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It Ain't Nothin' But a Number

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The trees on the sides of the rural road passed by in a blur as Rick gunned the car to its fastest speed.  They’d just barely made it out that time.  The runs were getting more and more dangerous – and yielded less and less useful things.  But they had to keep trying.

In the end, they’d made it out alive.  They’d had to hotwire a new car, but they’d made it out.  He exhaled loudly, releasing the stress of the last twenty minutes, and looked over at Daryl.  He was sitting in the passenger seat, forehead against the window.

“All right, then?” Rick asked.

“Yeah,” Daryl said, turning to face forward and looking over to Rick.  “You?”

“I’m fine.  Just wished we coulda got more.”  They’d been out to grab asthma inhalers from a medical warehouse Daryl and Aaron had discovered the previous week.  There were several folks with asthma in Alexandria and, with medicine running low, they were getting to be one attack away from dying from something that had seemed so preventable a couple of years ago.  They’d gotten half the haul tucked into the bed of their truck when the walkers had come out of nowhere.  They’d fought some of them off, but were clearly going to get overrun.  They’d had to grab what they could carry and run until they were away from the danger.  They’d just slowed down and started deciding the best route for the long walk back home when they got lucky and happened on this car.

Daryl nodded.  “We’ll be okay, though.  This is better than nothin’.”  Rick looked in his rearview mirror at the backseat of the car.  There were two cases sitting on top of all the broken glass from where they’d busted a back window to break into the car.

“I guess,” Rick said.  He looked at the floor of the car near Daryl’s feet and saw a binder, likely full of CDs.  “Anything good in there?” he asked, motioning to the case with his head, looking for a distraction.

“Don’t know,” Daryl said, bending to retrieve the case.  He unzipped it and started paging through.  There were a couple albums he recognized, but many of the CDs just had pictures on the front and no artist names or song titles.  Given the pop nature of the artists he did know, he wasn’t holding out high hopes.  “What do you feel like?”

“Surprise me,” Rick said.

“Here,” Daryl said, pulling out a mix CD with ‘Faves’ scrawled in Sharpie on the front.  “I’ll surprise us both.”

He turned on the radio and pushed the CD in.  After a couple of seconds, the synthesized drums of “Need You Tonight,” by INXS, filled the car.  Daryl rolled his eyes and made a move to push the next button, but he noticed Rick’s smile.

“You like this shit?  Really?” he asked Rick.

Rick laughed.  “Memories, I guess.  This reminds me of Saturday nights at home, my sister teasin’ her hair as high as it’d go and puttin’ on way too much makeup so she could sneak out and go to a party with her friends.”

Daryl rolled his eyes again.  “It reminds me of senior year of high school, and nothin’ good came from that, I can tell you.”

Rick’s mind started processing those words.  When this song was popular, Rick had been in middle school.  He supposed it could have still been popular later when Daryl was in high school, but he sort of doubted the crowd he hung out with was into retro stuff.

“When did you graduate?” Rick asked.  It was a simple question, but one they’d never talked about before this, despite having lived so closely together for over two years now.

“Didn’t,” Daryl said, a bit bitterly.  “A lot of shit was goin’ down at home.  Merle was goin’ off to jail.  Again.  My dad was . . .”  Daryl trailed off, then picked up the story a little quieter.  “Anyway, I just left town for a while.  Found a job at a mechanic shop.”

Rick was quiet.  He never quite knew what to say when Daryl offered up a small bit of his past.  Rick had been raised in a loving home.  They weren’t rich, but he had never wanted for anything.  He’d lived a life with that level of privilege that meant he never had to think about how privileged he was. 

Rick decided the best thing would just be to file the information away.  It didn’t change anything about how he felt about Daryl.  About how much he meant to the group.  So, he didn’t graduate from high school.  Big deal.  Whether he knew all about the War of 1812 or trigonometry or some shit certainly wouldn’t help him, or them, now.

He just needed to show Daryl he couldn’t care less.  He’d distract him with stories of his own youth.  The CD had moved on to the next track, but he could share more memories of his trials and tribulations with INXS.  “Well, my sister loved that song.  Everything on that album, really.  She would play it on repeat until I wanted to strangle her.  Actually, come to think of it, annoyin’ me was probably half the reason she did it.”  Rick smiled.  “She’d dance around, honest-to-god singing into her hairbrush, like we was in some kind of movie.”

“You never really talk about her,” Daryl said.  Most of the time, family was an off-limits conversation.  Everyone knew that there was a good chance their family members were dead.  Or rather, walking around undead.  No one wanted to think about that.  But Rick was the one who had brought it up.

“Shelly,” Rick said.  “Michelle, really, but we all just called her Shelly.  She was four years older’n me, and never let me forget it.  She actually passed a couple years before all this happened.  Car accident.”  At the time, Rick had been devastated.  Now, though, he thinks it was kind of a mixed blessing that she didn’t have to go through all this.

“Sorry,” Daryl mumbled. 

“It’s okay,” Rick said. 

They sat for a while, not talking, listening to the string of 80s pop hits on the CD.  Rick’s mind kept going back to Daryl’s throwaway comment about INXS reminding him of high school.

“So, your friends were into 80s music?” Rick finally asked.

Daryl looked over at Rick like he was asking the stupidest question imaginable.  “What else would they have liked?”

“I don’t know.  Something more current, I guess,” Rick said, struggling to remember what had been popular when he’d been graduating from college, first settling in with Lori.

“Rick, how old you think I am?” Daryl asked in a disbelieving tone.

