Actions

Work Header

Underneath

Work Text:

It happens so gradually, so slowly, he doesn't even realize what's going on. A slip-slide that gradually grows faster and faster, and when he finally gets a clue, no amount of backing away and scrambling for a foothold can save him.

He already fell.

~*~

Within six hours of Paul meeting him, Daryl does and/or assists in the following:

  • pulls a gun on him (on three separate occasions);
  • hunts him down (like a damn bloodhound; the man's impossible to shake off);
  • ties him up with rope (two times);
  • throws a half-empty soda can at him (petulantly);
  • chases him around a field (shouting and bitching, it's hilarious);
  • punches him (half a second after thanking him, which is weird – it's weird, right?);
  • gets Paul knocked out by a truck door (it was undoubtedly Daryl's fault, that one – if he'd have just let Paul have the damn truck);
  • pushes/shoves him multiple times in the car (while he was 'unconscious', too, tsk tsk);
  • carries him to get checked out by a doctor (more or less carefully);
  • locks him up, 'passed out' on a cement floor (but leaves water and a note, talk about mixed signals).

So naturally, Paul decides he likes the man.

As one does.

~*~

"Here," Daryl says after the meeting at the church a couple of days later, holding out Paul's knives. They're perfectly sharpened and obviously taken care of. "Rick said you wanted these back."

Paul blinks.

This is... interesting.

It's the first time an Alexandrian has shown him outright kindness, even if it's the grumpy one returning his own knives. Every inch he got from them, he got by negotiating, tempting, and pacifying. They're good people, but hard, caustic, wary, and above all, cautious.

There's definitely more to them than meets the eye, though. After all, not just anyone can stroll into a community, murder one member and hurt two more, and then walk out with a successful deal. The last person who did that was Negan, and the arrangement is still in place because of utter terror and the blood spilled. It's been made clear what will happen to them all if they refuse to comply.

The Alexandrians took a different approach, and Paul is not quite sure what that says about them yet. He might've put on a calm and self-assured front when explaining the situation to Gregory and the others at Hilltop, but he's not omniscient. Hell, half the time he's doing this whole scout thing by the seat of his pants. New people are always tricky to get a read on, and while his gut says 'yes', his brain whispers 'trouble'.

It's just a question of which kind.

"Yeah, thanks," Paul says belatedly and takes the knives.

Daryl nods and walks away without a word.

Only time will tell.

~*~

"Jesus! The Alexandrians are here," Kal yells while struggling to open the gate, and Jesus starts running.

This visit can't be good news.

He tries not to think, not to assume the worst, beat back the dreaded, vicious voice in the back of his mind whispering 'your fault your fault your fault' but it's almost impossible.

It is his fault. He's the only connecting thread here, the blood-red string of causality.

In a matter seconds he comes up with a thousand different disasters, each one worse than the other, more than half of them ending up with the Hilltop and Alexandria razed to the ground. He can see the smoldering wreckage in his mind's eye already.

'Not good' is an understatement; Maggie and Sasha are at the gate, along with two unrecognizable corpses the state of which sends cold shivers down his spine.

It's obvious what—who happened.

"They killed Glenn and Abraham. Took Daryl," Sasha says shortly, the tension radiating from her probably the only thing keeping her together. Maggie is half-passed out, hands curled around her stomach protectively. It makes her look heartbreakingly fragile and like a cornered animal at the same time.

Paul goes to Maggie first but not before he calls out, "Someone get Harlan!"

He carries her into the medical trailer, as gently as he is able to. It feels like she'll break with a single wrong step, just shatter into a million colorful pieces of glass at his feet.

It's a silly thought, of course. She's much stronger than that, always was.

Still, he stays the night, watches over her. In case she needs anything.

It only occurs to him much, much later that he never lets her go after that. Maggie is his from then on, in a way few people are: his to protect, to follow, to confide in, to care for.

Sasha as well, as much as she lets anyone care for her after Abraham.

The flowers he brings to both Maggie and Glenn are a token of commitment, too; a reminder of sorts.

