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On Neon Roads

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Asphalt burns.

Sure, the weight of his bike, plus another still surprisingly heavy body landing on top of him as they skid across the road, hurts like a bitch, but the asphalt cutting into his palms and digging into his bared knee burns something worse.

The fiery sting coming from his calf might just take the cake, however.

His gut lurches on impact, blood rushing to his head even as he's sure it's also spilling out if him. The scraping of metal against concrete is grating, but the gunfire coming from a speeding truck getting closer and closer every second is louder and more severe. A grunt from the second body as it rolls is barely audible.

Fuck, he thinks. Is he okay? Is he hit? He wants to call out for Jesus, but he grits his teeth instead and tries to focus on kicking the bike off his legs while also reaching for the crossbow that slid just perfectly out of reach. A bullet pings off the frame. 

"Daryl," Jesus hisses.

He's on his hands and knees, crawling swiftly forward with only a mildly frazzled expression contorting his face, his big eyes shining like a beacon beneath overcast skies, mouth set with determination. He ducks low when another bullet whizzes by, but doesn't stop. 

Daryl kicks at the handlebars with the leg that doesn't hurt.

"Daryl, come on--"

The truck that had been chasing them swerves and squeals to a stop only feet away, into the grass field on the opposite side of the gas station they seem to be laying in front of. A graveyard of cars blocks the entrance. Daryl swears he can hear nearby growls and groans.

"Would you hurry up?" Jesus finally snaps. He's close enough now to lean on his knees, hunching down to pull at Daryl's shoulders. 

He tries to shove the guy away, but that only gets him a persistent arm looping around his torso.

"Get off, man," Daryl grits out. He wants to shoot back at whatever’s trying to kill him.

But the men are climbing out of the truck, guns at the ready, and all he can do is bite down a pained groan when Jesus hauls him roughly toward the vehicles parked like a half-assed barricade. 

His body feels jarred, bruised before any purple and black splotches can begin to form. There's an ache in his head that makes him wonder if he smacked it in the crash, but it could just be the spike of adrenaline. Or exhaustion. Or annoyance at Jesus gripping the back of his vest and tossing him around like a rag doll. 

He'd managed to grab the bow, at least.

The hail of bullets starts up again once the men realize they're trying and sort of succeeding in an attempted escape; or getting to a relatively safe spot, at the very least. It's lucky as hell they'd ended up on the back side of the station, away from any gas pumps that might explode on impact. 

It's not so lucky that they'd ended up on the side where walkers lay crumpled and oozing, all stuck to the sidewalk like fried eggs or chewed gum. Daryl manages to free himself from Jesus long enough to shoot one that had started to immediately stumble their way, no doubt roused by the sweet sound of gunfire and life. 

Daryl winces when Jesus drops him behind a sedan. His beanie is half falling off his head and the knee of his cargo pants is torn, too, but other than a scrape on his cheek that looks angry and about ready to start seeping, he appears unharmed. 

His seafoam eyes bounce over Daryl's slouched form as frantically as the hands that start to feel him over. He tries to squirm away from the pressing and prodding, the swipe over his stomach that makes his insides twist violently, the palms against his bicep and chest that makes it hard to swallow. 

He sours at his reaction to the other man just as he's done since they'd first met. The fact that he understands what it means, that he has for a while, only makes him want to stomp it down even harder, but they don't have time for that.

"M'fine," Daryl grumbles, as if the men on the other side aren't shouting at them to come out before they come over. He fires an arrow into the squished head of a walker crawling their way, which finally prompts Jesus to look at something other than Daryl's face.

Unfortunately, rather than turning towards the next decomposing body that Daryl shoots into, his attention lands on the frayed opening around his calf and the blood pooling around it.

Bullets continue to slam against the sedan at a steady pace.

"You're not fine," Jesus huffs under his breath while tearing at the denim to get a better look.

Daryl knows he's talking about more than just the wound. He's talking about the whole reason he'd followed Daryl into the woods to begin with. The reason he'd been hounding him way before Rick threw Negan into a cell.

Daryl should hate him, really. Feel upset and betrayed and all that nonsense. There he'd been, killing every Savior he could get his hands on and chasing down the ones he couldn't with unyielding fury, only to find out that Jesus had been taking some as prisoners and ushering them into Hilltop like it was a damn hotel. And Maggie had let him. Even Gregory, that spineless asshole, was smart enough to see just how stupid that idea was.

But Jesus had done it anyway, even managed to convince Maggie that they could live beyond the war, become members of the communities if they were willing to prove their worth. As if they hadn't already just by doing Negan's dirty work, by standing in that clearing and watching Abraham and Glenn get their heads bashed in until there was nothing left, by forcing Sasha's hand, by killing Denise and Eric and—

He can't think about who else they've lost. Ignoring it is all he can do not to lose the last shreds of whatever sanity remains.

So, yeah, he should be throttling Jesus right now rather than letting the little asshole wipe at his wound with one of the bandanas he'd pulled from a pocket. But he can't. 

He's mad as hell and wants to shove Jesus against the nearest wall and punch him in his stupid, perfect face, shout his voice raw and then maybe drop in front of Jesus's feet and cry like a baby because he doesn't know what else to do anymore. Part of him whispers that maybe he should just kiss Jesus instead, touch the skin that looks so soft and the beard that looks so scratchy, smother his plump, chapped lips with his thin, gnawed ones until neither of them can breathe or think about why things have turned out this way or what it means that they did. 

Daryl's not oblivious to the staring. It's been there since the day they'd met, when Jesus ran into their lives and stole the supplies they'd tracked down, then got them sunk down into a lake. He'd kept his eyes on Daryl as often as he could, watching him smugly at first, then with surprise and respect, with sympathy and determination, with gentleness that makes Daryl's chest flutter in a way that gets him wishing for a damn heart attack instead. He doesn't look at anyone else nearly as frequently, nearly as hard. Not even Maggie, who he'd clung to the same way Daryl had to Rick.

He swears, once or twice, there had been something else, something more behind that steely, watchful gaze; something like blue fire and black waves, both ready to swallow him whole if he just gave it a chance. Gave Jesus a chance. And, once or twice, he's afraid of what the ninja might have seen in return.

But then things had gone to shit, as they always do, and he shouldn't be surprised by all the death and destruction that can't seem to follow anyone else the way it does his family. They'd all come together for a fight, but none of them had been on the same page. 

Daryl wanted revenge. He wanted absolution, to keep a promise. He wanted to kill them all, even if it killed himself in the process. Hell, he felt dead most days as it was. Maggie couldn't make up her mind at first. She wanted what Daryl did, vengeance for her husband and safety for her baby, but the war inside her head and heart had been just as strong as the one raging beyond them. What would Glenn do? What about Hershel and Beth? The same thing as Jesus, evidently, because she took his side in the end. Not even Carol could stand by Daryl resolutely, not after she and the King had lost their fighters and friends. She hadn't wanted to fight to begin with and only did what she thought necessary.

Rick wanted something different and for as many times as Daryl understood and respected those choices, this one had been too far. Rick wanted life, even for his enemies. He wanted a new world. As broken as he was now, with Negan in a cell instead of in the ground like his own son was, he still had hope. 

And maybe that's something, too; Rick taking Jesus's side instead of his, making Daryl feel like the outsider he'd always been and would always be. A monster. A freak. Not good enough for anyone or anything.

Not good enough for Jesus.

It makes him sick that he'd even want to be. Caring is a weakness he can no longer afford.

But that asshole ninja can. He'd stopped by at Alexandria to deliver some messages and trade crops for baby things Aaron had scavenged for Gracie. She didn't need all he'd gathered, but Maggie's baby did, and so Jesus had dropped by and stayed and stayed and stayed.

Five days, Daryl counted, and each one increasingly harder to get through. The lingering stares when no one else was looking, the fleeting glances when everyone was; the attempts at conversation, small or otherwise; the touches that were heavy and short, but filled with so much desire to just hold on a little longer that Daryl almost let him.

It was an intrusion on the rest of his mind, which was occupied by thoughts of going down to the basement to shoot an arrow through Negan's eye. Give him puppy chow instead of bread and meat, stab wounds instead of soap and blankets, his head smashed under Daryl's boot instead of the life he shouldn't be living. It was that anger juxtaposed against the tenderness Jesus showed him, the fondness even despite the way they’d butted heads because of their differing philosophies, that had him running. And it had been precisely all of that, wrapped into one, that had Jesus chasing after him.

