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Split the Moon

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People come and go in Daryl’s life. They always have, they always will. He’d accepted that with practiced indifference in his youth, then had to learn to accept it all over again at the end of the world, only that time with a newfound courage that let himself feel.

It never gets any easier.

It’d started with his mom, way back Before. She’d taken to drinking too much and caring too little, ended up burning herself, and the only home Daryl had known at the time, straight to the ground. He’d lost her somewhere along the way—months, maybe even years, before that day—but it was only then that it’d become permanent. An immovable picture that simultaneously created space and obliterated it.

His old man came next, a surly drunk who had given Daryl nothing but grief and scars and an appreciation for nature above most all else. Then it’d been his Uncle Jess.

Merle is trickier, he supposes, as his big brother had been clomping in and out of Daryl’s tiny little orbit for as long as he could remember. Quite a bit older than Daryl as he was, there was never a shortage of better, more interesting prospects to draw him away. Friends, girls, drugs, that stupid biker gang that knew more about getting drunk than they did about the motorcycles they pretended to give a shit about. Hell, there’d even been a stint in the army, and then another stint in prison. Year after year, thrown away to anger and posturing.

He thought he’d been taken from Merle—a dingy, old band-aid ripped from a festering wound—up on that roof in Atlanta, and had forced himself to come to terms with it as quick as he could. Which consisted mostly of Daryl telling himself that Merle was still around somehow and, even if he’d never see him again, he could use his infamous attitude to protect himself until he couldn’t anymore.

He’d been wrong on all accounts.

On top of finding himself in the midst of a group full of people he would never even spit at before, learning to care for them as more than just tools for survival, he’d found good ol’ Merle, too. And when he’d lost him that next time, the final time, to the stupidest fucking thing he’d ever done but also the most noble, it’d hurt a hell of a lot worse.

Sophia. Dale. T-Dog. Lori. Andrea. Hershel. Beth. Tyreese. Denise. Abraham. Glenn. Sasha. Eric. Carl.

The list of faces and hearts Daryl had clutched onto was longer than he ever thought to dream, and yet they’d quickly become nightmares. He can count on almost two hands alone the amount of people still alive and kicking that he would give anything and everything for. It’s luck or a blessing or whatever the hell else that they haven’t gotten down to some kind of “Final Ten."

 


 

Rick’s always in and out of Alexandria, setting things in motion and then disappearing for unset bouts of time right after. He’s living with a gaping hole that would scab over with time, but never properly heal, never fade away enough to even leave a scar. Michonne rarely strays far from him, but she’s as determined as ever not to fall in on herself again, choosing to pour most of her focus into keeping her katana sharp and raising Judith with the knowledge that Carl’s spirit lives on in a multitude of ways, within everyone who’d known him.

Aaron took up a similar course—for the latter half, at least. Gracie’s behind Alexandria’s walls now, living with her new guardian inside one of the few houses that had since been rebuilt, albeit on a much smaller scale. He’d taken to what he was still reluctant to call fatherhood with enough zeal to represent Eric’s memory and make him proud. Daryl doesn’t know if they’d ever wanted kids Before. He never asks.

Tara helps out with whatever she can, be it scavenging or babysitting, and often dragging Rosita along with her, giving her little excuses to smile more and more as the days trickled on. The girls had seemed to fold Father Gabriel into their mix, too; creating an odd trio that offered hilarity, assurance, and comfort to one another, most likely in that exact order.

Carol didn’t visit often. Then again, she never really knew where Daryl would be at any given moment, so he couldn’t fault her for that. He still jumps around too much for even his own liking, bouncing between the rebuilding of Alexandria and the relaxing structure of Hilltop, making a detour to Oceanside every now and again while steering clear of Dwight and Sanctuary.

Kingdom hadn’t been hit too bad during the war and the community was more or less back to full bustle by the end of the year, but there isn’t really anything there that feels welcoming to him. He prefers meeting Carol at her safehouse down the road, if they ever get the chance, or back over on the front porches in Alexandria where things could feel like old times, great or otherwise.

But she has a life with Ezekiel now, looking after a boy as stubborn as she is because kids are her strength as often as they are her weakness. She doesn’t know where Morgan had run off to, hadn’t seen him since they’d dealt the finishing blow to the Saviors, but her confidence that he was alright made Daryl believe it.

Out of everyone, he sees Maggie most frequently, running Hilltop with the skill of a General and the love of a mother, with Enid never far from her side. Her boy, Hershel Jr, has Glenn’s looks and Beth’s excitable nature, and Daryl feels a twinge every time he holds him, but he can’t bring himself to stay away.

And then—and then—there’s Paul. Jesus. The guy who’d burrowed himself beneath Daryl’s skin the day he’d crashed into their lives and hadn’t bothered, hadn’t had the courtesy, to leave.

The worst part is that Daryl had already come to terms with the fact that he didn’t want Paul to leave, not even at the start, and now he has to come to terms with the fact of why.

Why he doesn’t want Paul to be next in the long line of people who come and go, why he cherishes the moments they work side-by-side, why thoughts of the scout pop into his mind at the worst of times throughout his days and linger long into his nights, restarting at the crack of dawn like there couldn’t possibly be anything more interesting than Paul Rovia’s blue-green eyes and hippie-long hair.

It pisses him the hell off.

 


 

Abraham had once asked him if he’d ever thought about settling down. It’d been a bad time to ask such a stupid question, but that didn’t stop it from striking a chord.

Of course he’d never thought about it. Why should he? Daryl wasn’t a family man like Rick or a starry-eyed teenager like Beth. He didn’t take a chance on love like Glenn and Maggie, didn’t feel comfortable enough with himself to consider anything close to what Aaron and Eric had, didn’t take a chance on flirting the way Tara did because, frankly, he couldn’t give two shits about some goddamn romance.

And Abraham, stuck between Rosita and Sasha, trying to decide if he should follow his heart or his gut, had maybe gotten more of an answer out of Daryl’s ambiguity than he probably should have.

He’d shared that with Carol, for a while. That desire to be alone, to focus on surviving and protecting others because that’s all they knew they were good at. But then she’d found someone, too—a man who proclaimed himself a King and led an army that looked more like a theater troupe at first glance, a man who had once had a tiger and now had a Queen. Daryl didn’t know what to make of it, what to make of Carol, anymore. If she was still faking it to make it, if she’d let herself fall in love, if she’d ever understand Daryl again.

Ezekiel wasn’t a bad guy and he knew that. If he hadn’t seen it firsthand in the fight against Negan, he would’ve taken Paul’s word for it. But it made him feel well and truly alone, left with rumbling thoughts that circled the rim of his consciousness like a broken toy train; useless, but still interesting enough to push around the track when all other options failed.

And it’s in those empty moments, when he’s sprawled out in a corner of Rick’s rickety house that’s half the size it used to be, or sitting atop the picnic table just outside the door of Paul’s trailer, always on the outside looking in, that Abraham’s wistfulness haunts him most.

Because, in all honesty, he had thought about it, wildly, intrusively, the second his eyes met Paul’s in the middle of the staircase. It’d been a feeling—pooling deep in his gut, squeezing high in his chest, swarming his racing mind—more than an explicit idea. He still can’t suss it out entirely, but he’s at least fairly certain it can’t be traced back to their first meeting, when all Paul had been was a smug little thief who seemed highly amused by Daryl pointing a gun to his face. Although… perhaps, at this point, he’s been driven crazy enough to reconsider that possibility. He can’t discount the notion when he has nothing to compare it to.

So, if thinking I’m gonna shoot this guy right alongside shit like how the stranger’s eyes looked like the prettiest summer sky, but somehow shined like the clearest night’s stars, constituted as infatuation at first sight, then Daryl’s been fucked all along.

And now more than ever, with all his roaming and hand-wringing and discontent, he thinks about settling down. Picking a place and making it home. Holding a position more permanent than occasional hunter, scavenger, and drifter. Having Paul at his side or back or front, anywhere near him, and choosing to stay.

It’s merely a fantasy, but it’s the only one he dares to have.

 


 

“Daryl!”

He shouldn’t grow tense at the calling of his name and he shouldn’t perk up like a damn dog at the sound of that specific voice. He shouldn’t be surprised, either. Paul always seeks him out, though rarely when Daryl really wants him to.

There are times he thinks he’s ready to have a normal conversation with the other man rather than bumbling through one with a swollen tongue and deceptively uninterested grunts. There are times he thinks he’ll be able to return the casual touches Paul gifts him with; the pats on his back and passing squeezes to his biceps, brushing of fingertips when trading an object and the nudging of elbows to emphasize teasing.

There are times he thinks the embarrassment of rejection would be worth it just to know if Daryl’s dragging a thread that Paul won’t ever grab ahold of.

But then there are times, like these, that Daryl questions why he’s masochistic enough to keep returning to Hilltop when the only thing that ever changes is how big his heart grows with every moment he sees, hears, or spends fleeting seconds with Paul. He’s like the fucking Grinch or some shit. He’d nearly choked on his tongue the day Paul tossed a book by Dr. Suess at his head, as if he somehow knew and was making a joke out of it. In reality, he’d only been mocking Daryl’s insistence that he didn’t read anything unless it had pictures.

Somehow, probably a week later, he’d changed that by getting Daryl hooked on Vonnegut.

“What?” Daryl grits out finally.

Paul’s made it all the way from the other side of Hilltop, where he’d been showing a cluster of kids several easy defensive maneuvers, over to the table Daryl’s using as a chair, in the span it took for him to respond. He hesitates, big eyes narrowing as they flit over Daryl’s expression, but he then ultimately closes the rest of the distance by perching himself on the edge of the wobbly bench. Their combined weight makes it solid. Steady.

His hands clasp carefully in his lap, drawing Daryl’s attention downward. The usually pale knuckles and fingers have a tint to them, same as the forearms that are visible with the way the sleeves of his button-down are pushed up to the elbows, indicating a continuous disuse of those bizarre leather gloves.

They’re in the dead of spring, which Daryl has learned is Paul’s favorite season, so it makes sense that he’d keep his skin bared to feel the soft petals of blooming flowers, the leafy tops of harvested carrots, the wood and metal and wire of scrap they’ve been hoarding since the beginning of winter. The shedding of those layers is a manifestation of his mindset, as well; a show of Paul finding his groove within the sprawling branches of all the joined communities. He walks lighter, smiles brighter, engages more frequently and asserts his voice to Maggie as more than just her right hand.

Daryl looks away abruptly when his muscles twitch with the impulse to do something moronic, like reaching over to feel the softness of Paul’s fingertips. It’s an urge he has to dampen by picking at the threads that barely cover his scraped knees.

The last time it’d happened, approximately twenty-three days ago, is still a constant niggle at the back of his mind. He can’t pretend it isn’t one of the reasons that contributed to him coming back so soon after making such a fool of himself.

 


 

His whistle cut through the air, calling Paul’s attention immediately forward just as Daryl glanced back. The hippie had been lagging behind, gazing around at everything like he’d never seen a damn forest before. His slow pace was purposeful; a reason to torment him, most likely. Paul liked to do that sort of thing.

“Hey, Bambi. You gonna keep starin’ at every damn leaf we pass or you wanna get a move on?”

With a quirk of an unruly brow, he’d managed to be both quizzical and amused.

“It’s not the trees I’m looking at,” he’d said, and then his mouth had spread into a secretive grin, with a hint of reserve just beneath the surface.

Daryl’s already narrow eyes narrowed further, but he didn’t speak, fearful of what might fly out.

There’d always been a balance with him, an ability to hold his tongue when need be, especially when it yearned so strongly to lash out against the likes of Merle or his daddy or the assholes who liked to pick fights because Daryl wouldn’t roll over or kneel for them. The downside was that the bottle he shoved these emotions into always exploded in the end, leaving shards of common sense to lay broken at his feet.

But when it came to Paul, things were different. There was no bottle, there was a shot glass, small enough to hold a few drops of complicated emotion but nothing more.

It made his thoughts sporadic, his body didn’t know how to behave, and it took all of Daryl’s effort just to make sure he didn’t say or do something that could ruin the tentative friendship they’d been building since riding out of Sanctuary together on the back of his bike.

The staring was one thing. It’d been a staple in their relationship since the second Paul had tilted his in head half-masked glee, eyes calling for Daryl’s notice from over the top of his drawn gun. But the poking and prodding of the emotional and mental variety? That had been a more recent development. It bore such a striking resemblance to flirting, Daryl couldn’t chalk it up to anything else, no matter how hard he tried.

It complicated things.

He’d always had a hard time showing affection, though he craved it like oxygen. Wasn’t born mean or cruel, but could adopt those qualities easier than most. Add in the old habit of letting feelings fester instead of flow, coupled with his tendency to fall back into that “lone wolf” routine he’d never wanted in the first place, and Daryl could be called a walking contradiction.

He didn’t want Paul to flirt with him, toy with him, push him into finding more reasons to yearn for him—more reasons to tell him it would never work.

And yet, he craved it, preened under the attention he’d normally try to wave away. Something as simple as a coy smile or whispered words, both meant only for him, never failed to make him flush a little under the collar.

“If I’m Bambi, then you’re Thumper,” Paul said, voice suddenly coming from his left. Having been so wound up in his thoughts, he hadn’t noticed he’d been caught up with. “And that makes this whole trip a little morbid, considering what we’re hunting.”

“What I’m huntin’,” Daryl corrected. He’d thrown a sideways glance in Paul’s direction to catch his curiosity. “You’re just screwin’ ‘round.”

“You’d know it if that were the case.”

Daryl’s legs carried him faster.

He didn’t know what had possessed him, making him think this could have been a good idea. His boots hadn’t touched the dirt outside Alexandria’s repaired walls for a whole week, a new record for him, and so he’d been on the verge of jumping out of his skin when Paul arrived, a knight in dusty armor. He’d been holding a basket of strawberries and a seven-page letter addressed to Rick from Maggie, an update on Hilltop’s happenings as much as a plea to see him visit. Other than that, Paul hadn’t had any concrete reason to stay.

Daryl gave him one—after for two hours of hiding inside one of the three garages that remained functional, of course.