I'm here, I can help. Lean on me.

I'll watch over her for you.

~*~

The relationships between the Alexandrians gnaw at Paul, fascinate him. It's something to mull over at night, analyze and ponder when the bouts of sleeplessness hit.

As fast as he's bonding with Maggie and Sasha – and it's fast; for him, faster than ever before – it's nothing compared to the trust they have in each other, in their group.

In Rick, specifically.

They're bonded as tight as possible for a group of non-related people, and the questions keep plaguing him. What happened to them? Where did they come from? Which events have tied them so tightly, that Daryl getting taken to Sanctuary ripped into so many different people?

Why is Daryl so important, anyway? How did he earn this love, this devotion, this faith that borders on blind and unconditional?

Logic doesn't help him figure it out. Sneaking around and observing doesn't either; none of them do anything special, not really.

His gut is the only thing he can rely on, and although they're good people, that doesn't necessarily mean they're good for the Hilltop. Things aren't always either-or, and that applies more than ever in this new world.

It's 'wait and see', and the problem with that is, a lot of people could die in the meantime. Indecision is often as bad as a wrong move.

It would all be on Paul's head as well. He's the one that found the Alexandrians, brought them to the Hilltop, made a deal with them.

He really doesn't want to be the downfall of an entire community.

His community.

The Hilltop is his community.

He tries to hold on to that belonging, repeats to himself that they would be much worse off without him, that he needs them as much as they need him.

It's all true, but the conviction is still slipping out of his grasp, like a fish you hold too tight and instead of catching it, manage to lose it to the river.

~*~

Paul locks eyes with Daryl's at the Sanctuary, startlingly blue in his dirty face, and shock punches him straight in the gut.

The archer is dirty, subdued, bruised to hell, and looks borderline feral, but he's still unbroken. It's not something Paul would expect, considering how long he's been at the Sanctuary, and yet anger positively rolls off him. Despite the circumstances, despite the utter fear he must be feeling every moment of every day, Daryl is still present and lucid.

It's almost like he's sustaining himself on spite alone, but that can't be right. No one can be that stubborn.

Then again, what does Paul know? He can't figure out who any of them really are, let alone what's going on in Daryl's head. They're really starting to bug him, these endless Alexandrian mysteries. How did so many perplexing, head-strong people manage to stay together for so long and not kill each other?

The truck goes over a pothole, and Paul is jolted out of his musings.

Right, he's in enemy territory.

Focus, Paul.

Carl will be fine, he's headed back to Alexandria with Negan. Rick should solve that situation to the kid's benefit, hopefully.

That leaves Daryl as the person most in need. He can't leave Daryl to Sanctuary's particular brand of hospitality, no one deserves that.

Besides, he's already here and all. A ride home would be useful, and this place has an abundance of vehicles of all sorts.

Paul slides off the truck and disappears into the yard silently.

Time to wreak some havoc.

~*~

The War fucks them all up. Not a single person comes out unscathed on the other side of it, some with more scars than others.

Maggie grows harder, more closed off, hesitant to stick out her neck for strangers. She has a whole community to think of, sure, but it hurts to see her like that.

Daryl changes the most, probably. He's quieter, quicker to snap, easy to anger. His sarcastic quips all but disappear. He cuts himself off from everyone in an attempt to be this unfeeling, uncaring automaton.

It works, even though it's transparent. Paul sympathizes, but he has no hope of reaching Daryl. If his family can't do it, what chance does a mere acquaintance have?

What he does instead, is use stealth and sneakiness to keep Daryl's heart from crusting over.

He sends kids and fragile creatures Daryl's way if he can; ropes him into low-level supply missions instead of the bloody, combat ones; hides stuff to be fixed from other people and casually (when Daryl is in earshot) mentions that no one has the time to help.

Paul schemes, plots, and machinates, and not once does he wonder why he cares or tries so hard.

He's too busy for that.

~*~

Daryl thaws, very, very slowly.

The relief Paul feels is... immense.

