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Daryl woke with a start and opened his eyes to a dark and silent room.

As so many times before during the past weeks his heart stopped for just a split second when the instant thought ‘cell’ flashed through his mind, only to make room for a warm and content feeling the next moment.
He wasn’t in the cell anymore, made it out of Negan’s clutches alive, found his way home … home. Back to Alexandria, to his family – to Rick.

Despite all he’d been put through during his time in the Sanctuary, deep down inside Daryl was grateful. Grateful in a weird, twisted way to be taken captive and tortured and brought close to breaking point, because in the end he had gained more than he lost. A lot more.

It was like they said – you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. And apparently Rick hadn’t realized what he had had in all the time Daryl had been by his side, had either ignored or denied how he felt – until Negan took Daryl away and Carl returned with reports on how bad the archer was being treated, on men getting their face ironed, being killed and chained to a fence as walkers or being burned alive.

Rick had had sleepless nights after that, had pictured the same gruesome things to happen to his friend, his brother, his soulmate. And the mere fact that just the thought tore his heart apart, had him come to realize the core of his emotions – he was in love with Daryl, simple as that.

The archer would never forget their reunion in Hilltop. The way Rick had left the others standing and had hurried towards him with wide, unbelieving eyes, fear written all over his face that this was just a dream, just an illusion. Daryl remembered how he had seen tears well in Rick’s cerulean eyes all of a sudden, only seconds before his arms had reached out and pulled him into a tight embrace.
They had always been close – in their hearts, in their minds, an invisible bond woven between the two of them and keeping them connected at all times. But they had never hugged until that moment.

Things had changed in that second. When their arms had closed around the other, gluing their bodies together like never before, their hearts had started to beat as one and in a way they had never let go of each other again.

Later that afternoon Rick had secretly pulled Daryl aside and, throwing caution to the wind, had dared take the next step.
Sometimes, in his dreams, Daryl could still feel the warmth of Rick’s hands to either side of his head and the gentleness of his fingers as they had slipped into his hair. He could still smell the scent of the apple pie they had saved from Maggie’s latest snack attack on Rick’s breath, right before he had softly touched his lips to Daryl’s.

        “I love you.”

That’s what Rick had whispered in his ear when they had finally been reunited, that’s what he had repeated right before he had kissed him, that’s what he had told him countless times ever since, as though he felt the urge to make sure Daryl had heard it and understood just how much he meant.  

 

Daryl sat up in bed and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, while he suppressed a sigh. He didn’t have to see to know that Rick wasn’t lying beside him the way he should have, the way he had every night for the past two weeks.
The silence was deafening – there was no breathing, no rustling of the bed clothes and the spot next to Daryl was cold. Apparently Rick had slipped out of bed quite a while ago.
The archer cursed under his breath and swung his legs out of bed.
He didn’t even notice Rick leave, hadn’t heard him or sensed the movement of the bed. That was another thing that had most definitely changed.
Before they had made the transition from friends to lovers, nothing and no one would ever have stood a chance of sneaking up on Daryl, or leaving the room for that matter, without him noticing – whether he’d been awake or asleep. He had developed that sixth sense early, had learned to sleep with one eye and ear on alert, ready to react to a possible attack at any time. That ability had kept him alive – before and after the world had gone to hell.

For the first time in his life now Daryl was able to sleep like a baby, deep and peaceful, and it was a curse and a blessing alike.
Being in a relationship, having someone by his side, actually being happy up to his hair roots – that was new, magical, thrilling. And it soothed him, grounded him, gave him roots and wings alike, made him feel at ease as though his and Rick’s love worked like a shield against all evil. Nothing could possibly harm them while they were together in their beautiful, glittering rainbow bubble.