He'd tried to punch him, like he had with Rick, like he had after Jesus shot the walker in the field. Start a fight because the younger man's voice was too sweet and his raised hands were too tempting. The asshole didn't let Daryl do anything except listen, going so far as to follow him through the trees while he rolled his bike over broken branches and snow that hadn't yet melted. The shouting had started once they'd reached the road and Daryl did grab him by his leather collar then, growling in his face like an angry dog, barking at Jesus to leave him alone while his heart begged for the opposite.

The truck speeding towards them could have flattened their asses to the dirt. And yet, the position they're in now really isn't much better. 

Daryl pulls a gun from his holster and starts firing blindly over the hood of the car just to keep their enemies at bay. They chortle and poke fun, but they're just run-offs from Negan's loyalists, one of the few instead of the many like they'd been months prior. 

Jesus very carefully tightens the cloth around Daryl's graze and finally pulls out his own weapon. He starts on the walkers, missing the first headshot but then none after. The window above Daryl's head cracks twice.

There's a semi adjacent to where they crouch like sitting ducks. He nudges Jesus and jerks his head towards where he's looking, communicating silently that they should move behind the larger cover. The ninja gives a quick nod and pops his head up to start aiming his shots at the Saviors who are no doubt crowding closer, exposing himself so Daryl can crawl away first. He does so quickly and then dips down to peek under the gap beneath the trailer. 

A high-pitched whistle calls Jesus to him, moving low and quick while an arrow flies into the side of a calf, like revenge. The man's scream is pained as he buckles on instinct and before he can scramble to rise back up, Daryl shoots him through the back of the head. The feet of the other Saviors' seem to almost blur with how quickly they try to scatter.

Daryl spares Jesus a glance then, catching him pulling a knife from a geek's temple and kicking the limp body to the ground.

"Good move," he whispers to Daryl as he settles down beside him. The bang bang bangs, followed by multiple ting ting tings, shift to bounce off the wide side of the semi. 

"Yeah, but now they're hidin'. And we're gonna run out--" he shakes his pistol in Jesus's face, slapping the crossbow against a tire, "--'fore they do."

"We won't," the younger man says confidently. It makes Daryl's blood boil, how insufferable and enticing Jesus is.

"Gonna give us a miracle? Why don't you go ask 'em to surrender, huh? Got some extra space in Negan's cell."

Jesus frowns, his nostrils flaring, but he remains as calm and cool as possible given the situation they're in, even in the face of Daryl's goading. 

"Just stay put," he all but begs. 

He's rushing away again before Daryl can even think to inquire about what his plan is, other than to get himself killed. But that thought is gone as quick as it comes because Daryl might be pissed and petty, but he's not a fool.

He knows how well Jesus can fight, has seen it up close and personal with his own two eyes. How much effort he puts in to make it look smooth and easy, how much power his slim body can dole out. You don't bring a knife to a gunfight, but sometimes Jesus does, accompanied by his kung-fu bullshit, and yet he always wins. 

Daryl can't stay with his chest pressed against the oily asphalt now that he's got no one to watch his back. He turns over into a sitting position, shuffling so the cab can shield him more thoroughly. He tries to stretch his neck far enough to see where Jesus disappeared to, but can't make out anything besides the top of a couple heads, all of which are too tall or with hair too short to be of interest.

He notices, however, the door leading into the back of the station is wide open, with a few walkers piled up onto a shelf blocking their exit. The ones that had mostly been drawn away by all the noise happening up front are suddenly trying to crowd around Daryl, so he can't do much aside from make a run for it. He doesn't know what's inside, he could be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, but it's better than sitting around like bait until Jesus does something worthwhile.

Standing is hard when all the muscles in his leg are crying in protest at the weight he puts on it, but he's had worse and pushes through the discomfort in order to hobble out of the reach of clawing nails. He shanks one that gets too close, shoots another that tries to shamble over to where he thinks Jesus might be, then takes care of the few piled up at the threshold. 

The gunfire turns sporadic and is almost drowned out by an agonized scream. Daryl catches himself praying that it's not the stupid ninja, although he has a feeling it isn't, especially when the shouts turn garbled and the bullets slowly cease. He's taking them alone, probably one by one. Daryl doesn’t pout.

The shelf is stuck diagonally in the doorway, forcing him to lift up so he can jump over. His arms hold just fine, but landing, even such a short distance, has his eyes screwing shut momentarily. He still feels a little woozy from the impact of hitting the ground so hard.

A throaty groan in front of his face pushes those thoughts away and puts him back into reality pretty damn fast. The stinking husk falls to the floor and is kicked out of the way.

There aren't many walkers in the small space. He figures there could be a few locked up in the store room, maybe the bathroom as well, but he doesn't bother with those. He sticks to the wall on the far left and makes his way towards the front, stabbing anything that gets in his way. Through the foggy, smeared windows he can see even more of them weaving through the spaces between cars and pumps.

"Daryl?!"

He recognizes that as Jesus's voice instantly and feels his lungs deflate, not even having realized he'd been holding his breath. His name flying from that mouth is loud and uncharacteristically panicked, the strain in his throat noticeable when he shouts it again.

"Daryl!"

"In here!" he calls in reply. 

It takes him a minute to get back to the door, but when he does he pops his head out, eyes landing on Jesus at the same time his own land on Daryl. The relief that possesses those worried features is almost unsettling because of how strange it makes Daryl feel. Like he's relieved, too; at the sight of Jesus, alive and well, and at the reaction he could get just from standing around, waiting for him. There's a foreign warmth that threatens to seep into his bones when Jesus runs forward, not looking anywhere but into Daryl's eyes.

"I told you to stay put," he reminds, but there's no heat behind the words. It's not the admonishment it would have been if the situation was reversed. "Are you okay?"

Gloved hands settle on his shoulders and squeeze, like a reflex, but then slide away after only a few seconds. 

"Yeah. M'good. You hurt? D'you kill 'em?"

He already knows the answer, but it's satisfying to hear nonetheless.

"I did. And I'm fine, too. Thanks for asking--" Daryl snorts at the polite appreciation. "--But we've got more of the dead coming in. There was a herd in the field. Obviously, it's not there anymore."

"Got a bunch out front, too. We can make a run for the bike--"

"They're too close."

Jesus vaults over the shelf to join Daryl inside the tiny building, pack slapping against his back, and reaches out to grab the metal door. It barely budges when he gives it a tug, so Daryl leans in beside him, arms brushing, to get a hold on it too. When he tilts his head up, he sees exactly what Jesus had been talking about. Dozens and dozens of walkers squeezing past the semi and all the scattered cars behind, sensing life close by and seeking to snuff it out.

Together, they pull the slab of metal shut, locking themselves inside the dark. 

Breathing sounds harsh to his own ears and the beats of his heart are nearly uneven. Daryl can see the way Jesus's shoulders move alongside the deliberately slow rise and fall of his chest. His face is splotchy from exertion, cheeks streaked with blood that's both his own and not. Daryl grabs a rag from his back pocket and scans the aisles until he finds the plastic jugs of water. 

The first one he picks is the one he pops open, taking a deep gulp from and then splashing some out to soak the rag. He hands it over to Jesus, who wipes his face wordlessly, seeming to miss most of the mess. Maybe on purpose or maybe just because his mind is running a mile a minute in a race to find out what to do next. The latter seems more plausible, but the former isn’t completely out of left field either. Not with someone like Jesus. The problem is that Daryl can’t tell just by looking at him.

It’s impulsive and probably stupid, what he decides to do; yank the rag back into his own hand, gripping Jesus’s jaw in the other in a bid to hold him still, then reaching up to rub the remaining pink stains out of existence. The swiftness of his movements might seem frantic or annoyed, but when their gazes lock onto each other once more, big eyes piercing into Daryl’s narrowed slits even as the lids drop low, his system jolts with an involuntary shiver.

They stand there for a moment, frozen in time like some scene from a shitty romance novel, all wide-eyed wonder and flushing cheeks, his hand still cupping Jesus’s jaw with only a thin piece of fabric hindering skin-on-skin contact.

Daryl already knows what the tiny hairs on Jesus’s forearms feel like, how firm his bicep was when he’d slapped it one day to steal his attention, how the lean lines of his torso quivered when they’d pressed against each other to hide from Saviors and roamers alike during a desperate supply run.