~*~

"You know," Paul says to Jerry, "Some people say that reality is just a matter of perception. That there's no 'real' red, or blue, and just because we pointed at a thing and said 'blue' we think we've agreed on something, but who even says you and I are seeing that thing the same way at all? How do we know my blue is the same as your blue? And if you expand on that, think further and on a larger scale — what if everything we think we know is merely in our heads? How do we know what anything means?"

Jerry blinks at him and leans on his staff, a trapped audience while on duty as the King's Guard.

"So when I say 'you're a dick', it don't mean the same thing to you and me?" comes from behind Paul, and he almost jumps but manages to convert it into a smooth turn.

Where the hell did Daryl come from?

Also, what? Out of everyone Paul meets and talks to on the regular, in multiple communities, Daryl is the one who calls him out on the brain-bendy bullshit?

Paul hesitates for a second, and then goes with his instinctive reply.

"Well, only one way to find out. We have to use a scientific approach and measure the data," he says with a straight face.

They both stare at him for a beat, then Jerry blurts out, "Did you just suggest a dick-measuring contest?"

Paul couldn't suppress the shit-eating grin even if he wanted to, and Jerry laughs, he can hear it in the background, but holy fuck—

Daryl laughs. Actually, properly laughs for the first time since they met.

Paul stares.

He didn't think Daryl know how to smile, let alone laugh. The last time he saw Daryl's teeth was during the War, bared and bloody.

"You, my dude, need a new hobby," Jerry chuckles, and pats him on the back as he leaves, one of those breath-stealing taps that you have to take a minute to recover from.

"I dunno 'bout that. Every village needs a fool," Daryl says with a raised eyebrow, and okay, that was uncalled for. Pulling out the big guns, huh? He can't let this go or Daryl will feel like the top dog forever and ever.

"What, you planning on retiring already? I understand, old age and all."

Daryl's eyes narrow and Paul shifts on his feet, a twinge of excitement running through him.

Truth be told, Paul was pulling that one out of his ass, because Daryl is strong as hell and more capable than most people in the communities, but if it gets a reaction...

"Better watch out, or this old man's gonna hand you your ass, in all the ways and points of view," Daryl says, and Paul chuckles lightly.

Oh, isn't he a delight to talk to. Paul hasn't enjoyed bantering with someone in ages.

"Is that a proposition, Daryl?" he asks with a smile.

The fact that Daryl might not know about Paul, or might react badly, doesn't even occur to him until Daryl's eyes widen and a flush rises in his cheeks.

Shit shit shit.

Paul isn't afraid, nor is he hiding that he's gay, but if Daryl didn't know, there were better ways of breaking it to him. And if he turns out to be a homophobic asshole, well.

Paul's stomach turns.

"Pfft, you wish," Daryl says and strolls off, mumbling something about Carol, how her and Paul are the same?

Paul doesn't get the reference, but the relief he's feeling is too intense to wonder about it for too long.

The rest of the day is a bit brighter, sunnier. Almost... happy.

~*~

"Hey, what'cha doin'?"

"Fixin' my bike, what's it look like?" Daryl says absently.

"Is that the carburetor?"

Daryl squints up at him.

"Yeah," he says, and then, "Know anything about it?"

He sounds skeptical, but not incredulous like most people, which is as unexpected as it is surprising in someone like Daryl. Seems he's not quite what he looks like, either.

Paul grins. "I tinker sometimes."

That's understating it a bit. One of the foster homes had a mechanic shop nearby, and the woman running it didn't mind skinny little gay boys hanging around if they dealt with the paperwork occasionally. Lin taught him everything he knows, but even more importantly, she taught him how to figure stuff out if he got stuck. She was magic with anything machine-like.

Paul hasn't thought about her in years, hasn't seen her in much longer, and he suddenly wishes he could meet her again. Hopefully, she's safe and sound somewhere.

"If you mess up my bike, I'mma put an arrow in your ass."

Well, that's about as much an invitation as Daryl will ever give.

"You can try, Robin Wood."

