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“Beth, come on, don’ just don’ do this!” He watched the small blonde as she shifted her dance bag on her shoulder. Three days out of the week he’d be waiting for her outside of the dance studio at the community college.

 

“I don’t want you to go, Daryl! We can, we can get married now instead of waiting-”

 

“Don’ matter no more, won’t stop ‘em from making me go.” The hair from her braid is coming out, falling across her cheek and he wants to reach out and tuck it behind her ear. Like he always does. Let his fingers linger on her soft skin and pretend he wasn’t just given a sentence worse than death.

 

“Then we’ll go to Canada! Stay there until it goes away, until…” Her shoulders fall, she looks so defeated.

 

“Ain’t right. I just gotta-”

 

“Ain’t right to take you away from me and make you fight in a war that’s pointless! They already took my brother. All I have left of him is his dog tags… Daryl I don’t want a envelope with your dog tags! I want you.. ” That’s all he can take. Wrapping his arms around her he pulls her in close, blinking back tears he’s refused to cry from the minute he got the letter.

 

‘You are hereby ordered to report for induction into the armed forces…’

 

The words that changed everything keep marching through his head and Shawn her older brother, only a year older than Daryl, who didn’t even last a year, his face is there too.

 

“Ain’t gonna happen like that Beth.” He’s trying to console her, but her heart that’s been broken before isn't gonna listen to his tales and certainly isn’t gonna believe them.

 

“You don’t know that!” He doesn’t and he has no argument to offer. All he can do is hold her and for the first time ever, it’s not enough.

 

OOOOOO

 

They make the most of the little time they have before Daryl ships out. Beth does her best to keep a smile on her face, but he knows her, maybe better than she knows herself and he sees the struggle. But he doesn’t dare try and tell her she ain't gotta smile just for him. He won’t take that from her.

 

One warm summer night with only a week left before he has to walk away from her she takes his hand and leads him to the barn. They climb the ladder to the loft and it’s not like they haven’t done it before, hid out in the loft stealing kisses and talking about forever and sometimes taking things a little further than the last time.

 

But tonight she wants to be with him, she doesn’t want to stop, doesn’t want to wait until he comes home…

 

“Daryl I’m not gonna think about anything but seeing your face again and holding you and doing all the things we got planned. But if something happens…”

 

“Ain’t gonna Beth..” his voice is husky with emotion and something else because he’s not wearing a stitch of clothes and neither is she and they’ve never been here before.

 

“Still, I want this, I want my first time to be with you even if- I don’t want to anyone else to have this Daryl. Only you.” Her blue eyes are sparkling with tears in the soft light of the lantern she lit. And he isn’t gonna question this. Because it means so much to her and he’d be a complete asshole to turn her down.

 

He loves her, loves her more than anything and they had forever planned out, it was perfect until this stupid war came and ruined their plans.

 

He’ll go and he’ll fight if he has to and then he’ll come home.

 

But he’ll take this with him. Because it’s a gift and he’s gonna wear like it’s an armor.

 

OOOOOO

 

The first week in July Daryl boarded a bus and left her standing in the parking lot looking like the world had ended. He hugged her, even kissed her the way he’d kiss her when they were alone because he wanted to, he needed to and if her daddy saw he didn’t fuss. At that moment nothing mattered except making sure she knew he loved her no matter what.

 

“I love you, baby... I’m coming home.. promise ya.” He whispered softly into the pink shell of her ear even as she cried into his chest.

 

“I’ll be waiting for you, Daryl… I’ll be… I don’t want you to go…” Weak fists beat against his chest where her tears had left wet spots. And then he had to let her go. Had to walk away. Her sister hugged her, held her close and her daddy, he lifted a hand and waved goodbye and gave a nod that seemed to say, ‘We’ll take care of her for you.’ At least that’s what Daryl likes to think it meant.

 

Buses and airplanes and hot, thick, air that’s as red as the ground beneath his feet. They cut off his hair and made him take off his wings. Days and nights blur together as he does what he’s told. Protects himself and the other soldiers. Men who have become his brothers by virtue of a war they don’t want to fight. Digging holes to hide in, pulling out her letters and reading them over and over until the paper they were written on was as soft as silk and as fragile as a butterflies wings. Explosions and gunfire, helicopters and wind in the jungle as fierce as a hurricane.

 

The good things, the sky and the sun and the stars, she’s seeing them too. As far apart as they are it’s still the same moon up there in the sky. And he hopes that when she looks at it she knows he’s out there in a place she can’t even fathom looking at the same moon.