While this overwhelming new emotion let Daryl find peace and rest, it seemed to work quite opposite on Rick.
This wasn’t the first night during the past two weeks that the archer woke to an empty bed next to him and he sensed an uneasiness and nervousness in the younger man that he had never seen on him to such an extent before. Rick seemed to be on edge, worried, scared and there was definitely need for talk. Now.
When Daryl stepped out of the bedroom, wearing only his boxers, he heard a sound from the the room across the corridor and approached the door quietly. The door stood ajar and when he slipped through the gap into the nursery, he found Rick sitting in a chair by the window, the sleeping form of little Judith on his lap, wrapped in a woolen blanket, and humming softly to her. The younger man didn’t stop the gentle rocking back and forth although he had noticed Daryl enter the room. He flashed him a look out of tired, red-rimmed eyes, while he kept on running his hand over the soft, golden curls on the girl’s head.
Slowly the archer walked up to him and stood in front of the chair for a moment, his heart swelling again at the sight of his partner, but his happiness was numbed by the uneasy feeling that settled in the pit of his stomach.

        “Did Judy have a bad dream?” he whispered to Rick, knowing the answer even before the curly-haired head was shook.

The small, dim nightlight next to Judith’s bed illuminated the room enough for Daryl to notice the dark smudges of fatigue underneath his lover’s eyes and for a moment he wondered, if Rick had slept at all yet that night.

He bent down and while he placed a loving kiss on the man’s curls, slipped his arms underneath the little girl and lifted her up. She stirred in her sleep, making a few whiny sounds on the brink of awakening, but settled instantly when Daryl started making soft, soothing sounds and rocked her gently.
He was instantly reminded of the day she was born, when he had held her in his arms very much like he was doing now, had fed her and cradled her close till she had fallen asleep.
Rick had needed to sort things out, his emotions in a turmoil and his world in chaos back then. Apparently they were coming full circle.

After a feather-light kiss on her chubby cheek, Daryl returned Judith to her bed and thoroughly tucked her in, before he took Rick by the hand and prompted him to get up and leave the room with him.
As soon as they were back in their bedroom, the archer closed the door behind them and pulled Rick into a tight hug the next moment.

        “Talk to me”, he whispered to him. “Somethin’s up, I can feel it.”

Rick let out a deep sigh and buried his face on his man’s shoulder, while he wrapped his arms around Daryl’s middle and hugged him back.
Just when he pulled in a deep breath to reply, the older man added:

        “And don’t ya dare say it ain’t nothin’ or crap.”

The comment almost made Rick smile despite himself, while he closed his mouth again. That was exactly what he had meant to say, but Daryl knew him well by now.
A soothing thought to have someone who was able to understand him without words, who was so close to him that he could sense his emotions, even those Rick tried to keep hidden. And yet it was this bond, this soul connection that was the source of all his anguish.

        “We’re going to war”, he said matter-of-factly and when he didn’t say anything else, Daryl replied:

        “Tell me somethin’ I don’t know, man.”

        “I’m scared.”

Daryl tightened his arms around the other man and places a loving kiss to the side of Rick’s head.

        “I’m gonna have yer back best as I can. I promise. And so will the others. Ya know yer too important to …”

        “I’m not scared for myself, Daryl.”

The image of Rick holding his daughter just a moment ago flooded the archer’s mind and he recalled how he had witnessed Rick telling Carl how proud he was of him the day before, that he loved him.
The threat of losing the most valuable thing he had – his children – apparently left Rick scared witless and robbed him of his sleep. Something Daryl could totally relate to.
Judith and Carl had long since stopped being his best friend’s children – they had become his own the day he had started to feel like a part of this group, this family. The day Merle had died and Daryl had come to understand why. Why Merle had left, why he had let Michonne go and had proceeded on his suicide mission, why he had sacrificed his own life for his baby brother.
Not only because he meant to make room, so Daryl wouldn’t have to decide between his blood and the people he longed to be with any longer. But because Merle had seen what kind of bond was forming between his brother and Sheriff Rick, and he had approved of it.
Daryl wondered what Merle would have said seeing that it took years and being at the verge of war for him and Rick to finally become the couple he had meant for them to be already back then.