Daryl snorts but doesn't reply, probably deeming the jab too low to acknowledge.

Paul wrinkles his nose because his weekly dose of snarky banter is running low, but oh well. Guess it's not that kind of day.

He sits next to Daryl and proceeds to spend a few very soothing, quiet hours with the local redneck.

It ends up being just what the doctor ordered.

~*~

It's on a miserable afternoon, when rain keeps falling in a steady sheet with no end in sight, that Daryl comes by to keep him company at the top of the Barrington House lookout.

They don't do anything special, just hang and talk, smoke, even stay quiet for a while, but Paul is... comfortable. Content.

Warmth settles in his chest as he laughs at something Daryl is complaining about, and realization hits him like an electric current.

Oh.

Oh, no.

He went and got invested in this dumb oaf.

Noooo no no no no.

He wants to deny it, but the evidence is overwhelming: he perks up like a teenager whenever Daryl's around; he's feeling... things that are squirming in his chest and belly like worms; he's content just to sit near him for hours – without even touching him, just close enough to smell and look.

He groans, and buries his hands into his hair once Daryl leaves.

God-fucking-dammit.

This was not the fucking plan, Paul.

What were you thinking, Paul?

What the ever-loving fuck, Paul?

Paul has no answers for himself.

~*~

The conclusion is the following: Paul is truly, honestlythe dumbest person ever to be born.

Where was his self-preservation when he decided to start hanging out with Daryl? Taking a vacation? Sleeping like a log? Distracted by the damn forearms on display?

Not that they aren't really good forearms, but still.

Rule number one, rule-number-fucking-one, of self-preservation: never ever let yourself be interested in someone who doesn't see you that way. It's a waste of time, a waste of energy, and worst case scenario? It'll get you hurt, both physically and emotionally.

Paul not only completely jumped over that step, he managed to get infatuated with a completely oblivious, probably straight-as-an-arrow (pun intended) guy.

Daryl doesn't notice, doesn't care about him besides a casual friendship. Paul can see that, it's obvious for the world to see. The man doesn't even twitch at some of Paul's more daring innuendos, like the idea is so far out there, it might as well be in outer space.

The only thing that makes Paul hold on to the tiniest bit of hope is that Daryl doesn't seem interested in anyone, in general. Namely, it's not a Paul-specific condition. He's got friends and siblings of sorts, an entire family, and he's great with kids and teens, but he just doesn't register interest of romantic or sexual nature.

If only there was a way to find out if that is Daryl's natural condition or learned behavior. Is he aro, or ace, or just conditioned to think himself unworthy of that sort of love? Or maybe he doesn't even think about any of it?

Paul spends weeks debating with himself, fluctuating wildly between despair and hope, not getting anywhere with his investigation, and doing everything all over again, like a deranged hamster spinning in a wheel.

Even with the apocalypse coming for them all, it's a new low in Paul's life.

~*~

It gets worse.

Like a cold spreading through his system, or a virus infecting him cell by cell, this thing he feels for Daryl starts taking over, with no regards to his feelings on the matter.

(Funny, isn't it? His feelings not caring about his feelings on it? Daryl would get a kick out of that one.

...

Goddammit.)

During the long days he spends fighting himself, and trying to convince himself this is just a three-day-flu and not feelings of any sort, he realizes it was a long time coming.

He was drawn to Daryl almost from the very beginning, and every step he made took him closer and closer to said fascination. He entered this with childish curiosity and impulse control, and now he's paying the price.

There's not a single step he would do differently, though.

He still scrambles and fights, tries to talk himself out of this disaster, but it's almost perfunctory. Habit more than conviction.

It doesn't work anyway. It's too late.

~*~

Daryl has a close call during a hunt, gets back to the Hilltop bruised and battered all to hell, and Paul realizes he had no idea what feelings were until now.

Oh, Daryl will probably be fine, but Paul won't be.

His palms sweat, he's twitchy and nervous, he wants to insist on staying with Daryl in the infirmary but can't, has no logical reason for it.