And he already knows the feeling of those slim hands rubbing against the wings on his back in a comforting pat, the feeling of neat fingernails scratching through his hair while checking for bumps or cuts after he’d shown up at Hilltop in a frenzy, the feeling of that hot breath tickling the shell of his ear when they’d leaned in close to speak over the ruckus of the Kingdom’s celebration.

He’d caught himself wondering, on more than one occasion, what it would be like if Jesus wrapped his arms around him and didn’t let go for a whole night. What it would feel like right in this moment.

Daryl drops his hand and his arm, the rag falling to his feet. He bends to grab it, suddenly embarrassed over something so normal, and ends up dropping the jug of water in his fumble as well. Since when is he clumsy? Bumbling, maybe, but not the tripping-over-your-own-feet type.

“Fucking shit—” he curses hoarsely. It does nothing to help the water spilling out all over their boots.

He sets it up right over the mat and slaps the lid back on, the rag he lifts now completely soaked through. Droplets drip from the cloth when he twists it roughly in his hands to wring it out.

Jesus’s bottom lip is stuck between his teeth when Daryl squints up at him, the corners twitching unmistakably into a fond smile. He’d huff a laugh or roll his eyes if it were anyone else, but with this guy, right now? After he’d turned into a damsel out there? Daryl feels like he can’t even cough without making himself look pitiful. It’s becoming a problem.

What right does Jesus have to make him feel this way? Like he’s a dumbass, like he’s amusing, like he’s good and worthy. What right does he have to walk around with long hair tucked behind protruding ears and a goofy grin lighting up his face every day that Daryl doesn’t roll in like a storm cloud? What right does he have to make him feel like they’re both fools stuck in something?

The jug goes flying from Daryl’s angry kick. The cap he’d fit back on pops right off when it hits the wall, allowing the water to resume flowing out around them. Jesus’s smile drops instantly, as does his gaze, and strands of sweat-dampened hair curtain around his face when his bearded chin dips to his chest. Daryl doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to care. He can’t.

So he shoves the rag, wet and balled up, at the navy vest covering Jesus’s chest, rips his hands away when leather fingertips ghost against his wrist. The start-up of groans and lazy pounding against the door goes ignored in favor of stalking around the aisles like a caged beast. Because if Daryl doesn’t at least move, then his bones might just vibrate right out of his skin.

“Daryl, I think we need to—”

“What the hell’re we gonna do now?” he demands loudly enough to drown out Jesus’s lower tone. “We’re stuck here. Surrounded. Got a couple of rounds left, at most. A half a dozen arrows. What’s your next bright idea?”

Jesus scoffs. He tosses the balled material at the wall with more force than anticipated.

“You’re the one who stormed off in here—”

“And you’re the one who told me to sit out there on my ass! You coulda took the bike and left. Already tried that with the truck—”

“Oh, fuck off! You always bring that up, but tell me this: which one of us got out of that truck to chase a stranger around a field? You and Rick could’ve driven home with all those supplies at the minor risk of one person following your trail. Which I wouldn’t have, by the way. I know how to count my losses.”

“You sayin’ I don’t? What the hell you know about losses, anyhow? Just sittin’ ‘round Hilltop, handin’ out apples to people we were s’posed to be killin’. Guiltin’ Maggie into takin’ your side—”

“I did not guilt her into that,” Jesus hisses through a clenched jaw. He takes a step closer to Daryl’s pacing figure like he’s looking for a confrontation rather than trying to dissolve one. “I talked to her and she listened. She changed her mind. People do that, sometimes. Listen and change their minds based on new facts and evolving feelings. What a strange concept that must be to you.”

“Just shut the hell up!”

He’s back in Jesus’s face now, like he’d been on the road just before the chase started. The smaller man tilts his head to look Daryl square in the eye, stupidly fearless in the midst of such volatility.

“No,” he states. “I won’t. And I know you don’t really want me to.”

“Man, you don’t know shit.”

“What about everything you’ve told me when you couldn’t sleep and you let your guard down? Because you know you can trust me, even if you still can’t come to terms with the fact that you do. What about everything your friend’s have said? I know more than you think, but understanding it? That’s a different story, Daryl. And I just—I don’t get what this thing between us is—”

He’s feet away one moment, mere steps the next, dirty fingers digging into the collar of Jesus’s coat until his fists are full of it. A continuation from earlier. Nose to nose, Daryl growls:

“There ain’t nothin’ ‘tween you and me, asshole. You best get that through your damn head.”

“I meant the hostility, Daryl,” Jesus answers, calm as can be while Daryl sweats and rages. The knowing glint in his irises kicks Daryl’s heart into a frenzy. “There’s an issue that only shows up when you find it convenient. And clearly there’s a little more than that. I’m not an idiot and I’m not naïve.”

Daryl shoves Jesus away, but instead of slipping on the pool of water beneath the soles of their boots, he merely stumbles.

“Neither am I,” he spits, shaking his head. “You call yourself Jesus, that don’t mean you really are. It don’t mean you get to run around, makin’ decisions for everybody else!”

“And you do? You get to decide what every life means? What every life deserves?”

“Yeah,” he says, though the voice inside his mind says no. The twist of Jesus’s expression from indignance to disbelief throws up his defenses. “Don’t look at me like that. I ain’t the one actin’ like I’m a fuckin’ saint! You ain’t gonna kill people who throw their gun down? You ever think ‘bout what they’ll do once they pick it back up? You took those chances ‘cause you don’t know what it’s like when they turn up wrong. Rest of us can’t afford shit like that no more.”

Every word lands its own little punch, but Jesus only closes his eyes because he’s tired of this argument, Daryl knows that much. He’s had it over and over again, with different people at different times. Rick and Jesus had been the top contenders when it came to who made Daryl want to explode. Except it was only Jesus, only Paul, that made him want to explode in a multitude of ways.

He chokes a little on his own saliva when that thought crashes to the forefront of his brain.

“That’s not true,” the other man says quietly. “It’s not. You let yourself forget what we were fighting for, Daryl, and I don’t think you’ve let yourself remember. I don’t think you will unless somebody makes you.”

“It ain’t your business.”

“It is. I made it my business.”

“Why?” The shelf to his right rattles dangerously when he shoves it, his arm catching on bottles and bags and knocking them off with a clatter. “I ain’t your friend, I ain’t nothin’ to you. Why the hell d’you care so much?”

That’s the question he’s been dying to ask since Jesus slid off Negan’s truck to aid him in escaping Sanctuary. Why would he bother? Risk his own neck for someone he didn’t know beyond a few words, someone who’d only helped make things worse for all of them? He’d given him clothes and real food, let him shower, never left his side until he was sure Daryl was back in good hands. Always went out of his way to connect with Daryl in any way he could, be it with words or nudges or probing stares that have started to border on the obscene.

And then it occurs to him that Jesus could ask the same damn thing. Why, when he’d stopped to quietly speak his guilt over Sasha and Rosita’s suicide mission, had Daryl bothered to offer comfort? Why had he let Jesus off the hook with a few choice words when he’d found out about the Hilltop’s prisoners? Why had he taken him on a hunt through the woods just last week? That had been a mistake, creeping through the bushes with Jesus at his back, listening to him whisper and breathe, the pressure of every tap and touch imprinting itself deep into his memory.

Daryl wants an answer just as much as he doesn’t want to give one in return. Luckily, Jesus seems caught off guard enough not to throw it back.

“I, uh… because I—”

“’Cause you care ‘bout everyone, right? ‘Cause you wanna save everyone? You don’t get that some people don’t deserve it, Jesus!”

“You do.”

Just like that, in an instant of instants, the tables are flipped and Daryl is the one floundering for words. It’s not the response he wanted, but it’s maybe the one he needed, and the fact that it shocks him so much is an epiphany of its own. But he can’t accept it.

Jesus is too hopeful. He sees the best in people first, ignores the worst unless it never fades. He’s seen some of what Daryl’s done, has kept him as close as he could even with that knowledge, but he doesn’t know it all.

And Daryl is torn on whether or not he wants him to. Couldn’t he be the perfect lie? Blame all his fuck ups on guilt and pain and torture, not his temper or his weaknesses or the disregard for his own life that makes the numbness disappear when it’s deep into the night and he can finally overflow on all the things he’s too afraid to get a grip on? Carol had said, once, that he had to let himself feel. It’s somehow harder now than it ever has been.