He pulled back a little in order to look Rick in the eyes as best as he could by the light of the full moon that shone through the window, and placed his hands gently and reassuringly to either side of the other man’s face.

        “Rick, there ain’t no safe place where we can hide the kids ‘n’ Carl’s gonna be out there with us. Wish there was somethin’ …”

        “This is not about Carl and Judith, either. Everybody in Alexandria is gonna protect Judy as best as they can and Carl … he won’t be anywhere near the front line, if I can help it. But …”

He fell quiet and locked eyes with the archer, the vortex of his emotions visible in his desperate look, pleading Daryl to understand. And he did.
The next second the older man leaned in and touched his lips gently to Rick’s, while his hands ran soothing though the unruly curls. He kissed him tenderly, making sure the contact was reassuring and soothing, and then, after pecking his partner’s mouth one last time, said softly:

        “I’m here, Rick. Ain’t gonna go nowhere.”

Rick sighed.

        “Don’t make promises you might not be able to keep.”

        “Ain’t.” He placed his hand flat on Rick’s chest and added softly: “As long as ya keep me in there, ‘m always gonna be with ya. No matter what. ‘s gonna be helluva crowd there in between Lori ‘n’ Shane, Jessie … Glenn”, he continued with a choked voice, “but I’m gonna squeeze in.”

The comment had the ghost of a smile appear on Rick’s face despite himself.

        “I’ll make sure you always gonna have an extra large corner just to yourself.” He touched his forehead to Daryl’s. “You’re gonna hear your own echo in there, so large.”
The smile faded from his face and after he pulled in a deep breath, he croaked:
        “I can’t lose you, Daryl. I just don’t think I can do this without you.”

        “Sure you can. Yer the leader, and by rights so. – Ya can do anythin’.”

Rick was touched by Daryl’s unconditional and apparently infinite loyalty and faith in him and swallowed hard against a lump in his throat.

        “I can do anything as long as you’re there with me. You’re my strength, the one who keeps me on track, shows me the way.”

        “Nah, don’t sell yerself short. Ain’t me they follow.”

        “They should. You’re the stronger one of us, the one who gets things done, makes the right decisions, doesn’t fall apart time and again. You keep saving my sorry ass, while I keep screwing up.”

        “Why d’ya say that? ‘cause Alexandria was totally overrun with yer sorry ass right in the middle the moment I wasn’t home for a day? Or ‘cause ya sunk a fuckin’ truck full a’ supplies?

He was teasing, trying to pull the other man out of this vortex of depressing thoughts, before the wave of guilt and doubt was able to pull Rick under.
It worked. A smile tugged on the corners of the leader’s mouth for a moment as Rick cocked his head and replied:

        “No, the truck was your fault.”

They looked at each other with the hint of amusement and then said in sync:

        “It was definitely Jesus’ fault.”

Chuckling Daryl added:

        “If we try hard enough I’m sure we can blame all the rest on him, too.”

The joke fell flat and the smile simply dropped off Rick’s face. All the rest. Like the fall of Hershel’s farm and the prison? The death of more friends and family members than he had fingers? The fact that Maggie’s child would grow up without its father and that the three communities stood at the verge of war?
Rick would have loved to blame all that on Jesus or anybody else, but fact of the matter was – it was on him. All of it. One way or the other, he was the source of all their problems.
Why anybody still followed him was beyond him. Just as why anybody still cared, let alone loved him.

Suppressing a sigh, Daryl noticed the new change of mood and it wasn’t for the better. Words obviously weren’t able to help his partner, weren’t what he needed. They had never been Daryl’s friends anyhow and he didn’t need them to communicate with Rick – the two of them were soulmates and every look, every touch was able to convey their thoughts and emotions more purely than the crippling clumsiness of words ever could.   