Age was not something they generally discussed either.  It wasn’t off limits so much as irrelevant.  You were either old enough to take care of yourself or you weren’t.  You were too old to keep up or you weren’t.  They didn’t have calendars or birthdays.  They just were.  Strength and wits and health were far more important factors than some number.

“I dunno,” Rick said, thinking.  “Thirty, maybe?”

Daryl burst out laughing in a way Rick couldn’t remember ever hearing before.  “What?” Rick asked.  He couldn’t be that far off.

“That’s classic!” Daryl said, still chuckling.  “Try forty-four!”

“What?!” Rick said again, his turn to use the disbelieving tone this time.  “But that means – ”

“Yeah, dipshit,” Daryl said, giving Rick’s chest a friendly pat with the back of his hand.  “I’m older’n you.  By several years.  How did you not know that?”

“I don’t know!  I guess I just assumed.”  Rick couldn’t believe it.  In some ways, this changed absolutely nothing.  But, it was still something weird to wrap his brain around.

“Well, you know what they say about assumin’,” Daryl said in a leading tone, smile still evident.

Rick rifled through the clues he had collected about Daryl’s age.  “You don’t look it,” Rick said a bit defensively.  He hadn’t been a detective, but he still should have noticed something.  How had he been so wrong?

“Why,” Daryl asked.  “Just ‘cause you’re prematurely gray?” Daryl motioned to the gray hairs peeking out on Rick’s beard and his temples.  “Good genes, I guess.  In my family, we don’t go gray so much as fade.  And why would I have been so much younger’n Merle?”

Rick was a bit taken aback to hear Daryl bring up his brother, but he’d been allowing mentions of him to make their way into conversation for a couple of months now.  Rick figured he’d finally made his peace with what Merle had done and forgiven him.  “I just figured you were one of those surprise babies.  I had a friend growin’ up who had three brothers and sisters, but they were all like fifteen years older.  His parents thought they were done, then – Surprise!”

Daryl was still smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.  “I’ll just take it as a compliment,” he said.

Rick drove on in silence for a couple of minutes, gears still turning in his brain.  “But then – ” he started, but quickly cut himself off.

“Then what?” Daryl asked.

In for a penny, in for a pound, Rick thought.  They’d already discussed several of the unmentionable topics today.  Why not one more.  “Then, why didn’t anything happen with you and Carol?  I thought you were freaked out by the age difference, but she’s not that much older’n you.”

Daryl gave Rick the same look from before.  He had never thought Rick was this slow on the uptake.  “Me not wantin’ Carol has nothin’ to do with her age.  She’s just not my type.”

Rick thought about that.  He’d still had Lori when he’d first met Carol and he’d only had eyes for his wife at the time.  And after that, he’d felt too guilty to make eyes at anyone for quite some time.  But Daryl didn’t have the same constraints and he figured Carol was attractive enough.  Why wasn’t she Daryl’s type?  “Not enough curves for you?”

Daryl chuckled again, though not as heartily as he had before when Rick had guessed his age.  “More like too many,” he admitted sheepishly.

“Too many?  She’s skinny as a pole.  She – ” And all of a sudden, it clicked.  “Do you not like women?” Rick asked a bit stiltedly.

Daryl gave out an exasperated sigh.  “Rick, pull over,” he said, pointing to the side of the road.

“What?” Rick asked, eyebrows wrinkling in confusion.  “Why?”

“Pull over,” Daryl repeated more forcefully.  Rick did, then put the car in park and turned to look at Daryl.  Daryl also turned in his seat and fixed Rick with a fierce glare.  “I’m only gonna say this once.  I thought you already knew this, but it’s clear now you didn’t.  So I’m gonna lay it out for you, so’s there’s no more misunderstandings.  I’m as gay as the day is long.  I always have been.  It’s half the reason my dad beat me as much as he did, though neither of us admitted it at the time.  I thought you knew.  I thought we were dancin’ around somethin’.  But I guess I was the one assumin’ things.  I don’t have feelings for Carol or Beth or anybody else.  You’re the one I want.”

Rick looked at Daryl, trying to figure out if this was a joke.  Rick had been attracted to Daryl for a while now, but had never brought it up because he knew Daryl would never go for it.  He guessed now that he could take everything he thought he knew about Daryl and throw it over a cliff.

Rick continued to meet Daryl’s glare.  “Good.  ‘Cause you’re the one I want,” Rick said, matching Daryl’s forceful tone.

“Good,” Daryl shot back.  “Glad we got that straightened out.”

“I’m gonna kiss you now,” Rick said brusquely. 

“’Bout time,” Daryl said.

“Shut up,” Rick said, grabbing the back of Daryl’s head and digging his fingers in his hair.

“Make me,” Daryl dared.

So Rick did the only thing he could do.  He pulled Daryl forward and kissed him for all he was worth.  And they kept kissing until, eventually, the CD flipped back over to the first track.

Rick pulled back a bit regretfully.  “We should get back,” he said.

“Yeah,” Daryl agreed, turning to sit more fully in his seat again.

Rick started the car and pulled back on to the road.  “You can swap it out now, if you want,” Rick said, motioning to the CD.  “No sense bringin’ up bad memories.”

“Naw,” said Daryl.  “It’s bringin’ up some new memories, now.”  He smiled and touched his fingers gently to his lips.  “Say, it ain’t gonna bug you, knowin’ I’m older’n you?”

“Naw,” said Rick, parroting Daryl.  He looked over at Daryl and smiled.  “It ain’t nothin’ but a number.”