The suggested run wasn’t crucial, nor was it anything fancy, but Paul’s excitement was immediate. The two shared an enjoyment of the world outside their hard-won havens whenever the opportunity arose; the adventure sang to Paul the way fresh air and shifting scenery sang to Daryl.

They made a good team, for this reason and many others, and had gotten used to working together once the whole ordeal with Hilltop’s Savior prisoners had been taken care of.

With Michonne down by the pond with Judith and Tara, they’d let their trip be known, deciding together that they shouldn’t be gone any longer than two days. The ugly Buick wagon Paul rode through the gate with rolled back out not long after it first rode in.

West was their direction for a while, the drive having passed quickly with the help of quiet music and not quite one-sided chatter. A town called Warrenton ended up being their first stop and they’d spent the entirety of their afternoon searching the plaza for whatever they could use during the upcoming summer and then the winter that would follow. Then, they'd buckled in for the night.  The extended backseat proved comfortable enough for Paul and tempting enough for Daryl, though his resolve was strong enough to resist the younger man’s wheedling.

The rise of the sun signaled the rise of their bodies, both ready to start a new day. And it did feel very much like one, with Daryl’s spirits considerably higher than they had been the previous morning, the ride with Paul and the success orfthe scavenge giving him a sense of relaxation and contentment.

Paul chatted away beside him, jumping topics rapidly with shining eyes, smile growing wider with every answer Daryl supplied unguarded. Daryl’s head had jerked to the side when he’d felt fingers stretch around his bicep, the ability to swallow suddenly having escaped him as Paul leaned in close.

But all he’d done was point to the side of the road, to a hiking trail hidden in the brush. It didn’t take much convincing on the scout’s part to get Daryl to agree to a pitstop. The idea of spending time in the wild, just the two of them, just Paul and Daryl, had been naturally appealing—

Until it wasn’t.

Paul’s chatter kept up, only at a slower speed, his voice pitched lower so as not to scare the creatures out of their homes, which meant he had to stand so close to Daryl that their knuckles brushed on every other step. And when the tone switched to that familiar teasing inflection, Daryl’s ears felt as if they’d been burnt directly by the sun.

That’s when he’d proposed a hunt, leaving Paul in the dust while he chased a doe they’d spotted far up the winding path. His nerves, which manifested as irritation, had grown every second he felt those big eyes linger on him.

And now Paul was beside him again, popping his mouth off like the shit he said didn’t weave itself into the cracks of Daryl’s heart and then create even more.

“It’s beautiful out here,” Paul said. The sky narrowly showed through the leaves and branches, with beams of sunlight shining over dewy grass and mossy logs, glinting off the gravel path as they went. “I used to find places like this, little trails that led to hidden gems no one really cared to see. I’d veer off until I could hear myself think. It was just something I really needed. Something I still need.”

Daryl had shifted the crossbow at his back and glanced down that the ground, lip rolling between his teeth. His hair protected his contemplative expression from Paul’s prying eyes as he tried to think of what he should say. He wanted to ask what Paul still needed to think about, all the way out here with Daryl an inch away, but the syllables stuck deep in his throat and refused to release.

Paul sighed softly.

“What about you?” he asked.

“Told you I lived in the mountains. Didn’t go on no hikes for fun.”

“You could’ve still enjoyed it.”

“Guess I did,” he’d shrugged. “S’better when I was by myself. Merle talked too much.”

The look he sent Paul had been pointed, but the younger man’s eyes only crinkled with mirth.

“Lucky I’m not Merle then, right?”

Paul’s chuckle when Daryl shoved him was airy and deeply sincere. It was infectious.

But the answering smile was cut short with a wave of his hand upon seeing the deer from before. It left the beaten path, hopping over jagged rocks and uplifted roots. The two shared a look before they’d let the tracks take them deeper into the woodland.

The terrain got worse the longer they strayed. Daryl felt the sweat gathering beneath his thin shirt and leather vest, pooling on the planes of his back, sticking to his bare arms, and he could see it beading at Paul’s hairline. The younger man hadn’t brought his duster or beanie, but his usual blue vest stuck to his torso tightly by a belt, a sheath with a dagger inside snapped to the right. A similar one stuck around the thigh of his burgundy cargo pants by way of a thigh holster.

Only a slight breeze could get through the foliage where they were, just enough to cool heated skin and rustle the billowed sleeves of the scout’s undershirt. Daryl swiped hair from his eyes and brought his crossbow forward in preparation.

The sound of cracking twigs caused them to freeze and step closer to one another, assuring nothing could attack them from behind. But all that stumbled out from behind a large boulder were a handful of walkers, all still dressed for their travels in gear that’d gone ragged by three years’ worth of exposure to death and the earth’s elements. The packs on their backs, far bulkier than the one Paul had been carrying, looked interesting.

They only needed to share a nod to understand how to work together for this type of situation. Paul immediately began a distraction, drawing three away to the left while Daryl circled right. He saw a staggering kick just before he fired his first arrow, briefly glimpsing a jab while loading another arrow into place. The second walker turned towards him, stumbling over his friend’s corpse, and Daryl shot him between the eyes.

For his part, Paul dodged bony claws, twisted into another kick and then turned back around to slam a deformed face into a wide tree trunk. Daryl strode over when Paul flipped his dagger out into the open, hopping up to gain air to slam his blade into the top of a skull. Daryl used his own knife to end the geek who’d struggled to get back to its feet.

Paul settled like a cat once he hit the ground again. He combed hair from his face and inhaled deeply, sloped nose scrunching when decomposition mingled with the clean air. Rather than looking over Daryl’s handiwork, he’d decided to study the man himself.

The calm he showed outwardly quickly vanished under the intensity which Paul’s eyes flitted over him with, categorizing every little detail. Probably looking for injuries.

“You good?”

“I’m good. But I could’ve handled that.”

Daryl snorted. He knew that, of course. Paul was strong and determined, skilled beyond what any of them truly knew. But he was also human, flawed, and part of Daryl’s family. His protective streak ran strong for all of them, but flared up particularly when the younger man was around.

But he couldn’t say any of that shit. He couldn’t be so obvious.

He sniffed indignantly, said, “Maybe. Was takin’ you long ‘nough as is.”

“Oh, was it?” His infuriating smirk riled Daryl effortlessly. “That’s easy to say when all you do is stand and shoot, isn’t it?”

“Sure, if you know how.” He shook the crossbow to make his point, which was to remind Paul of the last time they’d gone out together, when he’d let the scout give the bow a go and witnessed failure after failure. He was good with a gun, but somehow shit with an arrow.

Paul rolled his shoulders.

“It takes practice. You’ll have to show me again.”

The concept of having to get behind him, getting to feel his chest press against Paul’s back, his hands adjusting Paul’s arms, faces so close that the tip of his nose would skim Paul’s cheekbone if he turned just so…

He’d had to shake those thoughts away immediately, just in case Paul could read them on his face. His attention turned to the backpack hanging half off a disjointed arm, but even as he lifted it to rummage through, Paul having done the same a few feet away, he continued speaking.

“Do you remember the day we met?” he asked as if Daryl could forget. “You chased me around a field.”

“And?”

“And you didn’t catch me.”

Daryl fiddled with the contents he'd found—first aid kit, canteen, rope, clean windbreaker—and grunted.

“And how long ago was that? Don’t change the fact you’re slow now.”

Paul dropped the bag from his search onto the dirt, taking only a flashlight and a pack of batteries from its depths, then moving to the next one. Daryl did the same, dragging the full pack along with him.

“We could put it to a test, you know. Leave Bambi’s mom alone for a while.”

“I aint racin’ you, ya prick.”

The hum he got in reply didn’t tell him a lot, except that he should be suspicious. He watched Paul through the hair hanging in front of his face, toying with the zips while the scout added a tarp and multi-tool to his fare.

After a while, Daryl stood and met Paul in the center of the wobbly circle of bodies they’d laid out. He took his items and stuffed them inside with the others, then said:

“Turn ‘round.”

Paul had done so without question, slipping his arms through the straps that Daryl pulled wide for him. He’d waited patiently for Daryl to check all the compartments and tighten the buckles. If he’d lingered longer than necessary, nobody was around to know.

“So…” Paul trailed. “Are you ready?”

Daryl had a chance to see those irises—looking more green than blue in their bushy, shaded surroundings—sparkle with mischief for a few ticks, and then man known as Jesus took off at full speed.

“Hey! I ain’t—”

But he didn’t bother finishing his half-hearted refusal, his body sprung forward in reflexive reaction instead.

They ducked under low-hanging branches, side-stepped boulders and vaulted over logs. Daryl tripped up several times, lungs burning with exertion, but he wouldn’t give up the chase. He’d never liked shirking a challenge, and Paul’s face, reddened by effort and laughter, spurred him forward.

He couldn’t hear anything outside of his own labored breathing and pounding heartbeat, with the occasional snap of a twig of thump of a foot. Then, the distant white noise of what had to be a waterfall came into play.

His steps began to slow, body hunching in on itself, though he didn’t skid to a stop—Not until they’d cut sharply to the right, snaking through a tight cluster of trees and then breaking into a clearing that housed a wide stream. The splashing and roaring of the waterfall was loudest there.

“Jesus!”

His shout couldn’t be heard above the bubbling downpour.

The sun was still high in the sky, beating down on their heads hotly with no shade to hide them. The backpack on the smaller man’s back slapped against him with every lunge, and then Paul—

Well, Paul leaped.

His booted foot landed on one slippery stone a quarter of the way into the stream, knee having bent to spring him back up and off immediately to land on a second rock with the opposite foot. Daryl watched with heaving breaths, hand shielding his eyes from the bright light, and chewed his lip in anxiousness. But Paul did it over and over, crossing the stream in a balancing act, not a care in the world. He could’ve slipped, the current carrying him down far below, leading him to smack his head on something larger or even impale himself on something sharp.

But he didn’t. He’d made it to the other side without a scratch, then turned to Daryl with a beaming smile and his hands held up high. He looked about ready to keel over, though.

“Still think—you can—catch—me?” Paul heaved.

Daryl huffed.

“Nah, but if you think I’m comin’ over there than you’re dumber than you are crazy.”

“Oh, co—come on. It really wasn’t th—that hard.”

“Mhm. You done?”

“I guess I ha—have to be.”

The bag slipped from his shoulders, landing with a thud in the grass. Daryl thought Paul would drop, too, but he’d stayed standing, focused on his breathing until he could talk normally, though they both still needed to shout.

“You kept up. If you put your mind to it, you can do a lot of things you think you can’t.”

“Never said I couldn’t,” Daryl called back. He couldn’t quite put his finger on why, but it’d felt like Paul’s remark meant a little more than what they’d been talking about.

“Then what about this? What’s stopping you now?”

“M’not gonna do your ninja bullshit.”

“Well, we should stick together. I’m here, you’re there. The divide isn’t that big, but—"

“Tired yourself out?”

Daryl smirked at the revelation, but it fell quickly when Paul raised his arms above his head, the loose sleeves going taut across flexed muscle. He looked away.

Paul could’ve hurt himself if he were to try that stunt again. Nothing bad had happened so far, but how could he risk it?  He kicked a clump of dirt into the stream and said fuck it.

“If I die, I ain’t comin’ back as a walker, I’m comin’ back as a ghost and m’gonna haunt your ass.”

“You believe in ghosts?”

Of course Paul would’ve latched onto that, of all things.

“Just shut up, a’right?”

With the crossbow fixed snuggly over his shoulder, he wiped his sweaty palms across his jeans and inhaled deeply. It was on the exhale that he jumped.

Both feet landed on the first stone. The impact offset his balance, had him teetering with the weight. The second stone he nearly overshot, but the third, fourth, and fifth were sturdy enough.

“That’s great,” Paul encouraged, smooth and calm. “I’ll pull you across once you’re close enough, okay?”

Daryl sent him a nod and continued to hop. The edge of the stream where Paul stood came closer and closer, the hand outstretched to him as good as a beacon. He’d landed on another and reached—

“Daryl!”

The rock had jerked beneath him, forcing his ankle to land wrong with a mild jolt of pain. Their fingertips slid together and then apart, but Paul flung out both hands to grip onto Daryl’s arm. He tried to catch his footing, to no avail.

“I got you, Daryl, just put your leg—”

The rock slipped out of place from where it’d been lodged in the stream and with it went Daryl, tumbling backwards as he made to shove Paul forwards. The little shit wouldn’t let go; hung on tighter, in fact, and so over they’d gone, the strength of the cascade driving them down.

“Fuck!”

Had it been Paul who’d said that? Daryl? Perhaps both. It was the only thing they would’ve had time to say, anyway.

Wherever they were headed, he couldn’t see. That didn’t stop him from trying to act. Yanking Paul to his chest was an attempt to maneuver their bodies so Daryl’s back would break water first. The smaller man just managed to cradle Daryl’s head and neck before they became submerged.

The splash hit him at every angle, in every crevice, deafening him with a ringing in his ears that rivaled the noise of the fall’s, which turned muffled and sluggish beneath the surface. The disorientation had felt like a sharp sting, but once he’d sensed Paul beginning to kick and squirm against his front, he shook it off enough to do the same.

They were gasping and coughing when their heads bobbed up for air, arms and legs having flailed as the rundown tried to carry them off.

Daryl had had enough presence of mind to fight against it by grabbing onto the rough cliffside and paddling to lean against it, bumping Paul along. It’d been a relatively safe space, though the spray from the rush kept hitting Daryl’s face, making him blink repeatedly behind the heavy curtain of his soaked hair.

He breathed and breathed; choked, then breathed some more, not noticing at first that his system began to sync with Paul’s, finding a calmness within each other that they could feed off of.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Well, he thought so. The adrenaline made him shaky enough not to know quite then. “You? You okay?”

“Yeah. Probably because of you, which I should say thanks for, so… thank you. But please, don’t ever do that again. Don’t put yourself in danger for me like that.”

“Sayin’ you wouldn’t do the same?”

“Of course I would, but just—”

“Then you’re welcome.”

It hadn’t been what Paul wanted to hear, Daryl knew that by the flat set of his mouth, but the softness in his eyes—blue now, so very blue, clearer than crystal—told a different story. He was appreciative, he was amazed, he was…

Daryl couldn’t read that swirl of emotion.