He paces half the night away in his trailer, bites his nails constantly, and barely manages to make himself presentable to go see Daryl in the morning.

Well, judging by the roosters, it's probably somewhere around 5 am, but that counts as morning, right?

Right.

It's that or his sanity, so Paul goes.

He's been such a shithead, though. He should have fought this harder, should have done something to stop it from turning into this— this— thing.

Fuck, why did he even consider it in the first place? It hurts, as in physically, as in his heart squeezes painfully in his chest at the thought of Daryl being hurt.

What if he'd died? What if he fell, and hit his head, and none of them saw him ever again?

What if he Turned and wandered over here, and Paul had found him and had to put him down?

Nausea rises again and Paul shakes his head, stops the morbid line of thought before he is sick. He ignores the little voice that says that would be a good reason to stay in the infirmary with Daryl the whole day and keeps walking.

Daryl will be fine.

He'll be just fine, and Paul will survive, and this is all just a lot of drama over nothing.

It'll all blow over sooner or later.

It has to.

~*~

Maggie confronts him in her office one day out of the blue, and Paul denies denies denies.

There is no way he's telling her he's in too deep already, that there's no turning back anymore because Daryl seems to be it for him, no matter how ridiculous that sounds.

No fucking way is he admitting to any of it, because there lays only pity, and sad sighs, and sympathetic looks. He's not dealing with that shit on top of everything else, no thank you.

Paul hates when people know his private business, anyway. Maggie is no different than anyone else in this aspect.

(She is different, and she knows it.

She also knows he's lying, but she's kind enough to let him have his delusions.

He doesn't deserve her.)

~*~

Daryl is busy for a handful of weeks, being twitchier than usual, and while Paul worries it's his PTSD making a comeback (never officially diagnosed, but come on), he knows Daryl's family will keep an eye on him.

So he takes the time that to examine his own mental health and behavior, and realizes that Rules are needed.

They go something like this:

  • Do not touch him more than absolutely necessary. Keep your hands to yourself, sit further away, take one step back.
  • Do not look at him when other people are around or he's looking back at you. Someone is always watching and you're never as subtle as you think.
  • Do not talk about him too much, it's suspicious.
  • Do not jump at every single occasion to hang out with him, it's extremely suspicious. Every third or fourth time is fine.
  • Do not bring him stuff all the time, you're not a fucking cat. Pull yourself together.
  • Do not think about him too much, because that way madness lies.

He's mostly good about his rules, discipline is a hard-earned skill for him, but the last rule?

That one he breaks all too often.

Because he thinks about Daryl all the time. About his eyes, his shoulders, his kindness, his quick tongue, his tenacity, his loyalty, the tangles of his hair and the grease beneath his fingernails. The way he smiles and the way his eyes shine.

Most of all, he thinks about what kissing Daryl would taste like.

It doesn't matter, really. He'd love it, whatever the taste.

It's Daryl.

~*~

No one tells you that love wears you down.

He looks at Daryl, meets his eyes like something out of a cheesy love song, and his heart skips a beat.

He sits with Daryl, pushes him to talk about whatever's bothering him, and anxiety settles heavy on Paul's back like a blanket. Will Daryl notice anything? Is Paul acting weird? How would he react if he found out how Paul feels about him? Probably not as Paul would want him to.

He goes on a run with Daryl, and love sits in his gut like a rock, mocking him.

Why did he do this to himself? How did he let this happen? Did it have to be Daryl? Is this some sort of a cosmic joke?

And quieter, in the very back of his mind and heart, a voice he'd fruitlessly tried to bury for years whispers: Why doesn't he care? Why don't I get to have this? Is it me? 

Grief and loss howl through him suddenly, like a freezing northern wind, taking all the hope and warmth with them. His eyes burn, his whole body rebels, and yearning hits him with a strength that he's never felt before.

If he could rip it all away, cut this thing out of his chest like a surgeon cuts out a tumor, he would, he would. He didn't ask for this, it's not fair.

It's not fair.

