The pinks and blues of the sunset had long since turned black -- a canopy of trees blocking any sign of a starlit sky. It was just another night. Then tomorrow, another day. And then again. Daryl had a routine and he found comfort in that, comfort in his single focus. He sat by his meager campfire with Dog, like he always did, while they both snacked on deer jerky and water from the nearby spring.
He’d spent the day, like he always did, combing the area for any sign of Rick. Six years and he still couldn’t accept the man’s death without a body. Truth be told he was relieved every night when he came up empty. That way he could keep his glimmer of hope alive like a fading firefly in a forgotten jar.
It had been years since Rick disappeared yet Daryl could still remember the smell of him, the sound of his honeyed voice and the color of his ocean blue eyes. The touches -- a hand on his arm, bumping shoulders, thigh against thigh as they sat together for meals. The way Rick always looked at him like he was the only person in the world. He could remember it all.
Most of Daryl’s long evenings were spent sitting by the fire remembering and this one was no different. He stared blankly into the darkness of the woods as he played moments in his mind like a movie with Dog resting his head on Daryl’s leg. He remembered returning to Hilltop after his imprisonment at the Sanctuary. That moment he laid eyes on Rick and Rick laid eyes on him? It was heart-stopping. Breathtaking. Life affirming.
That look told him he was missed and he was loved. And he’d known that. He’d seen it in Rick’s longing gazes when Negan marched him around Alexandria. And when Rick had walked towards him that day at Hilltop something in the air changed.
The hair on Daryl’s arms had stood up, his belly swirled with excitement and his eyes started to tear up. Rick walked toward him with tentative purpose, knowing that Daryl often shied away from touch. But the archer wordlessly agreed to a hug and Rick held him tight, kissing at his hair and his cheek.
His body was so warm and it fit flush against Daryl in the most perfect way. Wrapping the man in his own arms, Daryl let himself sob quietly into the crook of his neck as Rick whispered “I’ve got you. You’re home.”
It was at that moment that Daryl stopped second-guessing his feelings. He was downright, unequivocally, completely in love with Rick Grimes. That hug had been the most passionate moment he’d ever shared with anyone. He’d felt alive for the first time. Complete. Whole.
Daryl looked down at Dog with tears in his eyes. He’d give anything for that feeling again. Anything to be home again.
The air was still, the night calm, but the forest filled the darkness with the sounds of crickets and toads. The constant chirps and croaks were a familiar background and it was a peaceful soundtrack for Daryl’s loneliness.
When the sudden sound of crunching leaves and moving branches startled him, he stood with his crossbow ready to dispatch the nighttime visitor. At first Daryl assumed it was a walker but he knew the cadence of their footsteps and these were more calculated. It was a person. Carol maybe? Aaron? He could never assume, it could be a hostile.
He locked the arrow in place as the silhouette of a man stepped into the firelight. And there he was. Rick. His beard was a little greyer, his hair a bit longer, but he knew that stance, those bowed legs, and he knew the blue of those eyes.
Dog jumped to his feet, tail wagging as he looked up at Daryl and barked.
Please don’t be a dream, please don’t be a dream, Daryl thought as he lowered his weapon.
“Rick?” Daryl croaked, tears already leaving stains on his dirty face. “I knew you wasn’t dead, I knew it!”
“Oh, Daryl,” Rick said, his voice low and thick with emotion. He rushed around the fire and waited for a quick permissive nod before he buried himself in Daryl’s strong arms.
After all those years Daryl was finally back home in Rick’s orbit, hanging on for dear life as if parting would make the man disappear.
Somehow the crickets and toads faded to silence and all Daryl could hear was the fast-paced beating of his own heart. Rick kissed his cheek like before, one hand holding the back of his head tight against his shoulder.
“You’re home,” Daryl whispered, rubbing the other man’s back.
They parted for a moment, gazing at one another’s damp, glassy eyes. And Rick rested his forehead against Daryl’s. “I’ve never stopped thinking of you. Not even for a day,” Rick said with such conviction that it would be crazy to doubt him.
The leader kissed Daryl’s cheek again, then the corner of his mouth.
He tried not to jump at the brush of their lips. If Rick wanted to kiss him, God please let him do it.
And then he felt Rick’s warm mouth against his own in a chaste, tentative kiss. Daryl parted his lips in invitation and stepped closer to his best friend, hands resting gently on Rick’s hips.
Daryl could feel Rick’s rough hands, one in his hair and another cupping his cheek. The other man’s chapped lips plucked desperately at Daryl’s own. The smell of him, the warmth of his touch, the feel of his heartbeat syncing up to Daryl’s...he was in heaven.
Again he wished on every Godly being that could possibly exist for this moment not to be a dream. Had he fallen asleep by the fire? Was he having another one of his dreams of Rick? So many dreams and all of them ending in sleep-crusted eyes and early morning sun. Please don’t be a dream.