But it could be easy.

“You deserve it,” Jesus blurts when he senses Daryl’s too stunned to respond. “And I’m not trying to save you. I couldn’t do that, I can’t even save myself, I’m just—I just wanna help.”

It’s the truth, Jesus has only ever wanted that, but it’s also an excuse. There’s more to it and there’s more to them, and ignoring both of those points can only keep them swaying in circles, orbiting one another on a fast-track that would otherwise see them colliding.

Say something, dammit.

Daryl can tell Jesus to fuck off, go away, move on. He can tell him he appreciates the concern, but that he doesn’t know if anything will make him better. He can tell him that he doesn’t want something because he wants everything.

It blows him away that he could even dream of considering these things. Following a pipe-dream that only led you through little pockets of time; never a forever, if such a word could still retain its meaning.

And after all the shit he’d seen and been through, the suffering he’d witnessed his family endure? He should’ve been running the other way before Jesus ever had the desire to chase his shadow. Now, as he tentatively shuffles closer to stand beside him, Daryl’s trapped in every single way.

The anger’s drained out of his system for now, leaving exhaustion and a slight buzz that solely Jesus can bring out. He shakes his leg when a dull throb of pain thrums through. His head, all jumbled and in a mess of indecision, hurts worse.

“You should let me take a look,” Jesus murmurs, nodding towards the bandana still tied around his calf. “Get it cleaned up. There are probably some First Aid supplies around here…”

“Don’t worry ‘bout it.”

Jesus’s lips press together tightly and the corners curl, a sad smile shining in his soft gaze.

“I’m gonna worry about it,” he tells Daryl. There’s no real conviction in Jesus’s voice, but there’s also no room for argument, not when he adds: “I want to. Just let me, please.”

 


 

Daryl had followed the hippie towards the bathroom to assist in clearing out any walkers stuck inside. There’d been half a dozen shoved into the room the size of a closet, all of them piled up on each other, making the job run smoothly.

Of course, any time he worked with Jesus—be it on a scavenge or a hunt or on the inside of Alexandria’s walls, shooting the shit as often as they cleaned up debris, on the days Daryl chose not to ignore him—things tended to turn out alright.

Sure, complications arose sometimes, issues beyond the teasing and the bickering and the subtle flirting that became rather obvious and less superficial as the days went by. Daryl always refused to reciprocate, mostly because he didn’t really know how, but you’d never know that by the way Jesus smirked or tucked back his hair, like he heard the words you’re cute instead of don’t you got somethin’ better to do?

The point is that being here with Jesus means they’ve got a head start on getting out of this predicament alive.

The first step would be communication, but they haven’t spoken since the younger man tended to his wound, using soap from the cleared bathroom and water from one of the other jugs sat dustily on the shelf. He’d made Daryl take off his jeans since tearing the leg completely away wouldn’t be prudent. No fight had been put up and when Daryl mustered the courage to peek, he saw nothing but care and resolve.

That’d been an hour ago and although his pants are back on, his minor little wound wrapped carefully with gauze and secured with bandages that featured hearts and stars, everything else has stayed the same. 

They sit on the floor on opposites sides of the store, Daryl hidden in the shadows at the back and Jesus covered with slivers of gloomy light shining through the front, casting between the stumbling bodies pressed against the outside. He’s too close to the cluster, with his knees pulled up to his chest and only a wall of glass separating him from danger. Daryl thinks about calling him over, telling him to get away from there, but he can’t quite find his voice. It’s been lost somewhere inside all the tension that’s built up between them, over days and weeks and months.

It’s raining now, sheets of it coming hard and fast against the roof, splattering against the windows when the wind sweeps it eastward. The racket’s so loud that it serves to mask the sounds of imminent death still beating at the doors in futile attempts to reach the two living bodies hunkered down inside.

The temperature has seemed to drop, as well, creating a chill that settles beneath Daryl’s skin even with his vest and flannel jacket. He doesn’t know if there’s a window cracked open somewhere, turning the abandoned convenience store into even more of an icebox than it’d usually be, but he can see it bothers Jesus the most.

His duster, hat, and gloves are a good combatant for most things, unless those things are in the dead of summer, and yet the arms wrapped around the legs he’s hunched over suggests he’s feeling the cold under all those layers. He’s probably feeling a little forlorn, too.

Daryl wishes he could trick himself into believing that he didn’t know why he always reverted back to being an asshole with the other man.  

“How much longer we just gonna wait here? Don’t look like many of ‘em are movin’ on.”

“How can you tell from there?”

Jesus doesn’t even look at him while he asks that, just continues to stare at the walkers fighting to get in.

Daryl squints at the thinly-veiled sarcasm.

“Ain’t bein’ exact, smartass. You think a handful stumblin’ off is gonna do shit for us?”

“The back door could be clear, for all we know.”

“Fine.” Daryl grunts as he stands and steadies himself against the wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he spots Jesus whip his head around.

“Don’t open it!” Jesus implores when Daryl takes three steps forward.

“Wanna see, right?”

“Daryl. Sit down—”

“M’tired of sittin’ down! Those shitheads that found us on the road? That’s ‘cause they were lookin’. You think there ain’t more? Could be a group at Alexandria right now, maybe hittin’ Hilltop or Kingdom. We’ve been here for hours, man. People could be dead.”

“And we could be, too, if we just rush out like there aren’t any consequences. We need to be patient. The rain will stop, the dead will wander off, and if they don’t then we’ll figure something else out. Together, okay? You don’t have to keep pretending you’re so opposed to that concept.”

He’d been following until that last mumbled bit, the words easing over him like a blanket of calm and then vanishing in a snap. Daryl’s jaw clenches.

“What’s that s’posed to mean?”

He gets a lingering stare instead of an answer, which Daryl supposes is fair. Annoying as hell, but not unwarranted. They know the act he puts on is because he can’t yet come to terms with what’s lingering underneath.

Then Jesus blinks, tongue popping out to wet his lips, one of the many habits Daryl’s learned to recognize as a sign of nerves, and finally turns away.

A breath. A beat. Disquiet.

The splattering of the rain grows louder.

“Could try the roof,” Daryl utters. The toe of his boot scuffs the floor. “Get up there, see what we can see. Might be an opening somewhere, we can jump it.”

His idea gets Jesus shifting again, twisting to face Daryl with the light from behind fading across the distance between their positions. He doesn’t miss the glance towards his leg. Jesus thinks better of saying anything about it, however; they know he’s had worse than a little cut.

He stretches his legs out to stand and meets Daryl in the middle.

“Were you thinking the windows up there?”

Jesus points to what he’s referring to, the rectangular panels set horizontally all along the top of the big store-front ones and the chained double doors in the center. Daryl nods.

“Think we could fit?”

“I could. Probably.”

“Nuh uh. S’gotta be both of us. Together, that’s what you said.”

Daryl’s insistence produces a smile on Jesus that makes everything about him glow. It’s such a tiny thing, but it packs one of the biggest punches imaginable. It’d steal his breath if he thought of shit like that.

Daryl tries to clear the back of his throat discreetly, swallowing with slight difficulty when Jesus curls fingers around his bicep.

“This is together. Your plan, your help. Let me do my part.”

Daryl almost snorts at the subtle manipulation. Jesus doesn’t do it on purpose, it’s just the way he approaches things, easing consciences and setting tones. Always trying to do more so someone else doesn’t have to. Still, Daryl can’t say the soft approach doesn’t make him pliable.

“A’right. Gotta give you an openin’, but shootin’ the place up is gonna keep ‘em on us.”

“For now. So, let’s hope it’s worth the risk.”

“Yeah. Hope. Should wait for the rain to stop, though.”

“Sure.” Jesus chuckles as if he’s giddy at the prospect of making a plan with Daryl and carrying it out. Of just getting along. His hand is still firmly in place atop Daryl’s arm—not shaken away, maintaining that connection—and so maybe that has something to do with it, too. “I’ve got an idea of my own. Wanna help me find something to block the view? We’re like dangling carrots right now. If they can’t see us, they might be more inclined to move on. And any advantage we can get should help for when we start making noise.”

Daryl’s mouth stretches into a ghost of a smile. Jesus spots it just fine and returns a version of his own when Daryl says:

“Let’s check out that back room.”                   