The scout made to wipe strands of hair off his forward and shove them back where they’d stay momentarily, as soaked as they were. He’d plucked more to tuck behind his ears, making them appear even more prominent than usual.

Daryl blinked and then, suddenly, Paul did the same to him. Combed through his hair. Gently. Sweetly. Droplets of water clung to his lashes and caught in his beard, shimmering like tiny dewdrops.

The ache in Daryl’s chest had a copycat way low in his gut.

“I should’ve known you had those wings on your back for a reason.”

“Says the guy who calls himself Jesus.”

The quirk of Paul’s mouth drew Daryl’s eye, brought attention upon the plush, cracked lips, and the trickle of water the tip of his tongue peeked out to lick away.

“Unfortunately, I can’t walk on water.”

“Can you turn it into wine? Could use a drink after all that shit.”

The laugh returned, a loud cackle, wheezy and snorty and the freshest breath of air Daryl could’ve breathed. It was funny, it was beautiful, and the way it contorted Paul’s softly sharp features had Daryl all but gaping like a fish.

“I can’t do that either, but I’ve still got some of Gregory’s stash. Maybe… maybe when we head back to Hilltop, you can stick around and we… Shit—”

Paul’s fingers dug into Daryl’s vest with a white-knuckled grip without warning, cutting himself off. He’d hauled him to the side, creating waves in the water, then dove them both forward to cut through the blurred screen of water. Daryl’s groan, elicited by his back hitting an uneven wall, was joined by Paul’s hiss of pain.

The rock, the one that slid under Daryl’s weight, had finally broken the rest of the way off its perch, landing right where Daryl had previously been standing, then disappearing completely.

“Jesus,” Daryl growled.

“What?”

“Not you, Paul, fuck.”

He’d never uttered that name out loud up until that point. The scout’s eyes widened in shock, his head tilted as if trying to understand. A wince shattered whatever he might’ve thought to say.

“Where’re you hurt?”

“Ugh. My arm, I think? It’s nothing—”

“Hush up.”

Blood was easy to see once he pulled Paul’s arm out into the open. The shirt had been torn by the jagged edge of stone, the cut beneath it bleeding steadily, but not too badly. The pad of Daryl’s thumb ghosted over the scrape tenderly.

“You got a rag?” he asked as he worked his out of the back pocket of his jeans.

It was rung out to make it easier to tie with the one Paul produced, then wrapped around the wound tightly, a hum of strange energy coursing through the extended touch. It’d be the best they could do while trying to climb all the way up to the top again, where the pack of supplies luckily still rested. He wanted to say that, state the plan. His tongue had another idea.

“Thanks,” he murmured. “S’was your dumb idea in the first place, but…”

“I’ll admit I might’ve been a little hasty, it’s easy to get carried away when you’re involved, but you didn’t have to chase me.”

“Didn’t want you gettin’ lost.”

Paul laughed at Daryl’s lame excuse. A hand rested upon his forearm as they kept afloat, so Daryl set one of his against a narrow hip.

“Well, now we’re both lost. Together. Which isn’t such a bad outcome. I’ve… actually thought about something like this before, just not with so much clothing.”

He’d opened his mouth to speak again, to joke or question, but then the suggestive words smacked him upside the head his mouth snapped shut. The change in Paul’s demeanor was obvious; the reasons behind it weren’t.

He was closer than he had to be, pressed against the whole front of Daryl’s body as if they’d been created that way, and with their clothes soaked through, hugging every inch of their form tightly, like there wasn’t anything at all between their skin, Daryl had begun to feel his resolve crumbling away.

What had been stopping him from laying it all on the line? What had been making him feel like he needed to wonder for the rest of his life whether or not he deserved at least a chance to get over it? Paul didn’t feel what he felt, Daryl knew that already. The guy was kind and compassionate, strong and sensible, brilliant and funny—and even if he did flirt, even if he did make Daryl feel like he was special in a way that others weren’t, the only option would be rejection. If not from Paul, then from Daryl himself.

He could see it, then; the younger man being up for one night, maybe two or three, because they had a bond that was meaningful and easy, and there was a sliver of attraction that Paul was bold enough to let him read, but still nothing that could bloom into a lasting relationship. Which is… what Daryl wanted, he’d realized with terrifying clarity.

He didn’t want aimless flirting, he didn’t want to just fuck and forget. He wanted to kiss Paul—who, to Daryl’s lovelorn imagination, looked for all the world like he wanted the same—and know that it would lead somehow past the inevitable dead end.

The idea of standing his ground rather than tucking tail to run started to circle and descend upon his shoulders. Another shift of Paul’s expression gave him pause.

The heat of embarrassment that should’ve come was replaced by the heat of anger.

“Man, why d’you think that’s funny?”

“I don’t—”

“Sayin’ all this shit like it’s a joke. Lyin’ like it’s a game.”

“Wait, lying? What am I lying about?”

“You ever gonna quit pretendin’?”

Daryl tried to push Paul, wanting to be anywhere but where he currently was, but only succeeded in nearly knocking them back under. Paul pinned Daryl to the bumpy structure at his back before he could rub the water out of his eyes.

“Get the hell—”

“No,” he defied. “What’re you talking about?”

Daryl didn’t know. His mind was such a bungled mess, his emotions even more so, that the easiest thing to do was nothing. The little make-believe notion of Daryl telling Paul everything—that he wanted things he shouldn’t, wanted things he’d never wanted before, wanted all of it with him—crashed into his own battered shield and burned.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t… I shouldn’t have said what I did, but—"

“Yeah, and how many other people’re you sayin’ that shit to, huh?”

Incredulity oozed from Paul’s scoff and glare. He pressed his arm against Daryl’s chest, barring him, and Daryl’s fingers dug into his flesh.

“No one. Would you be jealous if I did?”

“Fuck off.”

“I don’t get you. I don’t get this. We’re fine one minute, and then the next you’re just—”

Daryl cut him off with gravel in his throat.

“Quit, if it ain’t fun for you no more. Don’t know why you’re still botherin’.”

“Because I want to,” Paul blurted. He’d said it with such conviction that Daryl could only stare, swallow down his hurt and his pride, and listen. The waterfall’s roar sounded far too distant for how close it had been. “Why do you bother, Daryl? What do you want?”

The perfect opening.

Daryl had already chosen to close it.

“Wanna go home.”

“And where’s that, exactly?”

Fucking asshole.

Daryl turned his head to the side, letting his grip fall from Paul’s arm, disconnecting on every level he could without being able to storm off. There’d been a patch of wildflowers in the mud near the rise of a steep slope, small and wilted and vibrant. He’d stared for so long that Paul could do nothing but slowly wade away.

“I’ll find a way up,” he’d sighed.

And it was only when he got far enough away, had pulled himself up the ledge to pass those wildflowers, that Daryl took a breath and dunked himself below the pure, white spray.

 


 

"I didn’t hear the bike,” Paul says, so quiet that it almost sweeps away with the wind.

It brings Daryl back to the present and makes him wonder why the scout deemed that important enough for him to know. Had he been listening for that specific rev, waiting for him to come back around so he could finally get to the bottom of their unprecedented spat? Daryl’s surprised he hadn’t shown up at Alexandria; then again, he was smart enough to know not to poke an angry bear. A sleeping one, sure, but not one as wounded as he was.

Right now, he just wants to push it aside like it’d been nothing more than a bad day.

“Didn’t bring it,” Daryl finally answers. He stops picking at the hole in his jeans and starts scraping at the chipping wood beneath where he sits. “Had a load. Took the Festiva.”

It’s instinct to look at Paul, check his reaction. Sure enough, he’s smiling amusedly and bites down on it when Daryl’s eyes meet his. It’s the first time they’ve really looked at each other in almost a month. He’s missed it. He’s missed Paul.

“Did Rick saddle you with that one?”

Daryl rolls his eyes.

“Was Tara. Thinks it’s funny.” Daryl scratches at the stubble on his chin, squints out at Hilltop’s bustling yard like it’ll present him with answers while he idly speaks. “You wanna drive it? We’ll find a lake. You can push this one in, too.”

Paul huffs, though not without humor.

“That was half your fault.”

“It weren’t.”

“It was. And you’ve got other things to be mad about, apparently.”

He shrugs. The air is still uneasy, but there are clear paths ahead, good ones and and bad ones and those that don’t make much difference.

“I ain’t mad.” It’s a whisper he doesn’t try to stop, especially not once it lures Paul closer. His knees point towards Daryl’s openly, the thumb of one hand kneading the palm of another. His face is probably patient and earnest, so Daryl doesn’t look up. “Just got tired of bein’ messed with.”

“You usually play along. I didn’t think—”

“Things change, man.”

He wants to leave it there, keep it vague, kick up enough space to settle in the dust between them, then move on. Daryl’s always been good at pushing people away and he can do that here, but the thing is… Paul’s just as good at pushing back. He can’t decide if that’s what he’s hoping for or not.

“I’m sorry,” Paul says, a repeat of the sentiment from almost a month ago. Different—less wet, less frazzled—but the same. His next words are deeper in tone and meaning. “You’ve been gone a while. I mean, you’ve been gone for longer periods, before, but this time it felt like I wouldn’t see you again. Which I thought was irrational at first, but then you remember the world you’re in and what could happen in the span of an hour. I didn’t wanna wake up one day and have to hear that something had happened to you or…”

The younger man lets his thought linger, either because he doesn’t know what else to say or because he wants Daryl to understand them. And he does—or, more likely, he hears what he wants; that Paul had been worried, that he’d thought of Daryl, that he, of all people, couldn’t find a way to express his feelings.

Daryl snorts to himself and ducks his head. He’ll be as red as a tomato if he doesn’t stop with these wistful thoughts. He’d learned a lot from Beth, but he damn well didn’t want to turn into her.

“Yeah, well,” he says lamely. “M’here now.”

“And I’m glad.”

Against his better judgement, Daryl turns his head to regard Paul, to drink in his big eyes, framed by thick lashes and unruly brows, peering up at him all soft and tender; his upturned nose and wide nostrils; his firm mouth, held flat so as not to give anything away, and the thick hair grown out neatly below it.

There’s a scrape on Paul’s cheek that he hadn’t remembered seeing last time, held together by butterfly tape, and it makes Daryl think of the bigger one on the side of Paul’s arm.

He gestures to it with his chin.

“How is it?”

“Oh, uh, it’s fine. Wasn’t that deep, and Carson knows what he’s doing.”

Daryl nods, knowing that firsthand.

“Brought a couple’a things for him, nothin’ special. Was in the stuff I gave to Maggie.”

“Which was what? More baby clothes?” Paul guesses.

And he’s right, of course; it’s the only haul Daryl’s been consistent with lately. There are too many kids now, with all of their communities connected as allies, and they deserve better than useless scraps.

Aaron just about teared up any time Gracie so much as cooed, Michonne had taken to carrying Judith around with her everywhere, and Hershel Jr toddled after Maggie like every step was a new adventure. Then there were the little ones at Kingdom who’d lost their mothers and fathers in the war, the girls at Oceanside who’d been left to grow up too fast, the offspring of the workers from Sanctuary who needed a fighting chance. Carol had joked about Daryl being the Santa Clause of the New World, but he supposed she wasn’t too far off.

“And toys. Some music shit Enid’s been askin’ for, too.”

He hesitates, biting off a piece of loose skin from his bottom lip. There’s something in his pocket, tucked away next to a crumpled pack of Morley’s, waiting to be handed off like he’d always intended. Daryl doesn’t know why he brought it along, now is not the time or the place to be giving gifts to someone you’re on shaky ground with, but it sits as a reminder. Easy access to making Paul smile.

His fingers touch the intricate surface as the scout begins to say: “Hey, I was—”

“Jesus!”

They both immediately turn towards Enid’s voice, squinting in the sunlight and through hair that the breeze blows across their faces.

The teen’s got her long mane pulled back into a low ponytail, the fronts of her jeans covered in mud, flannel patched and flowy. She pulls a faded little wagon that bumps along the grass as she strides towards them with a bright smile. In the left hand, Daryl can see she’s holding one of the Vinyl’s he’d packed at the bottom of the box.

Her eyes bounce to Paul, then Daryl, then back to Paul with uncertainty, though her smile never droops.

“Hey, sorry to interrupt, but Maggie said I should let you know we’ve got the stuff for Ezekiel ready… in case you still wanted to go today?”

“Yeah, that’s fine. I can head out now.”

“Okay, I’ll tell her you’re leaving, but I could go with you, y’know? It’s not too late.”

“I know,” Paul assures, “but this is what I’m good at. And the roads are as safe as they’re gonna be. It’s fine.”

Paul brushes against Daryl’s side when he moves to slide off the bench. Enid drops the wagon’s padded handle into his grip. She shakes the Vinyl’s colorful sleeve at Daryl to earn his attention.

“And thanks for this. It was my dad’s favorite.”

She scampers off once Daryl nods, disappearing back into Barrington after a few minutes. Paul shifts through the crates idly. Waiting without subtlety.

Daryl can’t hold his tongue.

“You really goin' alone?”

“Not if you’re coming with me.”

The cocked brow and tilted head represent a question that the words don’t hold, the black pools of his pupils just another trap to fall into.

But Daryl can’t let Paul just go out by himself, can he? All the way to the Kingdom? He might get hurt or lost or meet people who are worse than two assholes who couldn’t keep hold of their truck, never mind that the scout’s done it a million times before and can take better care of himself than most can even hope.

“A’right. Don’t got nothin’ better to do.”

And seeing Carol is hardly ever a bad idea. Maybe he’ll be able to talk to her, get some advice. She’ll know something’s off the second she sees him, so there’s no use in trying to hide. If he hears the forget it, move on from her lips, then he’ll have to believe her. He’ll have to obey.

“Do you want me to drive?” Paul asks, a hint of a smirk at the corner of his lips. “So you’re not embarrassed.”

“Yeah. Whatever.”

“Good. Because otherwise, I would’ve taken this for nothing.”

Suddenly his hands are up near his head, fingers closed into a fist excluding the index, which twirls a silver ring that holds a single key—the one to the Festiva.

That little ninja bastard.

“Just go,” Daryl grunts, grabbing for the wagon.

As soon as Paul turns around, he slams the dirty sole of his boot into the seat of the scout’s khakis, leaving a dusty imprint on his ass. The younger man cackles warmly. It all feels almost normal again.