Daryl turns around to face him and Paul stuffs it all down in a blink, as deep as he can.

This is his problem, goddammit. He won't lose his friendship with Daryl over it, too.

That's unacceptable.

Paul stitches his heart together in a flash and smirks.

Showtime.

~*~

(He only remembers to uncurled his hand from the fist it was in when it cramps up.)

~*~

As inexplicably as he drifted off, Daryl soon comes back into his life. Slots right in, seamlessly and comfortably, as if nothing happened.

Paul doesn't dare question his good fortune.

~*~

Paul is waiting for Maggie to arrive, but it's so quiet, and the day was so long and tiring.

He plans on resting his eyes for a mere moment, she should be here soon, it's—

He opens his eyes blearily, and Daryl's face comes into focus.

Daryl.

Affection swells inside him, warm and tingly, and Paul's mouth smiles without permission.

"Hey, you're here," he says dumbly.

"What does 'ace' mean?" Daryl promptly says, like he's been waiting to ask forever and ever.

It's way too just-woke-up for this conversation, but if Daryl wants to know, Paul will try to explain.

Wait, maybe this is not what Paul is thinking of at all. Chances are small, but...

"Um, do you mean the bandage or the sexual orientation?"

"I know what a fucking bandage is," Daryl sulks like a baby, and as cute as he is with his face so scowly, he doesn't deserve being made fun of when obviously asking something important.

"It's short for 'asexual', means a person who experiences no sexual attraction to other people. Well, little to none, to be precise."

Daryl seems to digest that for a while, and Paul can't control his curiosity anymore.

"Why?"

After all, it's kind of relevant to Paul's interests and life choices.

"Someone mentioned it earlier, don't matter."

The mere fact that Daryl is asking these things is... Paul doesn't dare say good, or that it gives him a tiny shred of hope, but it energizes him.

So he tries to pass on a bit of knowledge to Daryl, reassure him. If he can make him feel less alone in the world, even for a minute, even if it takes him away from Paul in some way, he'll do it.

Daryl deserves all the happiness he can get.

~*~

"Hey, brought you somethin'," Daryl says.

Because Daryl is not Paul, he doesn't throw the thing at him.

Because he's Daryl, he keeps it close and makes Paul walk all the way over to him to take it. There's a twitch to his hands that Paul knows means he's thinking about pulling it back and holding it out of reach, possibly over his head like a kid on the playground, but he resists.

Paul grins.

They both know it's because Daryl was limping for a week last time he tried it, and Paul won't let him forget it.

"What is it?" he asks, then renders the question moot by ripping off the newspaper wrapped around it in one quick motion.

"Uh, guess," Daryl says wryly.

Whatever, Paul is having way too much fun with it to take offence.

The box he uncovers is made of dark wood, fairly small, with vines and leaves carved intricately along the edges, and a pair of tiny daggers crossed in the middle.

Daggers that look strangely familiar.

Paul glances sharply at Daryl, but the man's face is blank.

"Open it," Daryl says.

Curiosity a physical itch by now, he lifts the lid, and a tiny ninja pops up, frozen mid-flying kick. Notes start to tinkle from the box immediately, the ninja starts to spin slowly, and Paul listens in complete bafflement as the melody turns into...

Stairway to Heaven?

What?

The grin on Daryl's face is pure glee.

"Did you make this?" Paul asks after gaping like a fish for a few seconds.

As a gag gift, this is a thing of epic proportions. Even as a regular gift – and since when are they on gift-giving basis, Paul surely couldn't have missed such a massive development? – it's way too much time and effort.

"Just the box. Found the tiny ninja in a toy store ages ago. Eugene figured out what the box of music scrolls was when we found it on the last run. Made us get an ass-load of other parts, too. Saw him put one music box-thing together and figured it ain't so hard."

Just the box, he says.

It ain't so hard, he says.

Like it's not—

Like Paul ever got—

Like—

Paul is at a loss for words.

He has to know one thing, though, and it's crucial for his fucking sanity.