 

The only thing that keeps him hanging on, the only thing that keeps him marching through the hell he’s in is her. Her face, her smile, the way it felt to love her and the vow that he makes to himself every time he’s out there in the middle of the fire, he‘s going home to her. He’ll hold her and kiss her again. Those are orders he refuses to ignore.

 

Daryl walked through hell when he was nine years old and maybe Vietnam isn’t quite the same hell as his childhood but he knows the terrain and as long and he stays alert, as long as he pays attention he can come out on the other side.

 

And he does. His year is up and suddenly what felt like forever is down to days and then hours and then he’s craning his neck over the heads of a few of his brothers as well as a whole bunch of civilians on the bus that’s taking him from the airport in Atlanta to the high school parking lot in Newnan Georgia. Roughly twenty-five miles from his little hometown of Senoia where Beth has been waiting for him.

 

His hair has grown out. He didn’t tell her, and maybe he shouldn’t have lied, but he spent the last month in Nam in a makeshift hospital with an infection. A superficial bullet wound and a dirty swamp left him laid up, delirious with fever and septic to the point of it being lethal.

 

But Dixon’s don’t let a little dirty water take them from the girl they love and he eventually beat it and just about that time he was given his release. Told he could go home. He’d served his time.

 

He’ll come clean with Beth once he’s home and she knows he isn’t going anywhere. She might kill him but at least he’ll die happy. Chuckling to himself he almost chokes on his gum when the guys on the bus start cheering and he feels the tires bump over the curb into the parking lot.

 

They were advised by their superiors to dress down and to not draw attention to the fact that they were soldiers returning from Vietnam. This pissed Daryl off because even though he disagreed with the war, he went because his country made him. Go spit on the men in charge and leave the boys alone was his line of thinking. He followed orders though. Because returning meant seeing his girl, it meant finally making good on his promise to Beth and he didn’t want anything ruining that.

 

In his Levis, black Durango biker boots and white t-shirt, he looks like a civilian. Underneath that t-shirt though, warm on his chest are the dog tags he planned on giving Beth. They didn’t come back in an envelope, they came back around his neck. Hoisting his duffle bag up over his shoulder he impatiently makes his way down the cramped isle between the seats of the bus.

 

He spots Hershel first before he sees anyone else. The man has a tendency to stand out. With his head of white hair and full beard, he looks an awful lot like Santa Claus. Beth isn’t anywhere near her daddy though. Making his way through the crowd and scanning the waiting families and friends he tries to find her. He wrote her a letter and she was supposed to get an official notice. But try as he might he can’t-

 

And then there she is. She’s wearing a dress, one of the short ones. Shows off her legs cause he loves her legs. She’s got a braid in her hair and… he stops for a minute, has to make sure he hasn’t mistaken her for someone else. There’s a baby. She’s carrying a baby.

 

Daryl can’t breathe and his whole body goes cold. Did she? Did she find someone else? Move on without him? Her letters, she never said… But she’s smiling at him and she’s walking towards him and if she had a baby with another man...

 

She has a baby and he does the math in his head, looks at the smile on her face and the tears in her eyes and he drops his duffle bag where he’s standing and then she’s there close enough for him to touch and he wants to, he wants to wrap her up in his arms and hold her cause he’s missed her so much.

 

But there’s a baby.

 

It’s a little one, brand new. A small patch of downy brown hair on a head not much bigger than a grapefruit. Tiny fingers curled on a soft yellow blanket. And lips as soft and pink as it’s mama?  Daryl can’t see its eyes. Poor thing is squinting in the sun. Is it a boy or a girl and who...

 

“Daryl?” he hasn’t heard her voice in forever only in his dreams, but it’s her. It’s his girl.

 

And a baby.

 

“Beth?” He hears familiar laughter, his brother. And other voices that he knows but they’re far away. She’s here. She’s all he sees.

 

“Daryl this, this is Dean.” Bouncing him gently, it’s a him, a boy. She holds the baby up a little and brushes her lips against his tiny cheek.

 

“Dean this is your daddy.” She’s crying now. Tears are wetting the baby’s hair and he squirms a little, lets out a squeak and then opens his eyes.

 

They’re blue. Like his daddy.

 

“I got a son, I got…” Covering his face with his hands he tries to keep his cool but his shoulders are shaking and when she moves in next to him he does wrap his arms around her, buries his face in her hair. And she smells like home. Like summer and sunshine and the hay in the loft.

 

They have a son.

 

He looks once more at the tiny boy, cups his small head with his big hand then turns to Beth and kisses her long and hard,

 

“You’re home, you’re really here.” It’s awkward trying to get as close as possible with a baby between them. But it’s his, they have a son.