 


 

The ride to the Kingdom is never too long when traversing from Hilltop. The main roads were cleared of hidden Saviors and roaming walkers these days, with only a handful of the latter clamoring from the woods to stumble into a cloud of exhaust.

They made good time with Paul’s excessively bumpy shortcut, despite the awkward silences they’d kept lapsing into making it feel like the wheels of the car would keep spinning forever. But then the lot came into view and they’d parked the car amongst the few runner vehicles left in the open, walking the remaining quarter of a mile it took to get to the front entrance with their arms full of boxes and without armed guards to aid them along. The Kingdom was short on those now that the war was over, but well-fortified enough on the inside to make up for the lapse.

And then, waiting to greet them on the other side when the gates creaked open, were Ezekiel’s jolly guard, Jerry, and the rare sight of Carol’s smiling face. Her hug was fierce and the handshake she’d given Paul, both hands cupping his, was warm and friendly, making the scout’s shoulders relax considerably.

It hadn’t taken long for Jerry to grab at least half the haul from Daryl’s arms before sweeping Paul, who held the other half, towards one of the many bustling buildings. The younger man had gone without protest, winking while Daryl stayed put beside Carol, the toe of his boot scuffing over cement.

He’d surveyed the foreign community for the first time in a long time and found it… flourishing. That’s the only way he could describe it. The crops were lush, the buildings were busy, the little extras—like the soldiers’ memorial, training field, and art center—were as neat as could be. The distinct smell of charcoal and barbecued meat permeated the air, twisting his stomach with a growl.

But Carol hadn’t offered him food right away. No, she’d pulled him over towards one of the garden boxes instead, immediately putting him to work in helping her harvest the last of the peas. He knew her well enough to understand that she was dangling the food over his head like the proverbial, and perhaps literal, carrot.

The undersides of his too-short nails were compacted with dirt by the time she stood up, back to the sun, and set a gloved hand on her hip as she stared down at him.

“So,” she’d stated plainly, “what’s the problem?”

“Ain’t no problem—”

“You’re tense. You’ve looked over the whole yard at least five times, probably trying to see if Jesus is anywhere to be found—”

“What—”

“And you don’t visit, not here, unless something’s wrong. So… is it Rick? Maggie? Something to do with Alexandria?”

“Nah. None of that.”

Her arms fall away, left to swing at her sides. Her mouth thins out and then puckers.

“It’s Jesus.”

He can’t imagine what kind of look he sends her, only that it must hold some type of wonder about how she could guess so quickly. The look she sends back, that squint around her eyes, says he’s unbearably obvious.

Daryl watches a worm wiggle through the soil so he doesn’t have to meet her probing gaze.

“What did he do?”

A laugh almost shakes from his chest.

“What he’s always doin’. S’not his fault.”

“Then why are you so miserable?”

He’s not, not really. But it’s a word close enough in description of the dull throbbing in chest that all he can do is shrug with one shoulder and smear dirt over his forehead when he rubs at his hair.

Carol sighs, long-suffering but knowing, like always when it came to unraveling mysteries of one Daryl Dixon.

She kneels in the box beside him and whispers: “Pookie.” It seems a little condescending, but not enough to get him bristling. “If you came here to ask me something, ask me. And if you didn’t, then be prepared to listen. Which is it gonna be?”

Daryl mulls over his options.

She knows why he’s here, so that saves him the bullet-sweating trouble of explicitly explaining his predicament out loud. The downside is that, if he doesn’t, then it’ll be Carol controlling the conversation and he doesn’t know if he can stomach that kind of digging right now. He’s too tired and raw.

Daryl plops his ass onto the edge of the garden box’s ledge and crosses his arms tightly over his chest. He says the one thing he thinks will give him some type of resolution.

“Tell me it’s dumb.”

Carol follows suit in crossing her arms once she hears the plea that’s masked as an order. Her resilience looms over his hunched form as tall and far as her shadow does.

“What?”

“This whole thing.”

“You have to say it, Daryl. I can’t read your mind,” she retorts wryly.

His lip curls in disgust while his heart shoots up to his throat.

“Fine, dammit. Paul. Somethin’ with him. Wouldn’t work. Won’t. So, tell me, then maybe I can… can just forget—”

“Is that what you want? To pretend everything will go to shit so you don’t have to try? You know that’s not how this works.”

“Then how does it work?” Daryl pushes up to his feet, arms unfolding to rest stiffly at his waist, thick fingers turning into thicker fists. He’s starting to feel like a caged animal again and Carol knows it, too. “I ain’t you. I don’t get all this.”

His hand flaps clumsily at the whole of this so-called Kingdom; the horses that stand peacefully near their makeshift stables, the kids paging through books beneath the gazebo, the couples on the balconies still clad in their armor as they take a moment to share a jug of something that they pass back and forth in a stolen moment of serenity.

The picturesque environment would be something for Daryl to scoff at if he hadn’t known the hell these people had gone through to keep it just so, if hadn’t wished the same scene for his family at Alexandria and the Hilltop.

“I don’t get all this, either,” Carol corrects. “What I get is Ezekiel. Not the King, not Your Majesty—that’s what he is to them because that’s what they need him to be. But all I need is for him to be himself, and that’s what he was from the start. Sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it? What you needed at first, then what you wanted.”

The observation is apt and something he wants to ignore. She won’t let him.

“You could have it, Daryl. You have to let yourself have it. We’ve lost a lot and we’re gonna keep losing a lot, but there comes a day when you figure out that the risk is worth it. It took a lot of people to make me realize that. You, Rick, Morgan, Maggie. Ezekiel.” A hint of a smile touches her features, makes them soft and light. “He helped me understand I didn’t have to go it alone, and then he helped me understand that I didn’t want to. He saw through me, I saw through him. We both saw something worth staying for.

“So forget about what you think you deserve because you’ll never know how much that really is. We can’t decide what we’re worth to someone else, what we mean to someone else. We can’t take that choice from them, we just have to make our own. You have to.”

She smooths a hand over his hair when she finishes, helps him calm when he begins to shift uncomfortably. It’s a lot to think on, most of which he’d wished to get away from instead of dive deeper into, but it’s a wake-up call of sorts that he can’t escape. Maybe the only thing left to do is confront it.

His mind becomes occupied with that prospect, leaving only half of his attention open as a kid—Henry, he thinks he remembers—pops up beside Carol and starts chatting away. She says no several times, though each one sounds more amused than the last. Daryl tunes into the conversation when he hears Jesus get mentioned.

“He said he doesn’t really know how to help with the stuff Morgan was teaching me, but he could show me some really cool moves!”

“And what did Ezekiel say about that?” Carol wonders. She lifts the bucket of peas they’d collected and thrusts them into Henry’s hands as he bounces on his heels.

“He said only after dinner, and Jesus said to ask Daryl!”

“So? Ask him.”

The young boy opens his mouth to do just that, eyes positioned steadily on Daryl’s, but he doesn’t have to say anything.

“Yeah, tell ‘im we’ll stick around ‘til then.” He jerks his head towards Carol and adds jokingly, “Been standin’ here, starvin’, just so she can hear some gossip.”

Henry beams.

“Food’s ready now, so come on! Let’s go!”

The kid races away with the basket pressed into his arms, weaving around groups that walk leisurely to their destinations. Carol pats Daryl’s arm and follows Henry’s trail, leaving Daryl a ways behind to do the same.

 


 

Paul tried to give Daryl space during dinner.

He sat beside him, but kept his hands and feet to himself, and when he drew Daryl into the various conversations that had occurred around the table, he never made him the center of any. The staring was ever present, but Paul hadn’t been the biggest culprit of that this time around.

And after he’d finished eating and allowed himself to be dragged away by Henry to practice all kinds of unnecessary ninja moves, Daryl still hadn’t come to terms with what to do.

Forgetting about his feelings seemed less likely now that Carol had put all sorts of honeyed ideas into his head, inflating his wishes with hope and pragmatism. She wouldn’t encourage him to act if she thought he’d only achieve failure. He curses himself for not asking why, though. Did she see something in Paul that made her think there was a chance?

Damn her for taking so much joy in the horror of his pitiful pining.

The sky has darkened by the time he’d licked his fingers clean of butter and grease. He leaves the cafeteria with a bottle of juice, setting off on a long walk around the inner perimeter, his skin prickling slightly with the shifting temperature and thoughts running rampant with every step.

People address him like he’s an old friend. They offer him treats, tell him about burgeoning plans, ask him about Jesus the same way someone might as Michonne about Rick. He accepts what they have because he’s grown too soft to decline, listens with only minimal twitching, and answers those presumptuous inquiries like he has the right to.

The gift in his pocket, a folding knife far fancier than any should be, feels monumental all of a sudden.

As Daryl ends up back at the spot where he’d first started, he takes a breath and leans back against the tall fence, giving his eyes the rest that his brain refuses.

He’s been beaten, berated, and starved; shot at multiple times, forced to watch the people he’s cared about meet brutal ends, left to drown in loneliness and hatred—for himself as well as others. He’s endured, again and again; so why is telling Paul, someone he trusts and admires, who makes him laugh and love and live with a contentedness that had been so elusive before, as scary as any of the other one hundred things he’s lived through?

It shouldn’t be. It doesn’t have to.

Daryl’s eyes open and settle on the sight of Paul some several feet away, instructing Henry with precise movements and a gentle smile. He must feel someone watching because he looks over after a while and offers a tentative wave. Daryl doesn’t hesitate in returning it, which makes Paul smile so wide he has to bite down on his lip to temper it, looking to the ground with his fingers brushing back the strands of hair that drop over his shoulder.

His gaze turns predatory, tracking Paul’s movements like he would with hunted prey. And yet Paul is anything but as he checks on Daryl with his own wolfish interest.

It could be a trick of his overactive imagination, fueled by recent revelations and estimations. Or… it could be real. It could be Paul that’s waiting to strike, playing mild until there’s no doubt that Daryl’s over the hissy fit he’d thrown beneath the waterfall. He could’ve meant what he said—hell, Daryl thinks he probably did, but how long would wanting to get him naked last?

The only way to find out is to try. Grow a pair of balls, as Merle would say, and find out; though Daryl doubts Merle would say that about this. It makes him want to laugh, but he chokes it down when the unmistakable boom of Ezekiel’s greeting reaches him.

“Friend Daryl!” His cheerful tone is matched wholeheartedly by Jerry’s smile, half-heartedly by Carol’s simper. “I trust our feast was to your liking.”

“Mhm. Thanks.”

“Think nothing of it. The Kingdom is a luxury for all its friends. And Jesus—” Ezekiel turns, the feather in his dreads shimmying, red against gray. His loud voice rises. “Jesus! Join us! Allow us a moment’s chat while young Henry finishes his studies. He’s got much to do before retiring for the night.”

No one can miss the authority in his tone, guiding the boy with such care that he doesn’t bother arguing. Henry simply hangs his head, then laughs loudly at something Paul whispers to him. He scampers off one way while Paul jogs the other, straight towards Daryl with raised brows.

“Your Majesty.”

Daryl bites his thumb.

“We hadn’t the time to speak earlier, but I wanted to thank you both for delivering us these wares. I have such praise written here,” he says while brandishing a neatly sealed envelope, “to be given to Maggie and the Hilltop upon your return come the morn. For now, we shall prepare a room—”

“Should head out tonight,” Daryl interjects. He’s got no fucking clue why. And from the way Paul peeks at him, he doesn’t either.

“Are you sure?” Carol digs.

The scout’s got his back without batting an eyelash.

“Yeah, Daryl’s probably right. Maggie’s been keeping us all busy, so it’s better if we get back as soon as we can.”

“As you wish,” Ezekiel concedes. He hands his letter to Paul. Jerry ambles forward.

“Safe travels, dudes,” the big man wishes, and then suddenly he’s shoving a large aluminum container into Daryl’s arms.

It smells good, at least, and he can feel a little warmth seeping through to his hands. Paul leans in close to get a look beneath the plastic wrap, bearded chin practically resting against Daryl’s arm.

The cherry cobbler they spy within is scarcely enough of a distraction to keep him from moving his head just enough to press his nose into Paul’s sweat-dampened hair. As close as they currently are, he can catch a lingering whiff of citrusy shampoo beneath the day’s grime.

“Come here.” Carol steps forward to pull Daryl into a hug, careful not to smash the dessert against his stomach. She squeezes her arms around his shoulders tightly and says, “Meet in a week? Halfway.”

“Kay.”

Paul stiffens in surprise when Carol turns to him next, but he reacts quickly by patting her on the back.

When she says, “Stay safe,” he takes it as an order and replies, “We will.”

After Ezekiel clasps their hands in his own goodbye, they find themselves outside the fence, strolling through the late afternoon with pollen tickling their noses. The subdued buzzing of the bees that zip by unburdened is almost unfamiliar; a sign of changing times, if he bought into that kind of junk the way Paul probably does, and of new opportunities.

The few clouds that remain in the sky, alight with the last of the sun’s rays, seem to spell out impending rain.

Daryl shrugs his shoulders to himself. The weightlessness of the feeling is also strange. He’d carried his crossbow practically every second of every day back during the war that leaving it behind now, in a car or a house or thrown in the grass somewhere as he chased Judith or Hershel or Paul, felt wrong.

It also felt freeing.

He was born to fight, made to fight, but the rare times where he didn’t need to fight were the times he could simply rest, unwind, and reflect.

“Still don’t like the Kingdom?”

“S’alright. Miss the tiger.”

Paul chuckles. He doesn’t try to hide the way he steps just a little bit closer.

“We all do. But… is there a reason you wanted to leave so quickly? You don’t have to tell me, I don’t really have any major guesses, I just figured you’d want to spend some more time with Carol. You didn’t have to come with me if you didn’t want to.”

“I know, but I did. Wanna.” He sniffs awkwardly, cobbler nearly spilling out the container when he squeezes it. “Weren’t just for Carol.”

“Was it for the free food?” Paul jokes.

Daryl scoffs good-naturedly. Emboldened by his new mindset, however, and perhaps even the approaching nightfall, he sets his gaze towards the side of the younger man’s face as they continue onward and doesn’t look away, not until Paul gets a read on him. And whatever it is that he’d just chosen to convey, it’s enough to get the other man chewing his lip nervously.

