

“I’m friends with Louis but I’d never want to hold him like that. Plus, I seen you two kiss one time.”

Shit.

Rick sat down and looked Carl right in the eyes. “Carl, I love you. I’ll always love you. You are the most important thing in my life.” He took a deep breath before he continued. “You know, it’s been over ten years and I never remarried after your mother. Never even dated. I could never imagine being with anyone that wasn’t her. I never clicked with anyone the way we did.”

Carl picked at his pancake and watched his father as he spoke.

“Daryl and I click. He is very special to me and…”

“Are you special to him?”

“Yes.”

“Does being special mean love?”

Rick slowly nodded his head and rubbed at his beard. “Yeah.”

“I like Daryl,” Carl said, and he grabbed for the syrup before changing the conversation to the next Boy Scout badge he was working on.

The exchange was over just like that and Rick breathed a sigh of relief. It really wasn’t as complicated as society seemed to make it. It wasn’t unnatural to love. It’s not like Rick had gone out of his way to fall in love with a man. Love wasn’t a thing you could put a leash on and control. Love wasn’t logical or predictable. It was surprising and unexpected and unplanned and the most wonderful feeling in the world. Rick loved Daryl in a way he never thought was possible. They were inseparable and the few moments they were apart from day to day, Rick found his thoughts consumed by the younger man.

Rick wondered as he poured syrup on his pancakes if he’d ever be able to love Daryl openly, to hold his hand in the park or to press their lips together at a grocery store. If the sixties taught him anything, it was that the world was always changing and people were always evolving. Maybe...one day, he thought.

Daryl finally walked into the kitchen without even knocking. They were way past the courtesy of knocking anymore.

“Damn! Pancakes! Ain’t had them in I can’t tell ya how long.” He grabbed some of the pancakes, poured on the syrup, and shoved a forkful in his mouth. “Outta this world, man.”

“Yeah? You like them?” Rick asked, a little too flirtatiously.

“Hell, yeah,” Daryl answered, grinning from ear to ear. “Before I forget, I saw Glenn this morning, he and Maggie wanted to take us to dinner as a thank you for setting them up.”

Rick smiled. “Oh! So it really has gotten serious.”

“Seems like,” Daryl answered with his mouth full. He turned to Carl as he took another bite. “You ready to catch some fish today, kiddo? I bet I can out-fish ya.”

“I know what Make Love Not War means now,” Carl said out of nowhere. “Patrick told Louis and me at the bus stop,”

As Rick’s mouth hung open, Daryl started coughing violently and grabbed for his water. “Sorry, went down the wrong way.”

“Well, what exactly is it you know?” Rick asked, against his better judgement.

“Umm…It’s when a girl and boy love each other and sleep together in the same bed.”

Rick breathed in a sigh of relief. “Yup. That’s it buddy.”

“So can you two make love even though you’re both boys?”

Daryl dropped his fork, then grabbed his water and kept drinking so that Rick would have to field the question.

“You said you loved him, Dad,” Carl added.

Daryl spewed out his water across the table. “Shit, I’m sorry,” he said as he tried to rub the water off the table with his sleeve.

Rick stood and began to pace, while Daryl froze in place, staring at his plate.

“Carl, this isn’t anything we talk about outside this house, okay?” Rick said. “You remember what happened up in New York with cousin Aaron? All those riots? People like him…and…like me and Daryl, can’t let anyone know that we’re in love. Society doesn’t accept it. So...” he rubbed his beard then put his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “Yes. We can…make…love. But we don’t talk about it. And I don’t want you to talk about it. It will only cause trouble and we have enough of that in the world already.”

Carl looked at both men with wide, innocent eyes.

“Why’s society not accept it?”

“It’s just…people have a hard time getting used to things that are different.”

“Okay,” Carl said. “Hey, Daryl, I’ll bet you I can get more fish. Winner gets to eat the last piece of Mrs. Walsh’s Lasagna that’s in the fridge.”

“You’re on,” Daryl said as he reached out his hand to shake on it. They finished their meal with idle conversation – their favorite songs on the radio, how big lil’ Stumbles has grown at the barn, The Who concert that Rick took Carl to on his birthday. Daryl had bowed out of that invitation, accepting the fact that crowds were a trigger. And it was okay.