 

“Toldja I was, promised even. I won’t ever lie to ya Beth and I ain’t never leaving ya again.”

 

Reaching into his shirt he tugs the dog tags over his head.

 

“Brought ‘em back. Around my neck, not in an envelope.” He can see Hershel and Maggie over Beth’s shoulder as he puts the dog tags around his tiny son’s neck. Then Beth is holding the little bundle out for him to take and he suddenly feels like he’s got, butterfingers. Surely he’ll drop the little guy or squeeze him too tight or…

 

Holding his son in his arms for the first time is a lot like falling in love with Beth. There aren’t words, especially not where he’s concerned. He’s in love even before they make it to the cars.

 

He remembers that they were other people there besides his girl and his son. There were others and he said things and they said things but mainly he just looked at the baby in his arms and Beth by his side and pleaded with whoever was in charge to please not make this a dream he was having out there in some smelly jungle sleeping under mosquito netting that very rarely worked. Please let this be real. Let him have this.

 

Just this.

 

He spent the last year surrounded by death and dying and fighting and… he doesn’t believe he’s ever felt so alive as he holds his son squirming in his arms hollering for his mama. But so very alive that it hurts and Beth pauses as she takes the baby and reaches out and wipes the tears from his cheeks. He doesn’t even realize he’d started crying.

 

They crowd into the back seat of Hershel’s car, Beth with Dean in her arms and Daryl trying to wrap an arm around her and watch his son who’s settled now in her lap.

 

“Ya never said, there’s was nothing in yer letters Beth.” She looks over at him and he can see the guilt in her eyes, but there’s also something else. Fierce love.

 

“I didn’t want you distracted thinking about me and a baby. I wanted you to do what you had too and come home to me. Too us.  But it was so hard Daryl! I wanted to tell you everything. I kept a journal though, just for you. And daddy and Maggie they took pictures and helped me out and… Oh, Daryl, I’m just glad you’re home!” He gets it though.

 

“I was so afraid a losing everything and I come home and I got it all.”

 

OOOOOO

 

There’s a whole bunch of life that was lived after Daryl climbed off that bus and held his girl again and met his newborn son.

 

He went home to the farm with Beth and Dean and he never left.  He got a lecture from Hershel which he had suspected was coming. He took it like a man tough. And Maggie, without really knowing it, called him out on his little white lie.

 

“How’d your hair get so long Daryl? I thought they made y’all keep it short?” After an uncomfortable silence and some squirming in his seat, he came clean about his injury and the infection. Beth cried and that was worse than her yelling would have been and she spent the next month checking and rechecking the wound even though it had healed up even before he got back in the country. He kept his mouth shut and let her do exactly as she wanted.

 

Daryl considered himself extremely lucky. He came back from the war and was able to make all those dreams he’d been dreaming come true. It hadn’t all gone the way they planned when they’d been talking about forever up in the hayloft of the barn, but Daryl never regretted his son for a second.

 

There was a wedding and not too long after that a cabin tucked in the woods but still on the Greene property because Daryl took it upon himself to do what Shawn couldn’t and be there for Hershel. Beth graduated from college and with Maggie’s help opened up her own little dance school in town, which Maggie’s new husband, a savvy businessman, took over management of. Glenn knew his numbers and after expanding the business and adding a music room he even opened up a pizza joint that became a favorite in their little hometown.

 

The effects of the war couldn’t rival the childhood Daryl had lived through and he was spared the majority of PTSD most returning soldiers battled with. Memories of the horror he’d witnessed did sometimes haunt his nightmares and when that happened his sweet girl would hold him and listen while he talked about it refusing to let him spare any detail because he thought she couldn’t handle it. She could and did. His girl was strong. No doubt about it.

 

OOOOOO

 

When Dean was five years old he became a big brother. And it was because of him and his fast thinking that Beth made it to the hospital before his baby sister, who was two weeks early, came into the world.

 

Daryl was up at Hershel’s barn when he heard Dean calling him, actually yelling for him.

 

“Daddy! Daddy! Where ya at?” The little guy was so frazzled he ran right into his daddy.

 

“Hey, where’s the fire?” Daryl had a hold of his t-shirt, a little grin on his face. Dean looked completely confused and like he was about to cry.

 

“There ain’t no fire! Mama’s gonna have the baby! Her pants was all wet and she’s got a tummy ache! Com’on daddy! I gotta take you home. Mama said!” Daryl scooped up Dean and raced back to the cabin where Beth was waiting in his truck with her bag.