“Just wanted to get out,” is the final answer he gives, though it’s unnecessary. “You still got the key?” When Paul produces the object from his pocket, Daryl adds: “Good, ‘cause you’re drivin’. Again.”

“Fine by me. So, Hilltop?”

The hopeful tinge to his tone tightens the knots in Daryl’s stomach.

“Hilltop.”

They reach the car slower than they’d left it, but don’t lag on peeling out of the lot. They won’t be driving for hours on end and not much rushes into the road without them knowing. The Festiva’s lights are dull, though, and it’s a basic rule not to be out in the open when you can’t see your own hands.

There are still workers out there that might want revenge, Savior’s that scuttled off like rats when things didn’t land on their side of the finish line. Hoards were harder to spot under the cover of night, their relentless groaning blending in with the obscene chirping of crickets that always ended up right near the walls, wherever Daryl went.

Instead of keeping on that train of thought, he zeroes in on the food set atop his lap, feeling secure enough with Paul at the wheel to ignore everything else. He’s not really hungry, it’s just his sweet tooth acting up, and before he knows it he’s shoveling handfuls of cherry cobbler into his mouth.

It’s gooey and sweet and he doesn’t care that he’s acting like a starved dog, but he does care that Paul hasn’t gotten any when realizes it’s already half gone.

Scooping a chunk of it into his hand, Daryl reaches out in a silent offering, still trying to chomp on his own mouthful when Paul gives him the stink-eye.

“Don’t—”

He can’t finish his sentence because he, too, has a mouth full of crumbly goodness, forced upon him with a snorting laugh that grows into a strangled guffaw when chunks fall to his thighs. Tilting his head back helps—until he coughs out a cherry, which lands in his beard.

And then Paul’s laughing and trying to chew what he isn’t choking on, and Daryl reaches over to pluck the smashed cherry away from his face, which really only serves to smear more sticky juice into the coarse hair adorning his chin. The scout grabs Daryl’s hand as if to push it away, but he does the opposite and holds on while merely dropping the loose grip down between their legs.

It ceases his laughter, but not his grin or the butterflies awakening to swarm low in his gut. He lets his fingers be held by Paul’s and tries not to let the breaths flying quickly from his nostrils become too heavy. His thumb twitches in a desperate bid to caress bony knuckles, but he's able to resist the draw. Doing too much, too fast, won’t help him any until he’s sure he has all his cards to reveal. If that’s what he’s doing.

Dammit.

“You’re either trying to choke me or trying to crash the car. The question is, which one of us do you hate the most?”

“Stop,” he snorts. “Still need the car to get home.”

“Ass.”

“Prick.”

The banter is undercut by two things: Paul’s fingers tracing the rough pads of Daryl’s, as if holding hands is as natural as can be, as if it's something they do often despite the fact that they never have before; and the way the word home had fallen from his tongue. He’s been saying it a lot recently, yet has no setting in mind when he does, no place in his heart that jumps out when he thinks of settling for more than a few nights. It makes him remember the confrontation from weeks ago, how he’d puffed up over a stupid comment that hit a sore nerve, then tried to brush it off.

Wanna go home.

And where’s that, exactly?

Paul had seen through him. Not all the way, just enough to know that something wasn’t right.

But with the younger man at his side, here and now, smiling all tender and giddy, a pink hue colored high on his cheeks in the glare of the headlights—Daryl wonders if he shouldn’t be looking for a place, but rather a person, and that maybe… maybe he shouldn’t be looking at all.

Because he’d found him long ago.

“Paul—” he starts impulsively, no clear direction on what might come next.

He doesn't get to find out.

BOOM. The unexpected sound rocks their bodies in an instant, reverberating through the frame. An awful screech fills every bit of space in and around their heads as the car starts to swerve. Their hands break apart, Paul’s to gain a semblance of control over the situation and Daryl’s to brace against the roof, body tensing, what’s left of the cobbler spilling out onto his shoes and the floorboard.

Paul moves against the wheel in an attempt to straighten the curve they’ve been forced into. The Festiva darts off the road, shaking with the change in terrain, but the scout’s steady grip keeps them relatively straight and thanks to the natural slowdown without a foot on the gas or break, they don’t get anywhere near crashing into the tree-line.

It takes Daryl longer than the actual almost-accident to realize that something must’ve gone wrong with a tire. His back hits the seat in a daze, chest deflating. Paul turns to look at him the same time Daryl turns to look at Paul.

“Shit.”

“Yeah. Shit.”

The smaller man’s head lolls against the rest, eyes falling shut for about seven seconds, just long enough to gulp down one calming breath. He cuts the ignition and reaches for the handle to exit the car before Daryl can blink. He gets with the program quick enough.

Their doors creak open together, groaning when they stagger shut. Boots sink into mud and their senses are assaulted by the scent of smoke and burnt rubber. It takes only a cursory glance to see that the what’s left of the tire is limp and shredded, and they’d be trying to drive on the rim if they wanted to get anywhere else with it.

Paul’s sigh is audible.

“Do we have a spare?”

Daryl can’t help thinking back to the day they met, when he and Rick had snuck up on the little thief as he changed a tire. He slaps the hood and huffs.

“For this piece of shit? Nah. I’d say this is a sign.”

“Oh, would you?” His voice quakes with laughter. “You believe in those now?”

“If it means we get to leave this junker behind.”

“So you’re a car snob, too.”

“Hey, you wanna try not crashin’ that thing all the way back to your place, be my guest. Probably get there faster walkin’ than we would scrapin’ cross the road, anyhow.”

Daryl twists at the hip, squinting out at the expanse they’d already passed, though the dark makes it hard to parse. He’s not sure how far from the Kingdom they are, if it’d be beneficial to head back or just keep going for Hilltop. If he hadn’t spent most of the ride goofing off, maybe he’d know.

Paul’s hands raise in surrender, maybe placation. He looks up at the sky. The moon’s a sliver way up high, with a glow so slight that it barely illuminates all the storm clouds that have rolled in.

“What should we do? Stick to the woods? I promise I won’t run off this time.”

“You know any shortcuts?”

“Not around here, which is why we best get going. Don’t wanna end up caught in a storm,” Paul explains as he opens one of the back doors to search around beneath the seats, looking for a bag.

All the communities had taken to packing however many vehicles they could with basic essentials, once they’d split up Sanctuary’s stolen goods. No one wanted to get stuck out in the open like they were right now.

“Yeah,” Daryl grunts. He sifts around in his vest pockets, bypassing the knife to grab his cigarettes and a matchbox. “Don’t need you gettin’ sick.”

Daryl lights up, inhaling a ring of smoke, and Paul laughs. Their eyes lock as he pulls the bag to his side and hands over his crossbow.

“I was thinking more so that any thunder wouldn’t lead the dead our way, but thanks for the concern.”

“Just don’t wanna stick ‘round longer than I gotta,” Daryl retorts.

He regrets it immediately, but Paul’s rising brow tells him there’s nothing to worry about. He’s good at taking most everything in stride, getting offended only when the tone is purposefully nasty. Daryl's only rarely is.

“We both know you’d move into Barrington if Maggie asked,” the younger man teases, “which is why she hasn’t. You shouldn’t do anything because of guilt or obligation.”

“Then what’s your excuse?”

The cigarette nearly falls from his lips when he bites his tongue.

There he goes again, saying stupid shit. 

Paul frowns as Daryl crosses towards the forest, walking beside the trunks and branches, not going straight through.

“You mean, why haven’t I asked you to stay?” the younger man asks while rushing to catch up. “I assumed if it were coming from me, you’d say no. Was I wrong?”

“Maybe.”

“Really?” Paul’s incredulity draws Daryl’s eyes briefly, until he forces himself to look away from the contradictory lines—both soft and sharp, sweet and steely—that create his favorite face. “If I asked you, right now, to move in with me, you’d say yes and not fuck off?”

The reflexive double-take has him tripping over a clump of dirt.

“With you?”

“Well… you like my trailer, I like having you in my trailer, and you don’t belong anywhere else.”

“Man, you don’t—”

“And neither do I.”

The assumption-slash-admission makes Daryl pause, but the way Paul clutches the bag like a lifeline is what really keeps him quiet. He doesn’t want to argue and he doesn’t want to shut Paul out again, make a problem where there is none because he’s too frustrated with himself to be honest with everyone else.

“Can’t just leave ‘em,” he says quietly, thinking of Rick and Michonne and Judith, Tara and Aaron and Rosita. They need him. Or... maybe he needs them, to hide behind and seek comfort in, to go to when he's otherwise lost. 

Without unloading all his baggage onto, what he said is the most honest response he can give.

And he feels hot shame crawl up his spine when his next thought is ‘but I want to.' The intrusive thought crumbles only he pokes it away; his wary heart that won’t forget the craving.

“I know.” Paul's smile seems sad. “But the offer’s always open, if you change your mind.”

“Said I can’t, not that I didn’t—”

He struggles with how to say that he doesn’t need to change his mind because, if he had it his way, he would go. He’d integrate himself fully into Hilltop if he could, stay with him if he knew all the people he cares about back at Alexandria would be okay, but he doesn’t and so he can’t; he just continues walking while blowing smoke from the corner of his mouth, a little voice in the back of his mind trying to tell him that he can do what Carol did and it’d all turn out okay.

It couldn’t be that simple.

Daryl begins to press the burning tip into his thumb when the hankering to take another drag wanes, but before the searing pain kicks in, he finds his arm yanked away. Held immovable in a hard grip. They’ve stopped walking just as rain starts to splatter the thick leaves above, sending little drops to splash against their heads and shoulders.

Paul frowns, angry like he’d been the one about to get burned. With the hand that’s not digging into Daryl’s arm, he reaches to pull the cigarette away, leaning into Daryl’s chest in order to stub the ashes out against the bark of a tree trunk. He doesn’t make a smartass comment or preach about how Daryl shouldn’t do such things. It was an instinctual attempt, perhaps Paul knew, though he didn’t say anything about that either.

But his lips parted, hair around his face frizzing from increasing wetness, and the brows that had been furrowed are relaxed once more, the eyes below going lidded when they drop to the lower half of Daryl’s face.

He feels like he did under that waterfall—the roaring in his ears coming from inside his rib cage this time, with an overwhelming urge to just kiss Paul, like he’s some kind of expert and knows exactly how rearing its head.

They’re both frozen.

His body won’t act on the suggestive whispers that cloud his judgement, and he doubts he can will Paul to do so in his place just from a few slow blinks, even if he wishes he could. The drizzle increases to a downpour, spreading through cloth and slicking down hair, but it’s not enough to distract Daryl from realizing that Paul’s leaned close enough for him to feel the perfect tip of the smaller man’s nose graze against his cheek. The puffs of breath that warm his chin are too controlled to be natural.

Yet, it’s the rough scrape of his palm against bark when he pats behind himself blindly, searching for something to help him keep upright, that proves this is real, that if he craned his neck down just an inch—

Thunder strikes through his bones the way lightning might, shocks him into darting away. His face is pelted with fat beads of water when he tilts it towards the sky, barely able to see the moon through the wetness blurring his vision.

“We could wait it out in the car,” Paul suggests.

But Daryl’s nerves are frayed the same they were before, spelling out trouble. He shakes his head, slipping into the woods for some level of coverage while simultaneously stowing away his cowardice.

“Don’t wanna lose time,” is his excuse.

He’s had better ones.

“Why? Maggie probably thinks we’re safe and sound back at the Kingdom, she’s not expecting us, so what difference does it make—”

“C’mon!”

The hurried response is enough to get Paul after him, probably glaring at Daryl’s back all the way. He’d deserve it, if that were the case; he’d deserve a kick in the ass even more. Because creeping one step forward and then rushing five steps back isn’t any way to live, especially when you don’t even know how long you’ll be around for. It’s not how he wants this whole thing to go down, either, but he’s too much of a clueless asshole to get it right.

He should’ve stayed where he was, waited it out, let Paul make the choice he keeps avoiding because he’s too afraid the outcome won’t be enough.

Going back to the car would be the smart thing, Daryl can admit that to himself as the water dribbling down his skin cools his heated system. Staying still would only serve to make him antsy, whereas every shaky step he takes farther into the moss-laden woods is a stretch to his lungs, feeding his brain the oxygen Paul had stolen just by being so close.

His thoughts lead him to 'this was a huge mistake,' however, when the sky grows angry enough to shake the earth not far from their feet with bolts of lightning. The sudden stinging of hail pelting their bodies from between the branches has him attempting to correct course.

Paul grabs his hand in the confusion of darkness and, instead of yanking him to what Daryl would perceive as backwards, to where they left the car, he veers them off into a direction Daryl knows nothing of, except that it’s west. He wishes he’d spent more time wandering the landscape around Hilltop rather than getting stuck in geek-infested swamps at the tail end of the war. But he trusts Paul and if anyone were to know every inch of this unidentified area, it’d be the scout.

The recognition that Daryl’s almost a stranger around these parts, despite having been in and out of them for over a year, has him abruptly fantasizing about settling down like he'd thought earlier, learning every twig and trap of these outskirts. He could do it with Paul, they could teach each other more than how to survive, more than how to get under each other’s skin—

The hand around his is smaller but unyielding, and not unwelcome. He twists his own inside the grip to squeeze it back as they push into a run. To his disappointment, they’re pulled apart while tripping over an unforeseen mound just seconds later.

Daryl slips in sludge, falls onto his ass while Paul drops to his knees, the two of them sliding a few feet into the center of a field. He reacts by shoving his hand into the bag Paul’s still holding, feeling around for the metal base of a flashlight. The singular beam that flickers from the bulb reveals a potential haven up ahead, in the form of a derelict cottage. It also reveals maybe two dozen walkers coming their way.

He can barely fucking swallow without unwanted streams of rain pooling on his tongue, how the hell is he supposed to do anything that’s even a little bit more strenuous? God, he feels suddenly so old—

“Do you wanna risk death by lightning and hail induced concussions?” Paul’s voice is louder than appropriate for their current ordeal, to be heard over the storm. He pulls a knife as the roamers crowd together, but doesn’t stray from Daryl. “Or do you wanna find out what’s inside?”