Carl packed up the truck while Daryl helped Rick clean the kitchen. “What the hell just happened in here?” Daryl asked.

“I think Carl has given us his blessing. And you shut your truck door too loud when you leave late at night.”

“Oh, shit, man! I’m so sorry…this is…”

Rick stopped Daryl with a gentle kiss. “This is fine. Now at least we don’t have to hide from everyone.”

Chapter Text

Carl was sitting between Rick and Daryl on the couch. It was Monday night, December 1st, 1969. Mayberry RFD wasn’t on as scheduled; instead, the three of them were watching the start of the draft lottery on TV with the rest of the country.

Carl was fiddling with a knotted yo-yo as they watched and Rick and Daryl were holding hands over the top of the couch.

“You sure you even want to watch this?” Rick asked.

“Ain’t nothin’ else on,” Daryl answered.

“So what does this even mean?” Carl asked.

“Means they’re gonna be pulling out birth dates and that’s who’s gonna be drafted next,” Daryl answered. He knew he wouldn’t have to worry because of his arm. And he wouldn’t have to worry about the two beside him that he now considered family. Carl was too young and Rick was too old.

The first capsule was drawn and some politician Daryl didn’t recognize unrolled the paper and read the date – “September 14…September 14 is 001.”

Daryl could feel Rick stiffen his grip as Carl looked up from his yo-yo. “That’s my birthday,” he said, confusion changing to fear right before Daryl’s eyes.

Carl turned to Daryl first. He tended to do that when he was scared of something. Daryl never understood why. Rick said it was because Carl thought he was strong and brave and not afraid. But Daryl was none of those things. How Carl couldn’t see that was beyond him. The boy grabbed a fistful of Daryl’s jeans, holding on tightly, a look of terror on his face.

“Am I drafted?! Am I gonna have to go get shot at and leave home and not...” Carl was practically hyperventilating and Rick put an arm around him.

“No, Carl,” Rick said.

“You’re too young, buddy,” Daryl added. “This is only for people who are 19-25. I can’t go back because of my arm, yer dad’s too old and you’re too young. The three of us ain’t goin’ nowhere, ya hear me?”

“If I was older I’d have to? What happens when I get 19, will I have to go then?”

“It will be over by then,” Rick said, looking at Daryl straight in the eyes, both of them clearly unsure if it really would be.

“Listen to me, little man,” Daryl said. “You ain’t going nowhere but to bed. This show sucks anyway. Why don’t you go on up and read some of your comics?”

Carl still had the start of tears in his eyes. “I don’t want to leave you guys right now. What if I wake up and one of you is gone or I’m gone or...”

Rick rubbed his son’s hair and Daryl patted his knee. “What I tell you, now? We ain’t going nowhere. When you wake up, I’m gonna be here and you’re Daddy’s gonna be making us all pancakes for breakfast. Okay?” It was then that Daryl realized he was gripping his dog tags so tightly that they were starting to hurt the palm of his hand.

He looked at the TV again, down at his dog tags, and over at Carl. He didn’t want those fucking tags anymore. He didn’t need them. He wasn’t a nobody and he wasn’t a soldier and they were nothing but an anchor hanging around his neck like a statue in a museum. Just a reminder. A constant goddamn reminder.

“Tell you what, kid,” Daryl said. He slowly lifted the dogtags over his head as Rick watched him in surprise, one eyebrow quirked up in question. Daryl never took them off, not even when he and Rick were…what Carl would refer to as making love.

Once they were off his neck, he took a deep breath. He flashed on the jungle a few times, but he felt Rick’s hand squeeze at his shoulder, grounding him like he’s always been able to do.

“Why don’t you hold these for me as a reminder of tonight? A reminder that you ain’t going nowhere.” Daryl held them out to Carl and dropped them into his hand, the clinking of the tags like a door being closed. Not locked, but at least closed.

Carl held them reverently. “But you never take these off.”

Daryl folded Carl’s hand around the chain. “I need to take them off as I reminder that I ain’t going nowhere neither. Be good for both of us, okay?”

For the first time, Carl hugged Daryl like a father, then he hugged Rick. “Can you guys tuck me in? I know I’m too old and don’t you dare tell Louis but...”

