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Heavy Like the Force Between Us

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[Day 000]

New Beginnings.

The Eden Network, also known as T.E.N, is home to a multitude of colonies within the Milky Way Galaxy, spanning twenty-three to twenty-five thousand light-years from the galactic center and four to two light-years from our ancestral planet, Earth.

Founded by the Monroe lineage a millennium ago, the first colony to materialize within T.E.N is known today as the Alexandria Safe Zone, where the old adage “To Dare is to Do” remains hanging in Director Deanna’s office, carved from the very titanium that reinforced the initial USS Finarium—

“Skip.”

Meet Our Neighbors.

T.E.N is a hive for the ambitious, strong, and virtuous personalities spinning our New World round. Woodbury—the Alexandria Safe Zone’s sister colony, sharing Hilltopia’s transportation station—is steered by the diplomatic hand of Director Harrison.

Farther along inside the disk rests Sanctuary, with Director—

“Skip.”

Paul exhales through his nose as the directory’s Historical Seminar files transition seamlessly within the buds clasped to his ears. There’s only a momentary pause between each chapter, but Georgie’s voice is quiet enough for the drumming of his fingertips against the DataPad resting in his lap to seem loud.

He can just make out the soft strumming of track number 708 flowing through the room, too; a nice alternative to the uppity synth beats he’d been subjected to hearing during hours of prep.

Paul taps the solid, idle screen to bring the cool hues of his choppy notes to life in front of his face, the transparent letters flickering when they begin a slow scroll.

Extinction Event.

The title is something he’s has heard Georgie’s voice read a hundred thousand times, though it never fails to make a rod of his spine.

Much information has been lost regarding the way of life our ancestors thrived under as denizens of the now desolate Earth. Details of the Last Stand have also been impossible to corroborate. Journals from the final Planetside Days cite natural disasters, governmental experimentation, unstoppable wars and uncurbable plagues all as the last push for the fleet of USS Finariums to launch what was left of our ravaged society into space—

Paul’s body jerks when one of his buds is pulled from an ear, the quiet murmurs of Georgie’s voice mingling with the twangs of music trickling down from above.

He settles his breath once Maggie’s face comes into view.

The corners of her mouth are turned downward in an attempt to hide her smile. Both of her brows have risen high on her forehead, Paul knows, although one has disappeared beneath the curved bangs of her close-cropped hair.

“Sorry,” she says, not sounding it at all. She puts the stolen bud to her ear, eyes rolling at what she hears. “Don’t you have every word of this memorized by now?”

“It’s just background noise,” Paul claims, holding out his palm in silent request. His fingers curl around the object once she drops it into his grasp. Then, to Georgie he says, “Stop playback. End command.”

“You listen to that anymore than you already have and Deanna’s gonna be recruiting you to replace me.”

It’s a joking statement, of course it is, but Paul can’t laugh. He grimaces instead, stretching his legs out beneath the desk.

“Yeah, well. You’re a little late on that prediction.”

Maggie’s nose scrunches in confusion as her arms cross over her chest.

“I never heard—”

“That’s because I said no.” He leans forward, grounds his boots against the dented flooring but doesn’t stand. He cranes his neck to meet Maggie’s gaze from his sitting position. “I like what we do. Going out there. Seeing what we see, helping where we can. You know I can’t stay in one place for too long.”

“I know.” When she smiles this time, it looks a little sad. It doesn’t stop her eyes from shining triumphantly. “So, lucky you. Thrusters burn in forty, if you’re still comin’.”

“Of course I am. Glenn’s taste in music kept me up for twenty hours, I’m not gonna let that be for nothing.”

“Then suit up. I need my second.”

“I’ll meet you there, but I’ve have to ask... who’re we bunking with? I never got around to syncing my band for the update, so I haven’t taken a peek at the roster yet. And my translator—”

“You won’t need it,” Maggie assures. “It’s just us C-1’ers. Same as before, except Noah’s clockin’ in now. I think he's even more excited than you.”

Paul’s nod earns him a warm pat on the back before his friend leaves him be, alone once more inside a retired cargo closet he usually sticks to while stranded at the station. It’s not hard to say no to people’s endless requests if they’re not able to ask in the first place. Besides, his ability to deal with Gregory’s antics has dwindled down to zero over these past few months and he doesn’t want to lose even an inch of the hold he has on his current position. It means too much to him to just throw away, like everything else.

He scrubs a hand over his beard and stands. There aren’t any goodbyes he needs to give or any special care items he needs to pack. The only thing standing between Paul and the uncertain exhilaration he gets from exploring the vast darkness of the relatively unknown is one stop at the Gear Chamber.

The doors slide open with a barely-there hum when Paul nears the exit, buckles of his empty thigh holsters rattling with every swift stride into the hall. He holds the DataPad to his chest and allows the soft acoustic to fade through the distance.

 


 

Neon orange flashes steadily around the archway leading off the Docking Bay. It bathes every piece of cool steel in artificial warmth, bouncing off mirrored walls and the matte green suits of all the technicians zipping about.

Shouts across the bay contrast with the clear orders stated into buzzing comms. Even with the transparency behind the holographs the workers have their noses slipping into, they still bump shoulders with Paul, Tara, and Bob as they wait to ascend the ramp one at a time.

“Sorry about that,” Bob says genially when a particularly jittery tech nearly rams into their asses.

Paul offers an awkward smile when the woman meets his eyes, shuffling ahead a few inches. Tara, lost in a yawn, remains completely still. Bob elbows Paul and gestures to their exhausted companion with a grin. It only grows when Paul quips:

“Busy night?”

One of Tara’s dark eyes reopens just to squint in his direction.

“Stayed up talking to Denise, not that it’s anybody’s business.”

“Oh, sure.” Bob’s nod is an imitation of seriousness. “You definitely don’t love bragging about your lady love.”

“Only to the worthy. Don’t be jealous you spent the night alone. Uh, so did I, technically, but not really. We were on a vidcall for hours and...”

“Too much information,” Bob teases. He smooths out the front of his biosuit, adding, “And I definitely did not spend last night alone.”

“Too much information…” Paul mocks under his breath.

“Newsflash, Jesus: we aren’t exactly short on guys who’d like to get it in. I know three at this station alone who—”

Whatever Tara’s about to say is cut off by Gregory waving on the next in line, which luckily turns out to be Paul. He offers her a raised brow and a lazy shrug, then turns around to hop up the ramp, halting a few feet inside the Airlock.

An older man stands before him to inspect the form of his suit, checking to make sure everything’s molded to his body correctly. He gives a quick spiel about the helmets lined up carefully behind clear locker doors, though the instructions aren’t anything he doesn't already know.

A familiar friendly voice rings out through the corridor when he steps onto a pressure pad that draws a circular sensor farther down from the ceiling, its blue and yellow crosshairs getting a read on his biometrics.

“Welcome aboard, Executive Officer Rovia. Please state your designation number to enter the Bridge.”

“Zero, six, one, zero, seven, one, five.”

“Entry granted,” Georgie states near instantaneously.

And just like that, Paul’s surrounded by the full force of the NWESS Yarrow, the only place he’s ever come close to calling home. Even so, it hasn’t yet met that elusive distinction and he’s not sure it ever will, but those thoughts go quiet when he spots Maggie standing at the helm with Sasha, the two women snorting at the doodles Glenn projects from his HoloBand. Speakers down in Engineering blare a mix of clashing cymbals and electric strings, a classic sign of Aiden running last minute tests before launch. Paul can imagine Hershel shaking his head wherever’s he’s at, holding his tongue only because he knows they’ll have silence soon enough.

The air in the corridor is stale, with a hint of a chemical undertone lingering along the spotless railings. Tara’s name bounces off the walls as she’s signed in.

His boots thump against the steps that lead him on a path to the Research Room. Aaron’s already here, hunched atop a stool, checking the databank dutifully. He sends Paul a greeting without looking up.

“Did you already confirm the system?”

“Oh—uh, not yet, but I was…”

“It’s fine. I got it.” He takes his own seat on the opposite side of the round table, booting up the program with a slide from his gloved fingers. “Find anything interesting about where we’re going?”

“Not exactly.”

Paul looks up from the half-finished inputs he’s correcting.

“You’re not sure?”

“Well, I know what I saw, just not what it means.”

“And what was that? Did you tell Maggie?”

“I did,” he agrees quickly, because of course Aaron would never keep anything from her, “but she couldn’t figure it out either. And then the satellite picked up on some kind of anomaly. It seemed like a ship, and I haven't had a chance to show her...”

Paul’s fingers freeze, hovering over the tempered glass keyboard.

“Did any of the Directors send another crew out?”

“Maggie checked the log. If anyone did, it wasn’t listed.”

There’s a pregnant pause where all Paul can think is that perhaps someone had gone rogue; scooped up their meager belongings, their family, and stole a skew ship to disappear into the void. It wouldn't be the first time and it most certainly wouldn't be the last.

He blinks when Aaron clears his throat.

“It could just be a meteor that bears some kind of interference,” he offers, like it’ll smooth Paul’s worries instead of his own. “You never know.”

“That’s the point of this mission, right? To find out things like this.” He smiles with as much ease as he's currently able to muster. “We’ll be fine.”

“We will. And hey, at the expense of sounding too much like an annoyingly proud dad…” Aaron slides the screen he’d been looking at a little to the left, then presses a few buttons on his HoloBand to bring up a VidSnap. He leans across the table, prompting Paul to slide his own screen to the side. “I’ve been showing this to everyone. Now it’s your turn.”

It’s an image of Aaron standing next to his husband, Eric, with a little girl hanging onto both of their raised arms. She’s a lot bigger than Paul remembers, growing as fast as every child and yet still eliciting a twinge of shock at how long her chubby legs have gotten.

“We took it yesterday,” a grinning Aaron reveals.

The figures inside the image move easily; Aaron’s face contorting when Gracie’s hand tugs at his curls, Eric’s body crumpling in unheard laughter. There’s a shine in their eyes that captures the moment perfectly.

“How old is she?”

“Three. And fussy. Eric wanted to see us off like he always does, but she wasn’t having it. I think they’ve both been a little homesick, but Eric never admits it.”

“And what about you?”

It’s a strange concept to Paul, the ability to become homesick. He understands the way people must feel—Maggie and Hershel leaving Beth behind, Aiden going off without his mom or dad or brother, Noah missing a family as big as the group Paul grew up in, Sasha hiding her anxiety about being separated from her big brother with smooth professionalism—but the closest Paul has ever come to that feeling is an inherent yearning that reaches out like tendrils for something more, never curling around anything but empty air.

You can’t miss what you never had. You can only wish for it.

Sometimes, he does.

“I can make it halfway before I start crying over every vid Eric sends me,” Aaron answers, bringing Paul back to the present with a chuckle.

“Our allotment’s just over 300 hours. We’ll be back at the colony before you know it.”

“And then you’ll be over for lunch, right? Eric’s reached the bargaining stage. If you play 'test subject' for his newest creation, he’ll get you cleared access to Gregory’s liquor stash.”

“How would he—”

“I didn’t ask.” His hands are held up in playful surrender, so Paul smiles. “I don’t think any of us want to know.”

“Alright. Tell him I said we’ve got a deal.”

Paul resettles his screen back in front of his face, though Aaron remains staring at his family picture for several seconds longer, until the clashing music from downstairs cuts out. After a few more keystrokes to fill in the blanks, Paul hits submit. The flashing yellow light that indicates his turn to be called on glimmers against his black biosuit.

The system shows him who’s waiting for check-in and who’s fallen behind. There are green dots from the Cargo and Med Bays, red dots from Engineering and the Tech Lab, yellow from Research, the Armory, and the bridge. He figures Bob is close to signaling, but Aiden? They can’t ever be sure.

“Hey, would you answer when the Bridge calls?” Paul wonders, standing before he receives an answer. “I’m gonna look around down below.”

“Yeah, of course.”

Aaron flips to the last-call screen Paul had been on as he passes to get to the stairwell. The countdown begins to tick and the comms crackle to life with Maggie’s voice.

“Cargo, report.”

“Locked.”

“Armory, report.”

“Locked and loaded. Literally.”

“Med, report.”

“We’re locked.”

“Engineering, report.”

“Just standby.”

Paul breathes deeply through his nose at Aiden’s dismissal. What the hell had he been doing this whole time? The lift lowers Paul down so he can find out.

“Research, report.”

“Jesus got us locked.”

“Tech, report.”

“Just in time, Captain. We got a lock.”

Engineering is a mess, as it usually is when Aiden’s in their midst. He leaves tools scattered across the tarp, music cartridges stacked everywhere except where they should be, Nola Bar wrappers piled up near the trash compactor instead of tucked away inside, not to mention the distinct odor that hits Paul’s nostrils when he takes a spot near Aiden himself. Too much aftershave.

“Bridge, report.”

“Hey, little man,” Aiden greets, sporting his perpetual shit-eating grin. Paul's face doesn’t so much as twitch at the unwanted nickname. “Or should I call you Sir Yes Sir?”

“How about neither.” Peering over at the last-call screen has him tilting his head. Only one box is empty. “What’s the problem?”

“Nav’s locked,” Glenn affirms over the line.

“No problem. I was in a call.” Upon seeing Paul’s expression dip with annoyance, he elaborates. “Relax. It was Spence.”

“No offence, Aiden, but I don’t think your brother’s gonna miss you enough to call aboard. What were you really doing?”

“Deck locked. Ready when you are.”

They ignore Sasha’s statement to stare each other down. Paul never wavers, standing still and unblinking while Aiden bangs a wrench against his desk and sighs.

“Okay, look—Spencer gave me a little intel, something about another ship taking our course. We might be running into trouble.”

“And you think you should keep that a secret,” Paul notes wryly, but he can’t help finding dots to connect between Spencer’s claims and Aaron’s observations.

“Look, this isn’t a warship, and trying to make it one before launch wouldn’t go over well with anyone, would it?”

“Especially not your mom.”

“Leave her out of this, little man.”

“Or what?”

“Engineering, report.”

“Don’t,” Aiden pleads.

It’s surprising enough to get Paul to listen. He presses the toggle on his HoloBand just long enough to say: “We’re working on it. Give us five.”

“Short story shorter,” Aiden starts after a breath, “I tweaked one of the shields. We’ve got enough power to turn one beam lethal, so why not? Now we’re half defense, half offense. What’s wrong with that?”

“Oh, I dunno, maybe the fact that you weren’t authorized to screw around? Or the fact that having low shields without telling the Bridge might influence how they get us going? Or—”

“Jesus, we have to defend ourselves. You can’t tell me you don’t agree.”

“Maybe… maybe you should change it back. We can postpone the trip if you’re worried, talk to Gregory or Deanna before we do anything else. If something goes wrong—”

“It won’t be on you.”

“It will,” Paul disagrees. “It’ll be on me and only me. Because I knew and didn’t say anything. Because I’m Maggie’s second.”

“I can’t change it back, even if I wanted to. I modded the capacitor. We don’t have a spare.” He has the decency to sound ashamed, at least. Paul can’t figure out if it’s an act. Aiden’s always been good at that.

His teeth ache when they grind together, jaw clenching in an attempt at controlling his anger.

“Engineering, report,” Maggie demands for the third time.

Paul doesn’t hide his contempt when he slams his palm onto the button. Aiden’s smirk is punch-worthy.

“Sorry for the delay. We’re locked.”

“Understood. All systems are a go. Connecting with Hilltopia Control for launch. Pilot, ease us into the tunnel.”

The comms must switch over to the Bridge link because Paul can no longer hear the rundown. His shoulders sag in respite. The smack to his arm makes him tense up again.

Before Aiden can open his mouth, Paul does.

“Talk to Tara. She’ll keep it to herself, if that’s what you want, but she should know how to handle whatever it is you’ve done. It’ll be her working the gun if it comes down to it, not you.”

He doesn't stay for a response. The lift takes him back up to the empty stairwell where he can scratch at his beard and crack his knuckles without being scrutinized. Half his conscious tells him to go to the Bridge so he can tell Maggie about what just happened, warn her in case something goes wrong; the other half tells him to cleanse the worry from his mind so he can concentrate on the mission and enjoy their exploration. He's been looking forward to it since they touched down from the last outing

But first things first, he needs to grab Noah and go over what supplies they’ve got stocked in Storage.

“Yarrow’s left the station. Skew Core’s in action, full seven,” Sasha updates, right as Paul’s body jerks and sways at the sudden lurch.

“Hang onto your asses,” comes Maggie’s muffled reply.

Paul holds in a laugh at Hershel’s disgruntled: “Watch your mouth.”

Straightening against the wall, he brushes hair out of his face and takes a breath, setting his own course for the Cargo Bay. It’s time to work.

 


 

[Day 001]

Something hits his face. Something soft and squishy and uncalled for. A minute or so passes—he can’t really tell, as deep in this half-sleep as he is—before another soft, squishy, uncalled for thing smacks him in the ear. He groans.

“I know you can hear me, Rovia. Hello? I got your rations here. Thought you could have breakfast in bed ‘cause I’m nice like that. And it’s your favorite.”

Paul cracks one eye open at that, trying to see through the mess of hair tickling his face.

“Firecracker Crunch?”

“Yep. Nerd.”

Paul wipes the drool from his mouth, props up onto his elbows and clears the sleep from his throat.

“What do you need?” he asks, because what do you want sounds a little too rude for someone who brought him food.

“I need a little help in the Armory. I’m doing a sweep of the guns, making sure they’re all good to go, you know? But the cryo-blades…” Tara’s loose ponytail flops around with an annoyed head shake. “I fucking hate those things and I think they hate me, too.”

“They’re not sentient,” Paul teases.

Tara grabs the item she’d been hitting him with—a pillow from her bunk, he realizes—and whacks him one last time, right across the stomach.

“Yeah, right. Georgie’s everywhere. Anyway, you cover the pointy things and I’ll cover the ones that go bang. Sound good?”

She offers her fist to bump, which Paul does at an awkward angle. Then she grins and hands him a plastic bowl filled with red and yellow dyed oat balls, alongside a packet of powdered milk and a bottle of cooled water. He starts mixing them all together as soon as they’re in his hands.

Tara waits until he’s crunching to speak again.

“So… what do you think of our asshole friend’s big decision?”

“He told you,” he states, his words barely audible around a soggy mouthful.

“On your orders, right?”

“Didn’t think he’d follow through.” The spoon swirls through the muddied milk, poking at the broken balls. “He did what he did, but he wouldn’t be the one behind the trigger. I didn’t wanna bring you into it, I just—”

“I get it. You still wanna tell Maggie, though, don’t you? I thought about that, too. And then I thought about what that’d accomplish and all I came up with was that this whole thing would be a huge waste of time.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Paul mumbles after a swallow.

Tara knocks her boot against his socked foot. His biosuit’s still on, and yet he feels almost naked without all the extras. His belt's calling to him from his locker.

“When’s that ever been the case for you?”

Paul smiles at her point, unable to refute it. His youth is full of stupid, reckless decisions interspersed between the more logical, altruistic actions. Memories are a messy web he doesn’t always care to relive.

“We should keep quiet, then. That’s what you’re saying.”

“Maybe.”

“I just don’t like lying to Maggie.”

Tara sighs, shoulders slumping. Her thick brows draw in tight.

“Me neither, but I think I like Gregory bitching even less. You know how he’ll be if we waste time and resources. I don’t know how you put up with him so long.”

“Deanna used to say I had the patience of a saint. The old ones, from Earth.” The bowl, empty now save for a few drops of milk, is pushed through the gap in his bunk to rest on the shelf above a terminal. “She’s never seen me in training.”

“Or in those underground fights at the Aurora.”

When Paul smiles, it’s real and toothy. He enjoys finding new ways to beat his opponents by simply outlasting them, showing off to those who think he’s weak. No one speaks of his winnings outside the lounge. They're either too ashamed or too in amazed to gossip.

“Well.” Tara claps her hands together and stands from the stool she’d dragged over. “Ready to show those blades who’s boss? I’d ask Noah, but Bob’s already got him working in one of the labs.”

“I’ll see you there. Just need a few minutes to clean up.”

The doors shut behind her with a low hum, plunging him into an eerie silence. A couple of joints pop when he stretches and stands to shuffle towards the dresser where he digs into the drawer labeled Rovia. There’s no need for any of the sweats or t-shirts since he’ll be re-equipping his biosuit after a shower, so he grabs some undershorts and a pair of new socks instead. The door to the bathroom is on a track that needs to be pushed open by hand.

Once inside, Paul reaches for the pressure zip beneath the collar, which slackens the suit just enough to peel himself out of. The cone-shaped showerhead shoots out a steady stream as soon as he walks under. His body's clean enough for a rinse and his scalp only needs a quick scrub, so he’s finished after a total of seven minutes, redressed with his hair tied at the crown and the boots he’d kicked under his bunk firmly strapped in place. He sees Hershel in the Med Bay as soon as he enters the hall.

The older man, with his white beard and slicked back hair tied at the nape, sits in his cushioned chair, a stylus scribbling away at a DataPad atop the table. He laughs at something Paul can’t hear, probably a comment through the comms from Maggie or Glenn. Paul slips away undetected.

Fingertips press against his band, feet taking him swiftly towards the stairs at the end of the corridor.

“Georgie, may I request an update?”

“At our current core of Skew-7, Pilot Williams has taken us one light year ahead. Nearing two in approximately 3 hours, Officer.”

“Alright. Thank you.”

He’s amazed they’ve got nine, nearly eight more light years to traverse before they tether to the zone they’re supposed to explore. The newest Skew is a dream come true thanks to all the brilliant minds from the entirety of T.E.N. Alexandria alone had contributed a lot with the Monroes, Mamets, and Jenners guiding the process along. Hell, Paul himself had aided in the prepwork for a short time, just before it’d been sent off the assembly line.

And, now, here they are. Traveling years in mere hours. It’s both an incredible and frightening feat.

The Cargo Bay is a mess of empty crates on one side and entirely untouched ones on the other. Weaving around them all is easy enough, the hard part is trying to haul a particularly heavy container away from the Armory door so he can gain entry. A blood vessel nearly pops, he’s sure of it.

“Tara?”

“Yeah, I’m in here!”

“Okay, but how’d you get in there?”

“Crawled over it?” She pops her head around the corner to look at him with a cocked head. “I never feel the need to show off my amazing six pack like some people.”

“I don’t have a six pack,” he says after an ugly snort. “And you don’t either.”

“I do in my head, killjoy. Here—” One of the bigger cryo-blades is placed into his grip. “Let’s get this over with. Glenn’s setting up game for us to play later.”

 


 

The Yarrow reaches two light years a little after three hours, like Georgie said. Paul had helped Tara finished her task in half that time with only 15 firearms and 15 melee blades to account for.

They’d dumped them in a hover cart for Georgie to guide towards the airlock, where he and Tara could then fill each utility belt with one of each. Paul’s got daggers strapped to his already, one on each side, unique only to him although the others carry personalized objects, too; like Maggie's extra gun or Glenn having an expandable area lantern jammed into a pouch.

Paul had then queued a new task in Aiden’s list, sending a request through his band for the engineer to give the escape shuttle a once over. The noncommittal “yes” wasn’t promising, but so long as the guy got to it before the clock ticked over to a new day, Paul wouldn’t fret.

Maggie calling him and Aaron to the Bridge was another matter altogether.

The captain twists around in her chair when she hears two sets of feet clomping against the walkway’s metal grating. Her expression is grim and confused.

“What’s wrong?” Aaron asks before Paul has the chance.

It’s Glenn who explains.

“We’re picking up blips on the radar. Definitely another ship, but the reading’s not consistent. It’s fading in and out like… like they’re teleporting or something.”

“Not teleporting,” Sasha corrects from the helm. “Cloaking.”

The Yarrow’s been slowed to a glide, traveling below half of what their core is capable of. Keeping cautious.

“Who could it be?” Maggie wonders. “No one in T.E.N has that kind of device. Not that I know of, not yet.”

“There was a prototype. Schematics for Skew-8.” Sasha turns to look over her shoulder, addressing Paul and Aaron with her hand steady on the shifter. “I saw them in Gregory’s office a few months back. He didn’t hear me come in, too busy in a call, but he shut the board off once he saw me looking.”

“You think he gave it to someone?” Paul’s tone is more incredulous than he truly feels. Nothing about Gregory surprises him anymore. “How would he even get his hands on something like that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t. But I saw what it said, cloaking was part of it, and now we got an unidentified ship that can do exactly that?”

Sasha shakes her head, looks away to focus on steering them right.

“Look, it popped up again!”

Glenn points to his monitor, zooming in on the flickering shape that appears in front of their eyes. Aaron leans over to get a better look.

Maggie steps closer. “What is it?”

Paul knows what’s about to be said before the words float out into the heavy air.

“I, uh… I saw something about this before, when I was reviewing the satellite footage. I didn’t know what it was or what it might mean, but—”

“They could be friendly, whoever they are,” Glenn tries to soothe. “No contact, no interference…”

“That’s not always a good thing,” Maggie sagely reminds. “I’m thinkin’ we should reach out.”

“I don't know, Maggie. Ican take us back to full speed, maybe see if they follow or stay put. We don’t need to get involved if we don’t have to.”

Sasha’s idea is worth serious consideration and is probably the smartest move they could make, but what if it’s a hostile enemy? If they’re able to cloak themselves, it’s likely they have a Skew core, too; maybe something better. The Yarrow is made for speed, not strength. If they can’t run… Well, they’ll just have to resort to using their shield and whatever gun Aiden saddled them with.

But it’s the perfect time to tell their Captain. He has to—

“Um, Maggie?” Everyone on the Bridge, not just Maggie, swivels to look at Glenn. “They’re not going away this time. I think… it looks like they’re getting closer?”

Paul peeks at the monitor and, yeah, the blip isn’t as far away as it was a few seconds ago. He licks his lips. Bites at the inside of his cheek. Glancing up, he meets Maggie’s gaze, sees the indecision etched across her face. Paul gives her a nod. If they can talk this out, get information without force, it’ll always be the first option in his book.

“Aaron,” Maggie barks, all business in a flash, “Go back to Research. See if you can reach out, connect with their comms. Sasha, keep us at a crawl, but get ready for full throttle if need be. And Glenn, I’m gonna need you to tag ‘em for a scan. We gotta know exactly what we’re dealin’ with.”

The three do as they’re told, with Aaron jogging off the Bridge and Sasha fiddling with her grid. Glenn, however, cranes his neck to get a look at Paul.

“Jesus, can you give me a hand? We need to do this fast.”

He kneels down beside Glenn’s chair so he can get a good view of the monitor as he logs into the data with his HoloBand, displaying the screens side-by-side. It takes several long seconds to get coordinates for the other ship while it moves ever so closer, which is long enough for Paul to boot up the program he needs to send a scan out from the arm attached to the Yarrow’s underbelly. He hits the button on Glenn’s command and then focuses on connecting with the nav system so whatever results they receive can be projected dually.

His focus is on the scrambling letters, numbers, and symbols as the scanner tries to understand the information it’s eating, though Paul can still hear Maggie in the background, announcing their minor situation but telling everyone to remain where they are unless directed otherwise. Hershel puts out a little pushback until he’s assured it’s nothing serious.

When the ship’s internal statistics are generated, Paul thinks that’s about to change.

“Shit,” Glenn hisses.

Maggie perks up.

“You’ve got somethin’?”

“The serial.” Glenn’s hand digs into his thick hair, mussing its neatly combed structure. “It’s not registered. Could be raiders—”

“The Claimers?”

Glenn doesn’t have an answer for Maggie, only a shrug. Sasha offers a little more.

“If there’s a chance it’s them then I think we need to get the hell out of here. The only thing on their mind is what they can take from us—"

“Wait,” Paul whispers, eyes darting over a string he knows he wouldn’t mistake. “The MID. That’s a Sanctuary code.”

“How do you know?”

Glenn’s gaze makes the side of his face itch, the silence from his three companions making him swallow. He doesn’t want to get into too much detail, but…

“A friend needed some information a few years back. There was a summit at the plaza and some of their engineers attended. One got a little too close. Copying their files was easy.” He points at the monitor to get everyone’s attention centered back on the present. “They wouldn’t’ve changed something like this if they didn’t know there was a breach. I'm not sure who's inside, but the ship? That came from Sanctuary.”

“I’ve got a link,” Aaron interrupts through the comms. “Georgie can send out an invitation for dialogue if you’re ready, Captain.”

“They’re closin’ in. I need to know what we should do, and I need to know now.”

“You know how I feel,” Sasha states, gloves squeaking against the shifter where her fingers grip tight.

Glenn releases a breath.

“Maybe you should. If they’re in trouble, we can do something to help.”

“And if not?”

“Then you’ll get us out, Sasha. You have before.”

Paul wasn’t around for the crew’s early escapades. He trained for years, physically and mentally, then took on odd jobs to make credits and dabble with a variety of tasks. He’d met Maggie while she was exiting out of her own training and entering into an apprenticeship with Deanna Monroe herself.

Maggie had become a friend, a sister, a person Paul felt he could get close to in a way he hadn’t with anyone else. He’d been on ships before, dropping by other colonies for trades or evaluations, but it’d been Maggie that roped him into exploration. The perfect fit.

She doesn’t know everything about him, of course; not much of his past, not his inner struggles, not how lonely he feels when standing in the middle of the biggest crowd. But she knows enough, as he does with her, and so when she looks to him again he knows what she’s decided.

“Aaron,” she calls into the comm, “We’re ready.”

Paul clasps his hands together tight. He hopes for the best but must prepare for the worst, and he needs Tara’s help for that.

He wanders for several minutes until he finds Tara in the Cargo bay with a little help from Georgie. She's sitting atop the crates with Noah, passing a rubber ball back and forth. They look towards the door upon his entrance, bright smiles wavering at his quick pace.

“Hey, man. Things okay up front?”

“Yeah, um, it’s fine,” he tells Noah with a closed-lip smile. “Came across another ship. We weren’t expecting anyone this far out, but Maggie’s establishing a connection.” Sliding his attention over Tara, he adds in a quieter tone, “I think you should talk to Aiden.”

If it crosses her mind to argue, she doesn’t choose to do so. There’s no question over what this is about, either. Tara schools her expression and nods solemnly, tossing the ball back to Noah while sliding off the crate.

“Yeah. Sure.”

Paul and Noah watch her head straight for the ladder situated between two stairwells, sees the concerned twist of her mouth when she has to turn back around to descend properly. The only thing they hear for a minute or two is the thunk thunk thunk of her boots against the rungs.

“You got anything for me to do?”

“Not yet. Just stick around here, okay?”

Noah shrugs and begins bouncing the ball against the wall. Paul pats the younger man on the back and heads back the way he came, thumping and clanking in his rush to rejoin the trio on the Bridge for an update. He hears panicked whispers first. A tinny, sinister laugh greets him next, as well as the sight of a huge ship hovering right in front of their window. It looks like something built for transport, modded for war. Sanctuary’s signature model.

The Claimers are thieves, but they couldn’t steal this. They don’t have time to think of the implications, not when their exchange seems to have gone to shit already.

“You don’t have to do this,” Maggie tries, exasperated and sincere. “We already told you, there’s nothin’ here—”

“Now, that? That is a damn lie! And I told you, missy, we don’t tolerate liars—"

“She’s right,” Paul cuts in swiftly, practically jumping to land by Bob in front of the mic without any real knowledge of what's going on.  “This is an NWESS. That means exploration. I’m sure you know that, right? Negan must have a few of his own.”

Maggie squeezes his arm, but it’s not a true warning. He holds his breath while waiting for a reply.

Another laugh.

“Well, howdy, sport. Nice guess there, but we don’t work for some damn director! We’re all free and in need of what you got.”

“We can turn around right now and head back to the ASZ, and if you come with us—”

“We’re not here for jokes, sport. And we’re not here for made up stories. Make us a deal or we’ll blast you away.”

“Food,” Paul offers evenly. “You let us pass without trouble, we’ll give you food.”

“And weapons. I know you got some of those.”

“Ten firearms,” Maggie lies. “One for each crew member. We don’t usually see anythin’ worth shootin’ when we’re goin’ places others won’t.”

“Throw those in, too. That’ll be a start.”

“What else do you want?” Maggie snaps. “The floor we walk on? Our beds?”

“Maybe all of the above. Or… or maybe I just want you dead. Hell, that’s all I want, come to think. We've been out here for a while and my boys need some entertainment.”

If veins could freeze, Paul thinks his might. He can’t fully comprehend the situation they’re in or how they’d been sucked into this downward spiral, he only knows they need to claw their way out before it’s too late.

When the lights on the claimer ship brighten, revealing a canon pointed at the Yarrow’s hull, Glenn jumps to his feet but restrains himself from running to his wife’s side.

“Georgie, raise the shields! Authorized by zero, two, zero—”

Sasha reverses as Maggie attempts to give the AI an order, but they’re both interrupted by the shaking of their ship while it pops and screeches, hit by some type of blast that rattles their bodies and nearly throws them off their feet. Maggie grits her teeth and continues while Sasha fights to regain control.

“—Two, three, one, five!”

The creaking of the destruction continues, though the next blast is absorbed by their weakened shield. Sasha guides them to the left by shifting the speed higher and higher.

“Georgie, full shields,” Maggie instructs once more, confusion lacing every word.

“Full shields activated, Captain.”

“That’s not right, Georgie. I see it here. Only one’s online.”

“No other shields detected, Captain.”

“Maggie…” Paul whispers, unable to help how guilty he sounds now that the truth is coming out. “Aiden disrupted one of the shields to turn it into a gun. Half defense, half offense. That’s what he said. And I should’ve told you, but—It’s too late now.”

“Jesus…”

“I know. We can talk about it later, just—just give Tara the word to fire and she will.”

“Tara?”

“She knows how. Trust me.”

Maggie looks him over with a frown, trying to understand what he’d told her and why he hadn’t sooner. The constant beeping of the crew waiting to reach her tears their focus away, placing it firmly back at their attempted escape.

The next blast triggers the warning alarm.

She hits the mic.

“Yarrow, this is Captain Rhee. We’re under attack and our only defense is escape—”

“They’ve got the 8!” Glenn shouts, fists banging the monitor where Paul can see a blip reappear.

Maggie sucks in a breath. She curls an arm around her stomach.

“Tara, shoot whatever the hell you’ve got. I need Aiden and Bob checkin' the damage, and Aaron callin' home—”

“Maggie, honey,” Hershel interjects. “We need to prepare our people for the shuttle.”

“Not yet. Daddy, we can do this.”

“We can,” Hershel agrees, “but we’ve got to be ready for another outcome. I’m passing out helmets and belts. We won’t have time if things get worse.”

“Okay...” she breathes. “Alright. Have Noah help you. It’ll be faster with two.”

“I will. I love you, sweetie.”

“Daddy—” A pause, a shaky breath, a glance at Glenn. Another blast, from their own ship this time. Returning fire. “I love you, too. Be safe.”

“Jesus, come here!”

Paul doesn’t ask why Glenn’s waving him over, it’s not hard to guess when he sees what the Navigator has zoomed in on: an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

“Send it to Sasha," Paul agrees. "We’ll get through that easy. Them? Not so much.”

Glenn doesn’t hesitate in pinging the map to Sasha. She needs a mere handful of seconds to look it over and correct her course, shifting gears and turning knobs that Paul has no clue how to operate.

“Shit,” the Pilot spits when the Yarrow tilts on more impact. Maggie rushes to help her stabilize.

Paul can’t rest on his laurels any longer.

He races off the Bridge, nearly bumping into Noah and Hershel as they enter the airlock just off the door. They start by securing helmets onto their heads, connecting hoses between valves and the slim oxygen tanks, which then straps onto their backs. The belts, which he and Tara had filled earlier, are snapped to their waists.

Helmets for the rest of the crew get tinkered with just enough to make it easier to stick on and go. Three plus their accompanying belts are placed inside the hover cart, sent down to Engineering by Georgie. Noah grabs Aaron’s and darts off to Research, while Jesus and Hershel haul the rest to the Bridge, ignoring the shrill system warnings and the periodic rocking of being hit. Even Tara’s shooting, assuming Aiden’s addition is accurate and useful, can’t do much to save them.

“They’re still on the radar, but the asteroids are slowing them down,” Glenn informs as soon as they step into range. He grabs the objects from Hershel and immediately settles in to get Maggie geared up. Paul does the same for Sasha while Hershel waits to start on Glenn.

“Even if we get far enough out to lose them, there’s no place to dock. No place to hide. Did Aaron get ahold of Gregory?”

Maggie tries the comms, but there’s so much static that none of them can understand anything clearly, if there’s even a response at all. Paul knows what they’re all thinking because he’s thinking it, too. It would take a over twenty-four hours for the station to send a rescuer for them, if they could prepare one as quickly as they could get a distress call, which they can’t. And the shuttle? Sasha’s right; with nowhere to land, what’s the use?

“We have to try,” Hershel says, soft and sudden, as if he can read Paul’s mind. He wouldn't be surprised if he could.

Despite the interference with the comms, Georgie is still active enough to deliver a message from all over the whole ship: evacuate.

“Get everyone to the shuttle.” Sasha can’t look to Maggie as she speaks, too busy with the asteroid belt to look away. “I’ll follow in five.”

“Georgie, request a convergence at the Airlock.”

“Understood, Captain.” The AI’s voice echoes through the speakers: “Crew of the Yarrow, evacuation is pending. Your Captain requests all to meet in the airlock for preparation.”

Maggie, Glenn, Hershel, and Paul leave Sasha at the helm to step outside again, entering the airlock like Georgie said, four pairs of hands unlatching the shuttle doors. They have to pull the curtain aside, meaning that Aiden hadn’t yet come to check it over like Paul asked him to. There’s nothing to be done about it now.

The shuttle is very sparse in content. There are a couple of stray guns mounted up on the wall next to a first aid kit and some extra tubing, a box of rations, and a handful of sleep rolls, but not much else; just room for the crew to pile into and a few sectioned areas with the necessary equipment to hopefully make it home—or into an area the station can retrieve them from.

Aaron and Noah make it first after them, with Tara, Bob, and Aiden on their heels. Questions fly from their tongues, but Maggie doesn’t have many answers. The last sveral minutes have been total chaos. They have to go, that’s all there is, and they have to keep calm.

It’s hard to do when Georgie announces their shield has reached zero percent.

The next blast from Claimers creates a hissing sound near the Airlock that’s somehow more worrisome.

“Sasha!” Bob yells. “Sasha, come on!”

The moment she leaves the helm is easy to discern by the way the Yarrow begins to lean, the sound of metal scraping metal a pain to their ears. But the Pilot emerges and joins them inside the Airlock and Maggie taps the keypad with a quick combination of numbers that should shut them safely inside.

But it doesn’t.

“Georgie, seal the doors.” A beat. No response. “Georgie?”

Paul huffs in disbelief because of course their fucking AI is down now, too. Everything’s falling apart. They might be too far down that bottomless hole already.

Glenn is the first to react.

“Look, forget the doors. We can just get inside the shuttle, okay? Isn't there a way to launch it manually?”

“Nothing in here will open the hatch,” Sasha counters.

But Bob, slipping his gloved hand into hers and with all his usual optimism, replies: “We might still be logged in. And all of us together? Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Sasha squeezes his hand but shakes her head.

“I don’t believe in luck.”

Through the window of his helmet, Bob grins.

“I do. That’s how I met you.”

“It doesn’t have to be luck.” Maggie faces Aiden, points up to the ceiling where the hatch in the Airlock would be. “Can you open that by hand? From out there?”

Aiden scoffs.

“If I had the right tools, maybe, but I don’t. And I’m not planning on getting sucked through a hole.”

“You’d rather get blown up instead?” Glenn inquires incredulously.

Before Aiden can argue, Paul jumps in.

“Master controls! We can override, do it from the Bridge.”

“I hate to say it, but Aiden’s right.” Tara’s arms wrap around herself while speaking. “It’ll open the hatch and anyone outside the shuttle is gonna get sucked through. That doesn't sound like a great solution.”

Paul’s heart jumps high enough to get stuck in his throat, but his next words come freely.

“I’m the EO. Not a doctor or a captain or a pilot. I don’t specialize in anything because I’m supposed to do everything, or as near to it as I can. And that means this.”

“No! No, I’ll go,” Glenn volunteers. If Maggie’s hands weren’t covered, Paul would think her nails could tear a hole through her husband’s suit. “I’m faster.”

“Debatable,” Paul retorts. It doesn’t sound as humorous as it should.

“Hey, wait, alright?” Noah’s voice cracks when he raises it, belying his age. “The gravity’s still on. If we get something, tie it around my waist, hook it to the shuttle, I can get in and out. Make it back in time. And yeah, I mean me. Maybe I look scrawny, but I’m not weak. And I'm here for a reason."

“It’s a risk,” Bob notes without sway.

“It always is. Once you step off that station, you risk your life.” Hershel is calm, the arm around Maggie’s shoulders strong. “It’s every moment out here, we don’t have a choice. The only thing we can choose is what we’re risking it for. That’s a choice for everybody to make. If we’re going with the boy’s plan, I could take his place.”

“You’re a doctor." The teen shakes his head. "We need you.”

“We need you, too.”

Paul can’t see through the side of Noah’s gear, but he imagines Glenn’s words coaxing a smile from the teen.

“Yeah, for this. So Noah to the rescue then, huh? I'm good. Does anyone got any rope?”

They don't wait around any longer, pulling tubing from the wall to attach one end around Noah, the other wrapping tight around a metal bar on the back of the door. Maggie types her designation into Noah’s HoloBand for him to use for the override.

“Hurry,” she whispers.

They follow Noah out just long enough to force open the unsealed Airlock doors, leaving a gap big enough for him to slip through. They shut themselves back inside, keeping it unlocked. The whole ship shudders as they stand still, trucking along at its slowest speed without anyone to man the helm, barely holding itself together.

Every system seems to be out, the Claimer’s are bound to have navigated through the asteroid belt by now, and the only way out is a half-cocked plan. Minutes tick by, heavy breaths and the Yarrow’s alert system keeping the crew company—until one of those is silenced by a deafening bang.

They’ve been hit again, knocking out power to the main ship, but shouts of panic are replaced with joyful cheers when they hear the telltale sign of the latch’s hiss as it releases. Through the small, circular pain of glass they can see out of, they witness objects from the corridor getting pulled towards the gap in the door by the sudden release of air and depletion of gravity.

Come on, come on, Paul thinks, squeezing his hands together. The tube holding Noah, despite being crushed in the jamb, is sturdy enough to hold. When they spot him shimmying his way through the door, the cheers grow louder.

“Start the launch!”

The latch is opening wider and wider, eager to draw them out into space by force if they don’t release themselves. So Sasha slides into the adjoining room to do as instructed as all the rest reel Noah in closer, going slow to let him grab onto anything and everything he can in order not to go flying upward.

Paul catches sight of a 10 appearing on a nearby terminal, followed by a 9 and an 8 and a 7…

Noah continues to struggle on the outside. Glenn and Tara and Maggie yell the loudest, egging him on, as if he could hear them.

“Open the door! Open the door, we can pull him in!”

Paul's not sure who says that, all the voices are blending together now. The timer doesn’t agree with their assessment.

The shuttle groans, tilts on its base.

There’s a 5 and a 4 and a 3…

“What are you doing? Aiden, move! Open the fucking door—”

Screaming. Noah’s face in front of the window through his helmet, so close but so far. Another groan. Aiden’s hand on the button, bolting the door, snapping the tube.

“No! Don’t—Don’t let go!”

Paul doesn’t see the 2 or the 1. All he sees is Noah, hitting the ceiling, being dragged across just before the shuttle rockets upward, only half on its on accord.

Glenn’s fists against the glass leave his ears ringing.

He sucks in a sharp breath when hitting the ground.

It can’t be real. Can it? They just lost Noah—he’ll be torn apart with the rest of the ship or left to drift and spin until his body shuts down—and it can’t be real, but it is. One of the first things he’d learned, growing up, was that it might only take a second for everything to change. On little second to ruin everything. He’d never felt it more than he does now.

Sasha stumbles into the sectional wall, looking frazzled. Her gaze darts around briefly, landing on every face. Except the only one that’s missing.

“What happened?” she chokes. The conclusion is obvious, but she doesn’t want to make that guess. No one answers.

Glenn, however, can’t remain silent.

“You son of a bitch!”

He scrambles to his feet, grabs onto Aiden’s shoulders for leverage, then knees him in the gut. The Engineer grapples with him after doubling over, Maggie shouting herself hoarse. She grabs at her husband, holding him back, so Paul takes her lead and jerks Aiden far enough away to be able to plant himself between the two.

“Everyone, stop! It’s over!” His hands slap into heaving chests, pressing hard. There are tears on Glenn’s cheeks, almost invisible through the helmet, and yet it’s Aiden that sobs.

“I’m sorry, okay? I'm sorry. But it was him or us!”

“It should’ve been you,” Tara tells him, quiet and merciless and empty.

No, Paul thinks. It should’ve been me.

“Jesus is right.” Maggie’s voice mirrors Tara’s. He thinks she's heard his thoughts, for a second, and expects a hardness when he looks up. But she's blank and only responding to what he'd said aloud. “It’s done. We can’t go back. We have to keep movin’ forward, send a distress signal and… and wait.”

“I’ll try to steer us around Mars. Maybe throw the Claimers off, buy us some time, but someone’ll need to work on reaching the station.”

“I will,” Bob volunteers.

The Pilot and the Tech disappear again, leaving Paul with Maggie, Glenn, Hershel, Tara, and Aaron to huddle in the entry. A piece of tubing remains hanging from the bar. Hershel undoes it, dropping the rubber to kick it out of view. The air of finality is stifling.

Paul doesn’t look out the little window to see the scrap they’re leaving behind. Maybe he should’ve, however, because it’s not long after he turns around that the shuttle is crashed into by the cloaked Claimer ship.

They’re shoved faster than they’d been going, knocked down again hard. Sasha and Bob call out, but the volume of a second impact is too loud to hear anything over.

A third strike comes, shoves them closer and closer to the forbidden planet Earth, cuts their lights and sends them reeling upward with a shift in gravity—just like Noah on the Yarrow. Six pairs of hands clutch at anything in range in an helpless bid to keep them steady while the shuttle spins dangerously, pipes and cogs popping loose to soar towards each floating body.

“Aiden, the gen—” Paul finds himself saying. He can’t finish the thought because in another second, as pivotal as they are, what was merely a simple blackout becomes utter oblivion.

Chapter Text

Metallic. A strong scent seeping in through his helmet’s filtration system. It’s distinct enough to stir Paul into wakefulness, reminding him of the air in the Aurora, the cots in the ward at ASZ, the taste in his mouth when he was too young to know why people wanted to make others bleed.

He winces at the feeling in his head. The sounds coming from all around are muffled to his ears, layered beneath slow breaths. It takes a couple of tries to open his eyelids, but when he manages…

There’s a hole in the metal he’s looking at, an opening for a strange stream of light to break through and cast across the web-like crack in his helmet’s window, inches from his face. The bridge of his nose is tickled by a drop of something that slides down from his forehead.

Wreckage shifts beneath and around Paul during his attempt at sitting up. He’s not a fan of the wooziness this action affords him, but he swallows the nausea so he can slump across his sprawled legs without spitting up over his beard. It’s almost impossible when his eyes become glued to the gruesome image on his right.

Aiden. Unmoving. Blood pooling around pipes impaling his stomach and chest, splattered against his gear. They’ve crashed somewhere and it’s risky to yank his gloves off, but Paul does just that, doing the same with Aiden’s so he can check, skin on skin, for a pulse.

There isn’t one.

Paul shuts his eyes, bites his lip and wonders… who else could’ve ended up like this?

A female voice screaming for a doctor gives him enough motivation to find out.

The first few steps have him tripping up, unprepared for the gravity that has his feet feeling like they’re bogged down by weights. But he goes faster and faster through the room he’d been knocked into, coming into the entryway where he finds Aaron and Tara also trying to rise. Once they’re helped up, the three clomp into the room that Sasha and Bob had last been in—and there they still are, near the warped center console, with Maggie, Glenn, and Hershel knelt around.

“Oh, fuck…” Tara hisses first.

It’s then that Paul realizes Bob has met the same fate as Aiden. The meager box of medical supplies in Hershel’s lap won’t do anything for the metal shard plunged into Bob’s abdomen.

“It’s okay,” Bob tells every face staring down at him. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay, Bob. You’re—”

“Look at the glass, alright? Mine’s draining fast, but being empty just means it’ll get filled up again. For someone else.”

“For who?” Sasha asks on a sob she can’t strike away. “For me?”

“I hope, ‘cause this might be a nightmare, but those end. They shouldn’t end who you are. It won’t. And that is just this dead man’s opinion.”

The Pilot moves one of her hands from his wound to slip into his grip, squeezing shaky fingers. Hershel does the same for the other hand.

“I’m sorry,” the older man says.

Bob’s chest stutters with a breath he can’t quite catch.

“From one doctor to… to another? I already knew.”

“Save your breath,” Sasha requests, and of course he doesn’t listen.

“Naw. I’ll keep… talking ‘til you… smile…”

Paul can only assume she does by the way Bob sighs and allows his eyes to finally close. Sasha leans over his body to ghost a kiss over the glass covering his mouth. When she pulls back, Bob’s chest is still.

Maggie drags Sasha into her arms and cries right alongside her.

Three down, how many more to go? Paul doesn’t know where they are, what planet or rock they've wrecked on or how they’ll escape. There’s gravity here, but what about oxygen? Their tanks only have enough for a day or two, though they might not make it as far as that if the Claimers kept on their trail.

They need to take a peek outside, see what elements they’re up against. If they can get Georgie working on their bands, chances of survival could increase exponentially.

Paul catches Tara’s eye in a meaningful glance, then taps Aaron’s shoulder to nod towards the dented arch. The three silently excuse themselves, with Glenn following a second after to meet by the door, which is open an inch or two and letting in more of that blinding light. The little window is too smeared and shattered to see anything out of.

“Aiden’s dead,” Paul says lowly, needing everyone to be not only on the same page, but the same line. “We don’t know if our signal got to Gregory in time, but if the secondary generators are in good enough condition, we might be able try again. Think the two of you could do that?” He looks between Tara and Glenn, receiving somber nods as answers. Aaron jumps in with another idea.

“I can try connecting with Georgie’s main node. Hilltopia’s, at least. I know we’re probably too out of range, but it might be just as worth giving a shot.”

“We should look around outside first, don’t you think? I mean, maybe there’s some more bad shit out there just waiting to kill us, but it’s gotta be fifty-fifty… right?”

Glenn’s eyes are wide and reddened, his mouth a grim line, but the youthfulness of his face holds so much hope and optimism. Same as his suggestion.

“I’ll go,” Paul decides. “I’ll do a sweep and—”

“It should be me. That's what Crisis Response is for.”

“No way. I don’t know where the hell we are, but I’m a navigator for a reason. It won’t be hard—”

“Whoa, hold up,” Tara chimes in. “Whoever’s going, I’ll back you up, but—”

The arguing is cut off by the unexpected squealing of the shuttle’s door being flung open, practically yanked off its hinges in the process. That blinding light pours in at full force, creating a nasty glare across Paul’s helmet. His fingers curl around the hilt of his blade instinctively—

“Good gracious ignacious, have we got a party in here.”

The Claimers? It must be. Not the leader they’d been speaking with on the Yarrow, though the cadence is close in resemblence, but no doubt one of his many men. Paul wants to turn, embed his weapon into one of their throats, force them to lose what they just lost, but that’s the anger talking. Maybe the fear. Both can make a person stupid and he can't afford to be that right now.

“Hands up, buttercup,” that same jovial voice prompts.

The four comply grudgingly, leaving their guns and blades to rest snugly at their belts. Out of the corner of his eye, Paul checks to make sure the three in the other room are hidden well enough that these strangers would have to enter the wreckage to see them.

His spine straightens when he feels something sharp poke into it. Then, a new voice—low and rough like gravel, hard in its command.

“Back up. Now,” he growls to Paul, who just so happens to be closest to the door.

Slowly he does what he's told by shuffling backwards, twisting to see what he might trip over. The immediate second one of his feet leaves metal to sink into some type of squishy ground, the other man’s hand slips beneath the strap holding the oxygen tank to his suit and pulls. Paul nearly falls onto his ass with the force of it. A harsh shove keeps him upright.

“Turn ‘round. Slow.”

The sharpness of whatever this guy’s got at his back slides across his suit when Paul’s one-eighty begins. His pupils begin their adjustment to allow his brain to get a read on their surroundings. Trees, bushy and full of blossoms, taller than any at Alexandria’s atrium; mud beneath his boots, a thick rich brown that the soil inside Hershel’s greenhouse never reaches; the expanse above them, as endless as their very own outer space—light and airy and full of fluffy clouds Paul has only ever seen in simulated demonstrations.

And the people.

The first face he sees, up close and almost personal, is that of the gruff guy holding some kind of contraption in between their chests.

There’s hair hanging in front of his face, curling around high cheekbones and little ears, brown with hints of auburn in the light,  covering eyes that are narrow and puffy and… blue? Gray? There’s a small, rounded nose above thinly pursed lips, with a mole near one of the crooked corners. A patch of graying hair scales a long, squared chin.

He’s dirty and wearing dark, worn-out clothes under a wrinkled leather vest. Bare face, bare hands, bare arms—Paul tries not to let his eyes widen at the sight of such bulging muscles, which seem to twitch beneath lightly golden skin as if unappreciative of such open observation.

A poke in his chest gets Paul’s gaze snapping back up to the scruffy man, the curious tilt of his head making broad shoulders tighten and hitch. Another man steps up beside his friend, this one with thick curls and a near white beard, and he places the muzzle of a gun-shaped object against the crack in Paul’s helmet. It makes a strange clicking noise.

“Tell your friends to come on out. We don’t wanna have to go in and get ‘em.”

It’s probably because they’re as wary of the shuttle as the crew is about this entire setting, but he holds his tongue, licks his lips, keeps his arms high above his head. His attention is drawn back over to Scruffy while calling out calmly:

“Glenn? It’s alright. Let’s do what they say.” For now.

“You heard your man.” Paul twists at the hip to see the speaker, who’d been the first one they’d heard after the door had been yanked open. He’s large with a wrinkled forehead, unruly mustache, and flattened orange hair. He’s got a twang to his speech like the two at Paul’s front do. Like Maggie and Hershel. “You better make room for my freckled ass if you ain’t gonna step yours out that door!”

“Okay! We’re coming—”

“One at a time,” the guy next to Scruffy specifies. It makes him sound like a leader, and yet he’s not the one who wanted to kill them all, at least not when they were on the Yarrow. There's no telling about now, but there’s also no warship in sight...

Pattering, one pair of footsteps after the other until three of Paul’s crew are paraded out to stand in a line behind him. He wants to see them, but the gun in his face and Scruffy’s weapon against his chest are masterful deterrents. Not to mention the other strangers standing around, all of them armed.

It’s in that instant that three women slink around like predators. One has a scar on her face, long hair tied back beneath a tattered cap; one has braids, keen eyes, and a sword; and the last one has some type of soft armor wrapped around her torso, a wooden arch in her hands with something akin to a mini spear primed to be catapulted by a string.

And the men? There’s Scruffy, for one, with Leader Curly and Big Red, but there’s another hanging farther back, watching blankly with a sharpened staff dug into the dirt.

This is Earth, it hits him then. Well and truly. They’d been hurtling towards the abandoned planet after getting slammed that last time, but he hadn’t imagined they’d actually make it, that there’d be signs of life in any shape and form, never mind every. It shouldn't be possible.

Scruffy and Leader Curly share a look that speaks volumes despite Paul hearing nothing. Then he’s being stared at again, and the one that’s steely-gazed and mere inches away from his chest addresses him.

“Got any traps in that piece a junk?”

“No.”

“You sure? ‘Cause if you’re lyin’, it’s gonna be the last damn thing you ever do.”

Paul opens his mouth to reply. Glenn cuts him off.

“I’m sorry, but um… you guys can talk?”

“You hear words comin’ outta my mouth?” Scruffy barks.

“It’s just—We can understand you, so do you have a translator? An AI?”

“A what?” the woman with braids wonders.

Suddenly, all eyes are on Glenn.

“AI? Artificial intelligence? We’ve got Georgie, so—”

“Who’s Georgie?” It’s Big Red that time.

Paul can’t hear Glenn gulp, but he’s sure it happens.

“Georgie? It means galactic electronic operating system and reactive intelligence entity. You don’t... you don't have one of those?”

Their blank stares are disconcerting. And compelling. And Paul can't stay quiet.

“You're speaking English. Same as us, except we call it C-1. And we’re on Earth…”

“Yeah, right outside Gia,” the woman with the cap answers, like it should be obvious.

“Trespassin’,” Scruffy adds.

“Okay, look—”

Leader Curly doesn’t give Aaron the time of day.

“Abraham, Rosita,” he addresses Big Red and the one who’d mentioned Gia, “you two go on inside. See what they got.”

“Wait, don’t!” It’s Glenn again. Desperate. Abraham steps closer to the navigator to loom dangerously, but the younger man isn’t easily intimidated, not like he used to be, which means they could very quickly be looking at a fight.

Paul leans closer to scruffy and makes sure to catch his eye.

“Listen, we’ve got others inside still. There’s no point in hiding it if you’re going in, but please, don't do anything to hurt them.”

“Why shouldn’t we?”

Leader Curly nods at his friend’s question. Cocks his head. The gun against Paul’s helmet never wavers.

“They didn’t come out when we said, did they? Could’ve been back there this whole time, riggin’ somethin’ up—”

“They weren’t,” Aaron insists. “They aren’t.”

Scruffy looks over at him, as does the woman with the braids. Her gaze lingers, however, while his drops back down to Paul after a handful of seconds, looking for an explanation from him instead. He doesn’t know why he has to be the one to give it, but he doesn’t want to make the wrong move by staying silent.

“We were a crew of ten. There’s seven of us now and—and two bodies.”

“The third?” Leader Curly inquires.

Paul looks down to his boots, the way he’s muddy-toe to muddy-toe with the guy still watching him unblinkingly, when Tara says:

“He didn’t make it this far.”

The gun clinks against his helmet’s window when it’s finally moved away, causing Paul to look up in time to see another silent exchange, first with Leader Curly and Scruffy, then the former with the braided woman. They come to an undisclosed understanding.

“Bring ‘em out,” Abraham and Rosita are told. “Only do what you have to.”

Paul hears the two clomping away, the distant sound of their words giving Paul enough assurance to relax minutely. But Scruffy must sense this because he chooses that exact moment to reach over and pull Paul’s gun from the holster on his belt. It’s a pulse pistol called Bandit that’s silver with automated sights and orange rounds that look like miniature suns. Lethal beyond measure.

“Uh, I don’t think you should—”

Scruffy doesn’t listen to the attempted warning, turns the gun over in one hand, grubby fingertips feeling over polished metal. He slides over a button on the back—the safety—perhaps by accident, making everyone flinch when his thumb taps the trigger and the weapon whirs to life, firing out into the trees. It severs one thick branch off completely, knocking it to the ground with a screeching snap.

“Yeah…” Paul trails awkwardly. “Maybe don’t do that again.”

Scruffy gives him a long, withering look, clearly unimpressed with the advice and also probably insulted. He looks to Leader Curly, giving a jerk of his head, and suddenly that strange gun is raised back in front of the damaged glass blocking Paul's face. Then, turning away from him, Scruffy hangs his own unidentified weapon across his shoulder by a thin strap, grabs the pulse pistol with both hands, and fires at the tree without the sights switched on.

Zyoo-zyoo-zyoo-zyoo.

The trunk is shot to splinters, crumbles under its own weight, leans until it hits the ground with a loud boom that produces bone-shaking vibrations.

A high whistle cuts through the air, followed by a chortle from Abraham to signal his return.

“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s left nut! What kinda firepower are you bowl-heads packin’?”

“Just get it away from them,” Rosita grumbles.

The lady with the braids, the one with the armor, and the man with the stick immediately come forward to join in on the confiscation of the crews’ weapons. Paul twists to catch the others joining the line. Maggie frowns, Sasha glares, and Hershel watches everything and everyone. He jerks back around when Scruffy struggles to rip the cryo-blade from its sheath, his hands instinctively dropping onto thick biceps in warning.

It’s not until Paul’s favorite daggers are touched that he resists by trying to shove the taller man back, which earns him his very own pistol getting knocked into his gut. He swears he can feel the heat of the previous discharge all the way through his biosuit.

“Keep your hands to yourself, sunshine,” Scruffy warns.

“Those are mine,” Paul replies unwaveringly, fingers curling around deft wrists. “You can have the gun and the blade, but the daggers? Those are mine.”

Leader Curly knocks his helmet with the gun, jostling his head. Paul bites his tongue as the man's face twitches with a scowl that's waiting to happen.

“Yeah? And maybe now they’re ours.”

It’s a threat he means, Paul can tell, but there’s something in his eyes—blue like Scruffy’s, but a little more green than gray, a little more bright than stormy—that says this is out of necessity, not sadistic pleasure.

“Are you the Claimers or not?” Sasha finally asks, riding a similar train of thought to Paul’s. “You want our stuff, but I don’t see a warship around.”

“Claimers?” It’s the woman with braids again, questioning their words, wanting to learn. They can use that to their advantage and if Paul thought of it, then he knows Maggie has, too. She jumps on it.

“They’re a group of raiders. Wanted what we had, then wanted us dead. We crashed here ‘cause of them. So, if you’re gonna do somethin’ with us, then do it. We’re probably gonna die here either way.”

“Where’d you come from?”

The woman puts her blade away and steps closer to Maggie, which Leader Curly watches raptly.

“The Eden Network. Hilltopia Station, transport division of the Alexandria Safe Zone.”

She gets a blank look in return, so Glenn clarifies: “Space. We came from space.”

“What, like aliens?”

Paul is surprised that it’s Scruffy who asks this, his expression inquisitive and serious.

Abraham guffaws.

“Aliens? You just pull that outta your ass like Big Rover the other day, or’ve you been lettin’ little Mullet-Man fill your peanut will little Mullet-Stories?”

“I know what I saw. That big blood suckin’ prick down by Yacket was real. And this? People fallin’ from the sky? Eugene talks a lotta junk, but he ain’t tellin’ stories, dipshit.”

Paul finds himself biting back an amused smile, despite not really following the conversation. It catches Scruffy’s attention, deepens his glower.

“We’re not aliens,” Glenn corrects.

“I dunno about that…” Paul’s rebuttal makes Scruffy look at him a little more softly. But only just a little. “Alien as in extraterrestrial, right? We’ve gone out looking before. Never found anything, but by definition—outside of Earth—that’d be us. Not them.”

“See?”

That one little slice of approval from Scruffy feels oddly like a win, but he doesn’t step out of Paul’s personal space. It gives him a better chance to observe without repercussions, and he does so because even with how much Scruffy looks like everyone else Paul’s known his whole life—that is to say, human—there’s still something undeniably unique about him. About all of them. Maybe it's the fact that they're not supposed to be here, that they're not supposed to exist. Or maybe it's something else.

“So… you’re not the Claimers,” Sasha concludes. “You’ve got nothing to do with them.”

“No. We don’t,” the braided woman assures.

“And you’re not in the business of killing strangers?” Hershel wonders next. He's got the right amount of humor to make Leader Curly’s lips quirk before he answers.

“Not usually. Not unless we have to.”

“Good.” Maggie actually sounds pleased. “’Cause neither are we.”

“Unless we have to,” Paul repeats. There’s no malice behind the curve of his mouth, which makes Scruffy’s eye twitch, so he feels safe enough to joke now that the tension is subsiding. To put them all onto common ground is a good move. “So, it’s best not to try anything.”

“Best not to make threats you can’t keep, neither.”

“Exactly.”

Paul smiles. It’s not born from happiness—not with how they’re standing, still at the mercy of dangerous strangers, and not with what they’ve lost—just simply made from adrenaline and instinct, the latter of which tells him, perhaps misguidedly, that Scruffy won’t do him any harm. In fact, all he does is continue to stare. Paul thinks he might even feel the pistol slide a few inches down his stomach, which should worry him the lower it gets but it seems more like an unconscious wavering than an actual threat of shooting him in the dick. He hopes.

Leader Curly takes a wide step back so he’s able to survey the entire scene. His gun’s down at his waist, but still gripped firmly in hand. It's primitive and unusual, but resembles some of the hand-cannons he's used to seeing around Woodbury. Almost like it would have been a prototype or template.

“I’m Rick Grimes,” Leader Curly finally introduces. “This is Daryl.” A nod towards the scruffy man gives Paul a new aspect to study. “Over there’s Michonne, Morgan, Dianne. Abraham and Rosita are in the back.” Rick looks him square in the face. “What’s your name?”

“Paul Rovia. But my friends call me Jesus." His arms stretch out at his sides. "Your pick.”

“Like the ol’ Lord?” Abraham snickers. “Father G’s gonna shit bricks.”

“You’re their leader?” Rick asks while gesturing towards his crew-mates in their line .

“Oh, no.” Paul huffs. “No. That’d be her.”

He points towards the Captain with another smile, actually sincere this time.

“Maggie,” she says, garnering a nod of approval from Michonne. “My name’s Maggie Rhee. This is my husband, Glenn, and Hershel, my daddy. That’s Sasha, Aaron, Tara, and—”

She clears her throat at the end, ignoring the fact that’s she’d almost rattled off the names of the three that aren’t standing with them but should've been. “And that’s it. We weren’t supposed to be here. Neither was anyone else.”

“It’s like one of the first things we learn,” Glenn concurs. “There’s nothing on Earth. No one. Just disease and death, and a bunch of other things we can’t really account for. The Network deploys hundreds of exploration ships, but none of them are allowed to come this far.” He shrugs. “None of them really want to. This place is a horror story.”

Michonne, shaking her head, says softly: “This place is our home.”

Paul can see that Rick, Daryl, and everyone else thoroughly agrees with her assessment. He's not the only one because, soon enough, Aaron shuffles a teeny bit closer, demanding attention while making sure his hands are still up high. His trademark earnestness shines through.

“And we don’t want to bother it. Or you. If we could mess around with our shuttle, there’s a chance one of the generators might still work and we can send for help—”

“And bring more of your people down here?” Rosita sets her hands on her hips. “You might not be a threat, but we don’t know about anyone else. It's gonna stay that way."

“If you’re not gonna let us find a way out and you’re not gonna kill us, then what else is there?” Maggie has the perfect balance of stern wonder and sympathetic worry, but it doesn't sway them.

“You’re comin’ with us,” Rick informs her, giving each crew member a quick glance.

She crosses her arms.

“As prisoners?”

“For the night. We’ll see after that.”

Rick then gives a deep nod to Daryl, who whistles to his group and makes a gesture with his hand before spinning on his heel to start walking. Paul can hear Michonne whisper “come on” to Maggie and Hershel just before Tara blurts out, “Is he serious?”

No one answers her.

Instead, Daryl grunts and grabs Paul’s arm to force him forward enough to get behind. Sasha and Glenn are guarded by Abraham, Tara by Rosita, Aaron by Morgan, with Dianne watching them all at the rear.

With nothing but dirt and wildflowers and clouds in view, Paul wonders how far they’ll have to walk. Turns out it’s about a mile of heavy feet dragging beneath a gravity he isn’t used to before they reach a hill they have to slide down, coating themselves in mud and dead leaves. At the bottom are large beasts—horses, he thinks he remembers one lesson revealing—tied to tree trunks that are smaller than the one that'd been destroyed by Daryl.

There are seven of them, enough for everyone standing around if they pair off. Paul’s not excited about getting carted off to an unknown location when they’re already in unfamiliar territory, though it doesn’t make him nervous like it should, like it does for Tara and Hershel as revealed by the tension in their shoulders. Glenn mumbles an irritated come on when Daryl and Michonne pull rope from the equipment their animals wear. They go where they’re closest—Michonne to Morgan, Daryl to Rick—to give away what they’d collected so they can all get to tying restraints.

“Hands out,” Rick says with no room for argument. Paul doesn’t try to, but he doesn’t hide his displeasure either, which results in Daryl looking him over suspiciously. Waiting for an excuse to act.

He blinks after a few seconds, then walks swiftly over to Abraham, unaware or uncaring of the way Paul tracks him with every step. The wings stitched onto the back of Daryl’s vest are a new and interesting find; dingy and peeling, elegant in their own right. It’s only when Rick tugs on the rope wrapped around Paul’s wrists, tightening it so pathetically that Paul has to stop himself from laughing out loud, that he looks straight ahead once more, catching a glimpse of a peculiar expression crossing Rick’s hardened features.

But the leader wipes it away quickly and pats the nearest horse—a shiny black one with patterned cloth draped over its back and dangling stirrups that are generally the same style as the ones the rocket cycles have at ASZ.

“Get up,” he tells Paul.

Daryl's disgruntled huff is closer than expected.

“That’s my horse.”

“I know. He’s with you.” Rick looks past them, ignoring a grumbly why in favor of gesturing someone forward. “It’s Glenn, right? You’re with me.”

“Oh-kay…” the navigator says under his breath as he warily leaves Maggie’s side.

And then, before he knows it, Paul's being shoved towards a live animal that he’s never truly seen before and knows next to nothing about. Observing Morgan helping Aaron up onto his own horse, followed by him repeating the action for himself, gives Paul a clear enough indication on how to do it properly without falling onto his face because of inexperience and partial immobility.

He takes a breath and plants one foot into the slot, lingering just long enough to make Daryl antsy before whirling his body around to plant his ass on top of the beast while it sways and threatens to toss him off.

“Scoot up,” Daryl barks, hardly giving him the time to do so while he drops himself down behind Paul, chest pressing against Paul's back when he leans forward to grab and tug at a leather strap, bare arms bracketing suited ones stiffly.

Daryl’s hands are inches from Paul’s stomach, clenched around the straps he snaps once Rick leads them forward with Glenn hunched at his front. The skin of his fists looks rough from exposure and darkened from dirt. There's a tiny heart inked near a thumb and circular scars dotted deliberately everywhere else.

He doesn’t want to stare, even if he won’t get caught, so he looks out along the environment instead. Discovers nature.

Shit, he’s never seen anything like this before. None of Georgie’s reconstructive imagery could hold a candle to the true thing. And he doesn’t even know what half of it is!

There are sounds from all about; chirping and buzzing and rustling, joined by distinct scents that remind him of the greenhouse and atrium, as thought of earlier, but are still somehow so much different and so much more. This is Earth, in a glory he wasn't aware it could still have. It's unbelievable. Most good things are.

“You’ve lived here your whole life?” Paul can’t help but asking after a long stretch of clomping leaves him inquisitive.

“Yep.”

“What about your parents? And their parents?"

“Ain’t none of us come from some other planet, if that’s what you’re askin’.”

“Well, we didn’t either. Technically.” Paul turns instinctively, the arms around him tightening to lock him in place. “We live in colonies, but the people who created them came from here, a thousand years ago. Or… something like that.”

“And your people never checked up on what they left behind? Too scared of some damn ghost story passed down from a bunch’a old farts who can’t remember shit?”

A chuckle is pulled from Paul without his permission, full of surprise. He’s not sure if it’s Daryl being right that amuses him or just the blunt way he’d gone about saying it.

“Maybe. At least, that’s our excuse for the current generations.”

“Yeah? What’s your excuse for that dumbass bowl you got on your head?”

“I need it to breathe. No oxygen in space. And we’re not exactly sure what the air here is like.”

“Been breathin’ it my whole life. Ain’t dropped dead yet.”

“But your body’s used to this environment—”

“Hey, you chatty bastards!” Abraham has no qualms with interrupting or making himself heard. “Can a man get a word in edgewise?”

Paul, again, begins to twist. Daryl thunks his helmet to stop him.

“What is it?” Rick calls back.

“We’re gonna have to pause this pony show. Some flowers need fertilizing.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Sasha snaps. “Stop so I can get off. I’ll walk the rest of the way, I don’t care—”

“No one’s stopping,” Rosita chimes in. “Clench up, Abraham. Five miles to go.”

Paul starts to wonder if he should, in fact, be worried about imprisonment under this specific group. Regardless, the only thing they can do is bide their time.

 


 

~WELCOME TO GIA~

He sees the walls first, as endless as they are—tall, rusted metal sheets with a gate made of iron bars, blocked by sheer canvas for privacy—but it’s the sign that catches his attention, how big it is and how colorful, faded with history but continuously well-maintained.

There are two towers up front, one on each side of the entrance, flickering lanterns mounted on the railings that give off a softer light than that of the dulling sunlight. He notices round, tarnished objects perched even higher than the towers, their long chains hanging down to be easily reached by the guards. They’re not messed with upon approach, not like the gates that are drawn apart by a manual mechanism.

“Dude, aliens?” a large man on guard shouts, huge chest covered in the same type of armor that Dianne is wearing.

“Jerry,” a deeper voice admonishes, though Paul can’t see who it belongs to. Only knows it's someone down below.

“They’ve got people!” the other guard, also sporting that same armor, confirms.

Rustling, talking, commotion; Paul can hear it all as they ride into the not-so-little community, lined up like a parade. The difference is that the people who watch are suspicious, not entertained.

“Are they from the copter?”

A man approaches Rick, tall, with a feather clipped to one of many silvery braids, and waits for an answer. Rick slides off his horse, helps Glenn do the same.

“Wasn’t a copter, just some kind of shuttle. Shot down from space.”

“Dude—”

“Jerry.”

Daryl drops the straps onto Paul’s legs and follows Rick’s lead, hopping off and then grunting at Paul to “get a move on” He’s able to pull his other leg completely up and over without much effort, flinging himself off and landing on his feet without Daryl needing to steady him. One by one, the others do the same.

“Where’s Carol?” Rick asks.

“At the Square, she remains. Jerry wished to man a shift as guard, to best prepare for your brigade’s return. Such was agreed. Do you seek her counsel?”

“Just her food. We’re gonna need some dropped off at the cells later.”

“Cells?” Tara blurts. “Like actual cells? For bad people who do bad things?”

“Or for people we can’t trust.”

“You don’t get visitors often, do you?” Paul quips.

He doesn’t receive a response, nor did he expect to get one. He’d be too busy admiring every inch of Gia, anyway; a little colony for Earth’s own.

There are buildings everywhere. Spread out, built in varying shapes and sizes, stained brilliantly in vibrant shades; reds and oranges, yellows and browns, blues and whites. The dirt ground they’d rode in on shifts into dusty and chipped tan stones up ahead, cobbled together to form diverging paths, each one labeled with crisscrossing signs. Small, half-buried steps are hidden in patches of grass off the main drag, staggering onto lower levels to burrow varying structures out of the way.

There’s so much green everywhere—up and down and all around, all types of foliage growing in between fences, over and across walls, shading sections of this secret village in an almost strategic pattern.

Paul'ss nudged to get going, which he does without hesitance, eager to see everything he can. Patterned pots overflowing with gigantic flowers, panels of stained glass swinging in the breeze, men and women pushing wobbly carts down a distant forked-path labeled Stockpile. A lot of clinking and clanging comes from an open-faced stall, a lot of screaming from a group of children rolling down a hill that leads to what Paul thinks is a learning center.

On and on they walk, not stopping once, not even for Rick or his friends to inform their community of what’s taking place, until eventually they reach a set of five stair-steps that are smeared with doodles and lead up instead of down.

The arch at the top reads King County Square.

It’s beautiful here. And bustling. Like nothing Paul has ever seen. They have a marketplace at ASZ, just as they do in every colony, but this? It’s so full of life, bright and airy and jampacked with little shops and kiosks. It's mindboggling that there’s not one flashy, sentient, technologically advanced product within the radius.

A steady hum of murmuring surrounds them as they push through. Water sloshes as a large wheel scoops some up from the covered streams on either side of the Square’s platform, smoke swirling out in stacks from the top of slanted roofs.

Those who pass by are just as varied, clothed in flowy skirts and ripped denim, plaid and stripes and tattered tees, armor and head scarfs and oversized coats with rolled sleeves. Some aren’t wearing shirts, are basking in the patches of sunlight that shines through the canopy of leaves, while others stumble around in baggy pants that look too much like the civvies the colonists wear back home.

There’s a smell, too, that slips through the filter in his helmet—something fresh and baked, something delicious. The only thing he’s able to compare it to is the factory that distributes their rations, or the Greene family home on all the nights he’d been invited for a meal and actually showed up. Deanna’s house only smelled so nice whenever Spencer cooked, which never happened unless he was trying to impress a new girl.

Paul’s stomach is ready to tear itself open to get to the type of food his senses have never known before.

The stretch from one end to the other is a long one, more so with all the bodies and objects they have to swerve around—and with Daryl practically glued to his heels, careful not to let him escape, as if he would try to so brazenly. But they come to another set of steps eventually, down once more, then farther down still, and a wooden plaque bangs against stone walls when a breeze hits.

JAIL.

Paul wants to laugh, he just isn’t the one to actually do so. Surprisingly, it’s Hershel. They already know why, too used to hearing stories of Hershel’s wild youth in the Corps, the way he never settled until after Beth was born. Maggie loves telling everyone who’s willing to listen; she doesn’t say a word now when Daryl and Michonne glance over curiously.

Rick pulls a ring full of keys out of his back pocket and knows exactly which one to stick in the lock, even though they all look exactly the same. The door is shoved open with a deafening squeak and the crew is herded in, leaving shade to enter darkness akin to the shuttle’s nightmare.

Fire erupts inside glass sconces on the wall following multiple skitch skitch skitch’s that comes from little stick of wood striking against hollow rectangles. He sees in it when Daryl returns from lighting the last one near two walls of metal bars, reaches for it before his hands catch up with his brain. Daryl snaps it away from Paul with a nasty glare—one that says mine rather than don’t push your luck—and Paul turns away before he gets caught grinning.

This shouldn’t be so amusing, the whole situation they’d been thrust into. But it really, really is and Paul can’t understand it. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism or maybe he’s a piece of shit that cares more about how much there is to learn in place of how much they’ve literally just lost. Could be, probably is, both.

The bars are slid to the side after being undone by keys each one of Rick’s group pulls off hooks that hang next to every cell. Paul sees a flash of Daryl sticking his into the front pocket of his pants just before he’s shoved unceremoniously inside, same as the others. The cell door slams and clicks. Paul's eyes widen and he spins around, clamping onto Daryl’s wrists through the bars when he feels his dangers release from their sheaths

“Daryl,” he says, a low warning or sensible plea. The man jerks his head back unexpectedly, no doubt surprised at the assured use of his name, as if they’re friends and not total strangers bordering on enemies. He's a few inches shorter than Daryl, but he has no issue connecting their gazes equally. “I told you, those are mine. Please.”

“You’ll get ‘em back. Maybe.”

He shakes Paul off in annoyance, stuffing the blades into his back pockets. Paul curls his index fingers around Daryl’s belt loops and tugs him close. There’s no stumble, just his already rigid form stiffening into a steel beam.

“Promise?”

The whisper draws Daryl’s eyes from where his grip is to the words his mouth forms, the cocking of one brow keeping him from looking at the way Paul slips a finger into the pocket in the front that’s hanging by the seam. He leans closer so Daryl can’t feel him fishing the key out. To save himself from getting knocked in the nose by Paul’s helmet, the scruffy man pulls away, making it even easier to slip the key into his grasp. Paul doesn’t expect Daryl to put his own hand up in front of his face, though, with his thick pinky outstretched. He hasn’t a clue what sort of gesture it could be, if it’s some type of signed language or a threat or if he’s just pointing in a bizarre manner.

He’s not surprised that Daryl catches onto his blank look and huffs irritably, but he is surprised when that larger hand grabs his, both coming up with how they’re tied—the key squeezing beneath his knuckles, can’t let him see—and slots the bend of their smallest fingers together.

“Swear,” he grits out. Paul merely blinks. “Man, don’t y’all know nothin’? Might look human, but you sure don’t act it.”

“A thousand years, Daryl,” Paul reminds. “But we’re still the same.”

“Nah. You’re somethin’ else.”

It’s meant to be an insult, Paul assumes, to demean. But it could just as easily be another blunt observation. Neither should make his expression screw up the way he can feel it doing involuntarily. He wets the rough skin of his bottom lip and drops his hands to rest at his front.

“So are you.”

The repeat tumbles forth without conviction, a barely-there sound that manages to repel Daryl several paces.

“That’s enough,” Rick says from behind friend, clawing over a broad shoulder like Paul had hurt him in some way. “Someone’ll come by later, drop off food, if you can eat it.” He swirls a finger around his head to acknowledge what they have on theirs. “After that? We’re gonna have a little talk. Maybe you’ll even be a part of it.”

“I think we deserve more than a maybe,” Hershel counters.

The hard line of Michonne’s mouth softens. 

“We will talk. All of us.”

Rick doesn't dispute her correction.

“Okay,” Tara states. She actually sounds agreeable—that is, until: “But can you just, I dunno, take these fucking ropes off? What if we have to pee? The shit we’re wearing is sort of more involved than pulling a zipper and bearing our asses.”

“You need a little help, honey,” Abraham crows, “Just yell it out. Sound like you got a mouth on you anyway.”

“Yeah, I’m not into dicks. Of any kind. And I have a girlfriend.”

“That makes one of us," he says with a shrug, taking the rejection in stride.

Rosita snorts with no kindness whatsoever.

“I wonder why.”

She tilts her head like she’s planning to say more, but thinks better of it once she realizes there are seven strange eyes taking her in. She snaps her mouth shut and spins on her heel, the first to leave the Jail. Morgan and Dianne follow silently, with Abraham next. Michonne eyes them each, grabbing Rick’s hand so the two can slip out together.

Daryl’s last, though he doesn’t remain for long. Paul can see his narrowed gaze flit over every locked cell, imprinting into his brain what each face looks like as they stare back. He saves Paul for last, despite being three from the end, and doesn’t look away until he’s standing in the threshold.

The flames on the walls do little to light the room once they’re enclosed in it. The crew holds their breath until they’re sure enough time has passed for no one to be listening in on them. Tara’s tone is like a whip that makes Paul wince.

“Really, Jesus? Really? I thought you were about to rip his fucking clothes off! How can you flirt with, A: a guy who’s locking us up, and B: right after we—”

“Tara,” Glenn reprimands.

Paul presses his tongue into his cheek, waiting for Tara to continue, exhaling roughly when she doesn’t. The ropes, which have nothing on the hard cuffs he’s practiced with back at the colony, twist and turn around his gloved wrists as he works to undo them. They’re on the floor in record time.

“We can’t just sit here,” Maggie whispers into the dark. The bars don’t go all the way around, so they can’t see each other, but there’s an echo in the room with how empty it is. “We need a plan. If we get out, if we could, where would we go? They’d find us at the shuttle. Probably shoot us on sight, or we’d end up right back here. If we could take a look around, see whatever we can just in case this talk goes south in the mornin’…”

“I got the key,” Paul reveals. “From Daryl’s pocket.” He says it pointedly enough so Tara knows why he may or may not—he’s learning towards not, but what does he know about shit like that, he’s always been unlucky, unprepared, unworthy, and a slew of other uns—have been flirting. He wasn't. At all. “It’s gotta be for my cell only, but if I can get out there, find out what I can? Well, knowledge is power. And it’s the only kind we’ll have.”

Maggie hums in agreement. Then:

“Did you get your binds off?”

“Of course.”

Glenn laughs breathlessly.

“Wait ‘til the food gets here,” their leader decides. “Probably won’t have anyone comin’ to check on us too soon after. It’ll be night by then, too. I think. But Jesus, if you get caught—”

“It’ll be dark.” He remembers reading, vaguely, about the night and day cycles of Earth from the olden times. He’ll have a set number of hours to skulk around in the shadows. “And I won’t get caught.”

“Let’s hope not.”

Hershel’s calm sentiment is something they all try to absorb as they sit on dusty benches and let time tick away.

 

Chapter Text

He’s still hungry.

Jerry had come in with a trolley of food, which begged the question of how the large man wheeled the flimsy little thing all the way down to where they were without disrupting the contents, but Paul didn’t ask.

He wanted to keep attention away from himself, going so far as refusing Jerry’s help of popping some bread through his biosuit’s unzippable compartment. He’d had to keep himself seated on the bench, wrists pressed together as if still tied, resting between his knees while his boots blocked the restraints he’d kicked against the wall.

Jerry hadn’t suspected a thing, not with the way Tara, Aaron, and Glenn preoccupied him with all kinds of meaningless chatter, poking for information he was all too willing to give away. Nothing serious, just little hints that could aid Paul in his exploration, like how they couldn’t keep the horses too close to the Smithy because all the noise rattled them, or how they’d had to move the armory away from the front entrance because bad things happened the last time strangers entered their home.

It’s something to think on, how well they’ve been treated thus far, all things considered.

But Paul’s stomach is growling now that he’s out of the cell and climbing through a back window, dropping behind the jailhouse to land in weeds that come up to his thighs. There’s chirping again, loud and incessant and nothing like the what he’d heard from the birds. He sets it to the back of his mind so he can focus on quiet whispers coming from the Square.

Two fingers pressed against the HoloBand bring it to life. The screen flashes NO SIGNAL at him, which isn’t surprising with how far off the grid they’ve gone, but the battery is at a little less than half. Basic features, such as the gallery, personal notes, and time keeper, are still available. That includes a flashlight. The lowest setting is all he can get away with, the tinted glow illuminating where his feet are stepping, not yet alerting anyone to a presence sneaking around unattended. Lanterns are strung about here and there, helping to guide him as much as the lettered posts will, once he finds one. For now, Paul sticks to crawling in the overgrowth.

He knows nothing about the geography of this place, what shortcuts to take, if it’s possible to get somewhere important while bypassing all the hubbub. He hears singing, laughing, a cat’s meow; picks up the pace when there’s rustling. There aren’t many places to loop around in the center of Gia, like this. His black suit hides him well in the night, it’s just the matter of trying to get somewhere that's a challenge. Trying to learn and understand. Trying to prepare.

He comes to a crossroads far west of the Square, his light shining on wooden arrows that point towards an infirmary, a church, a factory far out and away, and whatever The Dens is supposed to be. The path of the latter curves in a direction he thinks will return him to the main gate.

Paul ducks and dodges his way towards another set of stone steps, ten or so, which he creeps over two at a time.

The ground at the top of the hill is paved with a surface smoother than cobbled stone or clumps of dirt. His light shines over rows and rows of cabins. Some are lit from within while others are spotlighted by crooked posts that display clear, squared bulbs. It’s a section for housing where probably most, if not all of Gia’s residents reside. A community like Paul is used to, the kind he loves in theory but is barely able to handle in practice.

Something snaps off to the side, sending Paul scurrying towards one of the cabins down the middle of the road.

He plans to tuck his head beneath the window, only… half the curtains are pulled back, revealing part of a couch and two people sprawled out atop it, two pairs of hands grabbing at a lot of naked skin. The mess of curls on the man's head give away who it is.

Rick has the flattest ass Paul’s ever seen.

The breath he exhales gets caught in his throat when a hard object jabs into his spine. He’s not surprised by who it is, though he can admit to not expecting the way he's dragged several feet away and then tossed into mud.

“What the hell you doin’ out here?” It’s his own gun, the Bandit, that’s aimed at his chest. His gloved fingers squelch against the Earth. “Michonne’s gonna scoop your eyes out, she catches you peepin’.”

“Wasn’t looking at her,” Paul mumbles.

It does the opposite of easing Daryl’s worries.

“You lookin’ at Rick?”

“I wasn’t trying to. He’s attractive, sure, but I’ve seen better.”

Paul finds himself pausing, looking at Daryl’s boots so he can move his gaze up two long legs. There are strings wrapped around the ankles of Daryl’s baggy pants, holes in the knees, stains on the thighs. He’s got a plaid shirt on beneath the leather vest, both frayed and without sleeves, stretched over a broad chest and even broader shoulders. Paul’s light, with the way his wrist is resting, shines upon a taut, sweaty bicep; glints off the gun held steadily in his hand.

His mouth is a flat line and his eyes are hidden behind strands of wavy hair.

Paul’s ears go hot when he realizes how long he’s been staring and how it must seem given where he'd left off. Idiot. He clears his throat. Sits up straight.

“I didn’t come out here to spy on anyone, okay? Well… sort of. I mean, I came out here to get a read on what exactly might happen in the morning, and—”

“Shut up,” Daryl growls. He kneels so they’re face to face with the muzzle of Paul’s pulse pistol pressed over his heart.

For the first time since meeting him, Paul feels the stirrings of fear, which dredge of that old fight or flight response. He’s assumed a lot since exiting the shuttle, including the idea that Daryl wouldn’t want to hurt him or his crew, but now? He's having some doubts.

“What’re you gonna do? Shoot me ‘cause I was looking through a window?”

“No. I’m gonna shoot you for bein’ a fuckin’ nuisance. You couldn’t sit your ass in that damn cell, wait it out like all your lil buddies? Or’d you bust them out, too?”

There's another sound then, a crinkle far off in the distance, perfectly timed to match Daryl's paranoia. He turns quickly, as if he might catch someone trying to sneak over to them. Paul realizes it's the only time he'll be able to catch him off guard. The guy had managed to find him in the dark, after all. Tracked him without any sort of aid. There was no telling what else he'd be capable of.

Paul would be impressed if he weren’t so uneasy.

He grabs Daryl’s arm and twists—just enough to hurt, not enough to harm—until the gun falls from his grasp. The bigger man grunts and moves with the motion to alleviate the pain, but Paul punches at his side to spin him around where he then falls, chest first, into the dirt. He’s able to pick up the pistol and toss it just before Daryl’s boot slams against his stomach.

Paul spits out an oof that ends in a stutter when his head bangs into his helmet thanks to a fist slamming into the cracked glass. He falls onto his back, dazed, and can’t react fast enough to stop Daryl from pinning him down by straddling his waist and gathering his wrists in one large hand to trap high above his head.

The other hand holds one of Paul’s daggers, the tip pressing into his collar. Paul can’t see shit through all the cracks distorting his vision now, but he knows that one wrong breath could mean something awful.

Still, he doesn’t want to hurt Daryl just to get out of something he'd foolishly forced himself into. And with the way Daryl hesitates, breathing heavily but keeping still enough not to poke Paul accidentally, keeping his knees bracketing Paul's ribs rather than acting out in aggression, has those doubts from earlier start to relive themselves. Maybe Paul is right to believe, once again, that Daryl doesn't want to hurt him either. He would’ve done it already if that weren't the case.

“Look. Daryl. Do what you gotta do, I won’t stop you. But none of my buddies had anything to do with this, so please, leave them alone. I just wanted to know if we had a chance in case Rick decides to screw us over—”

“He wouldn’t,” Daryl answers reverently.

Paul huffs.

“You think he won’t once he finds out what just happened? What’s still happening?”

“He ain’t gonna find out, ‘less you keep runnin’ that big mouth.”

Wait—

“Why?” The blade presses harder into his neck, ready to cut through cloth. Paul calls his bluff by continuing. “You won't tell him? Rick or Michonne, or even Abraham—”

“Shh.”

They both fall into quiet, bodies so tense that neither of them breathes. But Paul is all too aware of every spot they're touching. He chews his lip.

Daryl doesn’t repeat the mistake of taking his eyes off Paul, though he turns his head a couple inches to get a better listen. There’s a snap again, like the one Paul had heard before he hid. It’s accompanied by a burp this time, and then the slamming of a door. A signal to relax.

Paul takes another chance.

He jerks himself to the side to get the blade away, brings his knee up to knock into Daryl’s fist to send the dagger into the air. Gracelessly, Paul grapples Daryl onto his back in a reversal of their positions, squeezing Daryl’s hips with his thighs. He laces their fingers together in a way that can’t be shaken. What can be seen of the the bewildered expression growing on the scruffy man’s face is so unbecoming of him, Paul can't help but grin. Teeth and all.

“Let’s stop with the threats of bodily harm, alright? I don’t wanna hurt you and you don’t wanna hurt me—or you won’t, at least. So, can we talk about what we will do before someone catches on?”

“M’gonna put you back,” Daryl says slowly, counting each syllable like it might calm himself down. “You ain’t gonna say another word. And we’re all gonna wait.”

“For what? A vote?”

“Maybe. Ain’t up to me.”

“But if it were?”

A light from Rick’s house switches on, suddenly brightening the area they’ve been shrouded in. Daryl bucks his hips to throw Paul off, which sends him into a roll and then a crawl. Slinking back into the darkness. He sighs at the feeling of something hard beneath his hand, knowing what it is before he lifts it up to look at through the cracks. He holds his favored weapon only for a moment before it’s taken from him again. Daryl, for his part, refrains from aiming the retrieved pistol at Paul's head.

Once all weapons are in Daryl’s possession, he shoos Paul farther away from Rick’s place, down a second a street and then onto another path entirely. They don’t stick to that for long, though, and it’s some five minutes later that Paul recognizes they’re at the crossroads again.

His biosuit is starting to become unnaturally stifling.

He fiddles with the oxygen tank on his back, then with the clasp between the helmet and collar. He wants to rip the damn thing off, breathe air he knows is all around but isn’t sure is even compatible with his system. If he dies, at least it’d be on some kind of high. Better than most. But he can’t. They have to wait and wait and wait some more…

Paul is a patient man, but this whole thing is bordering on ridiculous. The helplessness makes everything worse.

When he starts walking again, looking back to make sure Daryl isn’t planning on blasting him while unaware, his footsteps falter. It's a blurry realization, but there's no mistaking the sight of Daryl watching him closely. Eyeballing Paul the same way Paul had done to him in the middle of The Dens.

Daryl’s voice is… soft, when he speaks.

“You asked why.”

Paul swallows thickly.

“I did.”

“S'cause I ain’t stupid. ‘Cause you weren’t armed, weren’t tryin’ to hurt nobody. Just tryin’ to protect your own.” The larger man shifts, shuffles his feet, can’t stand still. It takes him a while to look at Paul’s face again. “Woulda done the same.”

“Are you saying we have something in common?”

It’s a legitimate question as much as it is a tease, and the little hmm that comes out of Daryl is far too intriguing of a reply for how minuscule it is. Paul finds it unfair and fascinating and irritating in a way he can’t name. He pushes himself to move, retracing his steps in the lead, but can’t resist wondering…

“How did you find me? Did I trigger a silent alarm?”

“Nah. Was on guard. Heard somethin’, saw tracks. Found you watchin’ my brother gettin’ his rocks off.”