“Like the weather’s gonna stop just ‘cause the dead wanna snack on our asses? Think runnin’s the better option.”

“And miss out on some instant gratification?”

He’s joking, as humorless as it is, but he’s got a point. Getting pelted with ice the size of BB’s isn’t something he wants to keep doing, and it was already his own bad idea that left them stranded in the open instead of tucked away in the warmth of that room Ezekiel had wanted to lend them.

There’s not much of a decision to be made here. Daryl lets his arrow give a clear answer.

The shot lands easily, downing the closest corpse, so he pulls another out to reload.

“Check the door. I got your back.”

Paul nods in assent, pushes up his soaked sleeves and hops to his feet. He doesn’t move until Daryl’s standing next to him, but then he's zipping away, flying straight into one of those ninja kicks that knocks two decaying husks back, allowing him to stab a third. Paul’s hat, coat, and gloves had been abandoned at Hilltop, leaving him exposed to injury and erratic weather, but he’s as fast as ever while cutting a path through.

Daryl’s mouth tastes metallic when he sticks the flashlight between his teeth, giving himself a bit of clarity so he can see where he’s aiming, firing as quickly as he can to keep frenzied hands from latching onto Paul. He introduces his own knife into the mix a few minutes later, alternating shots with stabs when he bounds over to the house in a chase.

He’s vaguely aware of the smaller body powering through several feet ahead, thinks he sees him try the door, which doesn’t open, and then peer through the dust-caked window. Whatever he spots must not be promising because, before Daryl knows it, he’s witnessing Paul run at the side of the house, feet flattening against the siding and hands curling around an overhang. It looks like his arms resist a little in pulling his whole body up and over the edge, but he makes it after a second try and spins around on the slanted roof to mess with a window.

“I’ll be right back!” Paul shouts after a few seconds, successful in his endeavor this time. “Stay near the door!”

Daryl grunts in reply, though he has a feeling Paul doesn’t hear it, either due to the barrage of noises or because he’s disappeared. It doesn’t really matter. Daryl closes in on the front entrance like he’d been told to, and—

He hits the wall in surprise, jumps back when a hunched, hissing figure rounds the corner. It takes only a moment to respond, but his chest feels tight at the spike of unexpected fear, leaving Daryl momentarily unsure of himself and what he should do. Being caught off guard isn’t unusual, but being unprepared for it? Shit, he needs to focus.

Paul could get hurt inside that house. He could be getting overrun right now while Daryl stands panting, almost getting chomped on because he’s in over his head in the pitch black, alone with a handful of walkers he could take more confidently in any other situation, preferably one where he isn't being drenched and bruised.

But by the time he picks two more off, cornered against the thick wooden door, he hears the window slide open and the screen get shoved away, clattering to the bushes below. Paul reaching through to grab him is a saving grace.

Dead plants are bordered by thick bricks, which Daryl uses to give himself some height, just enough to bend his torso through the opening where the sill can dig uncomfortably into his abdomen while he tries to fit. It’s as he’s being hauled inside that he sees a shadow shuffling at Paul’s back.

“Get down,” he huffs, yanking Paul close to his shoulder. He reaches as far as he can, letting the walker lurch just close enough to graze Paul’s vest so he can jam his blade angrily through a squishy eye socket, shoving him away. Lifeless for a second time.

They hit the wooden floor hard, piled on top of each other, spread out over rotted legs. They’re like the three fucking stooges of the apocalypse: a surly hunter, Ninja Jesus, and a dead guy who’s got the hilt of Daryl’s knife sticking straight up out of his head. Modern art, if you asked Daryl. Not like the shit Carol claimed to like back in Atlanta.

His adrenaline might be getting to him because it’s thoughts like these that distract from their current, possibly still dire, position. At least Paul has enough sense to crawl across Daryl’s waist in order to pull the window shut once more, snapping the lock for good measure.

Then he’s a heap on the floor again, all wet and heavy and half on top of Daryl, cutting the circulation off in his legs. The comfort it brings is like a safety blanket, Paul’s warmth somehow mixing with his own through all their soaked clothes. Daryl sucks in a breath of pure oxygen, no rain to make him splutter, and clunks his head down beside the dead's stinking torso.

They really shouldn’t lay around like this, not when there could be more dangers lurking around every shadowy corner, but he feels like he’s starting to dry off for the first time in probably twenty minutes and his aching muscles need more rest than what he wants to allow.

Rat-a-tat-tat. The rain is a distant echo, a balm now that it leaves them untouched. He can hear Paul’s breathing—heavy, at first, and then slowly growing calmer—and uses it to lull his entire being: body, mind, and soul. The feeling of the other man’s thin, firm chest against him is the only distracting aspect of the whole thing, makes him twitch at even the slightest of movements, but other than that?

Euphoria.

He’s alive. Clean. The soreness of his limbs is a sign of the fight they’d won, the wood beneath his back a sign of shelter they’d earned. The thin wisps of hair sticking to his face are already less damp, curling against his cheekbones, And Paul—

Well, Paul’s looking up at him like a drowned cat, tilting his head in a study of the smile Daryl only now feels extending his lips. It’s mirrored on the smooth face in front of him, the flashlight's glare glinting against his teeth when Daryl’s hand hits it while trying to raise up.

Close calls make him anxious, these days. There aren’t any inhibitions left that can stop him from pulling Paul into a hug once the thought crashes into him.

One forearm presses into Paul’s lower back, fingers dragging at his side. The other crosses over just enough to flatten a palm in the center of his slippery vest, picking up on a fluttery heartbeat that could be Paul’s or his own or maybe both of them at once.

He sags like a ragdoll when sturdy arms bracket him in return. The fingers twirling in his hair increase in possessiveness when Daryl’s forehead drops to Paul's shoulder, chests bumping as they engross themselves entirely in the embrace. The neck he practically nuzzles into smells earthy, heady and fresh. A clock in his head ticks restlessly, a reminder that this type of intimacy can’t last forever, but he wants it to.

It feels like Paul wants the same.

“Should see what’s ‘round,” he murmurs after a beat. His eyelids droop, ready to bury him in sleep the more his scalp is scritched and scratched.

“Maybe we can find something to change into. Or at least some towels to dry off with. We really will get sick if we stay like this.”

“Gotta find some lights first. Ain’t seein’ shit with that thing.”

Daryl hits the metal handle again, sending it rolling a few inches. Paul takes that as his cue to let go, scooping up the item and shining it this way and that. Daryl tries to get an understanding of his surroundings by pushing back the overwhelming awareness he has over one of Paul’s hands touching his knee. It’s only to push himself up so he doesn’t slip on the puddles underneath them, but it’s a kindling of sorts, ready to spark something greater.

He grabs his crossbow and accepts Paul’s help in standing, telling himself he’s lucky to have gotten the damn hug and shouldn't ruin his luck with anything more.

“Look.”

The scout gestures to the left, at the island separating the small living room from the even smaller kitchen. There are dozens of candles lining the counter tops, nothing more than melted balls of wax that contain nubby wicks, but they’ll do well enough for the night.

Two matches from Daryl’s pocket are sufficient enough to light several in each row, submerging the space in golden yellow flickers that dance against peeling wallpaper and chipped tile. It creates shapes and shadows to play across Paul’s features, highlighting his nose, brows, the dark ring of green circling irises made up of translucent blues. The hollows of his cheeks and the purpling beneath his eyes are as dark as his beard, the waves forming in his hair constructing additional lines across his fervent expression—

And oh. The way he’s getting looked at, dissected, almost as if being committed to memory… He wonders what Paul’s thinking. He wonders that often, even if most times he doesn’t need to know, sometimes doesn’t want to.

This is different. New, with hints of familiarity. It’s hard to look away and, for once, Paul is first to do so.

They find little more than silverware, paper, pens, and rubber bands spread out through the drawers. Cabinets are scarce, holding one or two leaking cans and several boxes that are filled with barely anything at all. There’s an old can opener that he takes to put away in the pack, as well as a sealed jug of water. Paul finds a second flashlight, though he has to swap the batteries out with some of their own spares.

Even with how small the downstairs seems, there are still three closed doors that need exploring. He leaves that task to Paul and starts ascending up creaking stairs by himself, keeping the knife he’d retrieved from the twice-dead walker held high while the flashlight guides him down a narrow hallway.

The bathroom is clear of everything but a few rolls of toilet paper, which he decides to come back for; the closet holding musty blankets and towels, both of which could be useful.

He tries the next door, which opens up to a room divided by pinks and blues. A dresser stands beneath posters of airplanes and stars, two single beds lining the walls opposite each other, sheets mussed and pillows strewn. The toys on the rug are interesting. However, when he considers taking them to spread out amongt the kids of their tied communities, a twinge of guilt makes him turn his back.

He exits into the hall to try the last room at the end, where the usual foul stench of death meets him, accompanied by incessantly buzzing flies. The sight on the bed has him nearly choking on bile.

Four bodies, curled and shriveled. A woman in a faded dress, a man in torn overalls, two kids sandwiched between them. Blood staining the bedding and walls. It’s a disheartening vision, painful when the skeletal remains morph into ghosts of his past. Behind his eyelids, they could be anyone, have been anyone.

He grounds himself by thinking that, while they’d been living people once, he never knew them. Their lives were taken by their own hand, probably when the hopeless desperation settled in, as the whole house seems to suggest. Daryl won’t take the toys from the previous room, but he’ll search the closet in this one. The clothes still clinging to his frame are starting to chafe.

Dust tickles his sinuses with every hanger he shoves, giving every piece of clothing an uninterested once-over. The section for the man is meager, fitted for someone around Daryl’s height but Paul’s size, maybe even leaner. A white tank, plaid over-shirt, and baggy jeans will have to do for Daryl; a red tee, black hoodie, and gray sweats for Paul. He doesn’t really want to put some dead guy’s underwear on, so he foregoes snooping through anything else and ducks back out into the hallways when his name is called.

They ram into each other when he closes the room off from Paul.

“Something wrong?”

Daryl shakes his head, holding up the gathered clothes for inspection. He knows the subject of what he’s trying to hide is dropped solely because Paul can’t wait any longer to get warm.

“Find anythin’?”

“A gun, a few tools, some interesting books. There was a case of water in the bathroom, wouldn’t risk drinking that. Trust me." He nods to the lumpy ball in Daryl's had. "So, what's mine?"

Those towels he spotted earlier are pulled out to be made useful now, first rubbing the surface over Paul's frizzy hair, then hung up on the nearest knob so he can start stripping right where they stand.

He watches for longer than he should, face heating in splotches, turning away too deliberately to pass as an accident when caught.

“You should change, too,” he suggests. “Then we can talk about what to do for the rest of the night.”

Daryl’s pretty sure there’s nothing really to discuss on that front. They’ll find a corner to hunker down in, hoping to sleep for a few hours before setting off for Hilltop come morning.

He nods instead of voicing such doubts, and when Paul’s bare of everything but boxers, Daryl steps inside the bathroom.

“Hey, don’t go in there,” he instructs, nodding to the door he'd previously come out of. Still facing away but not yet having shut himself away.

The younger man can take the horrors with a raised chin the same as Daryl, but he doesn’t want him to have to. Deep inside, he knows Paul trusts him enough to follow such a somber request.

A click indicates Daryl locking himself inside. He can’t get the pale, sinewy expanse of Paul’s chest out of his brain.

 


 

There are good ideas, bad ideas, stupid ideas. Daryl’s had his fair share of all three, as has Paul and Rick and anyone put in any spot where they’re made to make a decision.

Reconciling with Paul, if that’s what they can call it, was a good choice. Leaving the car in the middle of a storm was a bad one because of the unnecessary risk it posed upon them, though it turned out alright in the end, which isn’t always the case.

Shoving two twin mattresses down a staircase that Daryl can hardly walk descend without banging his shoulders on the bannister falls very much under the stupid category.

That doesn’t stop him from helping Paul carry out said idiotic plan. His excitement over it seemed so rare and was so contagious that Daryl didn’t even bother with any initial protests.

Both exits on the lower floor had already been barricaded, but Daryl isn’t satisfied until he and Paul drag the couch around to act as a shield they can drop the stiff-coiled mattresses behind. The clothes they’d taken off are placed on stools in the kitchen, left to dry in the after-rain warmth that seeps in through the cracks. The candles from the counters get scattered around the floor, ceramic plates underneath to stop anything from catching fire, their burnt wicks relit to prolong life.

It’s quiet on the outside, quieter on the inside—all around, where he sits on the edge of a bed, where Paul lays on another. Near, but not quite side by side.

They’d drifted into a natural hush after getting themselves secure for sleep. He can sense there's something on the scout’s mind. There's something on Daryl's, too.

Paul’s not as much of a chatterbox as first impressions had led him to believe. Sure, he can talk for hours about everything and nothing all at once, wrapped up in eloquence and dry humor, the tied with a bow as velvety as his voice. He rambles when nervous, launches into detailed explanations when excited, starts games played only with words when feeling confidence that allows him to branch out.

Paul’s a negotiator and a smartass, and so to have him biting his tongue when he’d otherwise be bouncing between topics he’d already mentioned wanting to discuss… It stumps Daryl. More than that, it bothers him.

He should lay down like Paul is, close his eyes, get some much-needed rest after the weird ass day he’s had. With the way his moods have been draining him, he should just let it all disappear. Avoid it the way he’s always done.

But he can’t. Because every moment he’s had with Paul since they’d met has been building a line so far off in the distance that Daryl could only make out the shape of it, a horizon he could never reach.

That breathless hi, that charming façade; the inclination to avoid violence existing alongside the skill to dominate it. The peacekeeper, the shit-starter, the underdog hero who’d rather stick to the shadows or else be someone else in the sunlight.

Jesus.

He’d been that for them all those first few weeks. Smug, but not arrogant. Intelligent, but not all-knowing. He spoke with levity and confidence to Rick and Alexandria, yet carried himself with unexpected doubt, having to prop himself up because no one else would. Daryl recognized it immediately because he’d done the same his whole life, all the way up until those days at the prison.