“Sure, buddy,” Rick said and both of them stood and followed Carl to his bedroom. Daryl watched as the kid pulled a tin out from under his bed and carefully placed the dogtags in it.

“I promise I won’t lose them,” Carl said.

Daryl smiled and roughed his hair. “Into bed. Dream of batmobiles and fishing trips and Christmas, okay?”

Rick helped Carl into bed and gave him a kiss on the forehead. “I love you, Carl. I’m never gonna let anything happen to you.”

When Rick backed away Carl looked to Daryl as if he wanted the same words, the same comfort. Daryl walked awkwardly towards the bed and bent down to kiss the boy on his forehead.

“We’re always gonna protect you, kiddo,” he said, and he and Rick walked out to the hallway and pulled Carl’s door shut.

Rick leaned into Daryl, exhausted. “It crushes my heart to see him so worried about such grown up things,” Rick said into Daryl’s shoulder.

“I know. He’ll be okay. We all will be.”

Rick kissed Daryl, soft and slow and led him down the hall to his bedroom. Merle never said a word about it and neither did Carl, but Daryl had pretty much been staying overnight at Rick’s more nights than not. Slipping into the bedroom, they quietly shut their own door and climbed into bed.

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

It was raining and they were moving through the jungle on guard. Daryl looked behind him and gave a nod to Randall. Lt. Ford and Nicholas were up ahead. Everyone was in formation, armed, ready, all by the book. God, it was humid, Daryl could tell his feet were pruned and they’d been on the move for hours.

He felt like they kept passing the same trees over and over again, a long loop of repetition until finally Paul saw something up ahead and the sounds of the Vietnamese language surrounded them. Orders being shouted that Daryl couldn’t understand and he fought to hear the Lieutenant as the bullets started coming. He got low, crawled under some brush, aimed and started firing at any moving target, then he heard the gun cock behind his head. He turned around to see the kid with no name.

“I’m not here,” Daryl told him. “I’m not here. I’m not here.”

“But I’ll miss you if you’re gone,” he answered, but it was in Carl’s voice. Slowly, the young VC soldier morphed into Carl, who was playing with his dog tags as if they were a yo-yo.

“Carl!” Daryl whispered. “Get down. Come here. There’s Charlie all over this place. Carl did as instructed as the dog tags suddenly became a box of sugar cones. He put an arm around Carl and tried to stop breathing so that he could be as quiet as possible, covering Carl from possible danger.

He heard some of his men screaming. Heard the VC retreat and he got up, pulling Carl with him. The box of sugar cones was crushed and the broken pieces fell out, scattering over the ground.

“I don’t want to go to Vietnam,” Carl said. “Can we go home?”

“I don’t know how to get there,” Daryl said, his voice becoming a sob as he looked at his platoon strewn out along the jungle floor.

“I know how,” Carl said as he grabbed Daryl’s hand and pointed up.

The medivac hovered above them and Rick was reaching down and calling for them. Daryl picked up Carl and handed him up first. Then Rick grabbed Daryl’s arm and pulled him in. The helicopter pulled up and over the jungle as the three of them looked out the window. The jungle was beautiful from above, green and lush. You couldn’t see any of the dead from up that high, couldn’t see any of the fighting.

They finally settled in, Carl sitting between the two men who were holding hands behind him.

“I want to go home,” Rick said.

“Everyone does, Rick. But we can’t.”

Carl looked over at Daryl and pouted. “I thought you said I’d never have to go,” his wide eyes swollen with tears.

“I’m sorry, kiddo. I’m sorry I couldn’t keep you safe.”

“We’re safe, Daryl,” Rick interrupted. “The war is all the way down there. We’re up here. Together.”

Carl was playing with an actual yo-yo now.

“You’re just here for a visit, anyway,” Rick said. “Daryl? Daryl?”

Daryl awoke with a start, Rick softly whispering his name. “Nightmare,” Daryl said as Rick kissed him gently on the lips and pulled him into a tight hug, Rick the big spoon and Daryl the small one.

“Was I there this time?” Rick asked.

“Yeah, and Carl.”

“Yikes. Woke up when I heard you sobbing in your sleep. We’re all home and safe, Daryl. All three of us.”

“It chases me like a shadow, Rick. Always right behind me.”

“It’s okay, Daryl. I’m right behind you, too. Always.

The End