Wrapping his arm around Rick’s slim waist, Daryl led him to their bed and gently but insistently pushed him into the soft covers, following the moment Rick lay stretched out under the blanket.
The moment he held out his arm invitingly, Rick snuggled up and with a sigh placed his head on his partner’s chest and wrapped one arm protectively over him.
They lay silently in each other’s embrace, listening to the soft breathing, while their fingers ran tenderly over bare skin or through tousled bed hair. They indulged in each other’s warmth and the tender caresses, yet Rick had to fight a stinging sensation in his eyes while he listened to the strong heartbeat underneath his ear.

        “How come you’re not afraid?” he asked unexpectedly into the stillness of the room.

        “Makes ya think I ain’t?” Daryl replied softly without stopping to comb his fingers through Rick’s curls.

        “Because you can sleep. More peaceful than I’ve ever seen you sleep before.”

          “That’s ’cause a’ you. Together with ya I feel like there was a protective shield ‘round me now, so that no bad thing can ever happen to me again. I’s alone all ma life ‘n’ was afraid ma pa had destroyed ma ability ta trust ‘n’ love someone. I’s afraid ta die one day without even knowin’ how it feels – to be in love, to have someone, to be complete. But now I ain’t cracked ‘n’ broken no more. Ya fixed me. Nothin’ and no one can ever take that away from me again, so I got no reason ta be afraid.”

With a loving smile Rick propped himself up and ran the back of his hand gently over Daryl’s cheek.

          “I wish it was that easy.”

          “It is. Rick, we’re here – both a’ us. After all these years ‘n’ against all odds, we made it. Together. We survived more than one asshole, the dead ‘n’ alive alike, and we gonna survive this one, too. Have a li’l faith.”

Wordlessly the younger man pecked his partner’s lips before he lowered his head onto Daryl’s chest again and pulled him close. He had heard Daryl’s words and they made perfect sense. Yet while his mind was willing to agree, his heart wasn’t as easily convinced.

          “I got somethin’ for ya”, the archer whispered to him unexpectedly and slipped out of Rick’s embrace the same moment.

He pecked the other man’s lips quickly, before he got up and headed for the door.

          “Be right back.”

When he returned a few minutes later, he lowered himself to the edge of the bed and turned the lamp on his nightstand on. Rick squinted against the sudden brightness and only vaguely noticed Daryl crawl into the middle of their bed to sit next to him, while he held something out.
When his eyes had adjusted to the light, the leader sat up and cast his lover a questioning side glance.
Daryl was holding two white pieces of cloth in his hand and Rick identified them instantly as two of the brassards the people of all three communities were going to wear during the war.
They identified them as members of the union, distinguished them from the enemy, the three different colors pointing out which community everybody lived in and most importantly, they were supposed to strengthen the sense of community, of togetherness.

          “Tara brought them over this afternoon”, Daryl said in response to Rick’s questioning glance. “Looks like Carol’s sewing circle worked overtime”, he joked with a fond smile.

Rick nodded with an acknowledging grunt while he reached for the one Daryl held out to him, wondering why the brassards were so important to the archer that he had to make them an issue in the middle of the night.
Before he was able to say anything though, Rick noticed a dark symbol on the white piece of cloth he was holding and took a closer look.
It was the letter “D”, clearly written onto it by hand with a Sharpie, and when he cast a surprised look at the brassard in Daryl’s hand he noticed that the letter “R” was written on it in like ways.

          “I did that”, Daryl said before Rick could even open his mouth to ask.

He lowered his eyes, suddenly afraid that the younger man would think this silly or mawkish and would laugh at him.
What did he know about relationships and how they were supposed to work? Maybe he was about to make a spectacle of himself, but Daryl was tired of holding back, of hiding behind the protective wall he had erected around himself decades ago, of making decisions based on what Dixons were supposed to do and not to do. Maybe he was just tired of being a Dixon.

          “Ya know”, he picked up hesitatingly. “I … I thought this might help ya. Wearin’ ‘em with each other’s initial on ‘em makes ‘em special. ‘s something between you ‘n’ me, like a symbol of our bond – symbol of the only promise I’m willin’ ta make.”

He swallowed thickly, slowly daring to lift his eyes and look at Rick through the curtain of his long bangs.