And it was the final day at Negan’s Sanctuary that Daryl could begin to read the younger man’s imperfections. He’d saved Daryl that day—not only physically, but mentally. Brought him back from the brink in a way more literal than anyone had before. He’d seen Daryl at his lowest point, which had unknowingly shined a spotlight on everything he’d tried to keep hidden.

Guilt. Doubt. Anxiety. Daryl was no stranger to that trio, which made it easy to read in Paul. They’d gotten their first taste of really working together in a way that really counted just before the war had started in full force. The scout must’ve taken some comfort in that, seeing as he’d sought Daryl out to cautiously run his grievances by. He probably didn’t believe Daryl’s unpracticed words of comfort, but he at least appeared to have appreciated them.

Anger and frustration came next. Loyalty versus ethics, life versus death, Negan versus everyone else. Jesus hadn’t been a miracle worker like his ridiculous moniker suggested, it was just a mask to hide behind, another word to play with.

The guy could screw up, make rash decisions, look danger in the eye with disgust and never apathy. He was as imperfect as any truly good man could be, and that’s when Daryl understood the shift. That’s when the line that had formed miles and miles and miles ahead seemed to grow nearer. That’s when Jesus became Paul; never out loud, until the waterfall, but always to the core of Daryl’s very being.

That smile he had, the one that crinkled his eyes, made them sparkle, made his mouth look too-wide when he was in very specific company. That tittering laugh whenever Daryl pushed him away, only to have him flutter right back. That fascination with flowers and knives, that bond with Maggie and Enid, that magnetic draw of his hand to Daryl’s arms.

He was an anomaly and infuriating and… beautiful.

He is beautiful.

Daryl flinches, like the thought itself might jump out to punch him in the nose. There aren’t any mind readers around here, just Paul, bathed in the golden low light and being glanced at sneakily from the corner of Daryl’s eye.

He’s so calm in the disquiet. Feet and hands unclothed, ill-fitting sweats slung low on his hips, hoodie tight over his shoulders. Daryl wants that kind of peace. A sliver of zen in the center of chaos.

There’s one way to get it.

What happened those weeks ago had finally dropped Daryl directly in front of the line between them, the events of the day settling his feet right on top of it. Here, he can choose which way to go. There won't be a wrong turn.

“What’re you doing?”

Daryl’s answering hum is a signaling of patience while he stands and shuffles to his vest. He retrieves the pocket knife, tracing the embossed handle, the engraved bolster, with the pad of his calloused thumb. It’s the color of purple dusk, accented by silver, gold, and copper leaves all carved into gunmetal. It’s interesting to look at, like nothing he’s ever seen; as pretty, sharp, and deadly as Paul. He’d wanted to give it to him the moment he’d picked it up, but always chickened out.

Daryl clears his throat silently. His bare feet patter across the wood, back towards where Paul still lays, propped up onto his elbows in anticipation. He can practically feel the floor smack his tailbone when he drops down to the groaning coils.

“Here.”

“What…?”

“S’a knife.”

“I can see that," he chuckles. Then, leaning away to inspect the gift by the glow of a flame, with a hint of surprise: “But, um, why?”

“Was out with Aaron a while back. Saw it just sittin’ there, thought it was somethin’ you might use. Might like. If you don’t—"

“No, I—Thank you. This is… it’s really great.”

“Ain’t nothin’.”

Paul pushes up into a sitting position so quickly, Daryl’s arm jerks on instinct. Everything comes to a halt when fingers slot between his. It’s not an excuse like it had been in the car or a hasty reaction during an escape. This is deliberate. Careful. Questioning.

“It is to me. You know that.”

Daryl does. He wouldn’t have waited so long to give it to him if it really was just a simple tool.

“Maybe,” he mumbles, so quiet that his lips barely move.

“Daryl. Thank you.”

There’s an itch beneath his skin that sparks to life from the reverence in Paul’s voice. The object itself means something, of course it does, but the gesture—that’s what hangs in the balance, stuck to a rope he can unravel with one hand.

You could have it. You have to let yourself have it.

A sigh seeps from his lungs but he doesn’t deflate. Becomes as heavy as his heart, then sinks. Over to Paul, against him, the placement of his forehead flattening untamed hair. Their breaths are shared and Daryl can’t help thinking this is nice. He can’t help thinking how tired he is, of running and not knowing and wanting things he shouldn’t ever have.

Warmth. The slightest bit of pressure. Goosebumps sent across his skin.

It’s a quick brush, merely a mimic of a kiss, yet it brings about a hunger that Daryl’s never known. Not the painful pangs of starvation or the at-once shameful yearning for comfort, but a desire for the more he’d never believed existed within himself until Paul came along to coax it out.

And holy shit, did that just happen? There’d been no running or screaming, the earth didn’t crumble in on itself any more than it already had at the start of this whole New World. Who the hell had initiated it? Does it matter? Probably not, because the next time their lips meet, he knows it’s his own doing.

What starts as a second tentative graze turns slowly into the kiss he’d been imaging, a real one that lingers, twists in his belly and pounds in his ears. The shuddering breath that follows, the parting of their lips, disrupts the silent tension.

“So, that, uh…”

“Yeah.

“Did you—”

“Yeah.”

“Wow. Okay.”

The stunted, shaken conversation would be laughable during any other situation, but the only thought passing through Daryl’s mind on a loop is what now what now what now.

Also, the way Paul’s teeth drag across his bottom lip definitely won’t leave him be.

“I didn’t think—I mean, I was prepared for… not that.”

“What?”

“Well, I’ve never exactly been clear on what your feelings towards me are.” He tries to explain it with a humorous tone, which would work if his nervous ticks weren’t present. The creasing in his brow, the angled jut of his jaw, the rubbing of his hands. “I could wager a guess that you liked me, the amount was just never too obvious. Still isn’t.”

Paul does his best to maintain eye contact, though it’s difficult now that he’s voicing his side of all this. Daryl understands.

For how obvious his own emotions for the scout have been, even in the midst of all his flip-flopping, he wasn’t blind to how he’d been reacting outwardly; to move on, to keep up appearances, to deflect, to indulge for a minute. He was damn confused with his own behavior, why would he expect Paul to get a clue?

“Been an ass,” he admits. Been scared. “Didn’t mind when you started jokin’, but you kept it up, started thinkin’ you didn’t mean it.”

“I did,” Paul quickly puts forth, folding hair behind an ear sheepishly. “And it was flirting, Daryl. I’m rusty, but I wasn’t just messing around... Wanted to see where you stood, if there was a chance.”

“Man, you don’t think I’ve been wonderin’ the same thing?”

Paul’s snort is disbelieving joy.

“You could’ve told me, Daryl. Save us both the runaround.”

“Coulda asked.”

“I could’ve. I think I even tried, once or twice, but it’s not easy when you know there’s something there and want more than what you think you’ll get.”

Could it be that they’ve been on the same page this whole time? Reading the lines, misunderstanding the words? Paul wanting more than what he thinks Daryl would’ve given him—and he tries not to let his body catch fire on the imagery of that insinuation alone—is reasoning plucked straight from Daryl himself.

It’s like an epiphany to find out that the truth isn’t always ugly.

“Honestly, I’m surprised Maggie didn’t bring it up with you,” Paul continues when Daryl’s been unresponsive for too long. “She knows I like guys. She knows I like you. I never got around to telling her that, actually, but I figured I was doing a terrible job of hiding it.”

“Probably writin’ to Carol ‘bout it. Ain’t been ‘round her much lately, ‘specially not with you. Sure as hell seemed to know a lot somehow.”

“Yeah?” His smile would shine in the dark if it were possible. “You were talking to her about me?”

“Don’t go gettin’ a big head, just wanted her to talk some sense. Make things better. Maybe she did.”

“Did she tell you to kiss me?” he wonders cheekily, prompting Daryl to punch the meat of his thigh. Seriousness blankets them soon after. “What about you? Always stopping and starting, coming and going. We’re here now, so what’re we gonna do?”

As if he knows, as if the answer will fall into his lap after a couple of unpracticed pecks. But he’s thrown the ball into Daryl’s court now, probably knowing what he would do and waiting to see if Daryl does the same, simply because he might want to, not because he’s been told or led or made to think he must.

He’s never been great at voicing anything about himself, even with all the improvement he’s gone through over time, with patience and nurturing and love. And he’s feeling that with every second he sits and drinks Paul in—by his eyes when they refuse to leave his face, by touch when his fingertips skitter over Paul’s knees, by the taste on his tongue when he chews the remaining tenderness tingling his lips.

So, he’s never been great at talking, but he can respond another way.

His hands don’t know where to go when he closes the distance; slowly, pulling away an inch before meeting, only to dive right in unexpectedly. Daryl doesn’t move now that the connection is back, so it’s Paul who eases them into gear. He unfolds his legs to push himself into Daryl’s space, limbs overlapping awkwardly atop the beds that hardly lift them off the floor. His palms roam where Daryl’s remain still, inciting bubbling warmth with every inquisitive pass over borrowed cloth.

Then Paul tilts his head, hot breath tickling Daryl’s sensitive nerves, slanting the kiss just so. It nudges Daryl, fuels a call for exploration. His hands, which aren’t shaking like he thought they might, slide up thighs that wiggle closer, passing narrow hips to claw up a back that bends at his will, rucking the hoodie up with it.

Soft hair finds his fingers, loops around each knuckle, waves gathering in a fist. It elicits a shiver that makes him snake an arm around Paul’s waist protectively.

The smaller man’s top lip glides over Daryl’s teeth when he breaks away. His nose squishes against his hollow cheek, forehead rubbing a brow bone. Daryl’s eyes want to close again as soon as he opens them, but he wants to see; count every lash futilely in the dark, trace creases and crinkles with his gaze, watch every little nostril flare that occurs with every little breath the other man huffs.

“Paul,” he says. A word that’s scarcely there, inexplicably serene, wrought with enough conviction to break the dam.

The burn from the fuller beard against his sparse stubble is strong and alluring. He seeks the escalation Paul asserts, opening to a slick tease, following an experimental suck. He’s a fast learner and the scout’s intrigue soars, the rough sound tearing from his throat rocketing through Daryl’s body, leaving his patience down low in the smoke.

Push and pull, Paul winds up between Daryl’s sprawled legs, calves squeezing his sides, nails scraping the plaid sleeves stretched over his arms. The fist in Paul’s hair tightens, the hand rubbing jutted shoulder blades circling around to the front where it can hover over a thumping heartbeat.

The deep, rhythmic movements turn sloppy pretty damn fast, with Paul changing the angles until he drops his head completely to lave at Daryl’s adam’s apple. He groans and shifts, baring his neck without resistance, flushing like a fever’s hit. He doubts he’s ever reached this sort of internal temperature due to anything outside of exertion or heat. Both of those things are present here, in different contexts.

And then there’s something else. Something primal and hidden, small and smitten, uniquely tethered to Paul. He’s never felt this way, had never wanted to, and now he never wants to let this go—an intimacy so engrossingly sweet it’s got him cradling Paul’s bristly jaw with delicacy, leading their mouths blindly back together. He murmurs something that can’t be understood, buries his hands beneath Daryl’s undershirt to cling at the rumpled tank below, and looks him over carefully.

“I think—” He’s too out of breath to continue right away. Daryl thumbs the pulse in his neck, feels the hard swallow. “For the sake of transparency, since we have a record of miscommunication, I think we should be clear on what’s about to happen.”

“Kay?”

Paul waits, thinking there might be more. Daryl’s too rattled by his entire fucking presence.

“I want you,” he blurts, combing hair away from his face in an anxious rush. “I don’t just mean I wanna fuck you, I mean I want you. I wanna be with you. And maybe that's not the best idea... I’ve never been good at relationships, and I can't screw this up like everything else. But we don’t always get to choose how we feel, right? We can only choose what to do with it, which is why I’m telling you now because if this is it for you, then it has to end here. Anything more and I’d—It’d just take a really long time to get over.”

God, it’s weird to hear this kind of sentiment coming from Paul. Daryl had been making himself suffer for so long, convinced the other would only want some kind of physical release, if ever even that. Can’t afford to be picky when people can leave for an hour and not come back. But he—they very distinctly do not want that. It’d be the first good dream he’s had in weeks if it weren’t his new reality.

“You know, ‘fore you said all that?” There’s a puff of air that could pass as a laugh in Daryl’s book of ticks. “Was gonna take what I could get, thinkin’ that’d be the end. But I don’t want a night or a week, neither. Want it all.”

“You can have it.”

He’s smothered with a new kiss before the agreement fully registers, the fervor of it throwing everything else away while simultaneously imprinting it all onto his soul.

In a flash, Paul’s trailing down again, this time to bite and nuzzle the juncture between his neck and shoulder. He slips the shirt down to his elbows next, tugs until Daryl obliges his request and drops his arms long enough to let the garment fall. His tank is thin, doesn’t do anything to hide the ropey texture of the scars beneath, but Paul maps them with mounting urgency.

Daryl gathers the hem of the smaller man’s hoodie and tee in one grip. He pulls them up together, up and up and up until there’s no option but for Paul to lean back, shaking the clothing from his head to land on the wood by their feet. His torso’s bared and though it’s difficult to catch every detail, he can zero-in on the obvious; smatterings of dark hair high between his pecs and low below his naval, ridges of firm definition contrasting with squishy dips of flesh. Outlining every inch isn’t enough.

Palms and fingertips find the younger man’s ass. A moan tumbles forth, pitching higher with surprise when Daryl hauls Paul’s body directly into his, balancing onto his legs. He’s taller this way, Daryl's head canting backward in an accommodation of their switched heights. Like this, Paul’s dick can be felt against Daryl’s chest, extremely noticeable and trapped only by flimsy cotton. 

Another shirt joins the pile beside the bed, sliding away with a kick of his foot in a surge forward, flattening Paul to the mattress. He arches, locks them into place, strokes Daryl's face—fluttery eyelids, scrunching nose, the mark on his cheek—as if he’s a precious wonder to behold. Arousal punches through his veins, along with embarrassment from such adoration, and vehemence for needing to prove his worth.

The flat of his tongue finds a pebbled nipple to experiment with, the hitching of Paul's breath a sure sign of approval. He gives it attention for some time, reveling in the petting of his head, the way his hair’s toyed with, then moves onto the other. His hands haven’t left the scout's ass and he uses the leverage to offer the friction needed while rocking his hips.