 


 

They find the main source for most of the coldness inside the store room, behind a few mangled bodies and brain splatter. There’s a door with an empty opening covered over by a wooden palette, held up by duct tape and screws. Bruised fingers claw mindlessly through the slats, but a workbench pushed against the exit assures nothing can get in. For now.

Tarps are found among some tools, crates, and ropes, and are taken with a hammer and a box of nails. They bring them back to the front area and set them on top of a rickety stool.

Daryl pulls out his revolver and checks the chamber. There’s one round left and three more in his pocket that he fishes out and shoves in. He’ll need two just to shoot the glass out from the windows near the ceiling, what’s left needing to be saved for an emergency. Jesus grabs a broom and waits on standby.

The rounds crack on impact, spider-webbing out from the holes in the center. He’s given the broom, the sweeper head already unscrewed from the metal handle, and Daryl uses it to spear at the fractures until the pieces start to shatter and fall away. The force increases as the opening becomes clearer, his prodding turning into swings as he jumps and jumps and jumps to get a better hit until, eventually, all that’s left are jagged shards stuck in the broken frame.

“Saw a couple’a towels by the counter,” he says after a few quick breaths. “Can throw ‘em up there so you don’t get cut.”

As if all that leather isn’t protection enough.

Jesus must be thinking the same thing, but he’s polite enough—and maybe even flattered enough, if the raised brow and crooked little grin have anything to say—not to refuse. He jogs through the aisles to snatch up what Daryl had suggested and gets to work setting them out after jogging back. Daryl then removes the items from the stool in case they need it to get a better reach.

He shakes one tarp out with his eyes focused on the bony faces snapping their jaws inches away. The only fear he feels at the sight is the fear that Jesus will fall to his demise in his attempt to carry out Daryl’s useless plan. Torn to shreds over nothing, a life worth more than Daryl’s snuffed out before his very eyes. It’s a nightmare he’s had before with varying reactions. None of them had included something he could move on from.

He thinks to tell him not to do it, they can wait it out like he said, sit all night and all day if they have to, but then the hammer is pulled gently from his hand and Daryl’s gaze zeros back in. He’d tacked the tarp to the wall in his haze, blocking out a quarter of what little light the winter evening still allowed.

“Are you okay?”

Daryl nods dumbly. It’s like his soul’s being bared, with the way Jesus locks onto him, always one hundred percent invested.

The younger man nods back and offers a reassuring squeeze, this time to Daryl’s wrist. He strides away to hang up his own tarp, the two of them working together to tape the third against the door frame. They plunge themselves into near blackness with the rain blowing in from the new openings above, coating their hair and outerwear with a light mist.

It doesn’t take long for the air to turn so icy that even Daryl starts to curl in on himself. Pacing could warm him up, but it’s not worth the irritation in his calf or soreness of the bruises probably peppered over his body. He collapses back into his spot from before and bites at his thumb. But unlike before, when Jesus takes a seat this time, it’s right next to Daryl.

They wait for the downpour to stop. It doesn’t. And when night falls completely, he can’t take Jesus’s shivering any longer. There’s no other reason for what he’s about to do, of course there isn’t.

Daryl snuffles indignantly at his own excuse. Fuck it.

“C’mere.” He can’t very well see Jesus, but he can feel the confusion rolling off him. The duster gets a tug to give him a clue. “C’mon. Hurry up.”

Daryl’s legs fall away to create more space between them and an arm snakes around the narrow waist leaning ever closer, tugging the smaller man until he gets the hint and crawls over him.

There’s a question in the way Jesus holds his body, even as he goes pliant to make it easy for Daryl to maneuver him; a bit of tension that doesn’t release until he’s sitting in between Daryl’s thighs, back to chest, with two arms slipping beneath the coat to wrap snugly around his heaving torso.

Daryl can just about feel a heartbeat through the palm he places against Jesus’s stomach. There’s a small bit of pleasure in the way the little ninja shivers at the breath that fans the curve of his ear.

“I didn’t know you liked to cuddle,” he tries to joke. It comes out fascinated and too breathy.

“I don’t,” Daryl claims. Judging by the way Jesus relaxes against him—fingers on one hand resting near Daryl’s knee, fingers on the other curling under Daryl’s palm—he reads it as the lie it is. “Just didn’t wanna hear your teeth chatterin’ all night.”

“Oh, yeah. The practicality of sharing body heat,” Jesus plays along. “You know, I think that works better if both people are naked.”

The tease ignites flames all throughout Daryl’s system, flickering in his chest and cheeks and core. The embarrassment of the implication isn’t as satisfying as the low pitch of Jesus’s voice, but he doesn’t react the way he supposes he’s suspected to. No. Instead, Daryl buries his nose into the soft, damp hair in front of his face and inhales. He can feel the exact moment Jesus melts against him.

God, it’s nice. So, so nice. An overwhelming surge of emotion, positive and negative and everything in the middle, washes over him. His lids clamp tight like he can squeeze the sting away.

Why does he want this so badly? Why does Jesus?

You don’t have to keep pretending.

“Why’re we here?”

He needs to know. He needs to hear it—whatever it might be.

“Because some stubborn asshole decided to run out into the woods and another stubborn asshole couldn’t let him go alone?”

Daryl huffs at the practiced reply.

“Don’t gotta state the obvious.”

“Right,” Jesus sighs. “Why are we here... But not here physically, here as in metaphorically. Where we stand and all that. What’s between us, even though you said there was nothing—”

“Jesus—”

“You asked me why I care? About you, about what you do? You’re looking for answers you think you don’t already know. Because there’s not just one reason, Daryl, there’s a lot and—and it’s just as scary for me to say as it is for you to think about, but I can’t stop and I don’t…”

“Paul.”

The ramblings trail off at the whisper of his real name, stopping entirely when Daryl draws him impossibly closer, his forehead slowly leaning against the folded ribbing of his beanie. It smells like the earth, wet soil and copper; the strands just below, frizzled from the rain, like the sweetest of flowers. He can’t get enough.

They stay like that for so long that Daryl wonders if he’ll ever get an answer. When it does come, he opens himself up to listen.

“I’ve been running my whole life, and I’ve always made sure no one’s ever cared enough to chase me. I figured you’d know what that was like, and if I chased you, then… I dunno, then maybe it’d mean something. Maybe you’d stop, so I could, too.” He swivels in Daryl’s arms, their faces so close that they’re almost cross-eyed, and yet hardly able to see a thing. “If there’s a chance you don’t know how I feel, if you’re as clueless as you want me to think you are, then I’ll say it. I like you, Daryl. I like you, bad timing and bad decisions and—and everything else. And to be fair, I didn’t really try not to. That wouldn’t have done a damn thing. You were… different. I knew that right away, just like I knew you were trouble.”

“Knew you were trouble, too,” Daryl says, as quiet as can be. It’s a miracle that he can speak so calmly with Jesus’s—Paul’s—confessions bouncing around in his head. Then again, part of him had known it all along. He can’t ignore it any longer.

“One of the many things we have in common.”

“Yeah, but that’s it? You like me?”

“There has to be more?” Daryl feels his flannel bunch into frustrated fists. “Okay, how about this. Remember when we went to take the guns from Oceanside? And I told you I didn’t try hard enough to stop Sasha?” There’s a lull that’s laden with unresolved guilt and grief. “You wanted to make it seem like everything would turn out alright. You wanted to make me feel like it wasn’t my fault, when you had every right to think it was. And I stood there and looked at you and I listened, and I just thought… wow, I’m fucked. Maggie told me to try, but with you, it felt like I didn’t have to.”

Jesus losing his cool always makes him seem more real. Reachable. It makes Daryl trust him.

“And how about what I saw at Sanctuary and what you let me see after? I felt your heart under my hand when we drove away. I counted every beat. Or the day we met, when you didn’t shoot me and you didn’t leave me up in a tree, despite your instance to Rick that you would have? You know I heard you in the car. You were only saying what you’d been beaten down enough to think. You still had hope.

“Then there’s the time we got cornered; you wouldn’t speak to me, you were pissed and swore I was wrong, but you had my back anyway. You weren’t letting yourself get out of there until you were sure I did, too. We don’t leave each other, we never have and never will. And at the end, when all you wanted was to head back to Alexandria and kill Negan with your own hands... you didn’t, you chose to stay. You sat with me on that bench and told me about the people you lost, what they meant to you, why the war would never really be over. I remember thinking, all I wanted was to be the one to prove that there was still life waiting for us and that it was worth living. And that we could.”