 

“I got her ready ta go for you.” Speechless Daryl just looked at his son. He was so proud of the little guy but Beth was hollering out the window something about him getting his butt in the truck now because she was not giving birth to her little girl on the front seat of his Ford. Taking Dean by the shoulders he looked at him all serious like.

 

“Go on down ta grandpas. Tell him ta call aunt Maggie to meet us at the hospital.” Dean had nodded and turned to go.

 

“Dean!” Daryl called out to him. Stopping he turned and at that moment Daryl saw himself in his little boy. But Dean was happy and healthy and loved. “Ya did a good job! Acted like a man taking care of yer mama.” Dean smiled and turned and ran and Daryl made it to the truck just as Beth was threatening to drive herself.

 

Samantha Dixon was born less than an hour later. She looked just like Beth and Daryl who refused to listen to hospital staff was there holding Beth’s hand when his tiny daughter took her first breath. And later that night when all the visitors had finally left, Daryl climbed into the hospital bed with Beth, baby Sam between them and he kissed her softly murmuring his thanks for giving him two beautiful babies and promising that the next time she wouldn’t have to threaten to drive herself to the hospital.

 

“Next time? We’ll see about that Mr. Dixon!” But the twinkle in her eye let Daryl know she could probably be convinced.

 

Over the next four years the were two more trips to the hospital and then Beth put her foot down. Daryl couldn’t complain though. Jack and Katie evened out the numbers and Daryl’s favorite place to be besides his wife’s arms was with his kids.

 

He had a family, something he never understood until Beth.

 

OOOOOO

 

Having a family meant loving people but it also losing people. When Hershel passed away his loss was heavy on Daryl’s heart but his girl was devastated and he couldn’t make it better, couldn’t do anything but be there for her whenever she fell apart. He was there to hold her like she held him all those nights when he woke up from nightmares filled with gunfire.

 

They moved their family into the big white farmhouse and it came alive again. Daryl learned to work the land with help from his three oldest children. Beth continued to dance and Katie, their youngest took her first steps in a pair of tiny ballerina slippers.

 

Life was good. It wasn’t perfect. Dean fell out of the treehouse and broke his arm. He had to have surgery and ended up with 3 screws and no hope of a career in baseball.

 

Samantha and a boy with long hair and a motorcycle thought they were being sly sneaking up into the very same loft Daryl and Beth had all those years ago until Daryl and his two sons and a shotgun chased the punk away.

 

Jack got chicken pox and shared it with the whole family, including Daryl who it turns out never had them as a child. He spent a good 3 weeks in a bad mood itching like crazy and the only time he was happy was when Beth would take an oatmeal bath with him.

 

When she was 11 years old Katie was the only one of the kids to get braces and she spent the entire summer hiding in her bedroom. Daryl couldn’t find a single thing to bribe her with so he spent every evening stretched out on Katie’s bed reading Little House on the Prairie books and promising her one day she’d appreciate her straight teeth.

 

It wasn’t perfect, but it was their fairytale it was everything they’d hoped it would be when they dreamed about it up in the loft wrapped in a quilt in the flicker of the lantern light.

 

OOOOOO

 

They’re sitting on the porch in matching rocking chairs. Matching grey in their hair, his is definitely more grey than anything else. Daryl never told Beth he thought it was ridiculous. Matching rocking chairs. He figured it wouldn’t hurt him none and she’d be happy. And that was all he cared about in the end. Seeing Beth smile.

 

The two youngest kids are away at college and Samantha ended up marrying the long-haired punk on the motorcycle. He refused to stay away and it took a couple of years before he finally convinced Daryl that he loved Sam and would take care of her. That and a beautiful baby girl that calls Daryl Papa.

 

Dean took over the cabin and half the farm work and declared that he’d be living in that big old farmhouse one day with his own family. No one would dare argue with that. Having her oldest son right there with her is another thing that makes Beth smile.

 

So that’s where they are when Dean comes out carrying something in his hands, the light flashes off of it as he holds it out to Daryl.

 

“I found these dad, in a box with all my baby stuff. They’re yours.” Daryl reaches out and takes the dog tags he wore home from a war that happened almost 20 years ago. “Don’t know how they got mixed up in my stuff,” Dean says.

 

“Ya never told him that story?” Daryl is looking over at Beth. She’s sitting in her chair, a little smile on her face. Dean turns and looks at her too.

 

“Mom?”

 

“I was waiting, for this night. For you to be old enough to understand and appreciate your mama and daddy’s love story and how you came to be in this world Dean.” She’s smiling her best Beth smile and there are tears in her eyes. “Sit down. I’ll tell you all about those dog tags.”

 

-fin