It keeps up like this for a couple of minutes, with Daryl looking up from where his mouth closes around the first nipple once more, surveying every twitch of Paul’s expression with clouded eyes, the even undulations against his stomach sending blood to pool hotly in his pelvis. The repeated whispering of his name is a benediction. An eager nod is an answer to the unspoken question that appears when Daryl fumbles with the waistband of the sweats hanging off his hips. One swift tug pulls them down to knobby knees, another yanking them off entirely, displaying the complete picture of Paul Rovia. It’s…

Well, it’s almost too much.

He’s normal, Daryl supposes, if not a little extraordinary. Wiry. Bold. Trusting. He paints a pretty picture, all laid out like this. Prettier than Daryl’s imagination could’ve conjured, though still very human. Very vulnerable.

There’s more dark hair on his lower half, scant on the legs but with a thick patch around his penis. And that’s different than Daryl’s too, like the rest of his body. Longer, thinner, curved inward. Thick veined with a perfect head that’s red and smeared. The image gets his covered dick vying for attention, and the old shame surfaces.

Doubt takes hold, makes him freeze. Ironically, it’s Merle’s voice in his head that turns him angry. As much as he loved his brother, he won’t let him control this, won’t let him dictate another second of his life. He’s long gone and has been for some time, same as anyone else who caused him pain, and he won’t tip-toe for ghosts any longer.

Maybe the way he crawls to Paul’s waist, grabs the base of his erection firmly, sucking the leaking head into his mouth is a tad hasty, but it’s one hundred percent his desire. And the way it makes Paul tense and choke on a hoarse shout of FUCK removes everything outside the room from existence.

He sinks onto it without warning, chokes, convinces himself to go slower. There’s no need to hurry.

“Daryl,” Paul hisses. The tension in his hips and thighs is a testament to his control in keeping level with the floor instead of bucking. “Have you—have you done this—?”

“No.”

“You don’t have to, okay?”

“Okay,” he replies, licking a long stripe up the underside of his cock, from balls to tip.

Oh—kay,” Paul attempts to mock. It’s disjointed and raw and has Daryl grinning.

Hands press onto his shoulders like an anchor, guiding him along just by being there, tracing his biceps before landing on his head. Eye contact is fleeting, but he doesn’t mind that Paul can’t keep his open. He’s writhing now that there’s suction, trying to keep steady and not to make himself go deeper.

Daryl hums to call for his attention. The vibration has Paul moaning quietly through a bitten lip.

“You gonna do something?” It’s half question, half demand, breathy as fuck after popping off. The arousal he’s feeling aches in earnest.

Paul's stare is intoxicating.

“I don’t wanna hurt you.”

“Nah, you won’t. C’mon.”

Tapping the calf near his side, prepared to wait. There’s no delay.

They rearrange themselves on the mattresses that try to slip apart. Paul scoots back, the cushions of the couch a pillow to help him sit up. This gives Daryl space to lean on his front with only his toes pressing into hardwood.

“Do this—” He taps his stomach three times, “and we’ll stop.”

Daryl grumbles something along the lines of “yeah, okay” as he lowers himself between spread legs, apprehension swirling with anticipation. But he’s ready to make the first move by stroking Paul’s length with thick fingers. It’s not a subtle touch, is probably too quick, too much like a vice, but a gentler approach isn’t asked for. In fact, his hair is grabbed almost immediately, clumps held like reigns that suggest, not command.

It starts this way, between knees that point to the ceiling. Daryl tests the waters with frequent licks and unsteady slurping, controlling the bobbing with an increase in speed. Breathing through only his nose for little pockets of time is a momentary rush to both his brain and growing erection.

Little by little Paul’s hips thrust, plunging into his mouth when he’s only halfway up the shaft. The tempo flips. Instead of Daryl working up and down, he’s held in place, jaw slackening to allow for the entirety of Paul’s dick to fill his mouth. The unusual invasion gags him, causing him to heave and stumble back, a string if saliva breaking on a sputter. Murmured apologies are sincerely distressed. Daryl doesn’t want them.

His forearms slip under Paul’s back to rest above his ass, pushing him up to take him in almost fully to the base. Determination makes up for the lack of experience and skill, sending Paul into a fit when his cock breaks into Daryl’s throat. He’s held there long enough to feel the gripping sensation of a hard swallow, but then Daryl’s forced to stop when he retches, gasping for air, drooling over his chin and fingers and the dick clutched within.

“That’s good, you’re so good, fuck—”

The frantic praise ignites tiny shockwaves beneath his skin. He does a repeat, yielding with the tip poking his palate. He’s relieved when the embarrassing whine that wracks through him is cut off the second Paul starts fucking his face. He’d been expecting it, aiming for it, but he’s bewildered all the same. The loss of self-control is scary in a way he isn’t used to, thrilling in a way he doesn’t understand. Now that he knows he can unravel every controlled facet of Paul, he’s devoted to it.

How long they stay that way, blissfully oblivious and leaking, he couldn't say. But pause for a break eventually.

He’s wrecked, covered in sweat and tears and saliva, high on the oxygen flooding his lungs when Paul relents; steering Daryl’s jaw away, bolting upright, enveloping him in a melting embrace.

Their positions reverse.

Daryl’s back hits the mattress. He groans when nimble fingers yank at his jeans, erection straining at the zip. Paul undoes the button, but then grounds Daryl with a hand over his sternum and doesn’t continue until he asks:

“You sure?”

Fucking fuck—

“Yes.”

He thinks it so loudly that the only confirmation of his crackling voice saying actually saying it is how Paul nods and sets his dick free, tugging the jeans completely off and tossing them onto the now-complete pile. Despite the urge to throw his head back being fierce, he combats it in order catch a glimpse of Paul nosing at the near non-existent trail of hair below his bellybutton.

Being naked for another person is bizarre. He’s had to do it before, living as close as they have since the camp formed. There were the days he couldn’t patch himself up, the nights they needed to take a piss or change out of wet clothing without leaving themselves open and alone, the endless hours of his stay at Sanctuary—forced into vulnerability at every corner. This, here with Paul, isn’t like anything else. It’s a choice; to be at each other’s mercy, to share every aspect of who they are, to encourage the bond he’d once thought about abandoning.

It’s bizarre because there are no insecurities.

There’s nothing special about him. He’s got a jump on the scout in age, is going gray even near his temples, is built for hard work and not for ogling. He’s never considered himself ugly, that designation had always been reserved for Merle, but Daryl’s never been superficial or overly confident about his appearance either.

Paul’s gaze tells him he doesn’t need to worry. That, for whatever reason, what he’s seeing is exactly what he likes. And what he’s tasting. Massaging.

It’s a different style than Daryl’s approach, probably because he knows what he's doing and has before. Even so, his treatment of their intimacy is inquisitive and involved. He doesn’t go straight in, laps at precum, twists the base, cups his balls, presses a knuckle behind them.

Fuck is what he means to growl. It sounds more like a garbled fwa.

Finally, the slippery suction of the sweetest mouth spread wide over his cock creates a heat so hot he just might explode. His legs spasm, knocking into Paul’s waist like he wants to push at the intensity, though he ends up doing the opposite by pulling him closer.

The smaller man’s neat beard is a mess of fluids already, and yet he doesn’t care. He reaches to sweep over a nipple, never stopping in his trek across Daryl's prone form.

“Paul,” he calls with no idea what for.

He's acknowledged anyway, by peck placed to the center of his chest. Paul crawls up to pit them face-to-face again.

“I wanna try something, unless you’d rather cum in my mouth.”

Daryl's blunt nails rake the small of the younger man's back.

“Do whatever. Ain’t picky.”

They kiss even while smiling, enjoying the moment of tenderness in a sea of demanding hormones. He cradles Paul’s nape to keep him from going far while driving their fronts flush together, bracing on hands and knees. Their cocks align, trapped between their bellies. It’s obvious what’ll come next.

Thrusts begin unhurried. Teeth scrape necks, clavicles, ears. The force of their lower halves grinding so much sensitive skin together starts the countdown. He’s already pulsing and he knows he won’t last much longer, but that’s okay because Paul’s right there with him, feeding him low grunts that produce static in front of his blown pupils. They’re fucking. The rocking hits a peak and they’re fucking, and Daryl grabs onto the couch above with all his might, wood feet screeching across the floor. The whimper he hears belongs to himself.

He rolls the younger man over to straddle him as they near the end, sits back, grabs them both in one hand. The other holds Paul’s wrist near the top of his head.

“Please,” the scout begs. His free hand's fingers join Daryl’s in jerking them both to completion. “Please, please, please—”

Daryl bites his earlobe, laves his collarbone...

Paul cums, spilling over their fists in rapid spurts. Contorted features, taut muscles, aborted shout—it throws him over the edge, too.

The impact of the climax is indescribable, dragging him under like a current. It flies him straight to heaven for so long that he doesn’t regret having to plummet right back down to hell.

He’s aware of slumping over, landing in the joint mess covering Paul’s stomach and spreading it over his own. He’s aware of being repositioned, cuddled, face hidden by a sweaty shoulder. He’s aware of his heart and lungs slowing alongside Paul’s. He’s aware…

 


 

He’s awake. He doesn’t remember drifting off to sleep, but it doesn’t matter because now he’s awake.

His heavy eyelids lift, pupils burning at the sunlight bathing the room. The only thing on his body is a blanket draped over his waist, though he’s twisted it enough in his sleep to where it doesn’t reach his ankles. The taste in his mouth is acrid and his jaw is sore. His throat hurts like a bitch—

He focuses in on his surroundings in a snap, swiveling his head around check where Paul is.

Not far, as it turns out.

He hadn’t felt the knuckles pressed loosely into his side, but he sees it, just like he sees a halo of tangled hair and the pale column of the smaller man’s neck covered in purpling bruises. Hickeys, like they’re teenagers. Like what happened last night really, truly did.

Wow.

It’s not as if he’d forgotten, he never would and never will, but he can’t pretend that waking up next to Paul, buck naked and with vivid details he’d be unable to imagine by himself, doesn’t have him off kilter.

He needs a smoke. Or maybe just some fresh air.

Daryl extracts himself carefully from the blanket so as not to disturb Paul, creeps into the kitchen to redress in their newly dried clothing. Despite the stiffness, they’re a comfort to have on, particularly the vest. It feels lighter without the knife within its pockets.

None of the exits are viable. However, the window slides open without much sound if he does it at a snail’s pace. He straddles the ledge.

It’s warm again, countered with a cool breeze that blows through, soothing the mild irritation caused by Paul’s beard and the butterflies in his stomach that never left.

He examines the field.

The walkers are where they’d left them during the storm, submerged in the sludge that'd made Daryl slip. A couple still stagger by the trees, and maybe more are out of sight, but there’s an aura of peace he can savor. Any panic he thought might arise from giving every shard of himself to Paul just… never arrives. And why should it? What he’d waited so long for, the reciprocation of feelings he’d been convinced would never amount to anything outside of fantasies, could spell a new beginning. It already has.

Daryl rubs at his eyes. He doesn’t have to leave to clear his head. Everything he needs to know is fast asleep behind him.

Yawning, he ducks back inside and shuts the window, hesitating after turning around.

Because Paul isn’t asleep at all, not anymore. He’s sitting up with the blanket in his lap, colorful pocketknife turning carefully over and over in his grasp. He smiles at Daryl somewhat guardedly when peering up.

“How’s it looking out there?”

“Not bad. We can get goin’ soon as you’re ready.”

“In a hurry again?”

“Nope. Just hungry.” Daryl scoops up what Paul had worn yesterday and strides over to hand them off. “Could go back for that cobbler, I guess—”

“No, definitely not,” he jokes with a laugh, eyes rolling fondly. The clothes fall into his lap while he stretches. “Just give me a minute.”

Daryl does as he's asked, perhaps a bit reluctantly. The pack they’d brought is now overstuffed with useful items pilfered from various rooms in the house. He goes to where it rests at the side of the couch, just a couple feet away from where Paul stands, thinking to busy himself by double-checking the contents while he waits, but… 

The scout's words about miscommunication enter into the fray. He has to make sure there's none of that anymore.

Daryl takes a sip of water, then a second and a third. Turning, he grabs Paul’s elbow while the man's trying to buckle his khakis, spins him around and pulls him in by the hair before he can make a single sound.

This kiss is dry, mostly chaste, and filled with morning breath. Paul grips Daryl’s biceps and kisses back like it’s the best one of all. It’s a definite contender.

Each one after is even better.

They find themselves back out in nature some twenty minutes later, weaving through shady trees. A canteen is passed between them to sip at until it’s empty and put back, freeing up a chance to chat. It’s not surprising that Paul takes it.

“What’re your plans once we reach Hilltop? Have you thought about it?”

“Dunno." He shrugs. "Probably stay the night, head for Alexandria tomorrow.”

“Oh. Right.”

Daryl looks at Paul as they walk, though the scout is too busy watching every leave they pass, trying to seem nonchalant. He knocks their elbows, ready to say what he'd want to before, no excuses this time.

“Was thinkin’ I could talk to Rick and Michonne, y’know? Ain’t ‘round much, hoppin’ all over like I’ve been. Maybe if I stuck it out somewhere, I’d see ‘em more than I do now.”

Paul blinks.

“Stick it out somewhere… You mean Hilltop, right?”

“Yeah, Hilltop. If you’re still offerin’.”

“Of course I am,” Paul assures. The gentle tone underlines everything he doesn’t need to say for Daryl to understand. “I’d love to have you as my roommate.”

“That what we’re callin’ this?”

He rubs his beard. He'd washed it off before stepping one foot outside.

“If you want a label, I’ve got several. Boyfriend, lover, sweetheart, darling…”

“Lord.”

“That’s not one of them, but I wouldn’t mind—”

“Stop.”

The cackling is back, as is the mischievous twinkle in his gaze. The only difference is how much open devotion also lies within those big blues. There's a hint of jade in them today.

“We’ll figure it out,” Paul declares confidently after his smirk fades to something more relaxed. “We’ve got time.”

Daryl’s index finger hooks around Paul’s. He breathes.

We’ve got time.

 


 

People come and go in Daryl’s life. They always have, they always will.

Paul Rovia is a definitive exception.