Although neither of them have moved, Daryl swears he’s just gotten the wind knocked out of him. The jitters are starting and it’s got nothing to do with his craving for a smoke. The dryness of his mouth doesn’t stop him from licking his lips.

“That’s what you know?”

“Yeah,” Jesus practically chokes. The fists at his front release, flattened hands smoothing down Daryl’s vest. “I have for a while.”

There’s a tightening in Daryl’s chest, a swell that feels a lot like the ones he gets around Rick and Carol and Maggie and Michonne, except it’s unmistakably different. It’s heavier, more severe, connected to the butterflies flapping low in his gut that no one else can conjure inside him. What had once been a first for Daryl has become an alarming familiarity.

But he’s just heard a sentiment so sincere that he has no choice except to believe it. There’s awe and fear, disbelief and desire. There are words bubbling inside him that he’s never said before.

Through it all, his arms have never slipped from around Jesus’s waist. They only start to when the younger man scoots away.

“Do you hear that?”

It’s a strange swerve and Daryl doesn’t know how to answer. He doesn’t even know what the fuck Jesus is talking about, until he refocuses on the world outside of their shared breaths and realizes he can only hear distant moaning.

“Rain’s stopped.”

“Yeah… We should get going before it starts again.”

No. Stop. Stay. He can’t get any of these monosyllabic words out. It’s only in his mind that he holds onto Paul as he starts to move, grabs his face, makes him wait until he can say his own piece. It’s only in his dreams that they’ve crossed this ocean.

Daryl’s brain tricks his body into thinking he’s gone cold again the second Jesus leaves him. The younger man walks swiftly forward, grabbing his bag on the way to the door while Daryl lingers near the wall. He’d rushed away from him, forced him to play catch up, and it makes him wonder just how many times he’d done the same.

The realization that he’d quite possibly just missed his moment, the one he shouldn’t have ever had in the first place but still wanted desperately, has him sick.

Jesus sifts through his junk and pulls a flashlight out, clicks it on. The halo of light blurs across the shelves, across Daryl himself for an instant, before pointing to his way out.

Daryl grabs the roll of duct tape and rips off a lengthy strip with his teeth, then grabs Jesus’s arm to tape the light around his sleeve. It can move with him this way and not hinder what his hands need to grip or risk falling from his mouth.

“Thanks.” He readjusts the hat on his head and pulls his gloves farther up his wrists. “Are you helping me up?”

“Mhm.”

Daryl’s hands cup as he kneels, accepting the sole of Jesus’s boot against his steepled fingers. He hoists him when there’s pressure on his shoulders, switching his hold to flailing legs when the ninja drags himself through the gap. Daryl bites his tongue as the groaning of the walkers increases into a frenzy at the new presence, but he keeps feeding Jesus through until he can reach no higher.

“You good?”

“Yeah,” he strains, grunting while his feet stomp down on the towels. “I’ve got the ledge. I just—”

He goes quiet, which Daryl takes as a sign of him focusing his concentration on lifting his body all the way up to the roof and then hopefully over. Jesus is strong enough to do it, Daryl doesn’t doubt that, but with all the rain and the uncertainties of the terrain he’s moving blindly toward—

“Don’t slip on your ass!” Daryl shouts belatedly.

“I’m not gonna slip,” he hears Jesus call back down.

Daryl crosses his arms. The only thing he can do is stand in the darkness, alone, and wait. He’s always been bad at that.

The minutes will tick by more slowly if he counts each one, but that’s exactly what he does, stopping and restarting every few that pass so he can feel better about the solitude.

He busies himself with menial tasks; zipping up the pack so none of the overstuffed contents fall out, grabbing his crossbow and checking the remaining arrows, even going so far as to pull out his lighter so the flame can light his view of the shelves as he grabs whatever items he deems useful.

The distraction doesn’t last, however, and Daryl finds his mind wandering rapidly, circling the seeds that Paul’s little speech had sown, then watching them bloom behind his eyelids.

There are possibilities behind the facts, which are as follows: Jesus likes Daryl, has for about as long as they’ve known each other’s names. He cares for Daryl, not because he must, but because it feels right when so much in their world is wrong. He wants to follow Daryl through pain and anger and confusion just for the chance to reach something beyond that, something like comfort and happiness and love.

And oh no, oh shit, oh fuck—Daryl wants all of that, too. He wants to see those possibilities shape and form his reality. He could collapse from that revelation just as easily as he could from the panic it brings.

Paul’s sudden yell sets a fire under his ass that shoots him towards the tarps and stool.

“Jesus?” His fists bang the covered glass. He pays no mind when the door pushes back. “Jesus, hey! Answer me, ya prick!”

His gut twists so violently at the lack of response that he has to force himself not to puke.

The wobbly legs of the stool screech across the linoleum, clanks when he kicks it into place. Daryl hops on, blood pumping through his ears, and pulls up until his head stretches outside.

“Paul,” he begs. His eyes refuse to cast themselves down to the mass reaching skyward, giving in to hoping like hell everything’s okay. There aren’t any screams of pain, but if that little shit went and got himself knocked out again? “Paul, dammit—”

Boots nearly knock him in the face. The breaths coming from the other man are so labored that Daryl knows he’s stolen some of his own.

“I slipped,” Jesus grunts; sheepish, like he wasn’t just about to be the reason Daryl keeled over.

“No shit!”

His hands curve around tense calves, dart up to hook beneath bony knees, grip constricting like vices. Jesus keeps his body from swinging too much as he sticks to the ledge. The bottom of his coat flaps and dangles when it can’t rest against the legs Daryl drags into the store, so he scrunches the leather in his hand to keep it out of the dead’s range.

“I got you,” Daryl growls once he has an arm secured around Paul’s waist. “Gonna drop you down. Watch your head.”

Paul doesn’t hesitate, letting go as soon as Daryl tells him to. He braces himself against the sides of the window he swings swiftly through and then drops like a sack, landing solidly on his feet with Daryl steadying him.

When the smaller man straightens up, the light shining over Daryl’s face and then his own as he swipes hair from his forehead, those hypnotizing eyes become clear. The calm storms raging inside sweep Daryl in, once and for all.

“Before you say anything, it was just a patch of—ugh—"

Whatever he’s about to say is knocked from him when Daryl shoves Jesus hard against the wall, chests bumping and knees knocking, looming and crowding closer. The head tilt, the narrowed eyes and furrowed brows, the hands rising in placation—They do nothing but stoke the fires crackling and burning against every stitch and seam of his being, unraveling him torturously.

“Hey! Daryl, hey,” Paul pacifies, mildly disgruntling about the manhandling, but he doesn’t touch or stop him, only hovers. “I’m okay. Nothing—"

Daryl’s rough lips smother Paul’s cold ones, with teeth biting and coarse hair scraping. He can’t fathom what Paul tastes like.

It’s not really a kiss, it’s just Daryl; shaking against the hippie, trapping him between his chest and the wall, cheeks hotter than the summer he dares to miss. So, it’s not a kiss, but it’s Daryl’s own declaration, born from passion and instinct and impatience.

The gasp that this single, stilled pressure elicits from Jesus is full of strangled surprise and hummed intrigue. The sound that rips from Daryl is nothing short of a dry sob, minus the tears and snot and with no sadness for miles and miles. It’s simply an outpour of emotion that Daryl knows well enough these days not to lash out against, to just accept what he wants with a disposition enlightened by age and learning and the smaller man’s affection.

The trembling of his chin shakes Paul’s bottom lip from between his, round tipped nose sweeping down a smooth cheek to nuzzle. The intention is to bury his face in Paul’s neck and hold his breath until the other shoe drops. Jesus doesn’t give him the chance.

Leather caresses his nape and chin, head angling up by a thumb and forefinger, demanding attention Daryl doesn’t give until he’s gently prodded.

“Will you look at me?”

The smile he’s greeted with is goofy with how obvious Paul tries and fails to dampen his shimmering adoration.

“What?”

“What?” he repeats in an imitation of Daryl’s gruff utterance. “Really? You’re really gonna ask me that?”

“I dunno.”

The amusement wanes once Daryl’s uncertainty surfaces. His body is still molded to Paul’s, both hands settled stiffly on narrow hips. The coolness of the gloves gliding over Daryl’s neck to cup his jaw is reassurance.