"But... Why?"

So much time and effort, he means. For a gag gift?

For me?

He can't make himself say any of it. The answer he'd probably get, and doesn't want to know, would cut too deep.

Daryl shrugs. "Felt like it."

He felt like it?

A thousand complaints and questions are at the tip of his tongue, but Paul doesn't even know where to start. So he just stares at the confusing, infuriating man in front of him, and Daryl...

Daryl stares back. Straight at him, un-self-consciously, not hiding behind bangs or a ducked head for once. A small smile is still curving his lips, and Paul is gonna lose his mind over it later, because what, and when, and is he imagining this, and what the ever-loving fuck, oh and also you lying fucking asshole.

"Thanks," Paul says, or more precisely, croaks.

"Nah, it's nothin'," Daryl says, and walks away.

Paul closes the music box gently and grips it until the edges dig into his palms.

What the fuck was that?

~*~

He goes on a run on his own because the Hilltop is getting to be too much.

Daryl's gift and all the attention lately – while always welcome – is messing with his head.

What happened that made Daryl do a complete 180? No, not a complete 180, he's just there a bit more, and looking at Paul like— like—

Like nothing.

It's nothing, it's all in his head.

Stop projecting, Paul.

He's been trying this distance thing, mostly by being on a few runs and very busy for the last week or so, and so far it sucks. This is gonna be the last of it, it's enough. If he can't see Daryl soon, with no one to blame for it but his own damn self, he'll go out of his mind.

He finds a herd of walkers and takes out all his aggression on them, and he's feeling much calmer on the trip back home.

It all goes straight out the window the moment Daryl steps into his trailer, focused on him like a cruise missile.

"Are you outta your goddamn mind?"

What?

"What?" Paul asks, but he has a feeling he knows where the conversation is going.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Yep, Daryl is gonna lecture him.

The damn hypocrite. How many times did he run off on his own, been gone for days without a single soul knowing where he is?

"Oh, I'm sure you'll tell me."

"You can't just go off on your own, you dumbass, you gotta death wish or something?"

Anger rises in Paul, as unstoppable as the tide, fueled by months of frustration and heartache. It's so strong it chokes Paul, and when he speaks, his voice is pure gravel.

"Oh, I can't?"

Daryl doesn't seem to notice, or maybe he's too far gone to care. He steps into Paul's space, so close their noses are an inch away, and it takes everything Paul has in him not to flinch.

He manages it by the skin of his teeth.

Now he just has to keep track of the conversation with a living, breathing, fuming Daryl Dixon so close, Paul can fell his body heat.

Fucking A.

"You goddamn right, you can't."

"Back the fuck off, Daryl," Paul grits out, half-panicked, because if Daryl doesn't, Paul is gonna do something stupid, like kiss him, or punch him.

Daryl snaps before that, apparently, and goes to head-butt him, and Paul's frozen with indecision, does he move or does he—

No.

No, Daryl is— he's—

He's—

What feels like every molecule in Paul holds its breath, and three long seconds pass — he knows because he feels every single one like a lifetime — before his brain kicks into gear again.

Daryl is kissing him.

What— How—

He's half a second into the questions before he immediately slams them to the back of his head, because irrelevant, un-fucking-important, Daryl is kissing him.

A sob disguised as a moan escapes him and Paul pulls Daryl closer, as close as he can.

Daryl's hands are at his waist, firm and large, and Paul is possibly a little too aggressive, but what do you do when the person you've been pining over like a fucking teenager kisses you?

His head spins, he's burning up, his heart is about to leap out of his chest, his insides are one unholy mess.

It feels like this is his first kiss ever, wonderful and surprising, a little awkward and incredibly hot.

Hold on.

"Wait, wait, what are you, what is—"

Paul has no idea how to finish that sentence.

'What is going on?'

'What happened?'

'When did it happen?'

'What on earth got into you?'

Daryl doesn't let him ask any of it, he swoops back in and kisses the breath out of Paul.

