Summary: Written for comment-fic. Prompt: Eliot & Aimee, Turns out the letters he sent her promising he'd be back soon were being put aside by Willie, who didn't want her innocence tarnished by the realities of war

Story title: Umm, yes, I borrowed the title from the Dixie Chicks song.


Traveling Soldier

He'd gotten home in time for the big wedding.

"You didn't come back when you promised you would!" Aimee shouts, her make-up smeared, "Hell, you didn't even write home! You promised, Eliot! You promised!"

Eliot stares, not understanding. He had sent letters home, one a week, just like he'd promised. He'd told her what he'd been doing (what he was allowed to say anyway), told her what sort of hijinks he and his buddies had gotten up to in their off-time, and didn't even mention once how disappointed he'd been when her letters to him had tapered off into nothing.

His heart's breaking because he doesn't understand how this could have happened.

He'd gotten her a ring, not an engagement ring, but a promise ring, a promise that he'd come home to her, and to her only, that she'd wait for him, and for him only. There's a different ring on her finger now, one he hadn't given her, an engagement ring.

"But I did write," he says helplessly, "I wrote letters home."

"Well, I didn't get them!"

Over her shoulder, he sees her father, and the look on his face...

And he gets it. He understands now.

"I'm sorry," he says to her, eyes downcast, unable to look her straight in the eyes as he lies about not sending letters home, but telling the truth all the same - he is sorry that things had to go this way.

And he turns and leaves.

He leaves so that she can get on with her life, her new life with her new husband who hasn't been to war, who doesn't have blood on his hands. He leaves so that she can feel safe, every minute of every day, because with him, she'll always have the fear of him not coming home hanging over her head. He shouldn't do that to her. He has no right to do that to her. Willie had said as much the first time he'd left.

So he leaves.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

He'd gotten home in time for the big wedding.

Aimee shouts and rails at the boy (no, not a boy any longer) about letters he'd sent home but that hadn't gotten to her. Hadn't gotten to her because her father had taken them before she could read them.

Willie feels awful about this, standing here, watching the boy, the man who'd grown up on his farm being blamed for something that wasn't his fault, watching his heart breaking. His own heart breaks for him, for them, his daughter and this man who'd been like a son to him.

But it was for the best. He'd meant well. He hadn't wanted Eliot to join the service to begin with, hadn't wanted the ugliness of war to touch that innocent kid so full of life and mischief. But that Eliot, he's always been so chock-full of stubborn that it near overflowed. He'd gone, and when that letter home had come, Willie hadn't wanted the taint to touch his daughter, his little girl.

So he'd kept it. And the next. And the one after that. They came every week, like clockwork. Willie knew that Aimee had long since stopped sending her weekly letter out, but still, they came, one a week, never ceasing in their regularity.

He never opened them. Sometimes, he'd thought about looking at one to see what the son-in-law who might have been was writing to his daughter, but he didn't, merely marveled at the steadfast loyalty of the boy. That faithfulness, that devotion, it only served to make it harder for him to do it.

But he had to. It was the only way to keep Aimee, his little girl, innocent. And maybe it worked, maybe it didn't, but Willie had known that if she had stayed with Eliot she never would have been able to move on with her life. As a parent, it hurts, watching your only daughter putting a hold on everything until her man comes back, for what, a month, a year, before he has to go away again. He's afraid that if Eliot doesn't come home, Aimee's life will stop right there and never move on.

Pale blue eyes meet his, and in that moment he knows that Eliot knows his crime, what he has done and why. He sees the comprehension flash across the young face and steels himself for the burst of rage that he is sure will soon come.

But it doesn't.

There's pain in that clear gaze, and anger, but behind them, Willie sees not a boy, but a man. A man who is innocent no longer, who understands that Willie has done this to protect his daughter, and that he has no place in her world, not any longer.

The solider drops his eyes and apologizes to Aimee, who still doesn't see, still doesn't know this awful thing Willie has done.

And he leaves.

Leaves to let the love of his life marry another man.

Willie knows that in his shoes, he never would have been able to just walk away, but this man, this soldier, as young as he is, is so much more than he'll ever be.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

He finds himself following the young man still wearing his uniform. Fought for his country, lost his sweetheart.

"Eliot."

Eliot turns. His face is devoid of emotion. "Willie."

"I'm sorry," Willie echoes Eliot's words to Aimee. "I had to."

"I know." Still impassive, that granite soldier's face.

"If you ever need anything," Willie says, not wanting to leave things like this, wanting to...fix things.

"I'll write," Eliot says, and now there's a flash of something, anger, hurt, across his face, "You always get my letters, don't you?"

Willie's face burns with shame. But he had to. For Aimee. Although, if she ever finds out what he's done, she'll hate him forever.

Eliot's shoulders fall, just slightly, and he says, "Look, I get it. You were right. I can't just stop. I- " He pauses and licks his lips, "I signed up for another tour. Even if she hadn't moved on, she woulda had to wait for me. Again. And more after that, probably, if I don't get killed first. So I get it."

There's no trace of that little boy with the sunny disposition in this man, yet it's still him. "I'm sorry, Eliot," Willie says, and he adds, because he's wanted to say this for a long time, because it may be the last chance he has to say it, "I'm proud of you. What you've done. I'm proud. And I would have been damn proud to call you son because you've always been that to me."

Eliot stiffens. "Thanks, Willie," he says after a moment. He closes the gap between them and puts out his hand.

Willie reaches his own shaking hand out and grips tight. He wants to say so many things, but there's nothing he can say.

Eliot lets go first. "Make sure that husband of hers takes good care of her."

Willie nods, blinking away the tears, "You bet your ass I will. You take care of yourself, too, y'hear, son?"

"I will." And as further heart-wrenching proof that the little boy who grew up on his farm is still in there, Eliot gives Willie a crooked little smile and saunters away out of their lives, cocky as can be.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .