It’s late and Aaron is alone in Hilltop’s library, feeling utterly foolish, trying to practice something he’d never really known how to do in the first place.
The music playing softly in the room gets away from him again and he stops, burying his face in his hand. It’s useless, a complete waste of time, thank goodness no one could see him right now-
“Alright, I’m mystified,” an amused voice says from the balcony—the balcony that had definitely been empty ten minutes ago. “I’ve been watching for five minutes and I still have no idea what you’re doing. A faster version of Tai Chi? Or maybe some kind of jazzercise?”
Of course it’s him. Of course he’s back from his run, now, of all times.
Aaron can feel his face turning bright red even as he walks to open the window wider. “You’re going to fall and break your neck one day, climbing those pillars.”
“Yeah, well, you look like you might fall and break your neck doing… whatever the hell it is you’re doing,” Jesus replies, climbing gracefully through the window.
“It’s for the wedding, alright? Enid’s. I’m trying to practice. She asked me to walk her down the aisle and to do a, uh, a father daughter dance.” He shrugs helplessly, one hand scratching the back of his neck. “I’m going to be a disaster, but I couldn’t say no.”
Jesus’s eyes soften. There’s an awkward pause and then he suddenly steps fully into the room, whipping off his long coat and grabbing Aaron’s hand.
“Just keep your eyes on me.” Jesus draws him closer and puts his hands on his shoulders. He’s wearing his sleeveless vest. “You have to lead, but I’ll guide you with my hands the first couple times.”
His hair is tied back and his face has a bit of a tan. It makes his eyes stand out even more than usual, looking up at Aaron in expectation.
Aaron stutters, “Jesus, you don’t have to- you must be tired, you’ve been gone for a week, and this isn’t important-“
“Aaron,” Jesus breaks in, smiling. “Shut up and dance with me.”
So Aaron just nods, throat dry.
The song begins again, on repeat on the ancient CD player. They dance, mostly in quiet concentration but laughing a bit, once or twice, at Aaron’s clumsiness.
After awhile they finally stop spinning. “There. See? You’re not a disaster after all.” Jesus is very close. He doesn’t move his hands from Aaron’s shoulders.
“Thank you. Really. I’ve never been good at this,” Aaron says. “Eric and I didn’t even dance at our own wedding.”
Jesus steps back. Not so quick as to be tactless—he’s never that—but quick nonetheless.
Fantastic. Really well done, Aaron berates himself, but it’s too late. The moment is obviously gone.
“Nonsense, you’re doing great. We can practice again before the big day if you want,” Jesus is saying as he picks up his coat and walks towards the hall. “But really, you’re getting the hang of it.”
“Thanks to you.” Aaron reaches down for the CD player. He might as well go to bed; it’s not like practicing on his own was doing him any good.
Besides, if he’s asleep he can’t replay the night over and over in his head, wondering why on earth he said that. Why he sabotaged a lovely moment when he knows Eric would want him to be happy, to move on. Why he can’t seem to get his act together when it comes to Jesus.
“Hey, Aaron?” Jesus says at the door, distracting Aaron from his self-recrimination. He’d clearly doubled back to ask something.
“Save a dance for me. At the wedding.”
“Oh, erm. Sure. And thanks again, for, uh, you know.”
Jesus is blushing when he ducks out towards the stairs. Aaron refuses to dwell on it, but he still has a slight spring in his step as he heads the opposite direction to his room.
It dawns on Aaron slowly, sometime during Enid and Alden’s reception, that he and Jesus have been set up.
After Aaron dances with Enid, Jesus claims the very next dance. There are hints even then, Maggie catching Jesus’s eye meaningfully and Tara smirking just before turning away. After the dance, though, the conspiracy against them–or for them, Aaron supposes–becomes more pronounced. People carefully avoid their table, even though they’re sitting front and center in the middle of everything, leaving he and Jesus alone to talk as the sun sets and the twinkle lights come on, a rare frivolous use of their limited electricity.
Jesus looks beautiful under them. He’s washed his long hair and left it down around his shoulders for once, and the strays of blond (and perhaps a few grays) catch the light.
Rosita sweetly offers to refresh their drinks. Maggie walks by for the briefest moment, insisting that Hershel is begging for Gracie to spend the night, if Aaron can possibly spare her just this once.
Jesus is looking at Aaron with intent, heat behind his icy blue eyes. He’s applying himself, and it’s a little dazzling to be the center of his attention.
Their conversation is strange, out-of-place for the apocalypse. Aaron thinks Jesus is doing it on purpose, avoiding shop talk. They don’t talk about the harvest or the repairs to the wall or the new body armor Jesus brought home from a run.
Instead they talk about books, Jesus getting carried away with himself describing exactly why he dislikes Vonnegut so much. They talk about their families, how Daryl somehow managed to give himself a new tattoo and how Gracie is already doing algebra. The whole time, Jesus is sitting close, leaning forward.
Their eyes meet, and Aaron knows that they’ll sleep together tonight. He knows that Jesus knows it, too.
Gracie interrupts once, breaking away from Maggie to beg Aaron to dance. It occurs to Aaron that Maggie and the others have been keeping her busy until now, but he can’t bring himself to be annoyed with them.
Jesus leads Gracie out instead. He spins her around wildly, says something that launches her into a fit of giggles, and Aaron’s finds that his lust is complicated by a whole host of purer emotions.
Jesus comes back smiling, a drink for each of them in his hand.
They slowly get tipsy, giving themselves an excuse, even though he knows they shouldn’t need one.
The subject returns to books, and Aaron is starting to get agitated, trying to remember things he hasn’t read since college while wondering if he’s about to make some huge mistake that will push Jesus away. If he’ll say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, if he should have trimmed his beard or worn his mechanical arm instead of coming without it.
Just then, though, Jesus makes it easy on him. “If you’d like to read it, I actually have a copy in my trailer… if you want to…”
“Sure!” Aaron says, then cringes at his obvious eagerness.
They walk to his trailer, the one he has to himself. No chance of being disturbed. Aaron ignores the eyes following them–it’s been a long time since any of them had the luxury of privacy.
Jesus is barely through the door when he says, with a small smile, “So, should I pretend to look for the book, or…?”
“I can’t even remember which book you were talking about,” Aaron laughs, and he pulls Jesus’s coat off of his shoulders.
Prompted by anon on tumblr--Jesus helping Aaron deal with Eric's death.
“Jesus, seriously, why are we out here?” Aaron asked for the tenth time, hitching his pack higher. “They’ll send a search party.”
“It’s not much farther,” his friend answered, slapping a mosquito against his neck. “It’ll be worth it, I promise.”
“If you’re taking me to the lake, it’s too late in the day for fishing.”
“Not taking you to the lake,” Jesus said, leaving Aaron mystified once more. The lake was the only real landmark he knew of that was down this road.
A few yards past the turn off for the lake, Jesus skittered down into the ditch by the side of the road, coming to a stop by a smashed-up car sticking out of the ground at a dangerous angle. Its sleek black body was rusted over, and it was missing two tires.
“You… brought me to see a wrecked Maserati?”
Jesus shifted his weight, waving a hand at the twisted metal. “The plates. I thought…” He trailed off, suddenly awkward.
That’s when Aaron understood—a bent Hawaiian license plate dangled by one screw from the back of the car.
Hawaii. The last state he needed to complete his and Eric’s collection.
Aaron turned his back and took a few steps, away from the broken, ruined car and the ugly rainbow plate and the man standing where the love of his life should be.
Jesus waited quietly while he sobbed into his hands. He only spoke when Aaron’s shoulders stopped shaking.
“I’m sorry, if I overstepped. I just thought-“
“Don’t apologize,” Aaron rasped, managing a watery smile. “It’s... I’m glad to have it. He’d want me to- to-” He broke down again, and this time Jesus pulled him in for a tight hug, rubbing one shoulder with his gloved hand.
On the way back to Alexandria, they talked about Eric. About his cooking experiments, his devotion to their nieces, his frivolous war with the neighbors over who had the better Christmas lights. Aaron told Jesus about their first date, iceskating--Aaron had been terrible, but Eric had floated gracefully across the rink. They talk about Eric’s love of Russian literature, how he’d always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.
It was the first time since he’d died that Aaron had been able to talk about him to anyone. Daryl had tried, and Maggie, but Aaron hadn’t been ready then. Now, to his surprise, the words flowed out of him freely.
Jesus listened quietly the whole way back, then helped him hang the plate in the living room. It was the end of something important, a completion, but Aaron felt better than he had in a long time when he looked at those neat rows of metal.
“You’ll have to think of something new to collect out there,” Jesus said, pouring himself some whisky.
“Suppose so,” Aaron replied, smiling one last time at the Hawaii plate before turning back to have a drink with his friend.
A brief continuation of the previous chapter <3
Eric hadn’t really had many personal effects. His clothes had been given away months ago, shortly after he died--there was a young guy at the Kingdom about his size, and hoarding useful items just to cry over them wasn’t an option in the new world. They had lived in a stranger’s house, using the kitchen utensils and tools and towels there without feeling a personal connection to any of them. And Eric’s weapons had never seemed truly a part of him, at least in Aaron’s mind. Eric had been against violence in any form before the Turn. Keeping his weapons would only remind Aaron of the ways they’d all had to compromise themselves, and the way Eric had died as a result of that compromise.
So there was Eric’s watch, tucked away in a box in Aaron’s beside cabinet. It sat next to the copy of War and Peace that he’d been reading, just before a real war had overtaken them.
And there was, of course, the license plate collection.
It had been about a year since Jesus had helped him complete it, fifty plates hanging in neat rows on the house’s large living room wall. It was the only way he and Eric had personalized the space--no one had time to redecorate in an apocalypse.
Aaron stood irresolutely in front of the wall, hand on his hip.
Jesus was moving in with him in the morning.
Aaron moved away, made a cup of tea, drank it in the kitchen, washed the mug, and set the teabag aside to reuse in the morning... and found himself standing in front of the wall of license plates again.
Suddenly decided, he went to get a hammer and stepladder.
He was standing on the ladder with Wyoming tucked under his mechanical arm, clumsily using the back of the hammer to tug a nail from the drywall, when the door opened and closed behind him.
Expecting Gracie, Aaron turned with a smile. Instead, he saw Jesus standing in the fading light, a duffel bag over his shoulder. He was staring up at Aaron with a blank expression on his face.
“I thought you were coming in the morning,” Aaron said, defensive without knowing why.
Jesus let the duffel bag fall heavily to the floor. “Tara’s taking Rosita on a run to Oceanside. She gave me a ride, and they’ll leave from here tomorrow.”
“Why?” Jesus asked, gesturing at the mostly empty wall.
Aaron still couldn’t read his expression. He climbed down slowly, leaving the nail half-stuck. “I just, I thought- this is going to be our home, now.”
Jesus didn’t reply, so Aaron continued, “I want you to be comfortable here. It seemed like the right thing to do”
And when Jesus still didn’t reply, Aaron said, frustrated, “I thought you wouldn’t want to be reminded of- of him, every time you came in the door, alright?”
Jesus frowned at him, mouth pinched. He stood there for a full minute, trying to find the right words, then gave up and came towards Aaron, taking the license plate from his hands. He started putting it back on the wall.
“Paul, don’t. You don’t have to-”
“All those reasons you gave, not one of them was about what you want. What’ll make you happy.”
“I’m happy you’re here. I want you to feel-”
“It doesn’t bother me, Aaron, seeing pieces of Eric around the house. He’s a part of you. He helped make you who you are, the man I- um. The man I love." Jesus fumbled the words. They’d only said them once before--it was still new. “Do you like seeing the license plates every time you come in the door?”
“Yes,” Aaron said huskily, head bent.
“Then they stay.” And Jesus gently took the hammer and began putting Wyoming back in its spot.