          “I remember the way ya kept lookin’ at yer ring after Lori’s death ‘n’ I see Maggie do the same thing these days. So I thought … “, words were starting to fail him, but he continued nevertheless, “thought no matter where I was, as long as ya have this it could give ya the strength ya need ta carry on.”

When he fell quiet the silence was deafening, while Rick just stared at his partner with wide eyes. The longer the moment lasted, the more Daryl’s uneasiness increased. Had he said the wrong thing? Had he moved too fast and was forcing something on Rick that the other man wasn’t ready for?
But this was how he felt, what he wanted. He wasn’t going to apologize. He was done hiding and pretending.
Just when he meant to tell Rick just that, he noticed a single tear trickle out of the corner of his lover’s eye and the next moment he was kissed so ardently that he fell over backwards, with Rick lying half on top of him.

          “Whoa”, Daryl gasped when the younger man finally let him breathe again. “If that’s what I get for a single piece a’ cloth, ‘m gonna make sure ta bring ya a whole bale next time”, he teased.

Rick couldn’t help laughing at that, his heart a lot lighter suddenly.
Nothing changed the fact that they were going to war, that the chance was there of one of them not returning home, but Daryl’s faith in a future together was contagious. He was right – they had come this far side by side, against all odds, so maybe someone up there loved them and would keep holding a protective hand over their friendship, their love, their special bond. It was sure a belief worth holding on to, instead of wasting the precious time they had together worrying and despairing.

He combed his fingers tenderly through Daryl’s long, shaggy hair, while the grin melted into a loving smile.

          “Thank you. This means a lot.”

          “Yeah?” Daryl returned the smile while he played with the curls at Rick’s nape.

          “Yeah. If someone like you, who doesn’t trust easily, puts that much confidence in me and takes a major step like that, I guess I must be doing something right.”

Daryl stopped playing with his partner’s hair and, lifting his eyebrows, sat up the next moment.

          “And it took one a’ ‘em silly brassards for ya ta get that? Jeez, Grimes, I woulda gotten yer name tattooed on my ass years ago. Don’t ya know that?”

Rick burst out laughing and only Daryl’s hand covering his mouth accompanied by a warning “Shut up, yer wakin’ the kids”, had him sober up again.
They smiled at each other for a moment and Daryl was happy to see the sparkle return to the cerulean orbs and the deep lines of anguish dissolve. He loved Rick’s smile. He loved Rick’s eyes. Hell, he loved all about Rick.

          “Why white?” he asked into the silence. “Ya shoulda made it blue. Woulda brought out yer eyes.”

He was surprised that this didn’t make him cringe. Maybe he was taking the sappiness a bit too far tonight, but somehow he even liked it. And why not – he wasn’t a Dixon any longer.

          “Yours, too”, Rick grinned. “Should we change Alexandria’s color?”

          “Hell, no. Carol is gonna demand our heads on a silver platter, if her sewin’ circle has ta start over”, he chuckled. “White’s cool. It’s the color of peace, order, something new. And as soon as we’ve wiped those bastards off the face of the Earth, we gonna have all that.”

Wordlessly Rick reached for the brassard with he “D” on it and looked at it thoughtfully.

          “You want the letter inside or out?”
       
          “Yer call. That can remain between the two of us or for the world ta see.”

Without hesitation Rick wrapped the piece of cloth around his bare upper arm and held it out in an unspoken request for Daryl to tie it. The “D” was clearly visible on the outside.

          “I’m not gonna hide anything”, he said with determination. “I’m proud to have you by my side, proud of what we got.”

          “Ditto”, Daryl replied while he held out his arm for Rick to tie the other brassard around it in like ways.

He gave it a thoughtful look for a moment, running his index finger over the “R” on the front, and then added:

          “But as soon as I got that tat, don’t expect me ta run about with ma pants down, man.”

Again Rick burst out laughing. Before he would wake the kids after all, Daryl’s lips on his smothered his laugh and together they sank back into the pillows.