“I was not—Rick’s your brother?” Daryl grunts. By the tone of it, Paul’s pretty sure he means ‘yes, and that’s all you’re gonna know.’ He'll let it go for now. "Well, just so we're clear, people aren’t usually able to sneak up on me.”

“Then people’re stupid. You ain’t that slick.”

“Bet you didn’t know I swiped your key, did you? You aren’t that slick, either.”

“M’gonna shove this gun up your ass and pull the trigger if you don’t shut the hell up.”

Paul thinks better of it, he really does, but he truly cannot help himself.

“I’ll have to give a definite no to the second part, but I’m still on the fence about the first—”

The kick to his behind, right over his tailbone, hurts more than he’d like to admit.

Not another word is said the rest of the way. A little bit of snickering doesn't count.

His band’s light is still on when they reach the jailhouse and it shines over Daryl’s back when Paul steps away to let him unlock the door. He’s wearing a utility belt, too; with a holster, a sheath, a loop for a flashlight and another for a keychain. He’s got both of Paul’s daggers in one pocket, a red rag dangling from the other. The grimy wings on his vest look like they’re about to fly right off the leather.

The flames in the sconces have gone out, replaced by six more HoloBand beams that flick directly over to them when they step inside. He’s met with wide eyes all across the board.

“Won’t get caught, huh?”  Tara scoffs with a shake of her head.

Paul can only shrug. He enters his cell without being prompted.

Daryl heads to the other side of the room first, to a chest tucked away in the corner where he he pulls a second length of rope from. Daryl comes over to stand in front of Paul after, reaching past him to pick up the key off the bench. Droplets of red fall from his knuckles.

Paul takes Daryl’s hand into both of his as he starts to pull away.

“You’re bleeding.”

The punch to Paul’s window must have been the cause and it serves Daryl right, honestly, but it hadn’t been solely his fault.

"S'nothin."

Paul ignores him and pulls the rag from Daryl's pocket without permission, drapes it over bruised knuckles without hesitation or resistance. Daryl doesn’t twitch or grumble. He doesn’t recoil immediately after the knot’s tied, too zoned out or lost in thought to notice when it's over. A noise leaves his lips that sounds as if it wants to be a thanks but can’t quite make it that far.

“Your turn,” is what Daryl decides to actually say. He nods towards the rope Paul had previously slipped. “Grab it.”

There’s no point in fighting the inevitable. They’ll be free in a few more hours, regardless, if all goes well.

Paul bends to pick up the rope, freezes when Daryl wraps the one he’s holding around Paul’s ankle, forcing his forearm close enough to bind to his shin in one fell swoop. The same is done to his other arm and leg, leaving Paul hunched uncomfortably, able to touch his toes if he stretches his fingers out fully.

“Can you get outta that?”

Paul wiggles to put the question to the test and loses his balance instantly, still unused to Earth’s heavier gravity. He groans when he smacks against the ground. It wasn’t a long fall, as bent over as he was, but it’s still humiliating. And amusing, he can't deny.

But this asshole can’t keep besting him, and yet that’s exactly what’s been happening.

“What’re you doin’?” Maggie demands from her own cell, clearly not having liked hearing Paul in pain.

“Nothin’." There's a clear smile in his voice. Then, to Paul, “You best stay put now.”

“Sure thing,” he breathes, pretending he has an actual choice in the matter, even as he wriggles fruitlessly.

“Good.” Daryl steps back and slides the door into place. The lock clicks and its echo is an insult added to the injury. “Sweet dreams, sunshine.”

Paul closes his eyes and bites back a chuckle at the sound of Daryl retreating. Half of him wants to get out of this as soon as he can just to see the look on Daryl’s face the next time he returns, but the other half knows he’s tested his luck much more than he should’ve been able to. And probably only got away with it because of who he was pushing back against.

“Jesus? You okay?” Sasha asks as soon as Daryl leaves. She hides her worry well, but there’s enough in her tone to represent the whole crew.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m—” Paul huffs. “He tied my arms to my legs, so I can’t really get up, but I’m fine.”

“Okay, but you sound a little too into that.”

He rolls his eyes at Tara’s teasing.

“No, I’m just impressed. Daryl… he’s unbelievable. And an ass.”

“Sounds like you finally met your match,” Maggie comments ponderously.

Paul knows what she means and he’s inclined to agree; anyone who’s ever faced Paul, no matter the method or mission, has always come up short. Even his own teammates. He likes to teach them what he can to make sure they’re as prepared as he is, but Daryl? This strange, big, surly, shithead of human on actual goddamn Earth?

Paul’s just out of his wits, that’s all. Crash-landing on a planet that they’d been fed to believe would be a death sentence isn’t anything to take lightly. It’s also probably why Maggie’s words—sounds like you finally met your match—niggle into his brain with an undercut that sends heat to his cheeks and ears.

“Maybe,” he answers just late and hollow enough to be awkward. It sends the others into a chatter about what might happen next, none of them bothering to ask if Paul found anything interesting, which is probably a good thing since he doesn’t feel like relaying his and Daryl’s stupid little scuffle outside Rick’s house. Or what he'd witnessed within.

Paul rolls onto his side, relaxes his muscles, and settles in for a night full of no sleep and unavoidable cramping. He wishes, just a little, that Daryl had busted his helmet enough to justify him taking it off. He can’t stop wondering if they can breathe the same air.

He’s still hungry.

 


 

[Day 002]

“Jesus!”

Paul startles awake, panic taking hold when his body won’t do what he directs it to. But hearing Maggie repeat his name questioningly send the previous day’s events come flooding back. The light from his HoloBand has been on all night, draining most of the battery and blinding his sensitive pupils when he twists. He shuts it off sluggishly.

His shoulder feels as if it’s been popped out of its joint, somehow.

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re comin’. Look alive.”

Sure enough, a line of people—same as yesterday, minus Michonne and with the addition of Jerry—enter the jailhouse, stomping about like T.E.N’s sentinel guards; big and proud and ready for anything. Except for Daryl, who slinks inside last, wishing to go unnoticed.

Rick stands front and center, cloaked in a dark coat with the fluffy collar flattened out, completely unaware that Paul had seen him naked. Kind of takes the edge off the whole “mysterious hard-ass leader” schtick.

“Mornin’.”

“Mornin’,” Hershel replies calmly, receiving an appreciative nod from Rick.

Paul—folded in half with a crick in his neck as he tries to hold it up—sees Gia’s leader look over every cell, doing a double-take when he reaches Paul’s. His eyes go squinty and he turns towards Daryl to ask:

“What happened to him?”

“Kept runnin’ his mouth,” is the explanation that’s given.

It’s not a lie, though it is only part of the truth. He can’t imagine Daryl likes keeping secrets from Rick, his very own brother, but he’d also promised, in a few less words, not to rat Paul out. So far, so good.

Rick rubs at his mouth. He wisely asks no more.

“We’re gonna take you to the canteen. Let you meet the people who’re gonna be deciding what to do with you, and then we’re gonna do that. Over at the Hall. Michonne’s on her way there now.”

“So let’s get this over with,” Rosita finishes. “Questions?”

“Not yet,” Maggie says. And, just as clearly: “Now take these off.”

There’s a nod from Rosita to Rick, then from Rick to Daryl. He moves straight towards Paul, cutting him free with one of Paul’s blades after the bars are slid open. Having his body splay out into a natural position is almost more painful than the way he’d been contorted. The cap covering his hair beneath the helmet is starting to make his head pound.

It’s seven on seven again when they walk out of the jailhouse, clustered like a cohesive group instead of lined up in front of one another. Paul is sandwiched between Daryl and Maggie, with Rosita next to her, then Aaron and Morgan on the other side. None of them knows what to expect.

“Hey. You good?”

He’s surprised by the question and that it comes from Daryl, surprised that there’s a tinge of concern.

“Can’t say I’m not sore, but yeah, I’m good.”

“Couldn’t get out?”

Daryl’s voice is neutral that time, but when Paul peeks at his face, squinting through the broken glass, he sees thin lips curving delicately at one corner.

“Figured I shouldn’t try. There would’ve been more questions otherwise.”

“Hmm.”

“You don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.”

“What, you want me to tie you up again?”

“Kinky,” Tara whispers from behind.

Paul ignores her despite the prickle of embarrassment and shrugs. His nose itches, he’s starving, and he wants this damn bowl off his head. He bangs his knuckles on the top.

“How about you take this off me first?”

“Thought you needed it to breathe.”

“We do. Did. But like you said, you haven’t dropped dead yet. That means there’s a chance I won’t either.”

“A chance,” Maggie scoffs. “You’re life’s worth more than that, Jesus.”

“I agree, son.” Paul’s brows furrow at Hershel’s nickname. It’s not uncommon, is said to Glenn even more often, but it doesn’t bounce off him either. “You could pick up somethin’ our bodies aren’t capable of fighting.”

“But don’t you think our tanks would’ve alerted us by now?” Aaron wonders aloud while looking over his shoulder.

Glenn, walking on Maggie’s heels so he can hold her hand, makes a disagreeable noise.

“The huds probably got busted when we landed. Like everything else.”

“All of them?”

Paul knows he sounds a little bit dismissive and is thankful Glenn takes it in stride.

“I’m just saying. We’d know for sure. If we had Georgie…”

“She only recounts what she’s programed to understand, and if no one’s been here since the EE then how can any of that information be accurate or in depth? It isn’t. We can see that for ourselves. So it’s up to us to do the leg work, find out what no one else ever cared to. Shouldn’t we start with whether or not we can exist here naturally after years of evolution?”

He’s sick of the hindrance it poses, too. There’s no need to mention it.

“It shouldn’t just be you.” Aaron tells Paul, turning fully around to walk backwards, making sure to gauge Maggie’s reaction before checking with Paul again.

“What about Eric?”

“He wouldn’t like it,” he responds with a smile, “but he knows me, better than anyone. He knows I’d never expect something of someone that I wouldn’t do myself. And honestly, it doesn’t seem like that big of a gamble.”

Sasha gives a slow shake of her head, keeping any disapproving comments to herself.

“Don’t do it ‘cause you think you have to,” Maggie whispers. Paul can feel both Daryl and Rosita zeroing in on them. “You don’t got nothin’ to prove, to any of us, and you got nothin’ to make up for.”

“I know.” Too sharp and too quick to be sincere. “I know, Maggie. It’s not—I want to.”

“How many doctors do you have?” Hershel asks Rick, inner-doctor shining through. “How much equipment?”

“A few and… some.”

None of them are impressed.

They reach a long building that’s divided in two not long after they left the cells. One half is decorated with a flowery sign that reads CJ’s Bakery, the other half engraved simply with a descriptive CANTEEN.

“I need my second,” his closest friend says softly, telling him not to take the risk at the same time as accepting it.

She touches Aaron’s arm with a smile next, knowing she can’t be responsible for the choices either of them makes. He turns to Morgan just as Paul faces Daryl.

“There’s a zipper here—” He points to the ring at the top of his collar, tucked beneath the bottom of the helmet. “Can you undo it after I pull the hose out?”

Paul doesn’t technically need help, he just needs to release the excess oxygen before unzipping his helmet from the suit to ensure pressure isn’t an issue. He doesn't want an explosion hitting him in the face.

“What’s gonna happen when we take these off?”

Morgan has the same lilt in his speech as Rick and Daryl, as Maggie and Hershel. He’s calm, too. Not entirely trusting but still open to help.

“Hopefully nothing,” Aaron says with a nervous laugh, posture straightening in a snap.

“You gonna pass out?” Daryl asks him.

“Before or after?”

Aaron’s quip gets a smirk from Daryl, which Paul tries to map in its entirety through the lines marring his vision. He rips the hose out, causing Daryl to grab the zipper immediately and then tug. Morgan does the same for Aaron.

Something close to fear seizes Paul’s chest once he pulls the round object away from his head. It tells him he can’t breathe, that he’s going to shrivel up or implode or turn to stone when the new atmosphere proves to be more than he can fight. The helmet begins to slip from his hands, the cap going with it and yanking painfully at his scalp, but it’s saved from hitting their feet by Daryl’s quick reflexes.

Through the corner of his eye he can see Aaron hunch over, while Paul himself sucks in a breath he’s not sure he’ll find.

He does. It’s there, and it’s crisp and warm and fulfilling. His face flushes with the breeze that tickles it, the sustained temperature beneath his suit in juxtaposition with the foreign change swirling around his head.

His scalp is relieved to be rid of its confines, hair falling around his shoulders in unnaturally crimped waves. He can scratch his nose and beard, rub the sleep from his eyes, wipe morning drool from his mouth. Another breath is inhaled, relaxing Paul enough to stretch the kinks in his body. If Earth’s oxygen is laced with poison, there’s no indication. Although, the most dangerous toxins are the sweetest...

He puts a hand on Aaron’s shoulder.

“You doing okay?”

“Well,” he chokes giddily, “my heart’s still beating.”

“Mine too.”

Maggie presses a hand to Paul's chest, testing his claim with a smile he matches with enthusiasm, if not with brightness. He feels it droop when he notices Daryl staring.

It’s not a cursory glare or a surveying glance like the ones he’d been getting since exiting the shuttle. There’s nothing inquisitive about the tilt of his head, nothing suspicious in the squinting around his eyes—which are undoubtedly more vibrant, more soulful and guarded, than Paul had previously assumed. He’s gawking at Paul like he’s seeing him for the first time and, really, he supposes that’s the truth.

Paul had been hidden behind a helmet, the webbed cracks creating a distortion, cap tucking away all his hair. He figures the reaction must have something to do with the latter aspect, the unexpectedness of it, but that wouldn’t explain why his eyes are only flickering back and forth between Paul’s own.

And as for Paul’s excuse for maintaining such prolonged contact? He doesn’t have a single one.

“Anybody home?”

Daryl snaps his head to the side, jaw tense, mussed bangs shading his expression. Rick and Maggie blink at them from the door of the Canteen, both leaders waiting to be acknowledged. Everyone else has gone inside.

Daryl shoves the helmet into Paul’s arms with a grumble of something indiscernible, pushing through the middle of the doorway in a jerky stomp. Paul trails after him, keeping his chin up the whole way in a fight against using his hair as a means to curtain off the edginess he isn’t sure he understands.

And then he’s distracted.

There’s something of a canteen within Alexandria’s bubble—always busy, always clinical, always bland—though only as an attachment to the Academy. Every colony has one, maybe two depending on the specialization, while the rest of the safe zone is speckled with bistros, cafés, and automated vendors. Markets sell what greenhouses grow and factories package, either to families for their homes or to stations for ship prep.

The one he’s standing in now is made up of carved wood and red brick, with round tables distributed to the right and a spread of food resting beneath plastic domes on the left, in front of double doors that lead into the bakery. A fireplace crackles on the far wall despite the heat of the day. And the smells, sweet and rich and bold? It’s about twice as intense as what he’d gotten whiffs of through his filter.

There aren’t many people around, either because of schedules or time or because they’re headed to the Hall where they’ll get to ogle at Paul’s crew like they really are the aliens Daryl and Jerry seem to believe in.

The crew is settling it at a table that’s farthest from the heat emanating out of the fireplace. Trays of goods are spread out in front of them, picked at by numerous hands, pushed through compartments in each other’s suits to be funneled up into the helmet, just like the food from last night’s trolley.

Rosita, Morgan, and Dianne are sat around a table a few feet away, the rest of the seats occupied by residents Paul has never seen. Abraham’s shock of orange hair passes by, away from the buffet to join a different group closest to the front entrance, leaving Daryl as the lone figure still plucking at the spread.

Paul falters. Daryl had seemed on edge before storming away from him—not having liked getting caught staring, he supposes—and the smart choice might be to give him space. But the one thing Paul likes more than being logical is to be daring, so he tucks his helmet beneath his arm, pressed to his side, and treads carefully over. He lifts off his heels to be able to see over Daryl’s shoulder.

A basket of bread and meat, a platter of fruit, a bowl of greens, tins of colorfully gooey surprises. Beyond what looks like enticingly red apples and soft wheat rolls, Paul doesn’t know what any of the other stuff is.