It's like drowning in reverse: he's filled with hope, giddiness, elation, all the emotions he's been sorely lacking for the last few years.

He loses time, gets back to himself with his hand underneath Daryl's shirt, pressing him tight against a wall, both of them trembling. Daryl's holding on to him almost painfully and Paul can't, he just can't.

He buries his face into Daryl's neck, carefully not thinking about all the unanswered questions, all the unspoken ones.

Like Why me and How long and Are you serious?

The last one in particular makes his stomach heave. Because if Daryl isn't serious, if this is a joke, or temporary insanity, or anything else, Paul will crumble.

He can't be an experiment, or a phase, or anything light and casual. He has been before, and others were for him, and it's fine, it was fine, it worked without a hitch.

Not this time. Not with Daryl.

He just can't. His heart won't take it.

He lifts his head, and for once, Daryl seems to understand him completely and without a word spoken.

"Did some thinkin' lately. Kinda got sick of denial."

That is... incredibly short and to the point, and so very Daryl.

Paul can't help but kiss him again.

And again.

And—

~*~

Despite what romance novels and romantic comedies would have you believe, everything isn't perfect and resolved after that first kiss.

Just look at Paul — fucking shit up in the shortest timeframe possible is his modus operandi. It's in his blood.

Not that it applies to his entire life, no. He's pretty good at every-day stuff and dealing with people and kicking ass; all that is just fine.

Put a relationship in front of him? Any relationship, but especially one involving a gorgeous, wonderful man who's actually interested in the entire package and not just easily-digestible pieces of him?

He turns into an utter catastrophe.

Exhibit Z: Paul runs away before Daryl wakes up.

~*~

He doesn't get far.

First of all, he doesn't even wanna run away, it was just the panic making him react before his brain came online and slapped the shit out of him.

Second, Daryl tracks him down within fifteen minutes and just stares at him, hiding in a tree like a kid.

"Wanna come down?" he says, hands on hips and knee cocked, looking exasperated.

Paul wants to mouth off, but he did leave the man alone in bed after they hooked up and ran away.

Fair's fair.

"Well?" Daryl says, and Paul jumps down, stuffs his hands into his pockets.

Daryl doesn't let up with the laser stare.

Paul ducks his head, flustered and unsure what to do for the first time in a long, long while.

It's just that—

This all seems like a dream, unreal and improbable. Since when does Paul get a happy ending?

Since when is it even an option, nowadays?

"I—" Paul starts, and Daryl finishes for him:

"Are a dumbass."

He proceeds not to even give him the time to act offended (yes, it's true, but could he maybe say it with a little more tact?), just sweeps him up in a kiss.

Paul has to admit he wasn't blowing it out of proportion: Daryl's kisses really are that good. Magical comes to mind. Drugging. A little addictive. Mind-scrambling.

Moving the earth beneath his feet and making him feel as light as a fea— oh, no, wait, that's just Daryl wrapping him up in a hug so tight, he lifts Paul off his feet a little.

"Whatever's goin' on in that head of yours, whatever crap you're tellin' yourself, it ain't true," Daryl whispers in his ear when they part, voice gruff and forceful and making him shiver. "This ain't a joke. It ain't a one-time thing. It's got no strings attached. It's real. If you want it."

Paul's heart aches.

It's hard to believe, hard to wrap his head around this reality, but this is Daryl. He's the last person who would pull a prank of this type, or lie to get something, or go along with shit if it doesn't suit him. He's honest to the bone.

And Paul wantsgod, it's insane how much he wants. His eyes fill up and overflow with the force of it.

"Yeah," Paul whispers hoarsely, lips brushing Daryl's neck. "Yeah, I do."

He hugs back, as hard as his arms allow, and Daryl grunts a little but doesn't let go.

~*~

It takes a while, and he still doubts it occasionally, but as the days pass, bit by bit, the certainty grows in his bones.

For the first time ever, Paul belongs.

~*~*~*~

Hamster!Jesus spinning in a wheel, hamster!Daryl looking on.

Art by desushoard (tenderanglerfish).