The kiss slowed and Rick took a step back. He looked at Daryl, waiting for a reaction.
“You didn’t punch me,” Rick said, stunned.
“Ain’t gonna punch you.” Daryl’s barely-there voice was soft, sincere. Honest.
“I’ve wanted that,” Rick said, “for a long time.” No one moved or spoke, the nighttime sounds around them creating a comfortable cocoon. Daryl didn’t always need words.
“I’m in love with you, Daryl,” Rick said, his head ducked down and his eyes boring into the archer’s.
Daryl kept his eyes on Rick’s suspiciously, as he absorbed the words and their meaning.
“I’d die for you,” Daryl responded after several long minutes of silence. “You can love me if you want. I want you to.”
Daryl took a step closer, ran his fingers through Rick’s too-long curls, and with confidence he pressed his lips to Rick’s, teeth and tongues nibbling and licking in the dark night, as they stood alone, save for Dog whose tail was still wagging in excitement.
It was like the fresh start of summer or the soft cradle of a comfortable mattress. It was heat and fire and a surprising amount of familiarity. Rick’s hands roamed Daryl’s body, back and biceps, waist and abs.
This time when they broke apart Dog gave a demanding bark, insisting on his introduction.
“You got a dog,” Rick smiled.
“Yeah,” Daryl answered with his lopsided grin and a ruffle of Dog’s furry ears. “This is Dog,” Daryl said as he knelt down, “and Dog, this is Rick.”
Dog barked again and wagged his tail as Rick ran a hand across his back.
“He’s heard a lot about you,” Daryl confessed, still kneeling and looking up at Rick like he was Jesus Christ himself. “Rick, where have you been?” Daryl finally asked as they both moved to sit down on over-sized logs set up by the fire.
“Helicopter picked me up. They saved my life, but the repayment was a life of servitude and never coming home again. That wasn’t acceptable. Took me years to break out.”
“We can leave for Alexandria now! I know the way in the dark. You’ll be able to see everyone by sunrise.”
Rick shook his head.
“No. The choppers might come back here looking for me. I have to stay out of sight. Don’t want to cause an unintended war on my account.
“But...Judith. And you have a son! Rick Jr.,” and after a pause, Daryl added, “Michonne.”
Rick smiled wistfully. “I’d like to see them all sometime, but not quite yet. How is Michonne?”
Daryl focused on the ground like he was reading the answers in the dirt. “She...she um...met someone else. ‘Bout a year ago. ‘M sorry.”
“No, that’s great. I’m glad for her because I’ve finally found my someone and he’d been right in front of my eyes for years.”
Daryl wasn’t used to being so happy and he tried to hide his smile out of habit. He was Rick’s someone. Finally.
“What’s your plan?” Daryl asked, already willing to give everything he had to help.
Rick looked around the camp. It was just like the old days, tin cans and string for protection, a tent, and a pair of wet socks drying over a rock.
“My plan is to stay with you if you’ll have me.”
Daryl nodded shyly. “Only got the one tent.”
“I don’t mind sharing if you don’t” Rick answered, his bright blue eyes glimmering in the firelight.
“Course. Never letting you out of my sight again,” Daryl answered. “You were a bitch to find.”
After some more catching up, both men finally crawled, exhausted, into the cramped quarters of the tent.
Daryl lay on his side watching Rick as the other man took off his shirt to use as a pillow. “You gonna watch me all night?” Rick asked flirtatiously.
“Can’t fall asleep. I’m afraid I’ll wake up and it will all be a dream,” Daryl answered honestly.
“I’m here,” Rick insisted. He lay on his back with an arm outstretched in invitation, and Daryl cuddled up to him, head on his chest and arm over his waist. “You’ll feel me here all night.”
Daryl pressed a kiss to Rick’s chest. “I love you, too” he whispered.
“I know, Darlin’.”
It was unusual for morning birds to wake Daryl. He was normally awake before they were. His memory spilled back into him as he shook off his sleep. Rick. Please don’t be a dream, Daryl wished again and he turned around to face an empty tent. He sat up and sighed, heartbroken over how real it all felt. Those hands, those lips, the smell of him still swirling in Daryl’s nose.
He hesitated leaving the tent, not wanting to start another day without Rick, a sinking feeling filling his belly like pouring cement. He froze as he heard the zipper pull on the tent. Rick climbed back in unceremoniously and zipped back up. “Dog makes a nice escort for going to take a piss,” he laughed.
Daryl smacked the other man’s thigh. “Thought I told you not to leave my sight, damnit. Thought you was a dream.”
Rick grinned. He leaned over and placed a gentle kiss to Daryl’s lips. “It’s not. You found me.”