Daryl sticks a spoonful of gooey-something into his mouth. He starts to swallow when Paul speaks.

“What’s that taste like? Good, I’m assuming, but I’ve never—”

He bites his lip at the wheezy cough that erupts from Daryl’s throat.

“What the f—”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

He sets a hand on Daryl’s back, above the wings and between his shoulder blades. It’s shaken off instantly as Daryl spins around to glare, grumbling: “You didn’t.”

“Okay. Sure. But my question still stands.” He nods to the tins. “What is that? Looks like the sludge we use at Hilltopia, just… brighter and obviously edible.”

“Hill what? And don’t let Carol hear you sayin’ that. She’ll cut your tongue out.”

“Is she the C in CJ?”

“Yep.” Daryl gives his throat a little clearing when Paul makes it obvious that he’s looking at the food again. “It’s, uh, Fibango Curd.”

The silly name is endearing. It makes Paul smile, which makes Daryl turn away to fiddle with his spoon.

“Fibango?”

“Mhm.”

He’d been looking for an explanation, but Daryl doesn’t seem to be in a helpful mood. His fingers drum against his helmet’s window.

“Hey, it’s okay, you know? To be curious, like out there, before… I mean, about me or my people.” One of the domes is slammed down so hard it shakes the table. “It’s just, there’s so much to learn and explore. We all came from the same place, this place—Earth in general, not this exact settlement—and with all the years that’ve passed and all the generations that’ve gone by, it’s only natural to wanna know where civilization split and why or how that affected humanity. Where we are now. Well, where we were, before my people got shot out of our ship and your people found us stranded.”

“Ship?” The tilt of Daryl’s head reminds Paul of T.E.N’s security hounds. “Don’t know much ‘bout what’s up there, but m’pretty sure you don’t got water.”

“We generate a reserve for drinking and bathing, but yeah, nothing outside of that. And by ship I mean transports, crafts bigger than the shuttle you saw. They’d be like… cars. Or planes. I think that’s what Earth used to call them. Do you have any?” Paul asks quickly, shifting closer to Daryl so he can keep his excitement hushed, not wanting to draw everyone’s attention. “Cars or planes? Or trains! We have simulations, but I’m starting to understand how unreliable facts collected from the memories of old farts can be.”

Daryl’s too slow to tame the ripple in his expression, the relaxing of his thin brows and the crooked curve beneath his mole. Paul could be imagining the soft snuffle that blows out from Daryl’s nostrils since it resembles a laugh. He knows it’s real.

“Got a few cars, even less fuel. Nothin’ that flies, ‘cept for some toy Eugene’s always messin’ with. There’s a train some miles out. It don’t move, hasn’t in years, but we use it for camp when we’re on the move.”

There are so many words fighting to spew from Paul’s mouth. He wants to ask about the fuel, about where they go and what’s out beyond the walls, if there are other people or communities. He wants to ask who this Eugene guy is that Daryl’s mentioned twice now, wants to ask if they can sit down and toss information at each other until night falls again, or if at least they can have a formal tour of the place these people call home once whatever happens at the Hall finishes up. He wants to ask what foods he should take, too, which is probably the question Daryl is most likely to answer.

The door to the bakery swings open, though only Paul glances over. He can feel Daryl’s eyes still on him while Jerry bounces towards them, pushing the same wobbly trolley as before. It’s empty this time, waiting to be filled.

“Hey. Jesus, right? Nice hair! We’re like twins.” He points the ponytail hanging low at his nape, whole face alight with joy. “Better fill up while you can, gotta pack up in a few. Nothing goes to waste around here!” Jerry leans into Daryl with a piece of cloth in hand. “Carol left this for you. It’s peanut butter and the last one from yesterday’s batch. Won’t have time to make more today, so you better savor it.” A sheepish smile is sent Paul’s way. “Sorry, dude. Try the curd, though. Promise it’s amazing.”

“Thanks.”

Jerry disappears again, the trolley remaining near the buffet. Paul finally grabs a tray but hesitates on filling it despite the audible reminder rolling from his stomach. Surprisingly, Daryl doesn’t let the moment turn quiet.

“Why they call you Jesus?”

“I thought the hair coming down would’ve been a big clue. Abraham knew the name. Said it was like the, uh, Old Lord?”

“Yeah, but that don’t gotta mean the same for you. Don’t gotta mean nothin'. Doesn’t for some of the people here.”

“That’s fair. It’s the same at Alexandria. I look like one of the many depictions, I guess, or maybe just the ones T.E.N keeps around. That’s why it stuck.”

“But not where it came from.”

“No. I didn’t look like this in the Academy. It was the training… people used to joke about what I could do, like I was performing miracles. Not exactly the same things biblical Jesus used to do, but apparently impressive enough to be compared. And one thing memories never get wrong, no matter who they’re from, are the details of religion, so…” His sentence hangs with nowhere else to go/ But it’s not about the answers he gives or the questions Daryl asks; it’s about the fact that he asked at all. “See? Like I said, it’s okay to be curious. I am about you, too.”

It’s the wrong thing to whisper, Paul knows it as soon as Daryl turns away, ducking his head so his face is once again blocked by his hair. He scoops up the tray he hadn’t touched since Paul came over, feet ready to rush him towards the bakery doors.

“Go bug someone else for a while,” he grumbles with his back towards Paul, but the dismissal is undercut by him slapping his cloth-covered cookie onto the other tray.

Paul doesn’t prevent him from going and Daryl doesn’t look back. His steps stutter at the door, however, and that makes it feel like progress for... something.

He takes a scoop of everything to taste and slowly turns to head over towards his crew.

 


 

“You still doin’ okay?”

Paul blinks at the murmuring crowd from where he sits at the very front of the Hall. Maggie’s next to him, leaning in her chair to whisper her worry; Michonne and Rick, accompanied by a woman with silvery short hair they’d been told was Carol, the same one mentioned in the Canteen, and the man with a feather in his braids from earlier who’s known as Ezekiel, set up on a platform to Maggie’s left.

Two sections of seating are separated by a narrow walkway in the middle, which allows Glenn, Hershel, Sasha, Aaron, and Tara to rest in the first row near Paul, while the row in front of Rick holds Daryl, Abraham, Rosita, Morgan, and Dianne, as well as a couple others that hadn’t seen the site of the shuttle crash.

“I’m fine, Maggie. What about you?”

“I’m fine, too.”

She sounds it. Looks it. Because this so-called meeting—which seems more like a trial than anything else, despite them not having done anything wrong—will come to an end once Jerry collects every scrap of paper Gia’s council has voted on.

It’s not a life or death decision, that had been established almost as soon as they’d walked into the Hall, right after introductions were made. Instead, it’s a decision between exile, leaving them to a fate on a planet they know almost nothing of, or further involving themselves by offering asylum and aid.

Rick and Michonne are very clearly together and very clearly in charge. They have a son, Carl, who’s got a patch over one eye and a dusty brown hat on top of long, feathery hair; and a daughter, Judith, who’s blond curls had bounced with every step while her brother led her away.

Daryl is something of a right hand to Rick’s leadership, as well as a brother and a man trusted to several vocations. Paul can guess that Rosita and Abraham had once been an item and are trying hard to be civil since it appears that they share a role of the left.

Carol is harder to scrutinize. She’s not hands on, doesn’t talk much, but her presence is undoubtedly weighted and desired. She runs the bakery and Canteen with Jerry, and the way she looks at Ezekiel, and the way he looks at her, is obviously telling. But the man himself, with the flowery way he speaks and the booming echo of his laugh, with the darkness in his gaze that suggests there are hidden depths few are allowed to explore, is as much of a mystery as Morgan and Diane, both of whom want to be more like shadows of humans instead of the beings themselves.

Paul met the man named Gabriel that Abraham had called Father G. He didn’t shit bricks, but he had indeed been fascinated, almost uncomfortably so, by the odd moniker Paul chose to go by. He called it a sign from above that signified they hadn’t been abandoned by their Lord. That this was fate, as if Paul wasn’t just a man; was somehow more than an exceptionally skilled, oddball of a mortal. Gabriel only put a lid onto his theories when Rick hissed his name in warning.

And then there’s Dale. He’s older, maybe Hershel’s age; wide-eyed, bushy-browed, and sporting a floppy tan hat that's as ugly as it is endearing. He’d had no qualms about approaching the crew, strangers to him inside the walls of his home, with interest and excitement. He’d even held a conversation with Glenn for a few minutes before everything was called into order.

After rambling on about the basics of their life so far up in space, what mission they’d undertaken before ending up here and how that'd been because a gang of raiders known as the Claimers, as well as why no one unsavory would be raining down on Gia after a millennium of zero contact just to finish off the Yarrow, Paul gave the floor to Maggie and it was she that truly pleadded their case.

Now, they’re about to learn the results.

Twelve members on the council. Twelve scraps of paper for Rick and Michonne to count. And as they do, Paul scans the room and every person in it, their expressions giving nothing away.

He can tell Daryl tries not to look at him, though he fails more often than not; either staring Paul down for several seconds with an intensely narrowed gaze, body leaned back against the bench casually with his long legs bent out, or looking away as soon as Paul makes direct eye contact. But when Michonne stands, followed by Rick, it demands everyone’s attention.

“Five for exile,” she calls out. Paul never liked math, he prefers ideas and philosophies over numbers that have only a set amount of outcomes, but five votes for exile means those are in the minority. It means relief. “Seven for aid.”

Maggie grins her brightest grin and stands to meet their friends halfway. Paul goes to do the same, pausing just long enough to see Daryl entering into a hushed conversation with Carol and Rick. He’s pulled into a circle before he can try to dissect what they’re thinking or feeling.

“That means they’re gonna help us, right?” Tara wants reassurance.” Majority was for aid, but what does that actually mean?”

“Maybe we’ll all be friends now?” Glenn guesses, getting matching blank looks from Sasha and Maggie. “What? We need people right now. Friendly people who wanna help do friendly things. And I’m a glass half-full kind of guy."

“They could let us go back to the shuttle,” Sasha suggests, always ready to ground everyone, ironic given her piloting position. “We need to contact someone—”

“Maggie.” Rick and Michonne saunter over with no qualms about having interrupted their conversation. Daryl hangs back with Ezekiel, Dale, and Gabriel while the others filter out. Abraham and Rosita linger by the door. “Guess we should give you the official welcome.”

He side-eyes Michonne, who smiles. Says:

“And that starts with a tour. If you want.”

“That’d be nice,” Maggie agrees. “We appreciate the vote and that you’ll keep your word in helpin’ us, but we’d like to head back to the shuttle first. Contact home, if we can.”

Rick’s mouth twitches, protest on the tip of his tongue. Michonne nudges it away.

“We’ll take you.”

Michonne’s kind enthusiasm doesn’t outweigh the caution still guiding her posture, but it makes Paul believe she did more than vote to send them away. Daryl, on the other hand? His anxious shuffling speaks volumes. But he can't be faulted for that. If it’d been the other way around and Paul had been the one to come across someone like Rick or Daryl, he wouldn’t exactly be hard-pressed to assume they weren't trouble, either.

“Daryl. Abraham. You willin’ to take another ride?” Rick calls over his shoulder. Once he receives a grunt and a hell yeah in return, he addresses Maggie, sparing Paul a look of his own for inclusion. “Four on four, how’s that?”

“That’ll do. I want Jesus, Sasha, and Aaron.”

“Maggie—”

“I know,” Maggie says softly before Glenn can continue. “But I need you here. Keepin’ an eye on things. Get to know this place… We might be here for a while.”

“Why those three?” Michonne suddenly wonders. Daryl and Abraham stand at her and Rick’s flanks, listening with similarly open curiosities.

“We have roles on the ship,” she explains. “Not so much a hierarchy, just jobs for everyone to do. Jesus, he’s my second. We call him an Executive Officer. Sasha’s our pilot and Aaron’s in charge of Crisis Response. If any of our systems are up, they’ll be best suited on figuring out what our next step should be. And the others? Glenn’s our navigator—”

“And her husband.”

“And Hershel's my dad. He’s also our medic. Tara’s a Deck Hand, just a fancy title for someone who can do anythin’ they put their mind to.”

Paul smirks to himself at the way Tara rubs her neck, still unaccustomed to getting compliments from pretty girls, even if they are her close friends. He’ll never forget how she almost imploded when Denise kissed her for the first time.

But then Maggie takes a breath, ready to continue, and realizes there’s nothing more to say. Because there’s no one else left. Not their Engineer, not their Science Tech, not their Maintenance Adviser. Paul bows his head.

“Doesn’t sound like too bad a bunch, does it, hoss?”

It’s a rhetorical question from Abraham to Rick, with an elbow bumping into Daryl’s side. The big man straightens his posture, standing taller than anyone, grimy shirt stretched thin across his stomach. Daryl hits him back harder, visibly irritated by his friend’s shenanigans.

“Can we get goin’?” Daryl huffs. “Ain’t gonna be standin’ ‘round ‘til it gets dark.”

Rick takes that as his cue to move, nodding for Aaron to stick to his side, whispering to Rosita in passing. Paul glides into step beside Daryl with Abraham doing the same to Sasha. Michonne hangs back until Maggie’s done hugging Glenn and Hershel goodbye.

The fresh air he gulps down as they amble through Gia is a balm to his lungs that Paul didn’t even know he needed. It could be a carbon copy of the oxygen developed in T.E.N, for all he knows, but it certainly feels like an entirely different entity.

And the scenery. People walk by blooming flowers, papery lanterns, glistening stones and painted woods and rusted steels as if they aren’t all marvels to behold. He never knew the sun could produce rays that masterfully reflected over surfaces that aren’t spotless metals. He never knew that feet, as heavy as his are with this new gravity, could make perfect imprints in squelchy dirt and dewy grass. He never knew wind could be soft enough to cool and caress, and not just an effect of a motorized fan or something to suck objects—and people, his brain morbidly supplies—out into a void.

“You good?” Paul turns to Daryl at the inquiry, wondering how many times he's been asked that lately. The older man's got a thumb pressed against his lips, the nail clamped between his teeth. “Not gonna puke or nothin’?”

“I’m good. You could ask Aaron, too, you know.”

“Nah. He looks fine.”

“And I don’t?”

Daryl refuses to answer, apparently, because he shakes some hair out of his face and hoists the weapons Paul had first seen him with higher up onto his shoulder without uttering another word. His knuckles are as bruised as before, creases flaking with dried blood.

“Hey, uh, no hard feelings? We’re not gonna blame you for wanting to get rid of us. It was pretty close, but you’re doing the right thing here.”

“I know.”

He says it so blankly, so relaxed, which isn’t at all agreeable with his uptight posture, which also isn’t agreeable with how smoothly his legs carry him, that Paul becomes perplexed by what those two words represent in meaning.

“You know because majority rules or you know because you’ve had a change of heart?”

Daryl snorts, eyes Paul like he’s replaced his gaudy helmet with a second head.

“S’no change. Didn’t wanna send you away, period.” The shock of that claim must have Paul looking like a fool because Daryl decides to stare at the back of Rick’s head for this next part. “Know what’s like to be where you’re not s’posed to. Know what it’s like to need people, too. If we can help… maybe we should.”

He pulls Paul’s daggers from out of his back pocket. Finally. Flips the blades into his palm so the hilts are presented for the taking. Paul does just that, eager and giddy and too appreciative of someone who’s only giving back what he essentially stole. Maybe it’s the aura around Daryl, a complicated mix of “eager to please” and “I don’t care.”

Paul packs the daggers into their respective sheaths just as all of them come to a stop at one of the many pens all the horses are kept in. The four take the time to equip them the way they’d been the day before, then lead them out one by one to mount.

“C’mon,” Daryl grunts while swinging himself up to sit. He’s all the way up this go around, leaving the back for Paul to occupy. “Ain’t stoppin’ if you fall off.”

“I won’t.”

“Uh huh.”

Paul shakes his head and climbs on. His hands grip the back of Daryl's vest just to be safe.