“You kissed me,” he marvels, thumbs swiping tentatively across stubble.

“Yeah, I did.”

“Did you want to? Or was that just—”

“Wanted to.” There’s no point in lying now. Jesus had laid himself bare earlier without anything in return. Now, his weight shifting nervously, Daryl can do the same. “Have for a while.”

It’s a throwback to the words he’d been told, a tease in the vein they usually flow, an admission to the yearning he can’t convince himself to ignore.

Inches feel like miles when Paul leads them to each other, drawing Daryl down to meet him, deliberate in a way it hadn’t been before. Paul’s nose is a reddened point and slots beside Daryl’s with a careful head tilt, eyelids drooping low and mouth parting invitingly. Luring him in like a fish eager for the bait.

A fist thumps the wall above Paul’s head, Daryl’s forearm holding the weight he puts on it when he ducks farther down, lips mimicking the slackening of the plush ones he stares at. The shadow of the moon illuminates the view in a weak glow coming from the left, making Paul’s skin look pale, the flush appearing extra vibrant against the blue hue. His irises are midnight.

The decision is Daryl’s to make, the opportunity his to take. The man in front of him has walls as tough and tall as Daryl’s own, composed of different things in different ways, but they’re knocked down for him as he waits, fully vulnerable, for a yes or a no.

Every nerve sparks to life upon the first slow brush, every inhale and exhale a fog he sinks deeper into.

And then their mouths slot so perfectly together, Paul massaging Daryl’s upper lip with his tongue while Daryl rolls his bottom one in a sweet nibbling.

It’s the second kiss, though it feels like the real one; no clashing or bumping, no impulsive rushing. Just slow, heady slides that become slick and deepened with every second that spins by. His lack of experience doesn’t matter one bit in this burgeoning exploration because they’re new to each other, to the emotions spinning wildly and in tandem.

He remembers what Paul revealed once, when he was rundown and lonely and, at the height of their opposition, wanted only Daryl to hear his inner thoughts. How he’d feared he would never find something like he’d seen all around him his whole life, that he thought he’d missed his chance in the old world and was destined to walk the new one alone. How seeing Daryl’s family interact, witnessing the love that had been found in remnants and then created anew, made him want to believe again.

Here and now, it’s made him want to try. It’s made Daryl want to try.

The fist against the wall fans out when the kiss multiplies, unhurried drags turning into quick and slippery bites. He plucks the beanie from Jesus’s head and flings it somewhere behind his shoulder, winding his fingers tightly into the matted, silky hair at the crown. The moan is an unexpected reward, its quiet intensity kicking up whirlwinds that suck Daryl in.

His answering noise, a guttural purr that glides straight into the swirl of Paul’s tongue, is swallowed whole. And it does something to him that enthralls Daryl in return.

He steers Paul’s head from the wall with his handful of hair, stepping back when the toes of Paul’s boots nudge his. Daryl teeters over the smaller body magnetized to his, wiry muscles spasming under the pawing that leads him to map the dip in Paul’s arching back and the jut of sharp shoulder blades at the top.

A break for gasping breaths, gloves slipped off and stashed away, nails scraping scalps and shoulders and hips. Palms on cheeks, chests, wrists; fingertips grazing throats, slipping beneath coats, tickling abdomens and inciting hunger within. An engulfing embrace.

Paul’s head angles from one side to the other and he surges forward to steal another kiss. Their mouths slant in unison, leisurely and unyielding in pace.

Daryl’s reactions start to slow as he considers that, not only is he kissing someone like he’s done it a thousand times when he’d never done it even once, but that he’s kissing Paul, the infuriating little asshole with a big heart and sharp mind and a presence that can throw Daryl into every mood under the sun, then guide him right back to the center.

The tangle of Paul’s hair he’s got a hold on starts to loosen. He combs waves away from where they tickle their faces, peeling his eyes open so he can count every lash and laugh line, delve into the furrow between expressive brows, watch papery lids just before they flitter open to reveal an unfocused gaze devoured by blackness.

Jesus watches him with his hands cradling the side of Daryl’s neck, stroking his pulse and adam’s apple with bared skin, leaving his prints on Daryl like they belong nowhere else. And Jesus watches him with the easy, wet smacking of lips reaching their ears, seeping in and sinking down, producing heat that licks up his spine.

Departure is a natural progression and it leaves none of the coldness he’d felt before, none of the shame he thought he’d feel after.

“Wow,” Jesus exclaims.

He blinks rapidly and freezes like he’s said something he shouldn’t have, but then his swollen mouth expands into a gleaming simper and he scrubs at his beard while ducking his head, shoulders shuddering with laughter that quickly becomes audible.

Daryl doesn’t know what to make of it at first. Should he be alarmed? Should he laugh, too? It’s not really a choice because Paul’s giggling is so contagious that Daryl finds himself snorting with a chuckle he tries to hide by jamming the nail of his thumb in between his teeth.

“That bad?” he asks with a shake in his voice, the mirth garnering him a cheeky glower.

“You know it wasn’t.”

Daryl can only nod and bite the inside of his cheek when the smiles flatten. Paul’s tongue swipes out, thumb kneading a palm. Daryl hooks their index fingers together and holds on when their arms swing.

The creeping sensation of wanting to shut down is difficult to ignore, a battle waging in his brain. One side tells him that whatever just happened—whatever this is, whatever they want it to be—won’t continue beyond this building. How can it?

Daryl isn’t ignorant to how similar they are. Fucked up pasts they can’t forget, listless futures they’ll never know. The inclination to be alone rivaling the dread of being lonely. And the things that are different? Daryl’s shyness to Paul’s confidence, his agitation to Paul’s calm, the bumpy paths that drive them to conflicting ideals. They complement each other well.

But what can he do about the shit Jesus has witnessed from him? He’s seen the ruthlessness switch on and off at unpredictable intervals. He’s seen the bursts of emotion that refuse to be shut down. He’s seen the facets of Daryl that even he, himself, cannot understand. With all that he’s grown and developed into his own, thriving in a dead world as often as he falls, there’s a thread inside him that he feels he’ll tie back into knots now that Paul has snipped through.

And yet, there’s another side that says this gas station is just the start. They’d met at one, for fuck’s sake, so it was some kind of fitting that they’d transition to a stage he’d never even imagined would be an option at another. Like Rick’s law of averages or some other bullshit; a fate he can decide to believe in.

“What’re you thinking?”

He shakes his head. Not unwilling to speak, but incapable. Paul places a hand on Daryl’s elbow and squeezes.

“I can go first,” he suggests. “So, right now, this very second, I’m thinking about how that was the first New Year’s kiss I’ve had in probably, I dunno, a very long time.”

Daryl flicks his view from Paul’s chest up to the dorky smirk gracing his features. Huh? Out of all the things to say, he hadn’t been thinking of that. Then again, Jesus has never passed up an opportunity to catch Daryl unaware.

“What’re you talkin’ ‘bout? It ain’t no New Year’s.”

“It is. Or will be, in a few hours, maybe a few days. We kind of lost track with everything that’s been happening, but it’s close. A new year in a new world with a new…”

Jesus’s voice tapers off uncertainly. Neither of them knows how to finish that sentence.

“Anyway,” he steams on, throat clearing delicately. “Your turn.”

“M’thinkin’ you’re ridiculous. You gonna pull everything outta your ass?”

The cringe is exaggerated and borderline comical. Paul’s entire face scrunches adorably.

“Freudian slip?”

“You wanna talk ‘bout slippin—”

“There was a patch of ice! You didn’t let me finish before.”

“Freudian slip?” Daryl mocks. It’s not his fault those words piece together an unfairly vivid scene in his mind, a scene about finishing that makes him want to dissolve into a pile of nothing because now Paul knows he’s thinking it and ah, fuck—

The little shit is entirely too pleased with himself. But he doesn’t latch on to the opening Daryl didn’t mean to leave, he allows it to settle and disperse, darting his eyes between Daryl’s like there’s no way he could look away.

Daryl blinks first.

“Was thinkin’ we shouldn’t’ve done it, after we did,” he admits.

Paul is a master at using the face of Jesus to hide behind, but Daryl knows both sides of that coin all too well. The younger man’s control slips when the blank slate he wants to portray is marred by a twitching jaw and a hard swallow. His nod is a brace for himself.

“And what about before?”

“That I didn’t wanna stop.”

If Daryl wasn’t so far gone on this asshole already, the bittersweet curve at the corners of his mouth, coupled with the way he folds his hands into Daryl’s and laces their fingers, sure as hell would do the trick.

"Everything’s a choice, you know?” Paul asserts. “You can choose who to kill and who to save. You can choose to care for someone or push them away because it’s easier. And once we find a way out of here and make it back home, you can choose where this goes, or if it does at all. But don’t decide something based off fear or worry or because you just don’t know. Nothing you’ve said or done is gonna make me change my mind, Daryl. Nothing you say or do can. That’s the choice I’ve made.”

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but he thinks he finally can. Half of the ordeal has already been decided, after all. It’s Daryl’s turn to grow some balls and do something dangerous without the reliability of possible death coming to greet him later.

He leans his forehead against Paul’s hairline. Rain pings against the building again, a muffled melody that relaxes his posture while the long puffs of breath from the nose poking into his chin eases his weary soul.

You ever think about it? Settlin’ down?

If Abraham could see him now, if Glenn and Sasha and Hershel and Beth and all the others could. They’d laugh their asses off, wouldn’t they? And maybe, just maybe, they’d be a little bit proud about having helped him get to this point. The family he’s got left, all scattered across communities but never too far away, certainly would be.

You deserve it, Paul had said. He does, too.

“We’re gonna figure it out,” Daryl murmurs, though he knows he already has. “But we gotta wait for the rain again. You see anythin’ up there?”

“We can’t jump the crowd, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Can’t ‘cause you think so? Or can’t ‘cause you know?”

“It’s an estimation. There’d be too many risks.” Before Daryl can start grumbling about Paul’s hypocrisy when it comes to that word, the ninja cuts him off. “But I might be able to clear us a path…”

Their hands unclasp when Jesus slips past Daryl and scoops up his bag. The flashlight still tied around his arm shines directly into the mess he roots around in. Daryl moves to stand at his back, peering inside.

He can’t decide if the bundle of firecrackers is welcome or unwelcome.

“You plannin’ on robbin’ somebody else?”

“They’re a good distraction, as you know. And festive for the New Year.” Smug little asshole. “This is all I have left, so I’ve been carrying it around, thinking it might come in handy. Looks like I was right.”

“You forget you had it this whole time?”

“I didn’t wanna waste it, but I saw a sign hanging in front of the door and it got me thinking…”

“We can use some of that rope we found. String it up, set it off.”

“Exactly.” Jesus seems giddy like he had before, pleased at working with Daryl and probably even more so that this plan is sure to succeed, at least in some capacity. “If it draws enough of them away, which it will, we can leave out the door we came in. No tuck and roll required.”

Daryl’s got a suspicion that the real reason Paul doesn’t want them jumping from the roof is because he’s worried about the strain it would cause the teeny little gash on Daryl’s leg, but all he can do is roll his eyes because their latest scheme does sound preferable.

“Better get our shit ready now. Dunno how long we got ‘til it’s clear.”

“It won’t be so bad,” Jesus responds, a promise in the way his hand settles and spreads square over Daryl’s chest. It’s firm enough to guide Daryl backwards while he steps forwards.

There’s no hesitation.

 


 

Trying to stay awake takes a lot of energy, most of which he doesn’t have. The adrenaline was one thing, impatience and swerving emotions another, not to mention all the thoughts that have raced by. But it’s really Paul’s suggestion—and implementation—of how to pass the time that drains him all at once.

He’d pushed Daryl down to the floor and straddled his lap with a familiarity he shouldn’t yet have. His outer shell exuded boldness, but when Daryl had reached up, wrapping his finger with a wisp of hair that wanted to curl around Paul’s jaw, then tucking it securely away, he’d felt how hot his ear had been. And he’d felt that same warmth when stroking a knuckle over high cheekbones, too.

They’d kissed and kissed and kissed—until every sound, breath, touch, and tremble blended into an enduring stretch of bliss. Beard burn and the soothing balm of cool leather, tender nipping, coy humming. Daryl felt Paul’s thighs, the strength hidden underneath wrinkled cargos and dagger holsters; soft skin peeking from beneath the vest he rucks up, pointed hip bones, a line of puckering that’s too smooth and cuts into a trail of hair.

He couldn’t say how long they’d spent entangled like that. It could’ve been an hour, less or more, but they’d wound down after a while and Jesus had rocked away from him, propping against his side to rest his head atop Daryl’s shoulder. He hadn’t resisted the urge to burrow his face into Paul’s mess of hair, closing his eyes for a spell.

He’s sure Paul had dozed, but he’d felt at least half-awake himself. The peaceful downpour, paired with the warmth of Paul clinging to his side—shit, even the melding of pounding and gurgling from the walkers—created a comfortable atmosphere. He stirs when one of those things changes.

They need to get the hell out of here before the rooftop becomes a swimming hole.

“Jesus,” he whispers. “Jesus. Get up, man. S’time to go.”

There’s some grumbling from the other man, hmm’s and ugh’s before he sits up and shakes out his arms. A minute or two passes and then he’s fully alert, standing tall while cracking his knuckles. Daryl doesn’t need the aid of the hand offered to him, but he uses it regardless.

He starts to move towards the broken window, pausing when Paul stays put.

“You sure you wanna head back up?” Daryl asks while Jesus seems to mull something over. “I can do it—”

“No, no, it’s not that. Just… you called me Paul earlier, a few times. I think you should keep doing that.”

He enjoys the bashful cadence of Paul’s voice so much that he needs to ask:

“Why? Said your friends called you Jesus.”

“And you said we weren’t friends.”

Daryl rifles around in his pockets, bypassing a crumpled pack of Morley’s to dig out his lighter. He smudges the metal and shrugs.

“Guess I lied.”

“Obviously.”

Swapping spit kind of made the arguments before null and void.

“Never heard no one call you Paul.”

“Not many do, it’s usually if they’re uncomfortable or if the situation is serious.”

“And this is serious?”

Paul encircles himself with his coat, fighting off a shiver but not Daryl’s question. He doesn’t even look away when he says:

“I’d like it to be.”

If it’s Daryl’s turn to feel bashful at that blatant meaning, part of him does a bit, but the rest? He can meet that head-on and with a sense of conviction he so rarely feels.

“Me too.”

That’s all there is to it.

Paul moves beside him, tips up onto his toes to peck Daryl’s temple. He snatches the metal square from Daryl’s fist and fits it into his own pocket, picking up the firecrackers from where they lay on his pack, along with a short length of rope they’d fetched from the store room.

They don’t waste any more time.

Daryl hoists Paul up to the window again, standing himself up on the stool immediately after feet disappear so he can peek outside. He can make out the dead reaching for him from the moon’s light, but Paul and his tactical clothing mix into the darkness well. The cold air whips his face, bringing with it the smell of concrete and soil and rotting flesh. He spits down on a sunken head.

There aren’t any surprised shouts this go and the ninja returns after a handful of minutes, dropping down as low as he can without being caught and then swinging so Daryl can grab ahold of his ankles and get him back inside.

Pop-pop-pop-pop. Pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop.

It sounds just like it had back at the other gas station several long months prior, except louder with how closely the source dangles a few feet away and above. It reminds him of Alexandria on the day it burned, of the prison, of the camp. He stomps those thoughts away and gathers up the plastic bags he’d filled earlier. Paul zips them into his pack, the canvas so tight it looks like it could burst, but it doesn’t and he fits it onto his back without complaint, carrying all that weight so Daryl can navigate them out of here.

They’re assuming a few loud bangs will be enough to lead the geeks around to the other side, clearing the way just long enough for them to rush out and then zoom away. Crazier shit’s been done, that’s all he knows, and so they brace themselves at the back exit and pause.

Paul’s got one hand on the knob, the other clutching a knife, Daryl aiming his crossbow straight ahead. His heart rate picks up speed with the suspense and the adrenaline that kicks in prematurely, finding a balance when his gaze lands on Paul’s face and settles there.

“Paul,” he mumbles, mostly because he now knows the younger man wants and likes to hear that coming from him now. “Where you wanna go?”

“Wherever you want.”

There’s that damn smile, always driving Daryl to the brink; too sweet to bear, too beautiful to ever give up. He won’t now, not for anything.

Home, Daryl thinks.

And the minute he straddles that bike with Paul’s arms around his middle and his face hidden by Daryl’s back, he’ll know he’s already there.